Better Red Dead? Here’s Hopin’.

rdrI’ve seen some reports that Rockstar Games (the maker of the Grand Theft Auto series) is bringing out a sequel to their Western shooter Red Dead Revolver. Unlike the original game, which was very arcadish in structure and limited in the scope of its gamespace, Red Dead Redemption will be an open world sandbox-style game, like Gun (which I loved, and was in most ways far better than RDRevolver), but hopefully with far more to do.

On the off-chance that the developers ever stumble across this entry, I’ll post the Amazon review I wrote of the original game, and maybe it’ll help steer them away from some of its weaknesses in the new game:

As a long-time fan of Westerns and good shootin’ games, for years I was stuck (tho’ the more accurate term would be “blessed”) with the PC classic OUTLAWS, from back in the day when the LucasArts logo meant consistent excellence (then, apparently, everything “Lucas” suffered karmic payback for his ham-fisted degradation of his own Star Wars movies). OUTLAWS was not only a great Western game, it’s one of the finest examples of a first person shooter action game ever produced. Epic Spaghetti Western style, rich novelistic and immersive story, exciting gameplay, raucous multiplayer with an active online community and a wealth of available mods, a musical score evoking Ennio Morricone and worth listening to all on its own (which you could do, with two full CDs of playable tracks)…magnificent.

Now, in possession of a gaming console for the first time (an Xbox 360, also magnificent), I’m getting to catch up on a lot of games I couldn’t play on PC. The latest is Red Dead Revolver, Rockstar Games’ attempt at an epic Spaghetti Western.

First, I want to say the game is a hell of a lot of fun. Its emphasis is on action, and it does action well. Some of the levels are pure adrenalin (one that springs instantly to mind in that context has you engaging hordes of enemy soldiers and cannons as you and a handful of men try to blow up a contested bridge). The weapons are satisfying to use, there’s a nice cover mechanic allowing you to snipe the bad guys from behind walls and trees and such, and the enemies have enough AI to usually not seem dim as a bush (like some virtual foes or recent world leaders).

The multiplayer is good fun, with a huge cast of gunslingers and a fair variety of locales to choose from.

The game’s graphics are overall very good, especially the environments, though the character designs are largely hideous, even clownish. OUTLAWS was done in a cartoonish style, and was many generations of graphics quality in the past, yet its character designs evoke living beings far more than Red Dead‘s do.

The worst thing graphically in the game is the bubbling cartoon gouts of gore that fountain out when you shoot somebody. They look silly, they’re not true to the genre, and they all by themselves probably gave the game its M rating. A toggle to turn them off would have been nice.

The music’s pretty good, and is largely lifted, I think, from movies. One piece I often heard and enjoyed in town is the theme from the comic Spaghetti Western They Call Me Trinity. It’s still pretty paltry in comparison to the OUTLAWS score, and it’s a shame that, choosing to use actual pieces from Western movies, they didn’t choose or didn’t have available to them better pieces (Trinity aside). Some Magnificent Seven theme, some The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, hell even some Bonanza or Wild Wild West would have been a lot more effective and a lot more fun.

The voice work is mostly terrible. It’s one of those games that sounds like the designers brought in their buddies and relatives to do voices, made even worse by the embarrassing attempts at dialect.

All the above still adds up to a pretty good game, in spite of the flaws. Heck, even with the weaknesses I cite above, the game could have still risen to greatness had it not been for its fatal flaws…

Lack of immersion. You play a bounty hunter named Red for most of the game, and he’s carved from Clint-East wood, but aside from a pretty good visual design (which is saying a lot for this game) and a laconic line delivery, you get none of the actual dimensions of an Eastwood character, or really any character at all. Red has no personality, his motivation (vengeance) is overt but muted and lacking any sense of passion or urgency. Part of this is because there are levels where you don’t play Red, playing instead one of various sidekick heroes and, in one instance, one of the villains. Playing the others is actually a good deal of fun, and some their levels are among the most enjoyable in the game (allowing for various styles of play that aren’t available as Red), but in a short game with a weakly developed protagonist, these levels put the player at even more distance from identifying with Red. Were the game twice as long, and more immersive overall, these levels would have no downside.

Another factor that dilutes immersion is the clunky use of cut-scenes within action sequences. You’ll be blazing away at a pack of scoundrels and suddenly get torn from the flow of battle by a cut scene showing what the developers must have thought a crucial story element within the battle…then you stumble back into the action, get your mojo back a bit, and another blasted cut scene will pop up. The worst level for this is the one in which you play English pistoleer Jack Swift, which could have been a pure adrenalin delight were it not for all the interruptions.

But the worst flaw in the game is what I’ll charitably call its story.

You could say Red Dead Revolver is episodic, but it’s episodic the way a game of Pac Man is episodic. The story is barely there, and the game is mostly just a series of levels putting the player in some action set piece in a tightly defined environment (no sprawling wild West to be found here, only small battlegrounds), each ending with a boss fight. As a boy, Red sees his family killed. Then, next level, he’s a man and, we soon find out, a bounty hunter, and he lands in the town of Brimstone (population: 8 or so, each citizen possessing a paragraph or so of exposition that you have to click-to-interact over and over to get each line of) where he can shop and get jobs. For a good part of the game, nothing is really said about Red being on any sort of hunt for the folks who did his folks in, he just goes on various unrelated bounty hunts, and there seems to not actually be a story. After a while, though, he gets to start going after outlaws directly connected to his (subtle) mission of vengeance, and we see that there’s a narrative of sorts here, but it’s a story the way a single black spit is a full spittoon. In other words, it ain’t. The story has no tension, Red seems pretty casual about his burning mission of vengeance, and the game plays like an action-filled arcade game. By the time you take down the big boss, you’re satisfied not because you’ve gotten Red’s revenge, or because the game really made you hate the villain, but because he was pretty tough to beat and took a few tries.

Still, as I said initially, for what it is, Red Dead Revolver is a lot of fun. Had I paid full price for it, I’d have felt mightily ripped off, but since it’s on old Xbox game you can get it for peanuts (I got it for $8), and it’s certainly worth buying for cheap or a rental. So if you have an Xbox or Xbox 360 and want a break from WW II, outer space, Tolkien rip-offs, or playing urban street trash, you might want to give it a shot.

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One comment on “Better Red Dead? Here’s Hopin’.

  1. lewispackwood says:

    Great review! The lack of immersion and pitiful story put me off this one before I’d even begun: http://101videogames.wordpress.com/2010/09/23/the-games-clearout/

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