Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Does Red Dead Redemption need more choice?

Red Dead Redemption is rootin' tootin' brilliant right from its audacious initial train journey. The carriage rumbles through the dying embers of the Old West, clearly mimicking Half Life's opening moments but going one step beyond in every way: Marston may be travelling on his own, but this time he's surrounded by lifelike, talking NPCs who begin to paint a picture of New Austin. And, while Half Life served up claustraphobic corridors and brief glimpses of Black Mesa, RockStar turns up with its trump card: New Austin itself.

Your first glimpse of New Austin is the small town of Armarillo, and mine was superb. I turned right off the train and clambered up a small tower, trying to reacquaint myself with the controls, and then pushed a bloke off the side of the tower. Luckily he fell down, brushed himself off and carried on with his day.

I then stumbled through the train station and out into the street, and was told to head to the local bar. Before I could even swing the doors open, a patron stumbled outside and lurched across the decking before he lost his footing on the steps and tumbled down into the dirt. Hauling himself up on one knee, he muttered that he'd been "drinking way too damn much" before he stumbled off into the street.

I initially debated if that was a scripted event, but I'm pretty sure it's not. I loved it. I spent a bit of time in the bar, knocked back a shot of whiskey and lost a game of poker, before I heard shooting outside.

You know that scene in every Western movie where the gang of bad guys rides through town, leaping around on their horses and whooping while shooting pistols into the air? Yeah, that.

So anyway, off I go, carrying on with the game's storyline. I've met Bonnie and West Dickens, gone rampaging through mines with Irish, kneecapped pensioners to steal their land and even tamed the odd horse at the behest of Bonnie's old dad. I've helped the sheriff storm a farmhouse to rescue the local women, and even accidentally stolen a stagecoach. I outran the cops and found a prospector panicking because his daughter had been kidnapped; we travelled to the farmstead where she was being held and almost rescued her, too.

All of this happens in a spectacular world. It falls into the same category as Fallout 3 and Oblivion: it's just as much fun to wander off the beaten, bandit-filled track and explore as it is to complete missions and side quests. Indeed, in all three games, side-quests are often found just by exploring and, with the two Bethesda games especially, I felt that the world was crammed full of places to explore and people to have a natter with.

It's here, I feel, that minor problems begin to appear.

The world, while stunning, lifelike and incredibly absorbing, feels a little empty. This may improve later on - god knows I've hardly scratched the surface - but, at the moment, several hours in, I feel that I'm only likely to find interesting things to do if I've been told to ride there myself or have followed someone to a new destination. It lacks the spark of spontaneity and, while that might be because the game is still holding my hand, I don't reckon it should still be doing that after ten hours of play.

Some of the core gameplay concepts that partner RockStar's engrossing world also feel a little outdated. I know that Red Dead is an open world action game as opposed to an RPG but, having been spoilt with the likes of Fallout, Oblivion and Dragon Age, the linearity grates. (I should also point out that I do enjoy much of the Red Dead's gameplay, from the horse riding to the shooting to the sometimes-annoying cover system and the guns which, more often than not, aim themselves – and that's before the quick draw bullet-time slowdowns).

Take the average introduction to a mission in Red Dead. You'll sit through a cut-scene, listen to a dilemma, and Marston will agree to help. Of course, you have the choice to just ignore the mission, but that's almost a game-breaking gesture and just doesn't feel right, and your choice boils down to story mission or side-quest or mini-game.

Conversely, Dragon Age litters the average conversation with a variety of options, giving your character the choice to turn down quests, antagonise NPCs or even influence how the quest goes through your responses. Oblivion and Fallout served up similar conversation systems, and the former included an mini-game that determined how you'd influence other people.

The result is that you, as Marston, are robbed of a certain degree of choice. Like other successful open-world games - and other RockStar titles - you can choose from a selection of quests but, with no input on conversations or your character himself - you're given Marston and that's that - I can't help but feel a little detached. I had the same problem with GTA IV, not able to project any of myself and my experiences onto Niko, and my interest waned a little as a result.

Nevertheless, Red Dead Redemption is still brilliant in a multitude of other ways, so I find myself asking if these criticisms are valid. Sure, I don't get choice in conversations, but does this allow Rockstar more control over its writing, its voice acting and the plot of its game? Of course. If you've got to record one cut scene and one set of lines, then you get the slickly produced, smoothly animated and near movie-level production that's prevalent throughout Red Dead as opposed to the single viewpoint and no voice acting of the Oblivions, Dragon Ages and Fallouts of this world. When it comes to telling a story, that's obviously important, although successful RPG writers may beg to differ.

This seems less relevant when it comes to Marston himself. There are, of course, nods to RPG behaviour - you can earn money, fame and respect depending on how you behave, but there's not the wealth of stat upgrades, item choices and clothing and armor options that you'll get in the average RPG.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that my favourite GTA game is San Andreas, probably the most RPG-like of the series, which served up a wide open world packed with plenty to do and influence. Some called it derivative and accused it of distracting from the game's main focus; I say that it gave the game an air of realism and helped fill it out beyond the main plot and associated tasks. It felt like a genuine world rather than a very large level.

Perhaps, too, I just like RPGs. The wide, varied worlds packed with possibilities attract me, and these often prove more attractive than the oppressive linearity offered by action games, even if that scenario results in a tighter, more controlled and more cinematic experience.

Red Dead Redemption does bring a cinema all of its own thanks to New Austin's absorbing vistas and Rockstar's classic Western world. I'm not denying its status as a stunning place to explore and take in but I hope that, as I progress, it becomes even busier and more absorbing. I want to have my own influence on the world beyond what Rockstar has already written, programmed and planned.

Nevertheless, if Rockstar has eschewed RPG-style choices in some areas of its game and instead chosen for a more linear, dramatic and cinematic experience amid its open world, then it could turn out to be just about perfect - because introducing the choices typical of RPG games into a Rockstar title might ruin the experience. I'm in two minds about it. So, if you'll excuse me, there's a poker table with my name on it.

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