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Red Dead Redemption Preview

By Joe Dodson, 3/30/2010

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Most ghost towns boom before they bust, but in video games, the Western genre has always been eerily quiet. And that is about to change. We got our hands on Red Dead Redemption at PAX East, and let us tell you, the West is going to get wild when this game gallops onto store shelves in May.

I had to wait in line an hour and a half to see Red Dead Redemption at PAX East, and I was not thrilled. I knew that Red Dead Revolver had been a disappointment, and I'd also heard of some unpleasant drama at Rockstar's San Diego studio, so I felt certain that I was in for an underwhelming experience. When I finally got into the Rockstar booth and stepped up to the demo station, I could clearly see the main character, John Marston, and a vast southwestern expanse beyond him. I cocked my eyebrow and gave the game its first test, spinning the screen like a chamber with the R-stick pressed sharply right, waiting for the framerate to flinch. It didn't.

Instead, it spun like a well-oiled machine, rendering the whirling panorama and the cowboy at its center without a hitch in its giddy-yup. I wasn't prepared for this, but Red Dead Redemption was definitely prepared for me. In that one instant, questions about Rockstar's employment practices, the previous game's mixed reviews, and the worthiness of an hour's wait in line tumbled away like a weed in the wind.

Down on the D-pad called my trusty steed, which came running out of the landscape. I hopped on, and started trotting down a worn dirt path as other riders galloped past. I hit "A" and spurred the horse once - he picked up his pace but only for a few steps. I pressed "A" a few more times and spurred him to a brief canter. I spammed the "A" button and the horse flew into a gallop maintained with regular pricks and kicks.

I roared into a canyon and, as I started to slow, was passed by some riders. To try out the shooting mechanic, I pulled the L trigger and automatically aimed at one of their backs as they bounded before me. I pulled the R trigger and shot, knocking the stranger from his horse to tumble in the dirt as his steed pulled up. The other rider took off. A Rockstar rep informed me that he was headed to the nearest town to tell a posse of my evil deed, which would increase the bounty on my head. As the bounty grew and my reputation went south, normal people would avoid me, while more and more folk (some law, some worse) would actively hunt me.

I pulled up next to the dead man and dismounted. I rifled through his pockets and took his money, then mounted back up and rode further into the canyon. I happened upon two men in a section of the canyon that had lots of cover. Sensing an ambush, I dismounted and readied my weapon. It seemed like one of the men saw me, and moved over toward a box to take cover. He reached for a gun, but his upper body was completely exposed. I aimed and shot him between the eyes. Tamara, who was helping me with the demo winced and said "Wow, you shot him while he was peeing."

That's a bad way to go, but thanks to the handy map Tamara pulled up for me, I knew right where I was going. The map looked hand drawn, in the style of the Old West. The GTA style waypoint she set for me was decidedly futuristic, but I didn't complain. The waypoint lead me to a tiny path up out of the canyon and onto a mesa where I found a deserted town. On the outskirts a dirty grave robber named Seth was cursing the nearby bandits for stealing his treasure. I offered to go get it back for him, since I was itching for a fight anyhow.

As I approached the bandits' hideout in the ghost town, a few spotted me, took cover, and began to fire. I took cover behind a wagon, then popped out with my rifle and shot a few. The gunplay and cover system seemed very similar to Grand Theft Auto IV, although I did experience one excellent wrinkle: by holding the L trigger and pressing the R3 button I was able to enter Deadeye mode. Time slowed, and I drew my targeting reticule all over the body of a nearby bandit. As I did, little X's were deposited all over him. I then pulled the R trigger, time resumed, and BLAMBLAMBLAMBLAM, I shot all the places I'd marked. It was some rootin' tootin' shootin'.

Deadeye mode will clearly be useful when you need to shoot as many people in the head as possible, but more than that, it will turn you into the badass cowboy you've seen in TV and film. You'll be able to shoot thrown playing cards, the gun out of a bad guy's hand, or a dove in flight from horseback. And as the game progresses, you'll be able to upgrade the skill for longer and more lethal bouts of heroic precision.

Another cool feature is the wilderness itself. It contains gorgeous terrain, and in our brief travels we saw deer, coyotes, wolves, bunnies, crows and hawks. I shot most of them, skinned a few, and got attacked by others. I took these skins to town, where I could have sold them for money, but instead I wound up trying to hijack a stage coach. It took off out of town at full speed, and I pursued on horseback. As I galloped after it, spurring my steed, I fired away with my six-shooter while a passenger on the coach sniped at me with a rifle. It was at this point that I thought: "This is it. This is the Western I've been waiting for."

Of course, Red Dead Redemption isn't just a real deal Western, it's also a full fledged Rockstar game with GTA-caliber production values. And that means it packs all manner of organic, unscripted surprises. For instance, as I watched another player ride through town, I saw him approach a church. He was moving at a full gallop, and really closing in on the church, so he just bailed out. It just so happened that there was a signpost in his way, and he hopped off his fast moving horse and right into the signpost with a "THUD." In any other game, he would have clipped through it, or awkwardly bounced off it in a terrible display of hit detection gone wrong. But in Red Dead Redemption it knocked him back on his ass with awesome impact - it looked perfect. It didn't kill him, but it did kill everybody watching him play. It also reaffirmed the potency of LucasArts' Euphoria physics and animation engine, which Rockstar again coupled with their proprietary RAGE engine (like they did with GTAIV) for use in this best Western.

Unfortunately, I only had about twenty minutes to check out the game, and what you've read is what I've seen. I suspect you'd like to read more, and I'd sure like to see it. And we won't have to wait long. Though Red Dead Redemption won't trot onto store shelves until May 18, Rockstar informed me that they'll reveal multiplayer details on April 5. Mark it on your calendar with a little X.



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