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Friday, July 09, 2010

For Sunday: Kirk Steals Spock's Bike

Thanks, Corvus.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Some Notes On Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption is one of those games I don't think needs an outright review from the likes of me. All the reviews agree, and I agree with them - it's good. In fact, it may be Rockstar's best. It's interesting that the mechanics are nearly identical to the GTA series, but Red Dead avoids much of the overwrought GTA controversy simply by being a western.

Like the changes in Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar proves very capable at surgically altering their core gameplay for the better. While RDR is clearly the first cousin of that series, many small tweaks add up to much better overall game.

No health bar
Red Dead is the first Rockstar game that I can think of that employs the YAMS (Yet Another Military Shooter) style health system. You'll suffer quickly after repeated hits, but a respite will eventually heal all wounds. This saves the player from needlessly finding the wester equivalent of Burger Shots, saving the game or stealing ambulances just to move on to the next mission. This is quickly becoming the norm across all action titles, for not only this reason - but the fact that it also simplifies the interface required to explain things. Do I have 50% health? 20%? You don't really care, the feedback you have is that you are being shot and you will die if that doesn't stop. Not sure if it works for all scenarios (see the multiplayer notes below) - but it works here.

There's always a horse to be had...
This isn't really new, more of an adaptation of GTAIV's system - but it becomes a very important one. You can steal horses if you so wish, but early in the game it doesn't become necessary because you can always just whistle for a new horse. The RDR area is lousy with horses, and one seems always willing to come to your aid (if your horse dies, you just have to wait a bit before it "respawns").

Unrealistic? Yes, but RDR is a vast open area as opposed to the inner city of GTA. Rockstar wants you to ride, and be able to ride even if you were left alone in the middle of a prairie.

...or you can just camp it out.
If you don't feel like riding all the way from Armadillo to Mexico, you can always just set up camp and then quick travel to nearly any accessible point in the map. Again, this works well for the massive amount of open space that RDR offers.

Course, the real problem with these mechanics is that they override others like horse theft and the stagecoach. The stagecoach is particularly disappointing since the camera doesn't even offer much of a view and it is much slower than a horse.

Well that was a good shot
RDR offers players a fast auto-aim if you simply tap the aim button in the general vicinity of the target. It forces you to keep tapping to continue landing hits and to either slow down for fine targeting, or use Dead Eye. Dead Eye slows down time for the player, allowing for highly accurate shots.

The only real problem here is that the auto-aim nearly makes Dead Eye obsolete, except when the game insists that you use it. I think I can count on two fingers when I've used Dead Eye outside of when a mission required it - and neither time was particularly productive. Later in the game when you're trying to do some of the challenges, it has a brief interlude as an interesting mechanic and towards the end when the difficulty ramps up a little ... but you can easily play most of the game without it.

In general though, it does a good job - better than previous Rockstar titles - of making the player feel like a badass bounty hunter without being invincible.

Serious production value
While some of the assets in the game look simply like a westernized version of GTA, one has to give a tip of the hat to the landscape presented in Red Dead. It's ridiculous. My favorite part? The thunder. Whoever did the audio for the storms in RDR needs a medal and in general the environment effects are just outrageously good. And it's bone chillingly appropriate for this game - when your cowboy rides off into the sunset, you want a sunset this beautiful.

And the music? The music is awesome. Thematic and yet properly dynamic - you may find yourself dragging those bounty missions out just to hear the excellent bass line riding along with you.

An odd sense of justice
Where in GTA the concept of having a wanted level and escaping the police is baked right into the middle of your game session - Red Dead Redemption alters the setup a little where you rarely require a wanted level at all. In the place of trying to evade the cops, several missions will have gunmen trying to hunt you down and stopping you from reaching your destination. This is one of the chief dynamics with the bounty hunting side missions - do you rush back to the sheriff or wait for the droves of minions to fall and offer more loot?

In general, this works pretty well. What doesn't work is the more direct analog from GTA where you get a bounty for doing something wrong. The problem is that "wrong" is very loosely defined and so it is hard to tell what will get you in trouble. For instance, I went up to see if I could open a door and got a bounty for trespassing. I accidentally pointed my gun at a lawman and suddenly had five people on horseback chasing me.

Poker, side missions, and ambient design
Rockstar has always seemed to insist that being able to play games in random locations is part of the overall open world experience. If you want to be a completionist in RDR, you'll need to excel at playing poker, liar's dice and various other in-world mini-games. The design isn't bad, but can be haphazard. While I enjoyed liar's dice, the imposed strategy of arm wrestling, for instance, was simply annoying. You ignore them completely for the most part (there's a single mission I think where playing a little poker is required) - so they're mostly a plus.

Dueling is ... odd. For one thing, you can stumble on dueling before the game really introduces it and hence be completely lost. The mechanics are strange - while it is one part trigger finger it is mostly about timing and placing all of your shots on the target. Once you get the hang of it, it works - but the game does little service in getting the player up to speed with it.

One huge success is RDR's "ambient" missions, which are random encounters you'll run into around the frontier. This includes everything from running down thieves to getting in the middle of gunfights. They're impressively fluid and have a bare sheet of artificiality imposed on them. By the end of the game they can get somewhat redundant - but it takes some time to get there and they add a great layer of depth to the open world in general. This is a natural extension to the otherwise random events that take place in Rockstar's games (one example in RDR - I actually had a stranger save *me* from an animal attack instead of the other way around) and hopefully it evolves even more in the future.

Bottom Line
I think this is easily Rockstar's best work. The beauty of Rockstar's games is that they are always slightly flawed - but usually because they're tweaking their own formula. In the next iteration, those flaws are usually addressed and yet replaced by new ones as they experiment with new mechanics. If you're going to have flaws, that's probably the best way to do it.