This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Red Dead Redemption.
You know, Rockstar, you don't have to keep bending over backwards to please me. When I said that all the cars in GTA IV handled like there was a fat baby attached to the steering wheel, they brought out The Lost and Damned, which centered around a motorcycle gang. But that was even worse, because characters in GTA always seem to hold onto motorbikes as loosely as possible in case they catch crotch rot from the seats. And the graphics are so murky that riding down a busy road at high speed is making a foolish wager with the quintuple somersault head injury fairy.
"All right then," said Rockstar, "here's The Ballad of Gay Tony, where every other mission is helicopter-based." But the helicopters handle worst of all! It's like you're constantly airlifting a fucking merry-go-round with a hippo on one side.
"All right then, motherfucker," says Rockstar. "Let's just set GTA a hundred years ago so you don't have to drive motorised vehicles at all. Are you happy now?" To which I reply, "my horse appears to be lodged in a wall."
Red Dead Redemption (a.k.a. Grand Theft Horse IV) is set in the last days of the Old West, when America was collectively realising how stupid everyone looked in those big, flappy trousers. Our hero, John Marston, is Niko Bellic in all but name and sexy accent: a straight-talking, cynical badass trying to escape from his evil past and who is easily distracted by minigames. John is being forced by the government to track down and kill his former gang members, who have been laughing and waving their grizzled willies in the face of law and order for too long. In return for which, John will be allowed to renew his new, simple life of farming with his wife and son - that's the "redemption" part, although I'm yet to figure out how the rest of the title comes into it: he's not dead, and the game isn't particularly red, either. But I expect Brown Alive Redemption wouldn't have sat well with Marketing.
Blue Poo Atonement uses the tried-and-tested formula: you have a big sandbox, and occasionally people's initials appear on the map when they want to talk at you in a cutscene for half an hour, then while riding somewhere for another half-hour before making you shoot some people they don't like. The lion's share of the game is spent watching a horse's arse bob up and down through an empty wilderness like a big, hairy apple on a string, as the prairie isn't as densely populated as Liberty City. Not with humans, anyway. And let me vent how frustrating it was when I stopped to hunt some pigs after riding for an hour from the last save point, only to be blind-sided and insta-killed by a mountain lion who mistook me for a small, antlerless moose in a duster coat.
What humans you do run into more often than not try to kill you, rob you, steal your horse, or challenge you to come and pick flowers with them (apparently having trouble reading the signals). The sandbox reminds me of World of Warcraft in many ways: beautiful scenery full of not much of anything, wandering monsters, the occasional resource-gathering grind quests, and all the human beings you run into want to tea-bag your corpse and call you a fag.
It's a brutal world, but not as brutal as the physics. The Euphoria engine makes me very sad, which is ironic when you think about it. I hate action games where you have to hold down a button to run, because there's no such thing as a casual firefight, where you're free to mosey nonchalantly into cover. But when you also have to tap the button to sprint, I think that's just deliberately trying to upset me. It's so easy to overshoot, you have the most tremendous difficulty walking up six-inch steps, and even turning around is arduous. I lost count of how often I'd slam into the side of a doorway, turn around, try again, and slam into the other side. It's like I'm controlling someone who's riding a fucking unicycle or (more appropriately) drunk. And when you character is drunk, it's like controlling someone who's drunk on lead-based paint. . .fired into their face with a shotgun.
The horse physics aren't much better. Most missions have you riding side-by-side with another character, and the trails are so narrow I swear those guys are trying to run me off the road, all the while blithely chatting about humanist philosophy.
And this is when the game isn't just bugging out. Sometimes NPCs will get caught in weird quantum singularities and flicker in and out of a parallel universe where men have merged with horses. Sometimes John's walk animation fails and he glides merrily around like he's on rocket skates. At one point, his love of his country got the better of him, and I had to reboot so he'd stop humping a mountain. And, of course, the classic black screen freeze-up, although that might have just been me falling asleep from all the travel time.
Control and bug issues aside, Green Spleen Submarine is, in all honesty, very absorbing. It's immersive enough that I could play for hours at a time, and when I finally did tear myself away I'd catch myself standing with my hips cocked and thumbs in my belt while waiting for the bus. I was one of the few people who enjoyed the sailing in Zelda: Wind Waker, because I like an open world to feel big. Which is not the same as simply being big. The howling prairie all around you feels a lot more epic than the tea-tray shallow behemoth of Just Cause 2.
But what annoys me is that so much of Purple Monkey Dishwasher just has no point at all! As I said, you can get drunk if you feel the controls just aren't shitty enough for your tastes. You can play cards, horseshoes, knife your finger, you can break horses, you can break kneecaps, and spending the equivalent time sitting on a cactus lassoing your own bollocks has precisely the same gameplay benefit. Most of the things you can buy are guns, which you get for free on missions anyway, and items that restore health, stamina, and bullet-time, all of which regenerate by themselves!
So money is pointless, and so is anything you can do to make money. Bounty hunting is done solely for the exercise, picking flowers is done solely to emasculate yourself, and hunting animals is done solely to exact petty revenge on mountain lions. It's all done for it's own sake, which may itself be the point - to give us a magical playground unfettered by gameplay obligations. But I thought the "game" part of the term "video game" kind of implied that gameplay obligations were what I wanted!
So just going through the missions, you can expect about ten to fifteen hours. Which is still a nice, robust length, but you'll breeze through like a prune and laxative sandwich. It's a game that never takes off the training wheels. Your gun auto-aims like your fussy mum is holding the barrel. And your bullet-time might as well be unlimited. And horseback chases lack the intensity of car chases, when the maximum speed wouldn't startle a nervous fawn (which is, incidentally, about the most hazardous thing that might get in your way).
In summarily, Red Dead Redemption is a beautiful looking, beautifully written, beautifully atmospheric timesink. And if a timesink is all you want, then Christmas has come early. . .on a glitchy horse that's stuck in a wall.
Loves the great taste of horse: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
What is it about the dogs in Red Dead Redemption that really, really makes me want to shoot them
My horse's name was Douglas Cloppy