Thursday, September 16, 2010

Now Playing: Red Dead Redemption

I get a lot of flack on Gaming Trend because I don’t bow before the alter of Rockstar. Here’s why—I believe they create great worlds that are fluid and alive, but absolutely do the bare minimum of quality assurance. I believe they know how to tell a basic story but have no talent for heightening dramatic tension. I believe they create unique characters and hire the perfect voice actors for them, but then let them ramble on long past the point of no return.

Yet their games routinely score in the mid to high 90’s or higher. I find myself baffled by the reviews because I play the same games as everyone else but clearly don’t believe that a game should automatically start at 90 just because it is an open world where you can go anywhere and do anything. I’m literally left feeling like the last sane man on the planet screaming at the birds over head because no one else will listen.

So here I am, screaming at the vastness of the Internet via my blog in a sort of narcissistic rage. So let’s get on with it,

Red Dead Redemption is an open world game set in the Wild West. Rockstar does score major points right off the bat by setting it in the early 1900s. The Model T has been invented, telegraph lines are everywhere, and civilization is encroaching on what’s left of the untamed frontier. John Marsten, a former outlaw, is forced by the U.S. government (the precursor to the FBI) to hunt down and eliminate the surviving members of his former gang. An unspoken question that hangs over everything is this: Will Marsten be allowed to roam free after all is said and done?

It’s a great setup, but one that immediately goes south. The villains are seldom seen, despite being talked about almost non-stop, and as such their threat is diminished right from the start. Even the head bad guy, Bill, barely registers when he finally shows up. The game instead keeps the focus on Marsten and his interactions with everyone across the plains. So right off the bat, the only driving force is the need for Marsten to expound at great length on virtually everything. And no, you can’t skip the conversations that happen while en route to a goal.

I’m from the school of thought of show don’t tell. Call it the film geek side of me, but that’s what happens in the best of films. They make do with a limited amount of exposition then show you the rest. The best video games deal with a limited amount of exposition then let you experience the rest. They don’t rattle on and on endlessly before giving you a short gun fight or a wagon race.

I referred on the GT forums to this game as a self-indulgent bullshit fest because that’s exactly what it is—a game so chockablock with words that you could choke Shakespeare on the script. I appreciate good writing, and there are several lines that soar, but writing that doesn’t know when to shut the hell up and get out of the way of the action is wasted effort.

Now, that being said, I genuinely like the world Rockstar created. I’m a huge fan of Westerns, and to say they nailed the exact look and feel of the Old West is doing a disservice. They managed to get the accuracy down to the dirt, the tumbleweeds, and the types of trees. Exploring this vast, untamed land is so much fun its ridiculous. You have a massive world to explore, and while there isn’t a whole lot going on out on the prairie, you can still find things to do. Collect plants, hunt down escaped bounties, and more. It’s all right at your fingertips and it is genuinely wonderful.

But then you want to move the plot forward, or encounter subplots, and another Rockstar-ism kicks in—the fact that everyone in the world around you is absolutely insane. I’ve yet to play a Rockstar game where there was a sane, or at least not deeply flawed, tertiary character whom you interact with. For example, one of the first subplots involves people going missing in the hills. When you finally track down the villain responsible, the guy turns out to be a cannibal.

Really? That’s the best you got, Rockstar? It couldn’t be a group of rogue Comanche or Confederates forcibly recruiting for Civil War 2? It has to be a damn cannibal? Or how about the guy who wants flowers for his wife? You know, the skeleton in the chair?

And so on.

You see what I mean? When you can do things all by yourself, the game is great. But the second you do a story or side mission-related adventure, the game goes to hell due to the sheer stupidity of what you’re experiencing. It’s a long game if you do absolutely everything (and as of this writing I’m at 98.5% complete and am going for the 100% completion achievement for no reason other than I made it this far so why not hit it big?) but the story isn’t worth the effort. Playing in the game world IS worth your effort though, so I found myself in a bit of a pickle.

I lambaste the game because so much is worthy of scorn, but the world itself is so brilliantly executed that there is a ton of fun to be had despite the flaws, bugs, glitches, and general nitpicks. I’m all in favor of chasing down wild animals, but do I need a cougar leaping out of nowhere to kill me? Nope. How about discovering buried treasure only to not be able to open the chest because I haven’t found the map in the previous chest leading me to the one I was standing over?

And so on.

Unless Rockstar makes another Western, I’m done with them. I swore off them with GTAIV, but then they hit me in the sweet spot with a Western. Never again. Until the next Western.

But I’m still puzzled by the accolades. Their games are worth noting in the mid to low 80s at best. I guess since I’m not a fan of KoolAid, I’ll remain in the dark.

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