Monday, November 1, 2010

Action Game of the Year: Red Dead Redemption

The decisions that went into choosing Game of the Year and the various "category winners" in the Action, RPG/Adventure, Sports/Driving, Strategy, and App categories were tricky this year. At any given point, some of the category winners could have been Game of the Year.

This is made even more challenging by the fact that Fall titles comprise the big releases for any given year, but we often don't get these in time for the issue. In order to account for this, I created a category called "Hot Winter Titles," which are games shipping in 2010 that look good in previews or betas, but aren't eligible for awards because we don't have final copy in our hands.

Red Dead Redemption was a finalist for Game of the Year, but it doesn't quite fit our audience. As it is, I'm glad to finally be able to play a Rockstar game that doesn't require me to take a shower after each gaming session. If the awards were based on the game I played the longest this year, it would have gone to Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which still managed to net a runner-up slot along with Splint Cell: Conviction.

Pick up the December issue of GAMES Magazine to see what else made the grade

Red Dead Redemption
Formats: 360/PS3 ($60)
Rated: M

The wild west has never been a particularly large wellspring for video games. Except for a few titles such as Outlaw, Gun, and Call of Juarez, there have been precious few forays into the old west, and that seems rather odd. Westerns dominated pulp fiction, movies, radio dramas, and television shows for years, making videogames the only new media of the 20th century that didn’t walk to the beat of spurs and sixguns.

The Call of Juarez games started to turn that around, and now Red Dead Redemption lays out a rich banquet of western wonders that sets a new gold standard for the genre. This is Rockstar Games doing what they do: vast, open environments to explore, plenty to do, and every decision in the hands of the gamer.

Rockstar made their name because of two things. First, they pioneered and developed one of the great “open-world” gameplay systems, offering gamers an entire landscape to explore at will. Make no mistake: they are masters of technology and design. Few are in their league.

Unfortunately, the second element contributing to their fame is the appalling content of many of their games. Grand Theft Auto began as little more than a carjacking simulator, and grew to encompass all manner of deviant behavior.

Red Dead Redemption takes the Grand Theft Auto IV engine and design and transplants in to the old west, and in the process finds a bit of morality. In a surprising change of pace for Rockstar, you play as John Marston, an upright man with a chance to be a noble knight of the west. His quest to capture his former partner in crime takes him to a large (albeit imaginary) swath of border territory called New Austin, where he can help the beautiful rancher’s daughter, rope wild horses, round up the cattle, hunt varmints, bring in wanted desperadoes, and assist the law. The game maps a diverse chunk of this environment, including a piece of Mexico and the plains to the north.

Marston is a good character, and as the drama follows him through the three main acts, you get to steer his growth, allowing him to be a paragon of virtue or just another old west thug. Morality systems—gameplay elements that gauge whether a character is good or bad based upon his actions—are in vogue right now, and Rockstar has done an excellent job of implementing one. Marston can certainly hold up the bank, rob the train, kill the sheriff, ignore the damsel in distress, and shoot the old drunk in the back, but he’ll have an easier time if he doesn’t. An upright man gets discounts in stores and spends less time and money evading the law.

Like the Grand Theft Auto Games, Red Dead Redemption is a series of mini-games stitched into a dynamic universe populated with characters and narrative events. Roping a wild horse, for example, involves lassoing him, then “breaking” him by using a simple balancing mini-game. Gambling opportunities abound, including complete versions of poker, liars dice, “five finger fillet,” and other games of chance. All of these mini-games simply add to the fullness of the experience.

This is still a violent, sometimes absurdly bloody M-rated game. Make no mistake: you’re still killing people, dealing with criminals, and running into ladies of the night. But, for adults, it’s actually a lot of fun. As with all Rockstar Games, you don’t have to follow the story at all. If you prefer to spend all your time hunting for buried treasure, shooting rabbits, or trying to stay on a bucking bronco, that’s just fine. Even in some of these portions, Rockstar has to remind us that, well … they’re Rockstar. To make money has a hunter, you have to skin and animal and then sell the meet, hides, horns, or whatever. The butchering sequences cannot be skipped, and although the camera remains on Marston’s face, the little cut scene is accompanied by gruesome sound effects and great slashes of blood spraying across the screen.

Red Dead Redemption is rated Mature for Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs, and they mean it. The foul language is less than you’ll find in an average episode of Deadwood, but the violence is a major part of the gameplay. That said, there’s something quite appealing about a game that allows you to explore a giant, beautifully realized and populated swath of the old west at your leisure. This is a special achievement in gaming, and it’s fine to see Rockstar finally used their gifts as designers in something with a moral core.

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