Arriving in the Expo Hall at PAX East I was shocked to see that even in the "media only" time slot that there was a substantial lineup for the Red Dead Redemption demo stations. As the day progressed the lines became even longer and wrapped completely around their huge square booth for the entire show's duration. Working with a partner I lined up early and waited (mostly) patiently for my time with the anticipated Wild West themed sandbox shooter.
Entering the fully enclosed and very spacious demo area, I counted at least eight stations playing the game and noted that demos were conducted on a one-on-one basis. My guide greeted me, escorted me to a station, and explained the game's broad overview. You are John Marston, a former outlaw and when federal agents threaten your family you are sent across the American frontier to help bring the order of law to the land. This is to be an open world experience with activities ranging from bounty hunts to gunfights to train robberies.
Excited to start as I watched the game looping in front of me I was happy to have the controller placed in front of me and told to drive. I should mention that this appeared to be the full unlocked game (not a demo level) which explains why I had to play with a Rockstar guide. Anyone familiar with the Grand Theft Auto series (or any third person action game) will be comfortable with the controls. I was able to almost instantly figure out how to walk, move, sprint, and draw my gun based on previous experiences with the genre.
As soon as I started, I was outside a small town. My guide coached me through more controls and suggested I aim my gun at someone. I did and was pleased to see realistic reactions as I aimed at various townspeople. Some cringed, some ran, and one drew their own weapon which started my first gunfight. Keeping an aim on the shifty prospector who dared to challenge my wildly swinging gun I noticed that there was a soft targeting system. The guide verified that yes, the game will put your aim in the general vicinity of the nearest hostile, but precision aiming is still up to you.
Firing at and blowing away the dastardly prospector, I was introduced to the bounty system. My bounty increased and multiple people started looking for lawmen to apprehend me. My guide then told me that there are a few ways to deal with this. You could let them go and take on the law that will arrive, chase and bribe the people so they don’t report the kill, or chase and kill them. The first witness I bribed, the next I killed, and I must have missed some because the law soon arrived and I died trying to fight all of them off.
Restarting the level, my guide touched on the honor and bounty systems. As you progress through the game you can perform good and evil actions (shooting the prospector was evil). These actions add or reduce your bounty as well as impact your honor. A good and honorable man gets more dialogue choices and reward options, but the evil notorious man experiences many more scripted events and has additional quest options. Both paths can be fun and of course you can be a Clint Eastwood style anti-hero if you choose as well – do the right thing but damn anyone who gets in your way.
Heading back and finishing off the remaining lawmen, I was instructed to get on a horse and explore a bit. I did so and the horse riding mechanic was very comfortable — you press a button to spur your horse which speeds him up (think Shadow of the Colossus), but spur him too much and he will try to buck you off. As I explored, I was drawn to the little details, animals scurry about, wild horses roam in the plains, plants and environments look realistic and flow beautifully.
Moving on, my guide mentioned that everything you see can be interacted with. Kill an armadillo and you can skin it for meat and skins. The skins can then be used to make outfits or for trades. The wild horses can be lassoed and then tamed via a minigame which I found very cool. I tried to catch a horse but didn’t quite have mastery over the controls and in any case preferred to get back to the game proper.
My guide mentioned that we could try a mission segment. This involved getting to a location where a crazy prospector acquaintance was digging through a grave. He indicated that we needed something at a house nearby; of course, en route we were attacked. This kicked us into battle mode and I chose a very efficient looking rifle as my weapon of choice. The weapons are all displayed on Marston and selected via a simple circle interface.
The soft aim assist was noticeable and welcome as was the much improved cover system when compared to GTA IV. Getting into cover has a much more Gears/Mass Effect feel and you can pull out of cover seamlessly and move to other areas. The battle was bloody, fun, and dynamic as the enemy alternatingly moved into their cover, retreated, and advanced. I noticed that when I was aggressive in my attack the enemy tended to be more defensive. My guide mentioned that each situation is different, if the AI determines you are not a huge threat they will react differently – if you miss consistently they will be more aggressive, if you hit and kill many enemies quickly they will be defensive and may even run.
Finishing up the bad guys, I grudgingly dropped the controller as I had other commitments at PAX. My guide mentioned there was much more he could show me and it was nice to see they were willing to really let me explore the game. Red Dead Redemption looks amazing, plays smoothly, and has enough gameplay hooks to please anyone. This is a title I am greatly anticipating and May 18th cannot come soon enough.