Last weekend, Rockstar Games provided ten fan site administrators with the opportunity to visit New York City and play Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City on PC and PlayStation 3. In addition, we were given the chance to play Rockstar's upcoming western game, Red Dead Redemption, which is scheduled for release on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on May 18, 2010. The impressions below are based on our experience of the Xbox 360 version.
In total, representatives of six GTA fan sites attended the event. Myself (adamcs), Andy, illspirit and Jevon represented The GTA Network. We spent the first half of Saturday playing Episodes from Liberty City at Rockstar’s headquarters in Manhattan. If you’ve yet to try EFLC then it’s something we strongly recommend. The episodes offer an entirely fresh way of exploring Liberty City with new missions, new vehicles, additional music and more. The episodes offer something different, so if there was a particular aspect of GTA IV you didn't like, be sure to give the episodes a try.
In the evening we headed out to Brooklyn to play Red Dead Redemption, which is being developed by Rockstar San Diego. If you've been living under a rock for the past few months, then check out the official Red Dead Redemption website to see what it's about. We spent the first couple of hours playing single player and the remainder of the event playing multiplayer.
Read our individual impressions below...
For those who aren’t already familiar with the storyline, it goes a little something like this:
John Marston, the protagonist of the game, is a former outlaw who has cleaned himself up and settled down with a family. The federal government wants Marston to track down and kill his former gang members and their leader. To ensure that he complies with their “request”, Marston’s family is being used as collateral.
This “family being held for ransom” situation acts as the trigger that fires Marston through the scattered towns of New Austin and beyond. As the game progresses, further story development and character progression is dependent entirely on the player.
Beyond John Marston, the world of Red Dead Redemption is still very much alive. Random “pedestrians” don’t exist in this game - everyone has a name, and your interactions with them will always have a consequence.
Well Read: The Research behind Red Dead Redemption
As with all Rockstar titles, insanely meticulous perfectionism is modus operandi for Redemption.
During the early stages of development, Rockstar’s research wing investigated documents ranging from the American national history archives to old Sears catalogues. The intent was to learn more about the life and times of early settlers in the west), all in order to recreate the atmosphere and culture of the era as accurately as possible.
A large amount of research was also done to add realism to wildlife aesthetics, behaviour and movement - all of which are readily apparent in the game.
When the West was Lost
In most media, the old west has traditionally been portrayed as a romantic sort of fantasy land with antihero outlaws, daring cowboys and stylish showdowns between skilled gunmen.
As one Rockstar employee described it to me, Redemption is intended to provide a different perspective - a look into how the west was lost, rather than how it was “won”. Red Dead takes place in a time when the Wild West was starting to fade away, and while it does preserve some of the classic spaghetti western moments, it puts more focus on realistically portraying the people who coped with the overwhelming changes of the early 1900’s.
Let me say this right now: Red Dead Redemption is not Grand Theft Auto in the old west.
They’re both great games that are a hell of a lot of fun to play, and yes, there are distinct similarities. But much of that can be attributed to the signature styles of Rockstar Games. Once you get past those initial observations, you’ll realize just how unique each title is.
In any case, one point needs to be understood: Red Dead Redemption is absolutely, undeniably amazing in every sense of the word. Fans of Mass Effect, Zelda, GUN, Red Dead Revolver, Shadow of the Colossus and (of course) Grand Theft Auto will all find something in this game to enjoy - there truly is something for everyone.
Major thanks to the team at Rockstar NYC for inviting us down for the weekend! It was an absolute blast, and this small-town Canadian certainly enjoyed the experience.
Red Dead Redemption is the first non-GTA title that's captured my interest for as long as I can remember. I don't try new games very often, and once I find a series I like I tend to stick to it. What draws me to Red Dead is the same thing that drew me to Grand Theft Auto in 1997 – the massive open-ended world. A lot of comparisons have been made to Grand Theft Auto, but that’s not to suggest the game is unoriginal. It’s a Rockstar game, and many of Grand Theft Auto’s key developers are involved with Red Dead Redemption, so naturally there are some basic similarities. As far as the gameplay goes, Grand Theft Auto is the most famous example of what an open-world game can offer, so with Red Dead Rockstar is simply building on what they do best. The comparisons with GTA are complimentary, and should not be interpreted as a criticism.
The most obvious similarity between Red Dead and GTA is the controls. If you are familiar with GTA then there is virtually no learning curve with Red Dead. The only thing it took us a while to get used to was the horse’s stamina meter, which appears next to the radar on the bottom left of the screen. The stamina meter is simple to control, but the hard part is remembering it’s there! When we started off, we got carried away on one or two occasions, the meter ran down and the horse threw us off.
Red Dead Redemption offers an astonishing level of freedom. The map is enormous, and although it’s difficult to provide an accurate comparison (due mainly to the fact that horses are slower than cars!) we reckon it’s at least the same size as San Andreas. Red Dead Redemption’s rural setting means that – unlike Grand Theft Auto – there are very few obstacles and exclusionary spaces. As a result, it feels less constrained than the dense urban environments provided by GTA. The only constraints which exist are those presented by the shape of the landscape. It strikes a nice balance between open plains and canyons, with plains being open and free and the canyons giving structure to missions (while still enabling a sense of discovery and exploration). In many ways, therefore, it feels more open and inviting than Grand Theft Auto.
We got the impression that Rockstar see Red Dead as the first game with a serious potential to challenge GTA, and based on what we've seen that appears like a realistic possibility.
Technically speaking, Red Dead Redemption is quite impressive. As mentioned above, the frontier setting is much more open than GTA, and the engine, RAGE, has obviously had lots of upgrades to handle the large environments. Whether riding across flat plains or looking out from atop a rocky plateau, the draw distance seems to go on forever. Another upgrade which adds to the rural setting is some sort of new procedural foliage system which provides a large variety of trees, grass and such. The new plants have physics now, so as in, say, Crysis, grass and leaves move and react as you walk through them. This should come in quite handy for finding armadillos and other small varmints scurrying around in the underbrush.
The most interesting piece of tech in the game though has to be the horses. If you've seen screens and videos of them on the internet, you already know they look great; but it's not until you actually pick up the controls that you really appreciate them. On top of the well done motion capture, it seems that they're also running a euphoria simulation which allows the horses to react realistically to riders and their surroundings. Horses have AI too, which means not only will they throw you if ridden too hard as Adam mentioned above, they're also smart enough to jump over small obstacles and stop themselves if you ride carelessly towards a cliff or into the side of a building. When you have your hands full shooting from horseback, the AI kicks up a notch to help avoid collisions and keep you on course while following (or running from) something.
And on a less technical note, I found it quite interesting that the game even lets you shoot the horses pulling a stagecoach that you're riding in. While one would have to be a really bad shot to do this on accident, it's probably something to keep in mind if you don't want to end up stopping abruptly during a wild chase. Luckily you can summon your own horse from just about anywhere, otherwise Andy and I would have had a very long walk back to town.
Further impressions can be found on each of the following GTA fan sites:
The GTA Place
Overall, it was a tremendous event and we are immensely grateful to Rockstar for making it happen. We enjoyed meeting the other GTA webmasters and look forward to hopefully meeting them again in future!
For further news and information regarding Red Dead Redemption, check out RedDead.net, which is a fan site operated by Andy and myself.