Unusually for Rockstar, the pre-release flow of information for Red Dead Redemption has been remarkably candid.
But then it would need to be - Red Dead represents a massive challenge, even for a developer at the peak of their game like this San Diego based studio. With Grand Theft Auto, the premise is well established. You know you'll be driving a fast car and engaging in illicit acts with women of the night, and that there's likely to be carnage on a city-wide scale in your immediate gaming future. Red Dead is such a departure from established titles it's little wonder we've been treated to trailer upon trailer, all involving clear narration and extensive gameplay.
We last previewed this title shortly before Christmas, and quickly discovered the scope of Rockstar's ambition. This time around however, after a short demonstration, we were let loose with the controller and largely left to our own devices to explore the landscape. A landscape, mind, that is staggeringly enormous. It's the largest game world Rockstar have ever created, so those familiar with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas will have an understanding of the scale involved. In addition, it's the first overwhelmingly rural world, which naturally presents a problem for the developers in keeping the player engaged with the game.
Our demonstration consisted of the protagonist, John Marston, raiding a military encampment in Mexico. In order to assist him, several AI characters were drafted into service, each able to prompt John and generally warn him of enemy activity in the area, as well as getting in a few good shots of their own. At the commencement of the firefight, John produced a scoped rifle and chipped away at the enemy located atop a ridge, many of whom fell comically over the edge after being shot, ably demonstrating the hammed-up Euphoria engine in action. Rockstar have worked hard to emulate the western movies of old, easily managing to mix fast-paced action sequences with their typical sense of humour.
The weapons on display consisted of the aforementioned (and extremely accurate) scoped rifle, along with a quick-firing pistol, a suitably powerful shotgun and a carbine rifle that realistically ran out of accuracy at range. John also had several firebombs with which to immolate the smack-talking enemy should they decide to camp behind a rock for too long, the effect of which was both hilarious and disturbing in equal measure. Fire is a real risk too - at one stage we winged an enemy, prompting him to stumble onto a patch of burning oil, at which point he caught alight and presumably had a really lousy afternoon.
The AI shows signs of clear intelligence. A worthy adversary, they'll actively flank your position and use whatever environmental objects available for cover. Fortunately, John has a pretty slick cover system himself - he's able to crouch, slide, vault over and blind fire from behind most objects. Just like GTA IV, the RAGE engine makes this easy to manage, although the cover options have been expanded to suit the rural nature of the game. In addition, if you're out of firebombs and wish to deal with a stubborn bandito who is unwilling to face you in the open, you can crawl around his hiding position and take him out at close range. This will prompt an "execution move" animation that will show John generally placing his gun at the base of the enemies chin and pulling the trigger, and vary according to (from what we could see) the type of weapon you're carrying at the time.
The hands-on session featured content from the town of Armadillo, a backwater location we visited briefly in our first look at Red Dead way back in August 2009. This time however, instead of a quick trip through town, we saddled up with the local Sheriff in order to track down outlaws accused of roughing up the good citizens frequenting the saloon. By "track down", we do of course mean "shoot on sight", and it's here that we had our first attempt at mastering the control system.
To make progress in the game world, you naturally require a horse. Pressing the up arrow on the d-pad (in the Xbox 360 version we played) will cause John to whistle for his horse, and when it comes near you can mount it by pressing Y. At this point you use the left thumbstick to steer it, the right thumbstick to change the camera angle, and the A button to regulate your speed. You can either choose to trot along at a slow pace taking in the scenery, or tap the A button quickly in succession to break into a full gallop. To slow down, the right bumper must be used, and just like a real horse, your steed doesn't exactly stop on a dime. Although initially bizarre, steering your horse quickly becomes second nature, allowing you to cover ground rapidly whilst keeping an eye on the animals stamina to prevent it from slowing of its own accord. There's even a follow facility that binds your horse to another party member, allowing you to simply hold down the A button and admire the world.
After crossing the railroad tracks, we tracked the outlaws to a shack on the outskirts of town, and proceeded to apply some instant justice in the form of high velocity lead poisoning. The final outlaw to storm out of the shack just happened to be wanted by the law, so our Rockstar representative suggested we shoot him in the leg to slow him down, and attempt to make the arrest. This was greatly assisted by the slow-motion targeting system that has an integral role during battle. By simply using the right thumbstick button, John will enter a slow-motion sequence, allowing you to use the left thumbstick to target up to six hostile targets in one go. Upon firing, your weapon will unload, striking all the targets and producing an enormously entertaining spectacle worthy of the very best Spaghetti Western.
We only needed one shot to take down our bounty, which was easily achieved, at which point the Sheriff hog-tied the prisoner and bundled him off to town leaving us to loot the ammunition and weapons from our fallen foes.
Whilst moving about the world, you will come across yellow crosses that, when activated, start an action sequence. One such we encountered featured a farmer pleading for assistance to free his kidnapped daughter and restore his occupied ranch back to him. After shooting the required number of outlaws and storming the building, we found the daughter held captive by one remaining bandit. We had a clear line of sight to take out the bandit, but left it a fraction of a second too late - by which stage the bandit had executed the daughter. We received honour points for our actions, however Rockstar assured us that had the daughter lived, we'd have received many more. Honour, after all, is important - it's what ingratiates you to the denizens of the world and convinces them to assist you where required.
Having finished the demonstration, we'd certainly have loved a lot longer to really take in the world Rockstar have created. The mighty RAGE engine has been tweaked from Grand Theft Auto IV, and it shows. From the shimmering haze over the desert vista to the glorious sunset and cloud effects, whatever voodoo Rockstar have conjured up clearly works. As we've always maintained, Red Dead looks to be one of the best titles of the year, and assuming it's packed full of missions (none of which involve bowling) there will be no shortage of punters come May 21.
Our thanks to Rockstar for the hands-on demonstration. But did you really have to shoot and skin that horse??