Red Dead Redemption: First-Hand Preview

Rockstar gives us an early first look at its stunning, open-world wild west adventure, which unlike the Capcom-inherited original, they've built themselves from scratch.

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Red Dead Revolver was a bit of a blip for Rockstar Games, albeit the kind of "blip" most other developers would give their trigger fingers for - a stagy and stage-based third-person six-shooter hobbled by some control issues and a basic lack of imagination, every outright stroke of brilliance countered by a persistence-dependent boss fight or corridor shoot-out. The entire Western gaming genre is a bit of a blip, mind you, with only a handful of middleweight IPs (Gun and Call of Juarez being the other two) and some beyond-notorious racist porn to its name.

With Normandy's respawn-spattered beaches, the discreetly well-organised rubble of countless post-apocalyptic metropoli and, of course, the developer's own late twentieth century urban sandbox proving so popular, few would have blamed Rockstar for letting this cowboy venture slip quietly into the lore books.

The more you think about it, however, the better suited the latter days of the Wild West and those reprobates behind Grand Theft Auto IV appear. The boom-era sprawl of Liberty City, Vice City's neon boulevards and the slat-fenced residental districts of San Andreas are all alike proverbial melting pots, a-bubble with competing ethnicities, income groups, families, institutions and time periods. Though nowhere near as dense with bodies, turn-of-the-century America is a similarly liminal environment, defined by that romanticised opposition between the lawlessness of the southern and western frontiers and the slow but steady osmosis of federal authority from the north-east.

All the first game needed, perhaps, was a bit more leisure to expand on the setting's promise. Revolver was originally a Capcom game, ditched in August 2003. When Rockstar's San Diego studio snapped up the project a few months later, it found itself facing something half-complete, resistant to fundamental alteration. Weaving the threads into a definitively "Rockstar" experience was, we're told, a troublesome task.

By contrast, the sequel Red Dead Redemption sprang from a clean slate. The same can't be said of its protagonist, clench-jawed Eastwood impersonator John Marston. A notorious outlaw in his youth, Marston gave up his dastardly ways some years before the game's events, and now ekes out a homely farming existence with his wife and offspring.

If the plot had been suffered to progress in this vein we'd be looking at a rather bleached and whiskery Animal Crossing spin-off, but Fate takes one of its characteristic twists when agents of the Bureau, a distant ancestor of the modern-day FBI, arrive with what our PR shepherds inflexibly refer to as a "horrific ultimatum". We're speculating that it involves some combination of Marston's family and a dozen loaded shotguns. The ex-bandit of course capitulates to their demands, and rides off into Redemption's all-new open world on an unknown errand.

That open world is divided into three regions - the Frontier, the Plains and Mexico - which together cover a play area greater than that of GTA4, but we suspect it'll feel much, much larger thanks to the relatively sluggish but exciting means you have of getting around. Horses, it's immediately clear, are more than just vintage automobiles with the sun-roof down.

Different breeds of nag, brought vividly to life via a synergy of Rockstar San Diego's muscular RAGE engine and NaturalMotion's Euphoria procedural physics tech, have different strengths and weaknesses - some scare easier, some have more stamina, some are more intelligent. You'll find mounts tethered to fences and posts in town, but if purloining a broken charger feels cheap, the prairies are clotted with wild horse herds awaiting the carefully aimed lasso of a would-be Robert Redford.

The world that Rockstar has crafted in Redemption is pretty breathtaking. Presented with a gritty visual style, it's an incredibly immersive place, no matter how unwelcoming it can be, and a place that is always animated, no matter how sparse. Flying vultures, cacti, tumbleweed and dry vegetation are scattered around the open landscape, dirty curtains of worn-down shacks blow around in the wind, and dust endlessly puffs up from the ground. Outdoors the views and draw distance is exceptional, while interiors look ambient and authentic.

In concert with the panoramic, excitingly non-regular terrain, Redemption's take on four-legged travel promises to be just as distinctive as GTA's Hollywood driving model. In place of that well-worn vehicular dialogue between jostling highway and temptingly wide pavement, you've got a more considered but equally fractious interchange between narrow dirt tracks and slippery, speed-limiting off-road terrain. In place of on-coming traffic and a soup of pedestrians, an entire self-sustaining ecology of snakes, cacti, wild dogs, cougars and other critters, lurking in the long grass to spook your ride and send you tumbling from the saddle. Rockstar has cherry-picked real-life horse attributes for inclusion: you won't need to feed or groom your steed, but be sparing with the spurs or it'll buck you into a briar patch.

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