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Red Dead Redemption Day#1: I Want a Range Life

Red Dead Redemption will be familiar to people who have followed GTA. In my first day with it, I saw a return to some of the core themes and features in the corrupt world, the sandbox, and the central not-so-great “vehicle” control. But this is also by far the most pretty game Rockstar has ever made, the gunplay is very much improved, and the character has an interesting if cryptic start. I’m still waiting to see if my standard GTA issues arise, but so far it’s at least worth checking out. Spoilers within.

So, I saw the demo of Red Dead Redemption at a GameStop launch party and it looked prettier than any Rockstar game to date, so I picked it up. The hype (see the New York Times‘ reporting of it as the Second Coming) was immense, but I’m coming with an open mind because I have always had issues with Grand Theft Auto — the long stretches between save times, the crap controls on driving and shooting, the uneven narrative. But the look of the game is so striking I’m willing to give it a shot.

The game starts with a pretty Rockstar logo in revolver cartridge. The title card shows a desert landscape in a narrow bar. The choices of play are online multiplayer, downloadable content, and single player. It’s always 1P for me. The loading images are lots of nice red and black silhouette drawings.  I set up my save, and get to first chapter –Exodus in America.  It’s starts in CS with a show boat on a river. People get off of it on a gangway and walk the pier. The models look ok for Rockstar — not too creepy, but a bit stiff and unnatural. A old-timey car loaded on to the pier, and three dark figures push a paperboy out of the way and walk towards the camera. We cut to them on a city street and then they get to a train station. The dirty gunman of the three gets on while the two other guys in suits wait on the platform. Boy, this game really wants to be Tarintino with the slo-mo walking and posing.

The train leaves, and we cut to the gunman (pretty clearly me) on the train in CS. There are two old women in the seat behind him talking about how savage where they are going used to be, and how civilization and religion are redeeming it. A father (also a priest) and his daughter talking about difference between people and savages and how religion will save them. We go into tunnel and as we come out, and the family is talking about flying. It is a strikingly pretty landscape outside — Rockstar has nailed the colors of the Southwest. The old women are talking about the Johns family running for governor, but that the family has no class. One of the women notes money can’t buy class, but can buy voters. The father and daughter discuss the difference between a loving act and a hateful one. Questionable ethics, a corrupt leader, self-righteous thugs: this is a Rockstar game after all. The scene ends as the train arrives at the town of Armadillo.

I get control as I get off of the train. It’s standard L stick to walk, R stick to look controls.  X lets me sprint. The map in lower left is very GTA familiar. I have to go to a saloon as my first objective. A somewhat naturalized yellow X appears on saloon door to tell me where I need to be; it fades as I approach the bar. I don’t know what I think of that yet. There’s a CS as the gunman enters the bar. A guy calls out to me and tells me my name: John Marston. This guy Jake is here to guide me.  They leave the bar and I get control. I have to follow Jake to where we’re going. I go to a horse. It’s triangle to get on and X to spur.  I’m here to go to a fort of some kind apparently. There are no soldiers there anymore, although Jake doesn’t know why. I’m going there looking for an old friend. Boy the landscape is beautiful.  John’s not planning on staying very long.  Jake starts talking about prostitutes, but John says he’s a married man. Jake pushes John on his background, and he mentions something about marshals that John doesn’t want to talk about. Maybe I’m a marshal? We get to the fort and in CS, Jake tells me a gang took it over.  Jake leaves as we zoom in on a CS of my cold stare.

I get control and ride to the fort. After maybe 45 seconds of control, I go back to a CS as John approaches it on foot. He calls out to the fort wall for Bill, and says that he’s come for him. Bill off-screen tells John to go away.  John tells him no one needs to die. Bill  comes out with a rifle aimed at John. John says he’s here to save Bill. Bill says he’s with the gang now. John reveals that someone wants to kill them all, but Bill responds that John only used to think about himself. John implores him; Bill mocks him for the word “implore” and says he’s in charge (not Dutch and John). Bill tells John he wants them to send someone more impressive next time. John says “well” and reaches for gun,  and Bill shoots him.  Time passes as John lays bleeding out on the ground until a couple comes by and takes John away in a carriage.

A new chapter starts: New Friends, Old Problems. We cut to John in bed in a cabin. In CS, a woman enters and tells him he’s alive, and he cost $15 to save. He says she should have let him die. She introduces herself as Bonnie and a miss.  He explains that he knows Bill.  She says Bill is one of the worst bandits around. John says he’s going to take Bill out the slow way, and she says that’s like the penny comics her brother draws. She asks John to help her patrol the ranch to make the money back. He agrees and thanks her for saving his life, and she leaves. I get control back, and I have to go to Bonnie. I find her and have to follow her as  she shows me around town, starting with the stockade. They talk and my character’s kind of interesting: he’s very patient and laconic, but not quite a cipher. We ride around town. The ranch has its own store, so this is some kind of game hub. We continue to ride around and then go back to her house.  She thinks I’m a scoundrel, but doesn’t mind that.

We cut to him asleep on a chair in her house in CS.  She gives him a rifle to help patrol. He says it’s a beautiful carbine. We go out to the horses and ride to a small garden infested with rabbits. We have to shoot some rabbits, and I learn the gun controls — L2 to aim and R2 to shoot. I cannot tell you how welcome a change this is from previous Rockstar games — it’s a genuine combat system and even if I’m not good at it (and I’m not), I’m thrilled that we’re not back in Vice City. I do ok with the rabbits, but as I said, I’m not a good shot. We get enough of them that she’s impressed. We continue riding and get to a chicken coop where coyote are attacking. I kill four of five of them and basically save the chicken. During the fight, I enter into a bullet time thing for seemingly no reason on two of them. Riding is also a bit tricky when rushed. We head back to my shed, and she thanks me for my help.  I go inside to sleep and save, which are the same action. I can also get extra ammo in my room, and change outfits (when I have some to change into).

I back to Bonnie’s house when I awaken. The new chapter is Obstacles in our Path.  They exchange pleasantries in CS and she asks John how he know Bill. He doesn’t want to tell her and she’s upset that he’s not explaining himself.  She challenges him to a horse race to make a point about this city life and he agrees. I get control and ride to the start of the race.  This is not going to go well. I start the race okay, but the horse keeps bucking me for some reason, and I get way behind, so far in fact that I have to retry. Oh the bucking is due to the horse stamina dropping to zero. It seems to go down when I spur and regenerate when I hold X to maintain a current speed. I wish I had been told that; it’s completely unintuitive. I totally lost the race, but she doesn’t mention it. She  suggests John go see the marshal in Armadillo. I get control and it’s time for me to do that apparently. I ride out of town toward Armadillo. It’s a long ride in the lonely expanses of the desert. Along the way, I ride off cliff totally by accident — I have no idea why the game didn’t have the horse stop. I survive the long drop but the horse doesn’t. I don’t realize it’s dead  and when I hit triangle to get on it, I skin it instead. I have to run to the town now. It takes a while. Along the way, I see a guy attacked and killed by coyote. I shoot two of the coyote trying to save him, but the third runs and he’s already dead.  I loot the body ($5) and continue my run to get to Armadillo.

The new chapter in Armadillo is Political Realities. I go to the marshal station in CS, and there’s a deputy in a cell asleep. When John introduces himself,  the deputy doesn’t know why he’s here. John tells him he’s from the fort and that causes the deputy to pull a gun on John. John pulls on him in return as an older guy comes in. The old guy tells Jonah (the deputy) to put the gun down and take off. John tells the marshal he’s here to get Bill.  Bill is out of the marshal’s jurisdiction, and the marshal (the old guy) says he’s here to protect this town and he doesn’t have time to help others. The marshal explains how there are hoods, gangs, railroads driving off settlers, etc.  John offers to help him with hoods to make a deal about Bill and the marshal accepts. I get control back as we head over to the saloon. I’m really annoyed that I can’t save — I’m tired and want to sleep. We see the target leaving the saloon as we approach. We have to tail him. I cannot get speed on this horse, and I’m now really hoping there’s not a lot of tailing stuff in this game. I eventually catch up to the marshal as we approach where the target is hanging out. He and his thugs start shooting at us and we take cover. I have to  shoot all the thugs then have to take Walton (the target) alive. I think I shoot him in the leg and run up to him; I did manage not to kill him. The marshal CS thanks me and leaves, telling me when should stay in touch. I get Fame and money for my trouble. The game saves so I call it a night.

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