Thursday, 3 March 2011

Graphics, atmosphere, and how bad gameplay sometimes doesn't matter

I love Red Dead Redemption, but the more I think about it the more flaws I find - and, as soon as I find them, I realise that most don't matter. That's what happens when a game's environment, ethos and aesthetic are strong enough to mask gameplay that, in a lesser title, would be accused of lacking innovation and excitement.

I loved spending time in New Austin. From Marston's groggy, cattle-herding days at McFarlane Ranch to his lazy, relaxed ride back to the family farmstead after Dutch chucked himself off a cliff, eaten away, beaten by the march of time, I enjoyed New Austin more than I have virtually any game world previously.

Who couldn't enjoy a game that served up so many memorable moments? I stepped off the train into Armadillo, halting as two locals stumbled out of the local saloon. One stood swaying on the pub's porch, while another cascaded down the stairs and face-planted into the dirt. Brilliant.
Armadillo's sleepy townsfolk were occasionally interrupted by gangs rampaging through the town, guns in the air and, on one memorable occasion, an drunk assaulting a local woman. I drew my rifle and pulled the trigger just as my horse wandered into view. My second bullet dispatched the criminal; I sold my horse's skin and meat.

As New Austin gave way to Nuevo Paraiso, Red Dead kept delivering. My first tentative steps south of the border were soundtracked by the stunning Jose Gonzalez track Far Away, and I dived into the revolution, aided by aged gunslinger Landon Ricketts, with gusto.

The third portion of the game - when you return to America, and the Great Plains area dubbed West Elizabeth - was possibly my favourite. I found the landscape especially evocative; Blackwater is the largest and most developed town in the game and a poignant illustration of the game's central culture clash - cars and modernity encroaching on the West's traditional values - and the hilly, dangerous terrain of Tall Trees and Nekoti Rock provided a welcome change of pace from the parched deserts elsewhere.

These environments are designed and crafted impeccably, and they're filled with things that, when compared to script, plot, graphics, sit on the periphery of the game. The soundtrack is subtle but perfectly in tune with the environment, which is crammed with more wildlife than I care to mention; throughout my time in the game I'd constantly find new creatures making new noises.

And the hundreds of NPCs, most of whom aren't anything to do with quests, are textbook Western characters who spout textbook Western lines. Not that it's a particularly bad thing; as a huge Western fan, I have no problem with Rockstar adhering to these particular stereotypes.
Take all of this away, though, and much of Red Dead's gameplay really isn't all that. If any other game - Fable 3, which I've been playing but haven't really connected with, springs to mind - had asked me to spend several hours galloping around its countryside harvesting dozens of plants then I'd most likely ignore that and crack on with the story, because it'd be dull.

Or take the numerous tasks you're asked to complete in order to unlock Marston's full wardrobe. One asked me to win a poker game in Blackwater, so I sat down at the table and concentrated, for the best part of an hour, on a game that would never, ever win me any money. And other criteria for clothing just seemed broken: you're unable to buy relevant clothing from tailors because the only options are blanked out. I'm lead to believe that's because of different gang loyalties, so to tick those particular boxes I'd have to kill numerous NPCs until I was in favour with the right people.

Other minigames would have left similarly bad tastes if they were in other titles. Horseshoes were imprecise with no real on-screen way of gauging the shoe you were about to throw, and crime fighting missions tasked you with following a dog and apprehending the world's worst burglars, over and over again.

Some of the story missions wouldn't have passed muster in a lesser game, either. So many times I was told to ride with a character from one end of the map to another. The only thing that kept me going was riding through that scenery, hearing those characters talk, watching the train storm past or finding bandits along the way.

It just goes to show, I think, the importance of aesthetics - and how a polished, appealing and engrossing environment can mask mediocre gameplay, and make players stick with a game far longer than the gameplay would ordinarily hold their attention. After all, had I not been so wrapped up in John Marston's story, there's absolutely no way I would have tramped across the desert, searching for flowers, trinkets and side-missions.

Strangely enough, I thought of another game that had a similar affect on me, albeit more than a decade ago - Star Wars: Rebel Assault 2. Looking back, it's one of the worst titles I've ever owned, but I still played through it several times. Why? Because it was Star Wars. And I think, now that I've finished Red Dead Redemption - which incidentally, I still adore - I might get stuck into that again.

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