Red Dead Redemption – the open range

Yesterday, we brought you the details (opens in new tab)of three and a half missions we undertook in our first hands-on with Red Dead Redemption. However, while slaughtering criminals, would-be rapists and hapless miners as outlaw-turned-bounty hunter John Marston was impressive, it was far from the most ambitious thing the game attempts. Determined to keep RDR and its massive swathes of wilderness from falling prey to complaints of emptiness, developer Rockstar San Diego has taken pains to cram what would otherwise be miles of empty countryside with plenty of interesting stuff to do.

Above: The prairie isn’t quite as lonesome as you might think

For starters, though, it’s worth pointing out that RDR’s wilderness – and nearly everything in it – is beautifully detailed. In general, the visuals are a steep cut above Grand Theft Auto IV’s, and the PR reps showing us the game were careful to point out little things, like the way the muscles on Marston’s horse visibly flex and ripple beneath its skin while it walks, or the little dust devils that occasionally kick up across the dirt. We also got a glimpse of the various weather conditions you’ll run into, which range from clear skies to thick mist and wind, and even heavy rainstorms complete with realistic thunder and lightning, which looked especially pretty late at night on a 1080p open plain.

Between missions, we were encouraged to wander around and experiment with the world, which – for what’s supposed to be a sleepy landscape filled with scrub brush – was actually pretty well-trafficked. We seldom went more than a minute without running into other people on horseback, most of whom just went about their business and ignored us. Of course, you're as free to mess with passersby as you are in any GTA game, something our colleagues demonstrated when they rode through town, lassoing hookers and dragging them out into the wilderness. In our case, we settled for taking aim at a hapless stagecoach driver, blowing a hole in him and watching as his horses bolted and his ride went out of control.

Later, we heard screamed curses and gunshots, and stumbled onto what Rockstar’s calling “campfire attacks” – random instances in which you’ll have the opportunity to rescue someone from impending death (or help their tormentors). In this case, the source of the commotion was a band of outlaws caught up in a shootout with a posse of lawmen. After ambling stupidly into their crossfire (and finding out we were playing with infinite health), we were asked via onscreen prompt to pick a side. This was a little confusing at first – each group’s colors on the minimap radar kept changing from red to blue, indicating that we could choose sides – but after a moment’s consternation, we figured out which was which, circled around behind the outlaws and started shooting them in the back, boosting our Honor score and earning us a quick reward from the lawmen.

Another campfire attack caught us unaware when we chased after a man whoran past Marston, only to turn around and realize that he was actuallybeing chased by bandits – which we then had to fight to the death.

Men with guns aren’t the only creatures that roam the badlands, though; one of the ways RDR aims to keep its wilderness lively is by populating it with seemingly random animals, all of which you’re free to hunt and kill. After one mission, we caught sight of a deer scampering around a nearby shack and decided to try our luck with a rifle. It was a lot more slippery than your average outlaw, but went down quickly once we’d lined up a decent shot, and it was then time to skin our first kill. This happened just off-camera (although you’ll still leave behind a slightly gruesome skinless deer when you’re done), and netted us some meat and a pelt to sell in the nearby town of Armadillo.

Deer aren't the only animal you can strip for parts, either. Bears, buffalo and even horses are fair game, as are raoming cougars, which we learned the hard way after a couple of them attacked us while we wandered around on foot.

Above: Some of the things you can hunt are far from defenseless

After another mission that left a bunch of massacred outlaws lying dead in the sun, we noticed the telltale shadows of vultures gliding across the ground. Just to see if we could, we took a shot at one of them, and were a little surprised when a cloud of blood flew out of it and it spiraled down to the ground. Just then, a message flashed, telling us we’d initiated a sharpshooting challenge and exhorting us to shoot down more of the carrion-feeders. Four more dead birds later, and the challenge was completed, opening up more difficult ones and giving John’s fame score – which affects how people react to him and which missions he’s offered – a little boost.

That’s the extent of our experience during the demo, but it’s far from all you can do while wandering the wilderness. RDR will feature plenty more optional, non-story-related tasks than what we saw, including side-quests for townspeople,hunting for bounties, getting drunkand pursuing assorted gambling minigames thatinclude games of horseshoes and Five Finger Fillet, a game that tasks you with rapidly matching buttons to avoid stabbing yourself in the fingers. But none of that sounds quite as interesting as the Night Watch missions, which task you with policing a town at night with the help of a guard dog. What we've seen firsthand, however, was enough to make us confident that RDR’s wilderness will be – at the very least – an active place to explore.

Jan 29, 2010

Mikel Reparaz
After graduating from college in 2000 with a BA in journalism, I worked for five years as a copy editor, page designer and videogame-review columnist at a couple of mid-sized newspapers you've never heard of. My column eventually got me a freelancing gig with GMR magazine, which folded a few months later. I was hired on full-time by GamesRadar in late 2005, and have since been paid actual money to write silly articles about lovable blobs.