Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Bumpy Road to Redemption

As Mr. Hollis-Lima said in his previous post, Red Dead Redemption is a fine game. I've spent far too much time playing it this week, and I have no doubt that I shall devote just as many hours to it next week. And yet Red Dead, despite its six-year development, doesn't feel quite so polished as I might have hoped. It's a great achievement for Rockstar, but I can't help but feel it should have been greater.

Red Dead Redemption takes place in somewhere in the Generic West in 1911. There are trains and telegraphs and occasional automobiles, but lives still come very cheap. I suppose that Rockstar wanted to tell a story about the end of the West, which is fine, but the Red Dead world seems too violent to be believable for 1911. Videogames always exaggerate, but this, to me, takes suspension of disbelief a tad too far. Aside from this, the game's worldbuilding is mostly sound, something of a surprise after the maddeningly poor open sequence, where Our Hero rides the train to the town of Armadillo and listens in on some of the most hackneyed, tedious, and implausible conversations ever committed to Blu-Ray. There's a satirical intent – one of the speakers may even discuss Manifest Destiny – but the complete lack of subtlety bodes ill for the remainder of the game. The writing does improve, but never enough to make one forget that ill-starred sequence.

While the West of Red Dead Redemption does offer many peaceful pursuits such as horseshoes, poker, drinking, herding, horse-breaking, and exploration, sooner or later the guns will come out. When they do, many players will be disappointed. There's a cover system, but it's awkward. There's no separate button for hand-to-hand combat, making non-lethal methods very difficult. There's a bullet time mode called "Dead Eye" that's a lot of fun to use, but it makes fights far too easy. Finally, there's very little to remind players that their weapons come from a different era. The guns aren't terribly distinct from those in games set a hundred years later; they just fire a tad slower. And perhaps because one sees the game from over Marston's shoulder, these virtual weapons lack the virtual heft that might make them memorable. I suppose they recoil, but I never notice it. I'm too far removed from the action to see.

Violence in Red Dead Redemption is fast, common, and not terribly effecting. The game borrows its aesthetics from films like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Unforgiven, but the great Western directors knew how to give their gunfights suspense and significance. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may be an epic, but there's a grand total of one killing in the entire movie. Or consider the opening to Once Upon a Time in the West: We know to expect killing, but Leone brilliantly draws out the suspense with seeming inconsequential details like the dripping of water or a fly's buzzing. In Rockstar's game instant gratification rules. Perhaps it's a weakness of the medium?

Another problem is the game's save system. There's an auto-save system, and usually a manual save point is only a minute or two away, and, in the wild, players can even strike up a campsite to serve their saving needs. Unfortunately, Red Dead Redemption stops being player-friendly the moment the state puts a price on John Marston's head. Fugitives cannot save in their usual "home" areas, nor can they set up camps. You can't save the game until the bounty is paid or the crime is pardoned. Unfortunately, it's very easy to accidentally commit a crime: the harsh Western climate breeds despair; policemen and civilians have the regrettable habit of throwing themselves between your gun and your target.

Once I lost half an hour of progress because I died without saving, on my way to pay my "debt to society." Cause of death? A glitch that threw my character hundreds of feet into the air. The game celebrated my eventual return to Earth with a display of ragdoll physics and the game over screen. I was not happy. Though Red Dead Redemption usually works very well, it has far more glitches and technical infelicities than most games with $100 million development tags. There's a good deal of clipping, some pop-in, and the occasional freeze. At least I haven't run into the infamous magic carts yet.

Red Dead Redemption is at least a very good game; it may well be a great one. Like Mr. Hollis-Lima, I look forward to playing more of it. I just wish the game had a little more polish, a little more subtlety, and far fewer glitches.

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