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The One Trick Ponies of Red Dead Redemption

In addition to lots of wild horses roaming the plains of Red Dead Redemption, you will also come across a couple of one trick ponies, and their names are “Brawling” and “Stealth”

Christoph Kaindel, Blogger

December 14, 2010

6 Min Read

I know I am late to the show; I have only finished Red Dead Redemption a few days ago, and while I enjoyed it most of the time, there were also a few gripes I had with the game that were not mentioned in any of the unanimously positive reviews.

Most of the things that annoyed me – repetitive mission design, story not fitting John Marston’s character, interesting characters just vanishing from the story – were addressed in several excellent posts, for instance:

Gringos who saved Mexico

"We've got to start thinking beyond our guns, those days are closin' fast"

Game in frame

The flawed ballad of John Marston

So I will focus on a problem that I have not found mentioned elsewhere (if it was, please send me a link) and that has occurred in other Rockstar games before: next-to-useless game mechanics.

Where are the saloon brawls?

Early in the game, in the mission “You Shall Not Give False Testimony, Except for Profit” for Nigel West Dickens, John Marston has to show his shooting and fist-fighting skills. The mission is in fact a tutorial mission for the deadeye and brawling game mechanics.

But while deadeye is an essential skill in the game, brawling is never again used in a mission. Ever. Yes, there is an achievement (Fightin’ around the world) for knocking out a person in every saloon in the game, but I for one did not feel any motivation to attempt such a pointless thing.

I was quite disappointed. Most western movies have at least one big saloon brawl, smashing all the furniture, kicking guys through the windows out into the street and so on. It should have been interesting to get involved in a brawl in Red Dead Redemption; but it never happens. Saloon brawls are not even there as random events.

Why did they put a game mechanic into the game without intending to use it? RDRs brawling is simple, but quite fun. It would have been so easy to think of a few side missions for the sheriff where you had to break up a fight without killing anybody. Perhaps the Rockstar people simply can not think of missions that do not involve killing?

It was the same in GTA IV. The mission “Bleed Out” early in the game acts an an introduction to the hand to hand combat system. But here, too, you never again need to use it in the game (apart from one random friend mission, where you have to beat up a girl’s friend).

Hand to hand combat in GTA is even less useful than in RDR, as ammo is so plentiful that you will never need to take down an enemy unarmed. Saint’s Row 2, a game with a similar setting as GTA IV, at least has the “Fight Club” and “Hot Fuzz” mini games and the human shield mechanic that make hand to hand combat necessary.

Sneaking prohibited

But let’s get back to Red Dead Redemption. Later on in the game, in the mission “The Great Mexican Train Robbery”, you receive throwing knives that can be used to stealthily take out guards. This mission is an introduction to stealth; you need to steal a train, and the guards are conveniently placed so it is no challenge at all to take them all out silently. But again, this is the only stealth mission in the game.

In theory, you might be able to sneak up on people from behind and do a stealth execution with your knife, but in practice the setup of the game’s combat encounters make that impossible. I am not even sure if you can use stealth before you receive the throwing knives.

Once on a bounty hunt I did a stealth kill with my knife on a guard; despite the fact that he was out of sight from his comrades the bandits were alerted and immediately came after me. This has happened to several people and is supposed to be a problem of the bounty hunting system. To me, it is an example of a broken stealth mechanic.

This, too, has happened in a Rockstar game before. The stealth system that was used in a great way in “Manhunt” and quite useful in “The Warriors” was unnecessarily slapped onto GTA: San Andreas, a game that had an incredible number of other interesting features anyway. So there were two stealth missions in GTA:SA, as far as I remember, and absolutely no way to use stealth in any of the other missions. Simply because there were no shadows that would have allowed you to be stealthy!

Of course Rockstar games are not the only games that feature less-than-useful game mechanics – remember the log balancing in “Uncharted – Drake’s Fortune”? While walking along a fallen log you had to tilt the controller to keep your balance. That mechanic was used only in a single level in the first part of the game; I wonder why they kept it in the game at all.

Uncharted 2, by the way, is an excellent example of balanced game mechanics. Levels are constructed favoring stealth, long range or medium range combat, but generally allowing the use of different tactics according to the preferences of the player. Far Cry 2, too, allowed the player to use a wide range of combat tactics: long range bombardment, sniping, radio-controlled mines, fire, stealth, medium and close range combat.

Far Cry 2 may have been repetitive at times, but the combat was always great. I finished several assassination missions firing only a single bullet, getting in and out without being seen. That gave me a sense of achievement I never had when playing Red Dead Redemption.

RDR is a great game, but it is a control freak. It offers little flexibility in gameplay, instead it holds your hand every step of the way and forces the player to do each and every mission the way the designers want you to do it (this applies to story missions, bounty hunts and bandit hideouts are a bit different).

If you need to use the sniper rifle, the game tells you to use it. If you need to climb a wall to get into a fort, the game shows you exactly where you have to climb the wall. Sometimes you get a gatling gun or a cannon, sometimes you get to use stealth, but never out of your own choosing.

Rockstar make good games, but they need to hand control back to the player. Stealth or hand-to-hand combat mechanics should not be gimmicks that may only be used in a few missions; once introduced, they should be options the player may or may not choose to use in a variety of situations.

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