Hands-On: Red Dead Redemption

I stood in line for more than an hour to preview Red Dead Redemption. And this was during the “press only” access period on Saturday morning at PAX East. My feet were tired and my bag was loaded with notebooks, hats and tee-shirts that were given to me as consolation for having to stand around so long. I didn’t mind. Red Dead Redemption has looked awesome ever since previews began showing up and I just couldn’t stop watching the Gameplay trailer that shouted above my head at Rockstar’s elaborate, front-and-center booth. I enjoyed seeing protagonist John Marston shoot an outlaw in the leg, watching the man crumple over and then get hogtied and placed on the back of a horse. I loved seeing the varied landscapes, the desert, the mountains, the border towns. This had the looks of an epic world and I couldn’t wait to try my hands at it in anticipation of its May release date.

Finally, when I could barely stand on my own two feet anymore from exhaustion I was led into the booth and met up with a Rockstar rep. Seizing hold of the Xbox 360 controller the rep showed me a few of the basic controls and invited me to get the hang of riding my horse (who can always be called back if I wander away from him with a simple push of the “up” button on the d-pad) through the desert countryside of the preview build. The riding, to be honest, takes a moment or two to get accustomed to. It requires a constant tapping of the “A” button to keep your horse moving quickly and if you keep pounding on that “A” button for too long the horse will try to buck you. Luckily, there’s a meter on the side of your in-game map that is unobtrusive and offers a way to keep tabs on whether you’ve pushed your horse too hard. Once I got the hang of keeping my horse moving, the experience was exhilarating. My horse moved fluidly across the landscape and I found myself encountering wild animals, other travelers, and tall cliffs, which my horse was smart enough to avoid jumping off of despite my efforts to kill both of us.

The landscape was stunningly large. Cacti repeated themselves in the distance, rolling hills collapsed on the skyline and the Rockstar rep told me that I could travel everywhere within my sight. So, I wandered for a while, taking in the sights of the desert landscape and making some time to smile and enjoy the experience. Red Dead Redemption was developed using the RAGE engine, Rockstar’s proprietary engine that was built specifically for GTA IV. Like that game, Red Dead Redemption features a stunning amount of detail and it’s fantastic to see how the game’s engine was able to translate from tall buildings and a cityscape to mountains, desert and grand landscapes.

Once I had finished exploring the landscape I cut into action. The Rockstar rep led me into a cemetery just on the outskirts of a small town above which stood a lonely, abandoned mansion. In the cemetery I came across one of the game’s numerous vagabonds, Seth, who was robbing a grave. Catching him red-handed, he soon got around to asking me to help him recover treasure from a mansion high above a ghost town.

We headed towards the mansion and soon encountered a group of outlaws who were after the same treasure. Funny, that. Together, we fought off the outlaws which was an entertaining experience enhanced by the game’s superior controls. Getting into cover was simple and I was able to pick off enemies with a large variety of weapons: a rifle, a shotgun, a pistol and for close range encounters a knife and a lasso.

In addition to firing at regular speed, John Marston has the ability to use a “dead eye” ability in which time slows down and he can “paint” targets. When time picks up again, Marston will fire off successive shots, taking out numerous targets in quick succession.

I was stunned by the excellent physics of the game. I shot an enemy in the arm and he dropped his weapon. I hit an enemy in the leg and he stumbled forward and tried to stand up again with no luck. I hit another enemy in the head and he fell, never to get up again. I can’t stress enough how cool the physics were as well as how accurate the bullets I shot were. In many games, hitting an enemy isn’t a science, it’s more like blind luck. In Red Dead Redemption I felt confident that if I aimed at a part of an enemies body I would hit that exact body part. It was invigorating and pleasing to see such realistic human behavior and to know that my shots always counted and wouldn’t mysteriously miss.

I busted into the basement of the mansion eventually and fought my way through with my shotgun and rifle. I blew up a lantern and watched the fire spread. I shot a bad guy through a crack in a wall and eventually stormed upstairs and took out a few more baddies with deadly efficiency before arriving at the treasure chest, whereupon the Rockstar rep kindly ended my demo before I was treated to “plot details.”

The time I spent with the game was far, far too short. The game world is so vibrant, huge and beautiful that I just want to spend a few hours exploring its nooks and crannies. However, my hour-plus spent waiting in line was definitely worth the fifteen minutes I had to experience the title. The preview may have been short on length, but it offered an eyeful of gorgeous landscapes and action-packed shootouts. I’m looking forward to the full release of the game in May. It’s shaping up to be one of the best titles of 2010.