Well the something old is not going to be that old at all. And the something new is.... well, older than the old. But whatever. Time is a relative construct and as far as where I am standing, the something new is something that I have owned since Saturday the 2nd October.
I speak of Halo ODST.
And the something old, I mentioned at the end of my first blog, is Red Dead Redemption.
Lets start with the old first. As I said in my last post, RDR is the only game I bought this year that was a new release when I grabbed the box off the shelf. I think it had been out for like 3 days at the most before I dragged it home and crammed the disk into the XBox 360. All I had seen were the trailers on Gamespot and on XBox live, and read the articles in the OXM mag. And I saw all I wanted to see. That magical Rockstar games logo. Birth givers to the GTA series of games that have only gotten better with age since the humble beginnings on the Playstation with their top-down car jacking antics.
So, GTA in the wild west? Well, actually, yes. One would think that the change of venue and time period would make such a claim hard to live to by default. But when you stop to think about it the antics in GTA were always more like the wild west in modern times anyway. But I guess anyone could bang on for a while about the social conditions of a life of crime showing parallels back to god knows how far in history. A life of crime is a life of crime at the end of the day.
So onto the gaming itself. Well, needless to say, I loaded the game and lost a whole day to it. This is always a good sign. The kind of game that kills your social life completely for weeks at a time. The house becomes a mess, the dishes begin to rot on the draining board and there you are skinning your 18th wild boar somewhere near the McFarlain Ranch for another level of hunting skill. Really, the fusing of little side interests (as opposed to mini-games, which are somewhat different, but also present in RDR) is something that can make a game stand out. And it is something Rockstar does very well. Some might argue too well, looking back at the likes of GTA San Andreas where people found entirely too much to do. By contrast, GTA IV has a fair bit less but what there is left is deeper and this is where they have matured the process and applied it to RDR. And, of course, there is the almost obligatory tie in with the XBox achievement system, where by collecting 10 Prairie Poppies will earn the player something like 5 gamer score points to their heaving or minuscule total.
Still, you have the options of chilling between bounties with a hand of Texas hold em, downing a random drink like whiskey or rum at the bar after boring a hole in some cocky shmuck's face on the thoroughfare to take the edge off, or trying to sneak into the back door of a bank to crack the safe instead of riding off to that important mission where you save some fat con merchant selling snake oil to the good folks of Rathskeller Fork.
Yes, there comes a little issue with the more open world games like this with the free roaming format between main missions. Sooner or later you reach the stage where a mission you just did leaves the story with a sense of urgency to the next mission, but you have time to gather your stuff and wander around between them. For a game based on a deep storyline this creates a real impulse to press on and keep going until you leave things in a calm enough state to go beat a table full of Mexican rebels at liar's dice. So why put in all the extras between missions if you are going to postpone the hanging of an abducted rancher's daughter for as long as you will it to collect wild flowers? It is all about how frequent this happens in the storyline, I guess. And RDR pulls off a balance where the story itself seems to pause and lose urgency and your running from one corner of the wilderness to the next to find a buried bar of gold does not seem as immersion breaking. And, if a story is suitably immersive then the player is compelled to continue the story missions rather than linger too long at the bar, or get sidetracked by the hunting skill system demanding you gather a bunch of rabbit skins.
I have also played other games that did not pull this off as well, such as the first Mass Effect where the storyline was this mad dash to save the galaxy with emphasis on no time to be wasted, but you could choose to wander between missions and explore some planets a little more tagging ore deposits and hacking old technology only to be given a gun tat was worse than the ones you already had.. Overall that part of the game seemed like a tacky and bolted on afterthought with very little to actually do anyway so there was not so much motivation to press through the storyline as there was little else to do. In retrospect, ME would have been better as a simple on-the-rails shooter game, like Gears of War or Halo, to match the constant fast pace of the whole story.
Back to RDR though, and I will say that some stuff was pretty annoying, such as the controls. If you will notice a theme on my future posts where I come to the downside of any game, it will usually start or end with the control system. I find myself frequently let down by the controls of many a good game and it seems like the proverbial skidmark on the fresh britches of a game. Some are destined to get it wrong constantly. Overall Rockstar has a good track record with controls, and the only real issues come when the character you control has some strange behaviour in certain situations that usually always crop up when you are trying not to die while making sure that others around you shake hands with the devil instead.
The times I have found myself unable to jump on the blasted horse or make it turn when I want to and lose speed as it skids to a halt by the edge of a sharp drop in the terrain. Or when I have tried to shoot from horseback and suddenly the camera locks onto the wrong enemy that is right behind me instead.
Also, there is a constant rolling tutorial when you encounter something new and it will show you how to play the game again. The only trouble is that it is on a live timer so you have to read really fast, absorb the information and apply it or face death or failure or simple confusion. For the most part I absorbed quickly with one exception. The duelling system. I still am not entirely sure how it works or what effect I have on the outcome and while at first I won most duels, some I could not win no matter what I did. Though a couple of them I found out why after doing some digging and it was less to do with my understanding of the duel system and more a limited option tat was available to me.
This maybe a little spoiler but both duels are on a side quest so I guess you can go ahead and read otherwise skip ahead to the next paragraph. Basically one duel involves you teaching some hot shot actor a lesson who thinks he is now some kind of legend of the west. His producer wants you to go talk some sense into him. Instead he challenges you to a duel and naturally you know that killing him might be a bad idea so you avoid the shots anywhere that could kill. However I like to think that games are moving past the scripted requirements and shoot to kill anyway thinking I might just fail the quest when I tell the producer he is dead. But no..... you lose the whole game. Over a side quest... So I second guess the options available to me and aim for the gun this time and shoot to disarm thinking this display of marksmanship will make Mr Legend shit a square brick and get back behind the camera once more after washing his nickers. But instead, no matter how I do, I get shot and die. It was getting frustrating until I resorted to a community wiki for RDR and read the walkthrough where it seems I am not the only one to be infuriated by this lack of choice in the matter and it clears it up that the only way to work it is to shoot him in the arm. Duh! I figured that wounding him would not be a good idea as people like their actors capable of acting without bleeding on their costumes. But I guess I was wrong. But why oh why could I not jut get the same outcome by shooting the gun out of his hand like I do many of the usual suspects in the towns? The same specific requirements are applied to another duel where you have to talk a rich guy into looking after his mistress who is now pregnant and kicked out by the wife. He too wants to shoot you for presuming to get involved and of course I don't want to kill this poor sap. But it seems the only way to win is to kill him and anything less will not do. There is a reason I won't go into, so lets just say the next encounter on this little side mission requires he be dead. Whatever happened to alternate outcomes for different moral choices? Guess I have been expecting too much from having played the likes of Fallout 3 and such.
Still, with few other complaints I felt the game was worth every penny. The horses are animated wonderfully, the gun play is awesome and satisfying, the story is pretty compelling (if loaded a little with too many obvious bad guys and bastards) and it does justice to the wild west without resorting to gimmicks and dramatisations present in Hollywood. It has a dirty feel to the muddy frontier, and a walk in the woods will earn you a savage mauling from a pack of wolves if you're not careful.
One final note though, and it is one of slight disappointment, with the whole hunting side quests. I fully expected to be able to use some of the stuff I gathered and apply them to actual survival in the wilderness. You collect desert sage and fever few and the descriptions talk about making teas with them for fight off infections. There are snakes that will bite you or your horse. You can cam under the stars or on a stormy night and here I have all these furs to keep the protagonist warm. And a bucket full of chops of meat rated in quality. But the only thing I can do with them is to sell them. It seems like a missed opportunity on Rockstar's behalf but maybe speaks of most games created under the economic troubles where studios were downsizing or getting rid of production houses and developments were being cut short. RDR was one of these victims, being released earlier than predicted due to a drop in funding and the need to exploit the game right now for the cash they could milk from it.
It is still an awesome game though. Should I give it a rating? Am I going to start rating some games on a percentage scale or one to five stars? No. But the game did sit at the top of Gamespot's chart for a couple of months as the editor's choice. And this is a game that earned that, and was not paid for under the table in advance like other games have been. So as I said, it is an awesome game.
And that's all for now.... what? Halo ODST? Oh I won't be covering that in this blog. Sorry, did I make it sound like I would? Well, I was going to but this one has hammered on for quite long enough I think so I will save Halo's last outing for another day.