Think back just a second to April 2008.
At the end of that month, we witnessed the largest grossing entertainment release in history. A project so complicated it took hundreds of people nearly half a decade to complete. Over five hundred million dollars was spent by consumers for the privilege of seeing it in the first week alone, and we're not talking about a new Star Wars movie, or a film about a sinking boat. It was Grand Theft Auto IV that smashed records and showed people just what was possible with a massive budget and a virtually limitless imagination.
Rockstar, never ones to rest on their laurels, have decided to revisit the Red Dead franchise through the medium of their RAGE engine, which provided gamers with a previously unseen level of detail in Grand Theft Auto IV and Midnight Club Los Angeles. If you thought GTA IV was massive in scope, Redemption promises to be even larger, with a game world drawn heavily on the Old West geography of Mexico, Arizona and Texas, although place names are fictitious in keeping with the Rockstar mentality of providing real environments that include fun game design.
The original Red Dead Revolver probably couldn't be described as the pinnacle of Western games. It can't even really be adequately compared to a buttress, or indeed any other roof-related architecture. But that's to be expected - Westerns are comparatively rare in the video game world, and present game designers with a number of challenges that can be difficult to address.
Transportation is just one of these. I don't know about anyone else, but I've never seen a horse in a Western game that actually looked and moved like a horse. It must be a terribly complicated thing to animate, not only do you have four legs and three types of forward movement, some poor developer is going to have to tape sensors all over it and persuade it to run on a treadmill, all the while knowing that this animal would be just as content to kick you as soon as look at you. I'm not sure how many developers lives were lost in the construction of the equine assets in Redemption, but finally, horses actually look and move like horses should. Assisting greatly here is the Euphoria animation software that makes each subtle movement of the animal perfectly in tune with the terrain - from hunching forward to climb hills, to rearing up on hindquarters at the mere suggestion of a picturesque cliché-laden sunrise.
Our demonstration by Rockstar consisted of a leisurely stroll between the towns of Tumbleweed and Armadillo, with a suitably nonplussed horse providing the forward momentum. The sun, shining firmly at high noon upon departure, was starting to set by the time we reached our destination, showing off the full day/night cycle and some impressive particle lighting effects that caused the red sand of the desert to project subtle auburn hues throughout an otherwise abandoned saloon. Although a lot of the game NPC's were absent in this build, we were promised that saloons will feature bustling crowds of card players, habitual drunks and promiscuous harlots, so those of you who have ever visited Hastings after dark will feel right at home.
Although we survived the trip, our experience wasn't without event. Winding our way over dusty knolls and rabbit trails we encountered what Rockstar referred to as random events. These encounters ranged from trotting past a small camp-site containing a bedraggled occupant imploring you for assistance, to witnessing a wanted man running from and eventually being shot down by Sheriff's deputies. These events appear to make up the bulk of the activities in the frontier land between townships, and I suspect the type, duration and frequency of these will determine just how successful Rockstar's time in the West will be. Still, seeing a posse of gun-toting outlaws hauling a body on a rope behind a horse is not something to be sniffed at.
It's not just the human component you need to worry about either - there's wildlife in them there hills. Specifically, wildlife that pictures you as a rather tasty appetiser. If the cougars and snakes don't get you, the vultures will follow you around until they do. Even the rabbits have a sinister pace; they will flit across the trail in front of your horse almost as if they're deliberately attempting to dismount you, presumably so they can then gnaw the ears off your unconscious body. I'm not kidding, everything you interact with that shows signs of life is probably thinking of a way to end yours.
Fortunately, you don't just have to rely on your own shooting abilities - Rockstar have included the "Dead Eye" aiming mechanic designed to speed up the action and provide cinematic relief in one fell swoop. This is essentially the same concept as found in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood whereby you enter a heightened state that allows you to mark groups of enemies, then despatch them in one quick hail of rapid fire from whatever weapon you have equipped. Naturally, this is particularly useful during confrontations with three or more enemies, and it's hugely entertaining to fire off a volley and watch the bullets find their mark, as enemies will realistically grasp their wounds and slump to the ground.
One of the missions shown required us to ride aboard a stagecoach and protect its contents from bandits. As the bandits were on horseback and we suffered from a movement and speed penalty, it became necessary to either aim accurately for the bandits, or simply shoot the horses out from underneath them. The latter option was employed judiciously, with the resulting bandits thrown to the ground and almost certainly killed themselves. To all the horse lovers out there - before your indignation level implores you to furiously tap out a poorly worded letter of complaint to Rockstar, just remember, they're just lines of code in a game and not at all real. They probably only had to shoot half a dozen real horses to get the death animations right at the studio.
Rockstar has rolled the clock forward to around 1905-1910 for the setting of Redemption. This is relatively late in the Western genre; most of the pivotal events of the Wild West were due to the rapid expansion in the wake of the Transcontinental Railroad, gold discoveries in the South West, and the political and social upheaval of the Civil War. By 1905 however, America was most definitely the United States, so Rockstar may have a challenge on their hands to reconcile the expectation of an adoring public with the reality of a Roosevelt-run America that was rapidly changing from a loose patchwork of self-governing states to an industrial, economic, and federal powerhouse. But hey, at least the guns will be accurate and the trains will run on time.
Not much is known at this time about the protagonist James Marston, other than that he has rescinded his outlawry and is about to be drafted to the Bureau of Investigation (it wouldn't become the FBI until 1935). We can probably expect the same kind of complex, emotive narrative displayed by Rockstar's excellent writing team from GTA IV, and it seems likely that questionable hygiene, extensive use of leather and long conversational pauses will feature strongly. We can but hope.
Rockstar has a rare opportunity to create the genre-defining Western title for the conceivable future. If they can keep up the level of detail we've seen with this brief demo, the future of the West looks to be in good hands indeed.
Our thanks to Rockstar for the opportunity to take a look at Redemption. The game has a release window of October 2009 to April 2010, and is being developed for Xbox 360 and PS3.