Red Dead Redemption Hands On: So I Want To Be A Cowboy

My eyes squinting as the sun rises over the harsh desert landscape, it’s time to pack up the campsite and mount up. I kick dust over the smouldering fire, holster my six shooter and get ready to take on the Wild West. I’m playing some early code of Red Dead Redemption, and I’m wishing I were a real cowboy...

It’s all the same, only the names will change

Set in the early 1900s as America goes through a time of huge social upheaval, Rockstar’s upcoming open world game Red Dead Redemption is spectacularly gripping. It was a time when the good guys were bad guys and the bad guys could be good guys, when government was beginning to take greater control in regulating the frontier and the world was changing as industry began to revolutionise daily life.

As you gaze out, mounted on your horse and observe the dusty world as it stretches out before you, you realise this is not just Grand Theft Auto set in the Wild West. After all, there are no real cities - just shanty towns, remote houses and miles of wilderness in between. The sun rises and sets as you make your way through a world of fictional characters and fictional towns, as the weather dynamically changes from a beautiful sunset to vicious storms that leave you desperately wanting to find shelter. The level of detail - even in the early code of the game the guys at Rockstar let me have a play with - gave the impression that the game world and early 1900s frontier America wouldn’t be too different.

Everyday, it seems we’re wasting away

There’s only so much time you can ride your horse along dusty trails, watching the spectacular vista of rock formations and tumbleweeds drifting past a field of cactus. Being an open world game where most of the landscape is, well, open, could be a sure-fire recipe to boredom. Fortunately, Red Dead Redemption is full of really clever ways to keep you interested.

The biggest, and probably most important, are the NPC interactions. As you ride along the path, you’ll encounter random situations, like a criminal about to be shot, or a woman being chased by a herd of wolves, or simply some cowboys galloping past. And you can choose to interact with them or not in any way you see fit. You can save the criminal by killing the lawmen, or you can save the cops a bullet by doing their work for them. Each action (or sometimes inaction) plays a part in your characters progression.

Another place where the faces are so cold

The way your character is viewed by non-playing characters is managed through a combination of honour and fame, with your actions throughout the game influencing both metrics. Take down a wanted criminal by using your lasso and capturing him alive and your honour and fame meters will both grow in the positive. Kill a coach full of innocent civilians, and your honour will decrease, but your fame might rise.

As your character grows, NPCs will interact with you differently, perhaps offering discounts in stores, or challenging you to a dual.

I'd drive all night just to get back home

Imagine every Western ever made, and what do you see? Dusty towns, wide open spaces, gunslingers drinking and gambling at a local bar. Ladies travelling around in stage coaches. Steam trains. Red Dead has got them all, and they all look spectacular. And you can enjoy them all. One action sequence shown by Rockstar has you driving a stage coach full of TNT into a fort controlled by the Mexican army. Another has you drinking in a bar. You can generally bust your way into buildings, making it a truly “open” open-world game.

I'm a cowboy

You play as John Marston, an outlaw trying to make a proper life for himself after a heist gone wrong. You have a wife and child, and have left the criminal life behind you... At least until a couple of real nasty guys working for the government take your family hostage until such times you hunt down the other members of your old gang.

The story is still a pretty close kept secret in terms of details, but one thing that stands out is the voice acting - even in the early versions I saw and played, John Marston has the perfect cowboy voice. It also sounds insanely familiar, but I can’t place it and Rockstar won’t tell me...

On a steel horse I ride

It wouldn’t be a western if it didn’t involve horses, and lots of them. At any time, you can whistle for your horse and have it come running to your side, ready for you to jump on and ride away. Although horses are just another animal in the RDR universe, which means they can be killed from underneath you. Just like GTA, you can hijack a man’s horse - and sometimes they’ll even be hijacked from under you. Sometimes, you’ll need a new steed, and all that will be available is a donkey.

But you can also upgrade your horse by capturing and breaking a wild horse, herds of which roam the wild. Sure, they’ll try and kick you off, but successfully breaking in a superior horse means better stamina and speed, which can mean life and death in some situations.

I'm Wanted: Dead or Alive

Break the law, and the law will break you. Or try to, in any case. If you’re caught committing a felony, you’ll get a wanted level. It won’t go away either, and the more crimes you commit, the higher the bounty on your head. Get it high enough, and gangs of vigilantes will come hunting you, day and night, until you either pay off your debt to society or you gain a full pardon for doing something really good.

If you do develop a wanted level and gangs are hunting you, you can escape them temporarily by running. You can also aide your criminal intentions by buying and wearing a bandanna during your criminal activities, which decreases the chances of being caught significantly.

Other nice touches include only getting a wanted level for crime if you’re witnessed – after accidentally shooting an innocent horserider, his partner rode to the nearest town to inform the authorities. Had I shot his partner down, nobody would have known I was a cold blooded murderer.

Sometimes I sleep, sometimes it's not for days

Multiplayer free mode is a sure-fire recipe for long, sleepless nights. As the in game clock cycles from day to night and back again, you and your friends will be able to roam throughout the entire game world, either shooting each other to smithereens, or forming posses, and travelling the world to hunt, take down gang hideouts or search for rare herbs to access new areas of the map.

Each of your actions in free mode earn you XP, which helps you level up like an RPG, the benefits of which include being able to upgrade your horse and weapons as well as unlocking new challenges.

And the people I meet always go their separate ways

Red Dead Redemption is the game Rockstar made their impressive Rage physics engine for. While it was impressive in GTA IV, the company has tweaked, fiddled and improved its performance for Red Dead. And coupled with the Euphoria character engine, the end result is realistic reactions from characters both physically and virtually. The combination means that the same scene will always be ever so slightly different, no matter how many times you play it.

It also allows for some pretty awesome sharp shooting challenges and reactions - shooting a pistol out of an enemy’s hand is the Red Dead equivalent to saying “Pwned”.

Sometimes you tell the day by the bottle that you drink

While still a far cry from being an RPG, Red Dead does place a lot more importance on the use of items. Bandanas for improving your criminal activities, upgraded campsites and booze are all purchasable, while you can sell items you come across during your travels, either from your hunting escapades, treasure hunting experiences or stuff you just happen to stumble across.

And times when you're alone all you do is think

After a shootout, look up at the sky and watch as the vultures start circling above, shoot one down and it’ll launch into a sharp shooter mode, which will help your character level up.

I walk these streets, a loaded six string on my back

The weapons in the game are actually modelled on the weapons from the early 1900s, which adds that extra level of authenticity Rockstar does so well. There’s a huge variety of firearms, including pistols, rifles, early sniper rifles, sawn-off shotguns (and regular shotguns), plus your trusty lasso and hunting knife. Not that you’ll notice the intricacies of early 20th Century ballistics as you’re blowing the head off an outlaw to collect the bounty...

I play for keeps, 'cause I might not make it back

One of the key differentiators for Red Dead is the use of Dead Eye, a skill that slows down time and allows you to target enemies a lot more accurately. As you progress through the game, the skill develops – originally you can just slow down time, but eventually you paint targets on your enemies, allowing you to empty your pistol into a bad guy or headshot three approaching enemies effortlessly.

The best part about Dead Eye is that it works in multiplayer too, giving you that extra second or two to steal a kill from under an opponent's nose.

I’ve been everywhere, and I'm standing tall

Hunting down wanted criminals is a great way to earn some extra cash and fame. At police stations in various towns, the local constabulary will place wanted posters on their walls. If you want to be a bounty hunter, wander over to the wall and grab the poster - you’ll pop it in your pocket and a waypoint will be placed on your map.

You get a lot more fame and honour if you capture the leader of the gang alive with your lasso, so make sure you don’t kill him. Try shooting him in the leg and watch him try and crawl away, before you hogtie him and throw him on the back of your horse.

I've seen a million faces an I've rocked them all

If you’re after a more competitive multiplayer experience, Red Dead also has a whole series of game modes to keep you entertained. Typical shootouts, deathmatches, team deathmatches and capture the flag match types are all available, done in true western style. As each match loads, you’re given the opportunity to gain a slight advantage over your competitors in a “last man standing” shootout.

As all the players stand around in a circle, or in two lineups opposite each other, you must try and survive a bloody shootout where every player is told that they will probably die.

On top of that, there's also western-specific matches, like a free for all goldrush match where you have to collect as many bags of gold as you can and drop them off at the nearest collection point while preventing other players from doing the same.

Wanted: Dead or Alive

Despite the fact that I've only had a limited hands on session with small sections of the game, it's impossible not to be smitten with the massive scope of Red Dead Redemption. The game launches on May 21, and without a doubt is going to be one of the biggest games of the year. And it's definitely sitting comfortably at the top of my Wanted list.