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Hands-on: Red Dead Redemption

Kevin Kelly

I love Westerns: Shane, Stagecoach, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, Unforgiven, Open Range. These are the immersive stories that I've always wanted to play in games. There have been some decent efforts, like Dead Man's Hand, Gun, Call of Juarez, and even Red Dead Revolver, but they all confine the player to narrow paths. What happened to the wide-open Wild West? Enter: Red Dead Redemption.

This is the largest world Rockstar has ever created. Can you quantify that? "It's big," a representative assured me.

Gallery: Red Dead Redemption | 23 Photos

The PAX East demo starts with a simple objective: meet up with a gravedigger named Seth, who needs your help, and head over to a nearby ghost town. So, I, as former outlaw John Marston, moseyed on out of the scrub brush and headed toward the graveyard, guided by the waypoint on my map, digging a spur into my horse. Giddyup!

It wasn't long before I decided to deviate from the dusty trail in search of misadventure. Misadventure in the form of animal skinning. (All of the animals in RDR are skinnable, and you can collect the skins to cash in at the furrier back in town.) I tried to creep up on a deer, but spooked it with my horse, and it quickly darted off. Several armadillos were easier target practice, and blasting buzzards triggered a "crackshot" challenge.

My first skinning experience, however, came when I shot a wild horse and took my knife to it. Marston crouched down in the frame of the screen, and I watched his knife plunge downwards, but the actual act of gore was kept just off-screen. After a few splatters of blood, the act was done and all that was left was a hideous corpse, peeled of its skin. Ewww.

I rode on past some normal folk and casually aimed my gun at one -- mostly because it's really, really hard not to shoot NPCs. As it turns out, he didn't like that much, and he pulled out his own gun and started shooting! I had to kill him to defend myself, but lost "honor" in the process.

The honor system in RDR will change what missions might be open. You can also become wanted by the law, and eventually posses will start chasing you down for the bounty on your head. Although you can ride into towns that have telegraph offices and pay off those bounties, the telegraph isn't everywhere yet.

Continuing on, I stumbled upon an overturned wagon, where a rogue treasure hunter was under fire from two outlaws who wanted his map. I could save him or aid the outlaws. I chose the third option: Shoot everyone. I got rid of the outlaws and scored a treasure map (which triggered a side mission) to investigate later.

I finally met up with Seth, who turned out to be quite cantankerous and crazy, and he led me to the ghost town, which turned out to be not so deserted. Moments after arriving, a gang of no good sons a you-know-whats opened fire on us. Luckily, I'd come prepared: rifle, shotgun, pistol, knife and lasso, which I could use to rope and pull enemies off balance. Moving in and out of cover, I began to pick them off. Activating the bullet-time "Dead Eye" ability, I was even able to disarm a target with a well-placed bullet to his gun hand.

A simple radar gave me a general sense of each bad hombre's location, as I searched in and out of the nearby buildings. Once I'd mopped up the place up, the demo was over.

Rockstar declined to provide any hints about the game's multiplayer, only teasing that it would be "surprising." I did learn that Marston will eventually have access to different outfits with bonus abilities, such as a fancy suit that increases his poker-playing ability. There are also many weapons in the game beyond the standard firearms that I was packing in the demo, which will include time period–appropriate automatics like the Mauser pistol. As for the gameworld, it features a dynamic atmospheric system with full day and night cycles, and you'll see heat shimmers, strong winds, thunderstorms and snow. The sun-blasted days are a startling contrast to the dark nights where campfires dot the desolate horizon.

Was it perfect? Not entirely. Red Dead Redemption is built on the same RAGE engine that GTA IV used and suffers from the same occasional frame rate issues that plagued that game, particularly when there is a lot happening on screen. There were slight NPC slowdowns and clunky horseback riding animations, too, which might be why the game was pushed from April to May.

Still, there's clearly a lot more of Red Dead Redemption to see, but just ambling through the wilds on horseback was enough to convince me that this is an adventure that I'll saddle up for when the game releases this May.

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