Friday, 28 May 2010

Red Dead Redemption

Jim Kitses, in the opening pages of his influential study on the Western ‘Horizons West’, argued that the genre, one of the great American creations, was as important a creative force as the famous filmmakers – the likes of Ford, Eastwood and Peckinpah – who forged their best work within its conventions. In this respect the Western wasn’t something they transcended in the pursuit of their art, but instead a “dynamic partner”, an active canvas open to all sorts of wonderful, distinctive interpretations.

Red Dead Redemption emphatically subscribes to this theory. There are, after all, few genres whose flashpoints are as identifiable as the Western’s: the vast landscapes, the horses, duels, stagecoaches. They’re all here. By the same token there are few developers whose imprint is as recognisable as Rockstar’s: an acute understanding of the cinematic, superb writing, the baiting of moral guardians, an all-round mastery of open-world gaming. The result of their working together, Red Dead Redemption is something of an anomaly. It’s as much of a eulogy to the death of the old West as, for example, Unforgiven, whilst simultaneously standing as the most refined example yet of that most modern of mediums, the sandbox videogame.

It tells the story of John Marston, a former outlaw whose past catches up with him when federal agents – who have kidnapped his wife and child – force him to hunt down his former gang. The synopsis underlines the morally bankrupt world that Red Dead Redemption depicts so well: the government is as brutal in its tactics as the outlaws, while Marston’s only allegiance is to his family (he frequently refuses the advances of prostitutes with the assertion “I’m a married man”). It’s telling that Marston’s tale is ostensibly framed as a revenge mission, in much the same way as Niko Bellic’s journey in GTA IV (both John and Niko also begin their respective games by disembarking from ships); Rockstar’s 2008 flawed masterwork is the obvious key reference point, but these early similarities soon give way to a game that ends up doing many things just that little bit better.

The narrative is, like in GTA IV, built on simple ingredients: a witty script packed with pathos and flashes of humour, excellent voice acting and unobtrusive cut-scene direction. You only need to play last year’s Assassin’s Creed 2 for evidence as to how getting these staples wrong can lead to a less engaging experience. In comparison Red Dead Redemption is so immersive – striking a superb balance between genre cliché and presenting a world that feels genuinely fresh, in a videogaming context – that it mostly succeeds in masking the fact there is little genuine variety or innovation to the core story missions.

A lot of this success is because the setting, all glorious vistas and dusty Mexican canyons, doesn’t allow for the predictable ham-fisted parodies of a contemporary Liberty City. GTA IV had already made steps towards a greater degree of gravitas, but here in Red Dead Redemption it’s the real deal. The romantic possibilities of the landscape, coupled with a subtle score, reach beyond the surface fiction; ironic that the most gratifying open-world to date should be one so barren and realistic.

The improvements are numerous. For a start Red Dead Redemption feels like the first Rockstar sandbox title where play isn’t hindered because I’m too busy fumbling with the controls. Though by no means perfect (hand-to-hand combat is as clumsy as a drunken pub brawl, but perhaps that was the point), the cover system, targeting and slow-motion Dead Eye mechanic ensure gunfights are pacy affairs. Add in fair checkpoints, the option to replay missions (first introduced on console in GTA IV expansion Gay Tony), regenerating health and the ability to summon your horse from nearly anywhere, and Red Dead Redemption is a consummate package. It proves Rockstar are willing to learn from previous lessons, and take tips from their rivals; whether San Diego’s work here ends up being an exception to the rule remains to be seen. Strangely these changes also seem to make the game a lot easier than I expected.

There are countless ways to pass the hours outside of the main story. As well as simply wandering around the plains, chewing tobacco and skinning dogs (which is as fun as it sounds), there are myriad mini-games (poker, horseshoes) and jobs (herding cattle is almost a game in itself). The ‘strangers’ are another intelligent addition, random people dotted around the world whose missions can be completed in your own time, and who reward you with fame and honour – Red Dead Redemption’s RPG-lite system of experience – upon completion. Because these distractions are stitched into the game with the same cohesion as evidenced in the world overall, they feel less like token gestures to artificially enhance playing time, and more like genuine aspects of a rich, living and breathing community-centred life. The whole thing is a masterstroke of design.

It’s testament to Red Dead Redemption’s world that the Free Roam mode in multiplayer will likely get the most play online. Free of the frantic score-chasing aspect of the other options, Free Roam is a hub that allows you to idly traverse the entire map in a party of up to 15 players. While there’s limited mileage in the competitive modes, Free Roam has excellent potential in extending the game’s already large lifespan beyond 100% completion. Taking a lazy troll on horseback with your friends, no objectives to worry about, almost justifies Rockstar calling their online presence the Social Club.

For all its achievements in aesthetics and game structure, perhaps the most significant feature of Red Dead Redemption is the way Rockstar has invested the experience with such a sense of nostalgia and poignancy, by stripping the open-world back to an era in which the telephone is the height of technology, an era which, in all its naivety, doesn’t yet realise how fast the tide of progression and modernity will be. I started this review thinking that GTA IV was the more impressive game for its ambition and sheer scale, and it probably still is. But what the guys in San Diego have created here is arguably braver: the regular feeling of isolation and a persistent world that will linger long in the gaming consciousness. Rockstar and the Western, they make quite a team.

This review of Red Dead Redemption originally appeared, as ever, over at D+PAD Magazine: link.

This review was also used by Kotaku in one of their regular Frankenreview features.

Several comments were made, both on the original review at D+PAD and also on the Kotaku feature, over what was perceived as a harsh criticism of Assassin's Creed 2. While a fine game, I felt Ubisoft's sequel was lacking in polish when it came to the narrative's exposition, and in fairness comparisons to both Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV aren't exactly flattering to Ezio's title. That said, it could've been a lot, lot worse. Here's a truly scathing review of Assassin's Creed 2 from Destructoid; 843 comments! Just the one on this here blog would be nice.

And here's the link if you wanted to read more of Jim Kitses's study of the Western, as quoted from at the beginning of this review. In the introduction to his book Kitses also refers to the sterling writing of Cormac McCarthy, and the way in which the author of The Road and No Country For Old Men repeatedly uses the device of the Texas/Mexico border in his fiction. Something Red Dead Redemption also does to great effect.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Professor Layton And The Eternal Diva

Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, the first feature to be based on Nintendo's multi-million selling puzzle games franchise, is a far cry from the likes of the recently-released Prince of Persia, Resident Evil and other such videogame-derived films. Whereas those products of high-budget Hollywood attempt to craft new fiction from the existing properties (often incurring the wrath of devotees in the process), Layton is closer in intention to the likes of the Pokemon series (whose producer Masakazu Kubo also worked here) or the recent Halo Legends; it's very much a case of fan-service, building on the worlds and the characters already established and, in the Eternal Diva's case, actually bridging a gap between games. It's an idealistic approach - Eternal Diva is lacking in dramatic bite, despite ensuring the key audience are left feeling satisfied.

Although European gamers only have the two Layton adventures so far - Curious Village and Pandora's Box - the Eternal Diva is actually part of a prequel trilogy that has already begun in Japan with the release of Specter's Flute last November (we get the final part of the, er, modern-day trilogy when Unwound Future arrives in the Autumn). The story here concerns the legend of the ancient Kingdom of Ambrosia - not the Devon custard, but a place where it is rumoured eternal life can be granted. One of Professor Layton's ex-students called Jenis, now an opera singer, is claiming that a friend of hers who died has now reappeared - in the body of a seven year-old girl no less - having been granted eternal life. Even more confusingly, Jenis is due to sing at an opera based on research into the land of Ambrosia, to which she invites both Layton and his wide-eyed assistant Luke. The dynamic duo are unaware, but the rest of the audience aren't there for the art but rather the prospect of living forever.

It's at this point that Eternal Diva gains some momentum. A succession of puzzles, with obtuse orders such as 'Find the oldest crown', slowly reduce the party of characters until only a handful remain (the losers of one early problem are dumped cruelly into a sea of sharks in a manner that wouldn't shame the Saw franchise). Although it's a device transparent in its intention - there are many wry references to "a puzzle game", while the concepts of puzzles, rewards or death will be familiar to anyone who's ever held a joypad - the repeated structure of problem, solution and dialogue-heavy exposition isn't rewarding enough when viewed passively. In carrying across the ethos of the games, writers Level-5 (also the series developers) have misjudged the demands of cinema. So the watching audience isn't given enough information about the larger world to try and solve the puzzles ourselves (not that this stopped us from having a think), while the on-screen action fails to truly engage despite reaching an admirable level of complexity by the end.

That said Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is, despite the above criticisms, a fun and relatively entertaining watch. The Professor's frequent leaps in logic are amusing, while the unobtrusive animation (with only a minimum of stylization to the characters), is effective. In many ways Eternal Diva is an admirable film, in that it doesn't cynically exploit the series in a bid to attract new players. Far better to create a perfectly watchable film that retains the essence of the games than one which discards integrity for the mass-market. The 5 million or so people who have bought Professor Layton titles can breathe a sigh of relief; for the hardcore within them this will be near essential.

- Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is out on DVD/Blu-ray in Autumn 2010.