This has been a banner year for open world titles for me, especially how I fell out of love with the genre last year. I've played through and enjoyed Assassin's Creed 2 along with Just Cause 2 and just finished Red Dead Redemption the other day along with the Undead Nightmare pack. For this analysis I'm just going to cover the base game of RDR as I'm working on another entry to talk about Undead Nightmare. Also note that I considered "the good, the bad and the ugly" for the prefix to the entry title but I figured it would be too easy.
RDR takes us back to the old west, as John Marston, a former gang member who has been called in to hunt his former gang in exchange for his wife and son. In standard Rockstar form this involves going on missions for a variety of locals.
To be fair the story is a step above most video game stories and I don't want to spoil it here. I'll just say that the first and last quarters of the game are the best story wise. Also I have to give credit to the ending, even though I knew something like that was going to happen I didn't expect how cinematic it truly was. The voice acting helps as well, John along with the main characters is expertly voiced.
Let's talk about the game-play as there is a lot here then just GTA with horses. Horseback riding was well done and just different enough so that you can't compare it to car driving in the GTA series. The gun play however I have some problems with. Another mainstay of Rockstar's games is a less than adequate shooting system, mainly due to the game controller.
In RDR the designers tried to mask this issue with being able to use cover, auto target to enemies' bodies and "dead eye" mode which is a more controllable take on bullet time from Max Payne. Even with these concessions I never fell in love with the gun play even though there is a variety of guns, rifles, shotguns and more. Enemies seem to be crack-shots from 30 yards away and many of the challenges throw multiple enemies coming at you from all directions. Fortunately there is a lot more to do then just shoot people in RDR.
There are a lot of side quests and mini-games available. Also as you are out in the wilderness the game may spawn random events or characters to spice things up, such as someone being attacked by wolves or a shoot-out. I think RDR has the most side content out of any past Rockstar open world title. However with that said it doesn't take care of my biggest beef with Rockstar's open world titles: interacting with the world.
My biggest complaint with Rockstar's open world games is that outside of the mission structure there is very little for the player to impact the world with. All the mini games and side quests don't mean much when there is nothing to reward the player with other then being closer to 100%. Rockstar is great at creating these huge detailed worlds to explore, but they can't seem to fill them with meaningful content.
The missions are incredibly linear with no margin for being creative. Other people have commented on how the mechanics in the missions are just a onetime deal such as stealth or hand to hand which is the same problem I've seen in the GTA series. What pisses me off more than just having linear missions is having linear missions with a pseudo choice. Some missions have parts where John can choice from one of two options such as killing someone or doing something else, however these choices do not alter the game-play or story at all. Coming off of playing Alpha Protocol where every choice matter made this even worse.
To be fair it seems like Rockstar is learning as they have two systems of rewards in RDR. First are outfits, some are just cosmetic while others offer a bonus when dealing with certain groups. It works like this; each outfit has a list of objectives to complete, such as killing certain # of animals or beating a mini game. Once you've found one of the tasks the entire list becomes visible from the pause menu and you can accomplish them in any order. Complete the entire list and the outfit is yours. This I think was a smart move by the designers, as it gives you a reason to play the mini games or go hunting.
However the second system is where I have a problem with. As you play the game and hunt, gather and do other activities you'll unlock ambient challenges. Each challenge is made up of ten ranks each with an objective related to it, such as hunt five deer. When you complete the goal you'll move up in rank and unlock the next challenge.
These challenges look good on paper but once again Rockstar has gone against the open world feel of the game with how these challenges work. My problem is that you cannot do these challenges out of order even if you are able to accomplish or start another rank in a challenge. Basically if I'm stuck at rank two of a challenge and by going on accomplish ranks three, four, and five they will not count because I didn't finish two. This goes against one of the main draws of open world games, giving the player a reason to explore and progress.
In Assassin's Creed 2 and Just Cause 2, everything that I do will progress the game in some way. For example in Just Cause 2 every building I destroy puts me one step closer to unlocking the next story mission and working towards overall game completion. In Assassin's Creed 2, every item I buy will serve as improving the villa's value and earning more money and of course working towards game completion. In RDR however the player is punish for going outside the lines if they don't do everything in the order set by the designers.
What would have been a better fit for the ambient challenges would be if once you unlock the challenge you'll get a ten item long checklist for the challenge. For each item you complete gets you a rank up in that challenge. That way the player can move up in rank any way they choose and at the same time will be constantly progressing in the game. Speaking about progression I wish there was a greater use for money in RDR. Health, ammo and dead eye usage are easily replenish-able and the majority of the guns you'll get come from missions.
With all these complaints said I still enjoyed RDR and think that this is Rockstar's best open world title since Bully. However in a year that I played Assassin's Creed 2 and Just Cause 2 which both really understood the draws of an open world game, it does put RDR into a bronze position for best open world title. Rating the games on atmosphere and storytelling would put RDR on top but an open world is about letting the player go crazy in the setting not following a linear set of directions.