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There has been somewhat of a revival of the Western lately. It may not be of the same ilk as the heyday of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, but it is far edgier and grittier this time around. So much so that a film that won an Oscar in the 60s is currently being nominated for several more in the guise of a Coen brothers remake. My Granddad was fascinated with Westerns the first time around and while he may not be able to identify with the actors as it comes full circle, he would probably appreciate the fact it is getting a serious look at once more. I on the other hand never got the genre until a while after my granddad’s passing, but can now appreciate in his stead. Part of this resurgence comes from the fact that video games have tried to capture the elements of the genre in a new light. Most of these have completely missed the bar of being a good game, due to either an unbelievable plot or broken mechanics. As an indication of just how dire the Westerns survival rate is in video games, the last really good game was Sunset Riders way back in the 90s. Red Dead Redemption hopes to come closer to this standard than say its prequel; Red Dead Revolver, by hoping it will shoot the target with both barrels rather than firing in the air like a crazy old coot with a moonshine addiction.

I’ll start by saying that this is without a doubt in my head the best narrative/plot that Rockstar have devised. Things aren’t looking too great for John Marston. His family have been taken away from him by the federal government because of some of the crimes he committed in the past. They make him the proposition that if he rounds up or kills all of his former gang mates that left him for dead one day, then his family would be freed. Things don’t start off too well when one of the gang shoots him and leaves him for dead (again) on the roadside. Fortunately John is picked up by the MacFarlanes; a father and daughter family of ranchers and is nursed back to health. What is astounding is not the plot itself, but it is the level of detail in the amazingly believable characterisation. John is a particular highlight, and it is surprising that we don’t see his type more often; by type of course I mean a truly remorseful man who is still bad-ass, but has a sense of morality that other games protagonists seem to ignore completely. He actually makes us want to succeed. He actually makes us care that his family are gone and he is trying everything to get them back. All the other characters seem like the stables one would see in a typical Western, but they each have their own tics that assist with the immersion of the player into this fully realised world. A man who went hunting for treasure and subsequently became a mad gravedigger. A gunslinger who fled to Mexico and has acted as Sheriff ever since for a little town; and indeed a German swindler who when things don’t go his way resorts to duels. There is absolutely nobody who stands out for being a terrible character and that is an achievement in itself.

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The real star though is the Wild West itself. It’s open and free, and riding across the plains on horseback is a far more gratifying experience than driving at eighty miles an hour in a sports car in the middle of a fake Manhattan. Sure you don’t get to run over them, but trying to hijack a train is far more exhilarating than making car tires red for the billionth time. The wilderness between towns is home to an entire ecosystem of critters and steeds, and together with the sweltering heat it makes the whole world feel real, more real than anything I’d experienced before. The music also shows during the more quiet moments that element of tension and the more dramatic moments of shootouts, and this even comes down to the Western sound effects to give it that wonderful throwback to the 1950s/1960s world of cinema.

The experience is a somewhat familiar affair though, as missions have different starting locations and usually have you journeying to a different area to perform a particular errand. Lots of the early game involves rounding up cattle or getting a new steed, which is a somewhat satirical nod towards the more normal activities of Grand Theft Auto IV. This quickly erupts into shooting up gangs, looting their hideouts and saving the odd damsel in distress. You can’t take the GTA out of Rockstar after all! What is fascinating however is that things aren’t limited to these missions and mini-games. Listed somewhere in the pause menu are some challenges which can be tackled during missions and their completion rewards you with bonuses and cheats. There is also an online challenge set list that is activated once you enter an area with the social challenges and tasks you with performing a certain chain of events in the shortest time. You will even encounter random events along the side of the road; which could consist of a bar wench being mugged by a drunkard or a woman asking for a ride to town. Sometimes there is positive and negative outcomes, such as said woman stealing your horse or the mugger carrying the wench off into the sunset to have his merry way with her. These are far more satisfying than the rather drab alternative of riding continuously towards your objective without anything getting in your way other than some scripting marauders shooting in the air and shouting obscenities at you.

But if you did like the little extra games that featured within Rockstar’s last epic, then you are still in luck. In towns you can find people who just want to challenge you to a duel; a guy who wants to toss horseshoes at a post for money and three gambling based games revolving around classics such as Poker and Blackjack while featuring the more unusual Liars Dice. All the gambling ones are well realised and combined with the bar music from the piano, it gives an atmospheric edge. Of course if you scared off/killed him beforehand, there wouldn’t be any music. As for the horseshoes and duels, they’re minor time wasters that don’t add a lot to the package. There are the conventional race missions and not so conventional bounty hunting missions which have a similar pattern to them, but are done at one’s own pace.

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All of these additional extras give a long single player campaign, but there is a lot going for the games online multiplayer modes too. There are typical rank up perk systems as made popular in certain first person shooters of late and plenty of rather diverse game modes, including free DLC co-operative missions for up to four players at a time. Of course this isn’t what most people will be doing. Instead they will be taking advantage of the free roam mode. Think of this as a multiplayer hub where a medium sized capacity have the entire game world at their disposal. Within there are places where one can round up an entire posse of mavericks and gunslingers. This is all accompanied with probably the fullest announcer in gaming though, and the AI is a little on the unforgiving side at times. There are little online challenges accessed via this mode where you compete with a friend to shoot ad many of the bad guys down as possible. Your experience with the multiplayer mode will be different to mine, but one similarity is that some jerk will pursue you for hours on end until you join another server; or just grab a friend to join in on the revenge.

For me, this came out of nowhere as I had little faith in games that feature a Western environment, but Red Dead Redemption is by far one of the more enjoyable experiences of last year. It showcases just how powerful Rockstar’s engine really is compared to how Grand Theft Auto IV handled the tech. Instead of making certain cars have their own traits; Red Dead Redemption uses it to not only create its own ecosystem, but also make characters believable, the Wild West a large playground, and give the online component something to shout about. If you can find this for a bargain, it is a steal! This may even be the game that turns those who are against Rockstar’s gang violence because there is a more distinct line between real life and fantasy. This is probably the best way of playing out boyhood dreams of life in the Wild West, if a little more grizzly than mounting a mop and pretending it’s a horse.

 

DLC

 

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare (Xbox360/PS3) Review

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Red Dead Redemption, despite it being released in the summer was one of the most polished games of last year. Numerous packs have been released for it that improve the online side, but it hasn’t received the GTA IV treatment of a competent single player campaign that is separate from the main game. It seems though that the team has decided to use internet logic on this issue. “Anything, no matter how good it was before, can be improved with the inclusion of zombies.” So with an appropriately Halloween release date and filled to the brim with undead hordes; does Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare confirm that this logic is scientifically accurate?

This expansion assumes that you have done everything in the original game, so if you haven’t; the game is pretty spoiler heavy. John Marston is at home with his family on a cold wet stormy night. His uncle walks in and takes a chunk out of his son. Naturally annoyed about this, he shoots him dead and puts his son to bed. Not long afterwards, Jack breaks out and bites his mother, who turns rabid and proceeds to start snapping. Thinking at this moment that something is amiss, John secures the rest of his family in the bedroom with a steak chop to munch on, and sets out to discover a cure. It is quite frankly ridiculous, and that’s the best bit! His adventure takes him to the furthest reaches of the West, and even over the Mexican border. Along the way, he meets old friends who either meet their demise to the zombie hordes or carry on surviving. Characters such as Seth are shown in a similar light to their main game story persona, whereas others have gone crazy due to their impending doom.

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The zombies themselves are the basis for this entire adventure, and it is helpful that every mission has something to do with either decapitating them or burning graves. To kill all kinds of zombies requires head shots, which thanks to the increased Dead Eye meter is fairly easy to do en mass. You dp however need to change your play style completely when facing them. Cover is counter productive as they are very happy to run up to you rather than shoot from afar. Then we have special zombies. One initially would groan at this as Left for Dead pulled a similar stunt beforehand, and behaviourally they act similarly to then too in that we have the Spitter, Charger, and something that moves about as fast as your average Hunter. In terms of actual behaviours, the Spitter is the most interesting as its acid actually poisons you and it explodes upon shooting in the head, causing anything around it to be killed too. The other two just make it harder for you to shoot them, and this outlines a problem about of all things: originality. It would have been nice to have some new ideas crop up, rather than copy what the other guys did. It even surprise me that Rockstar did this because the conception of Red Dead Redemption was a clever and well thought out game. To cop out on such a fundemental detail is astonishing for all the wrong reasons.

One thing that they got right was the idea of having an active invasion happening. Every three game days or so, there will be a warning that a town is under attack from the horde. If you head over there and help them, then the region is declares safe and you can rest easier knowing nothing will happen for a while. Leave it too long though and the zombies will overrun the town. It is an intriguing mechanic, but one wonders about the methodology behind the three day cycle. The undead wouldn’t need to regroup, and others should know what a zombie looks like; so how do zombies come in waves? There are lots of other side missions, including finding lost survivors and returning them to the fort where you got the mission, and little side challenges where it ranges from finding treasure to finding the four horses of the apocalypse. All these details add hours to the package; and robust new zombie themed online modes also help by pitting gunslingers in a town they have to defend from the zombies.

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For the price online, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare is a fantastically conceived but nowhere near perfect DLC package. The change in pace, combined with the silly plot and amount of hidden extras is a joy to see. It would have been perfect if they hadn’t copied off Valve for their zombie ideas though. I hate feeling like a teacher, but as plagiarism downgrades marks for exams, I have no choice but to give this effort a C-.

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