March 12, 2014
I Should Have Finished... Red Dead Redemption
I picked up Red Dead Redemption when it came out, and only played about an hour or so before I put it down again -- not for any reason that I can remember, only a recognition that it was probably going to take more time than I really had. As I recall, it came out in the Spring, which is always a super-busy time for me, with two kids playing baseball.
I picked it up again this January and finished it in a couple of weeks -- and by finished, I mean finished, achieving every goal and earning myself the "Legend of the West" costume for 100% completion. So, yeah, I liked it. I can see why it was on so many GOTY lists. And I do love me a Western game.
The story was decent; I spent a lot of time chasing after other things, so it wasn't always completely coherent to me, but that's always a danger with these sorts of games. I liked the Fistful of Dollars quality of playing both sides of the street in Mexico, and assembling a Wild Bunch for the first section of the game. I thought the final section had its own kind of poignancy; the game has you finally engaging in the more prosaic sorts of activities that Marston had been craving all along, with some story notes that reminded me of Unforgiven. The transition to the younger Marston was maybe a little too abrupt; although I probably would have enjoyed some more of the hardship and hardening of that character, I imagine most players would not have.
I particularly enjoyed the various chains of goals the game provided, which they called ambient challenges -- hunting, sharpshooting, treasure hunting, and survival (finding plants)¹. They engaged my favorite part of virtual worlds like these, the pleasure of developing an understanding of the game's ecosystems or even being able to see from a good distance a little flash of color and know it's a sort of plant you're looking for. That's a kind of immersion I really treasure when I play this sort of game.
The other lists of goals you could chase after were outfits, by which you could dress Marston in different ways whenever you went to one of his safe houses. I didn't really care about changing his outfit too much, but I did like having a list of six things to try out to earn each one.
The visuals were fantastic. I felt like I was in a John Ford movie, and that was just great. I admit, I was a little surprised to find a section with snow (and apparently all year round), and that still doesn't feel like it fits all that well, but that's a quibble. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to see such a rich ecology, and to watch dozens of beautiful sunsets. It's a wonderfully and aesthetically realized environment. I think that Deadly Premonition gave me a much stronger sense of place, of being in a real place, due to the activities of its inhabitants, but Red Dead Redemption was a close second -- had its NPCs been more likely to roam and have their own schedules, it would have felt less like a series of movie sets and more like a real place.
That's a real tension in open world games; NPCs are basically functions of the game, either as quest givers or vendors or what-have-you, and it's frustrating for players to have a hard time finding a particular person so that they can check off some goal that they have in their head. In Red Dead, there are certain schedules of these things -- bounties get posted at a particular time, stores open and close, that sort of thing, but you don't feel like any of these characters are all that well drawn or fully embedded in the world. Deadly Premonition did this fabulously well -- but it was a cast of dozens, not hundreds.
I didn't have a lot of things I didn't care for -- I wasn't a big fan of the mini-games, with the exception of Liar's Dice, which I played again and again. I did have to win at each mini-game in a particular location to earn many of the outfits, and typically I only played those games just the amount I needed to complete those goals. Liar's Dice, though, really captivated me in a way that seems silly. It's a game of probability and bluff and pushing your luck and judging when other characters are doing those same things. I could play it again right now.
I also might have liked a little more depth to the side quests; these were almost always simple affairs with a single step (deliver a thing, go investigate a place to learn about a thing), and a little more depth to them would have been welcome -- that's a thing I think we did quite well with in Skyrim. Often, these tended to simply be examples of Rockstar humor or what they often call satire, such as a young woman who you had seen in the game's earliest scene talking to a preacher on the train who needs your help. She's a bit obnoxious as a character, always describing as God's work that which was clearly achieved by men (or in this case, the player). That sort of thing just doesn't work for me, I guess; it's all surface, no depth, a mocking tone that doesn't speak to me. There was one set of quests with a guy who was apparently trying to make his way to California but didn't really know how to get there and was slowly being driven crazy by the elements, and encountering him a few times was interesting and a little bit deeper, and that resonated a lot better.
In any case, the game was fantastic. I'm glad to have played it. Going through my back catalog is particularly rewarding when I come across a few games of such caliber.
Hoping to come back in a couple of days and write about a short PC game I played this week, Serena.
¹Give me a series of goals to chase after and I'll always be happy, and if you also tell me I'm leveling up in those skills so much the better.