REVIEW: Red Dead Redemption

To say that Red Dead Redemption has been on my radar for quite some time would be failing to illustrate exactly how much I have been anticipating this game. Perhaps it is closer to the truth to say that Red Dead Redemption has stood out like an Imperial Star Destroyer amidst a cloud of conventional aircraft on my radar. If I had sonar, I’m sure it would have shown up on that too, nevermind my seismic and infrared sensors. In short, once I heard that Rockstar Games was making an open-world western title, you couldn’t have kept me away from it.

Red Dead Redemption is a sort of spiritual successor to Rockstar San Diego’s 2004 game Red Dead Revolver. Though the similarities are few. The name is obviously a shared factor, as is the publisher, developer, and general setting. But apart from that, Redemption is a very different game. While Revolver focused on somewhat more linear environments, and functioned more or less as a simple third-person shooter, Redemption is an open-world game in the style of Rockstar’s flagship Grand Theft Auto franchise. While this has prompted many people to label the game as simply “GTA with horses”, this simply isn’t so. Obviously there are going to be common factors, but Redemption goes beyond a re-skinned version of Liberty City and becomes truly special its own right.

In Redempion, you play as John Marston: an outlaw turned family man who’s been enlisted by the US Government to hunt down and kill the members of his former gang. Marston is an interesting character, simply because he’s so different from Rockstar’s usual protagonist archetype. He’s not a crude, hyper-violent, self-serving street drifter like you usually see in the GTA games. He is simultaneously more complicated and simpler than that. Marston is perhaps the first character I’ve seen from Rockstar that can be classified as truly likeable. Marston is tough when he needs to be and violent when the situation calls for it, but on the whole he has one thing that almost no other character from Rockstar does: he has manners. Marston is not a “city man” of the upper class, but he has significantly more class and style than those who are. He has personal honor, respect for those who warrant it, and love for his family. He’s just a cool sort of guy, and you’ll find yourself liking his character within the first few minutes. Plus he looks like Clint Eastwood.

While an in-game crossover with The Outlaw Josey Wales might have been
fun, it also would have been very confusing. 

The gameplay is more or less what you would expect from Rockstar. Most of the controls are the same as what we saw in GTA IV in terms of movement, interaction, etc. The differences are in the details. Riding a horse is nothing like driving a car. You can’t just hold down a button and let the thing plow through streets and civilians without a second thought. Instead, these horses actually feel like living animals. You want it to go faster? You’ve gotta spur it a little to pick up the pace. Want to go flying across the terrain at breakneck speeds? You can, but push it too far and you’ll wind up either being bucked off by your aggravated steed or you’ll find the poor beast dead from over-taxing its physical abilities. You’ve got to keep in mind that what you’re riding is an animal, not a machine. You’ll spend a good portion of the game riding from place to place, so it’s best not to be too mean to your mount.

Gunplay obviously plays a major part in the game, so you’ll be happy to hear that shooting feels solid and rewarding all the way through. Revolvers, lever-action rifles, shotguns, and even throwing knives all feel satisfying to fire, and you’ll fire them a lot. A snap-to-target style of auto aim is implemented by holding the left trigger, which can make a marksman out of anybody, but you can still free-aim at whatever you’d like (which is handy for taking out the legs of fleeing bad guys). The bullet-time-esque feature of “Deadeye targeting” returns from the first game, which allows you to slow down time to a crawl while you paint multiple targets, allowing you to string together a series of kills in the blink of an eye once you pull the trigger. Nothing makes you feel like more of a hard-boiled cowboy than fanning the hammer on your Peacemaker, blasting a crowd of outlaws before they have time to reach for their guns. Bliss.

I used that gun all the way up until the ending. Why?
Because Jayne Cobb. That’s why.

Now, I’m not usually one to go on about sound design, simply because I don’t know too much about it. So when I say something about the sound in a game it’s either going to be really bad, or really, really good. I’m happy to say that in this particular instance, it’s the latter. For starters, the voice acting is top-notch. John Marston sounds thoroughly grizzled enough to match his frontier-man exterior, and the supporting cast is just as fitting. Every character’s voice matches their apparent personality, be they a world-weary but competent lawman, a sleazy snake-oil vendor, a crazed treasure hunter, or a self-righteous revolutionary. All the voice work is wonderful, and it stands out above some of the other example of sub-par acting seen in many games.

But it doesn’t stop there. Along with the superb voice acting comes a whole plethora of outstanding sound effects. Everything just *sounds* right in this game. Rifles shots echo off canyon walls with a sharp crack, horses hooves beat a rhythmic pattern into the dirt as they gallop, piano encompasses the interior of saloons, and the calls of wild elk drift over the pine trees of forests. This is impressive stuff. And then of course there’s the soundtrack. The music in this game fits perfectly with the setting. You’ll hear plenty of great tunes as you explore this game world, and all of it is appropriate for the time and place. Fight sequences are set at a somewhat faster pace and make good use of electric guitar in a way that still manages to jive with the western locales. But most of the time you’ll be listening to the sounds of an idly plucked acoustic guitar, or the lonely sounds of a harmonica. Then when you get your first taste of a mournful, tired-sounding vocal track as you make your way into Mexico for the first time, you’ll probably have your appreciation for the sound of this game firmly solidified in your mind. I know that was the defining moment for me, at any rate, and made me glad that my pre-order copy came with a free version of the soundtrack.

It’s dull, barren, uninhabited desert… and it’s beautiful.

But as great as all of the above mentioned features are, the single biggest factor that I enjoyed about the game was this: atmosphere. Red Dead Redemption is probably one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played. Every last bit of it is dedicated in its entirety to making you feel like you’re in the Wild West. Go ride your horse out to the middle of the desert and stand on a nearby hill. Now look off into the distance and watch as a thunderstorm builds on the horizon. Then watch it wash over you and continue on into the distance. Get back on your horse and ride into the nearest town. Walk into a Saloon. Get a drink. Wander into a back room and join in a poker game. Lose. Get another drink. Go back and try to cheat in the poker game. Get caught. Duel the guy who saw you and blast the gun out of his hand. Then head back to the ranch and herd some cattle. Don’t like cattle? Go hunt a Grizzly Bear in the mountains then sell its fur at the nearest trading post for enough money to get that shiny new Winchester rifle you’ve had your eye on.

I think you get my point.

There is so much to do in Red Dead Redemption that it’s doubtful you’ll get tired of it even after you’ve finished the game and the credits roll. And even then you’ll probably want to go back and play through the story again just because it’s so darn fun. Redemption is unequivocally western, and the tale it tells as you progress through the game is engaging enough to stand on its own as if it were one of the famed Spaghetti Westerns of old, which makes sense as the game is essentially one massive love letter to Sergio Leone and others like him. In short, Red Dead Redemption is a great game, and its greatness is amplified if you’re a fan of westerns like myself. Its well worth checking out… per un pugno di dollari.

REVIEW: Iron Man 2

Two years after Iron Man got his big screen debut he’s back in a sequel that was all but inevitable. Luckily enough, this is one of those sequels that we actually wanted to see. And after seeing it once, I think I’ll be seeing it a few more times in the future.

As with the first Iron Man, the real attraction here is Robert Downey Jr’s delightfully amusing portrayal of eccentric billionaire/genius Tony Stark. RDJ fits into the role beautifully, probably more easily than he fit into the Iron Man armor itself. The witty sarcasm and playboy inventor personality shine through just as prominently here as they did in the original, but are at times overshadowed by a mid-life crisis of sorts. After storing a miniature arc reactor in his chest for a while, some rather dangerous side effects begin to show themselves, which drive Tony into an escalated state of alcoholism, as if his current abuses weren’t quite enough. His somewhat narcissistic personality is also somewhat enhanced from the first movie, which could be good or bad depending on what you thought of it at the time. When you get right down to it, it’s the same old Tony. Even though he might behave in a bit more of an exaggerated manner than he did before, you realize that these kinds of antics were in fact always present in his character, though they were initially lingering just barely below the surface.

Right from the start, Iron Man 2 does a pretty good job of getting you excited about what’s to come. From the opening scene of Iron Man leaping from a cargo plane through a bombardment of fireworks to the tune of AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” you get the impression that the people behind this movie were just as pumped to make it as we were to watch it. The first hour or so of the movie is probably the best. From the aforementioned awesome introduction sequence through a delightfully amusing government meeting which attempts to acquire the rights to build the Iron Man suit. The movie really shines in these scenes, showcasing Tony Stark’s self-glorifying and flippant personality to the fullest. They even manage to lampshade the fact that the character of Lt. Colonel Rhodes is portrayed by Don Cheadle instead of Terrance Howard who played the role in the first movie. These more light-hearted segments formed what I considered to be the best parts of the movie.

Sadly, it is once the real meat of the plot is set into motion that the movie starts to lose steam. The film’s advertised antagonist of Ivan Vanko (a combination of Iron Man enemies the Crimson Dynamo and Whiplash) doesn’t really do a whole lot to serve as a compelling villain. Mickey Rourke does a decent enough job as the half-criminal half-physicist Russian villain, it’s just that his motivation of “kill Iron Man because his dad was mean to my dad” doesn’t really draw you in all that much. Beyond that, both times that Vanko actually confronts Iron Man, he gets beaten in the space of about two minutes. Now granted, the first one of these fight sequences is actually pretty entertaining thanks to the haphazard rescue attempt by Tony’s staff of Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts, but it’s over so quickly that we’re not allowed to consider Vanko’s character as much of a threat to Iron Man in a combat encounter.

So, to compensate for this somewhat lackluster villain, we’re given another one. Rival weapons connoisseur Justin Hammer serves as a contemporary for Tony Stark and is depicted as one of the biggest advocates for Iron Man-style weaponry to be developed in bulk for the US Military. Hammer’s character is meant to be a foil of sorts, showing what a Tony Stark character would be like if he didn’t have the same moral fiber that Stark developed over the course of the first movie. Their personalities are meant to be comparable, with Hammer attempting to present the same sarcastic witticism as the protagonist. However while Tony Stark comes off as likably quirky, I found Hammer’s character to be an annoying jackass, almost (but not quite) venturing across the line that divides clear antagonist from frustratingly obnoxious actor. Though admittedly, Hammer does deliver more than a few funny lines of dialogue that make up for it all.

With the bad guys introduced, the rest of the movie essentially boils down to the pride-induced attempts of Vanko and Hammer to dethrone Iron Man and the angst-fest that is Tony Stark’s life. The somewhat awkward chemistry that existed between Tony and his assistant Pepper Potts (as portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow) appears to have diminished somewhat, instead presenting their relationship (or lack thereof) more akin to squabbling siblings as opposed to the restrained love interest dynamic they displayed in the first film. On top of his difficulties with Pepper, Tony also trades blows (literally) with his best friend Lt. Cololonel Rhodes, which is displayed in a hyper-destructive fight scene involving two of the Iron Man suits. This is a fun sequence because it not only shows the extent to which Tony has lost control, but also offers us the first look at Rhodes as War Machine, which was lovingly hinted at in the first movie.

Attempts to get Stark back in the game are led by S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that was named in the first film. At the forefront of this attempt is S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, who is played by Samuel L. Jackson. Now, if you’re like me then pretty much any appearance by Sammy is enough to instantly boost a movie’s fun factor, and that remains true here. Even though Jackson looks to be teetering on the edge of boredom in some scenes, his dry but forceful character does his job well, and seeing as how the Marvel Ultimate version of Nick Fury is in turn based off of Mr. Jackson it’s a good bit of fanservice.

This is cool, but if they throw in John Travolta as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s HR Director
then I’d say the joke’s gone far enough.

Aiding Fury (sort of) is the secret-agent persona of Black Widow, or Natalia Romanova, or Natalie Rushman, or Natalia Romanoff; seriously, this woman has so many names and so many identities that her entire character starts to feel a lot like the plot of Pirates of the Caribbean 3. First she’s a member of Stark Industries, then she’s an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., then she’s a ju-jitsu artist in black spandex, then she’s a Stark Industries employee again, and for all I know by this point she could even be a Cylon. Now, I realize that the lack of clear direction for her character was probably meant to shroud her in mystery like the femme fatales of old; but all it really does is needlessly complicate the plot. You get the strong feeling that she’s there only to serve as fanservice and to provide an unnecessary point of sexual tension for Tony Stark, as if he needed any more. And besides that, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t really play the character with a lot of feeling: she just looks kind of awkward throughout the whole thing, looking like she has even less of an idea of what she’s doing than we do.

Fortunately, despite the plot losing a lot of steam and direction we’re ultimately provided with what most of us were looking for when we walked into the theater: some kick-ass explosions. Most of the final battle sequence (as with all the other battle sequences) is done in CG, but what do you expect? He’s in a flying robot suit, after all, and if we could make those in the real world I’d be out renting one for a weekend instead of watching movies. Luckily, the special effects were handled by Industrial Light and Magic, meaning that you know they’re going to be of high quality. The high-speed aerial battle that tears through urban sprawl and the back-to-back, buddy-cop style battle with Iron Man and War Machine against a small army of Hammer Drones are both satisfying to watch, as most things that involve robots, miniguns, and exploding vehicles are. Unfortunately this segment is actually more enjoyable than the “climactic” final battle with Ivan Vanko, who has now donned a giant suit of armor to accompany his lightsaber-inspired whips. It really makes you wonder as a friend of mine pointed out: do you think Iron Man will ever get to fight somebody that isn’t just a bigger version of his own suit? Maybe we’ll find out when Iron Man 3 rolls around.

When you get right down to it, Iron Man 2 is not a great film. It’s not even as good as the first Iron Man movie. But it is a lot of fun. If you liked the first Iron Man movie, then you’ll certainly enjoy this one. If you didn’t like the first movie, then go back and watch it again until you get your head on straight and you start liking it. Then once you’ve done that, go on out and watch this one, it’s probably the first summer blockbuster of this year and it provides you with more than enough entertainment to make it worth it. Plus, if you’re at all familiar with the Marvel universe there’s more than a few good bits of fanservice that should get you excited about the upcoming Avengers movie, as if knowing that it’ll be directed by Joss Whedon wasn’t enough to get you excited in the first place. In short: Iron Man 2 is a good time, and it’s worth going to see it in the theater… so long as you don’t try to buy any food there.

REVIEW: Splinter Cell: Conviction

Now that I’ve had a little over a week of exposure to the new Splinter Cell, I’d say I’ve got enough experience raked together to attempt to express my impressions of it. So here goes.

If you’ve been keeping up with the Splinter Cell franchise, then you’re probably aware of all the “controversy” surrounding this particular release. Splinter Cell: Conviction is the first release in the series of stealth games since Splinter Cell: Double Agent back in 2006. It wasn’t long after that that Conviction was announced, slated for a November 2007 release. With only a little over a year between projected release dates, it didn’t come as a huge surprise when Conviction missed its launch date; after all, these things take time and most of us appreciate when developers take an extra few months or so to get things just right. However, we were taken a bit by surprise when it was announced in May of 2008 that the game had been officially put on hold and had been “taken back to the drawing board”.

Now, it’s 2 years later and we’ve finally been re-introduced to our old buddy Sam Fisher, and it’s a beautiful reunion, if a bit of an odd one. I say odd because this isn’t quite the Sam we’re all familiar with, which is actually quite understandable. In Double Agent, Sam is informed that his daughter, Sarah, has been killed by a drunk driver, which devastates him to the point of causing him to be removed from active duty. Compiled on top of that, at the end of the game, Sam is forced to kill his best friend Irving Lambert in order to maintain his cover amongst a terrorist group. When you put all of that together, you’ve got a Sam Fisher who’s good and pissed off at pretty much everybody. He’s very much a different man than the rigidly loyal and patriotic Third Echelon agent we met back in 2002; which is fine. A darker Sam seems to be a natural response to him losing everything in his life, and this shift in personality makes his character feel a bit more human.

Ultimately, the story is pretty standard fare for a Splinter Cell game. It begins with Sam on the hunt for the man who killed his daughter, but eventually leads into your run of the mill “save America from a bunch of jerks who got an EMP” kind of plot. Admittedly, the narrative is presented in a pretty impressive fashion. Introductions to each chapter of the game are given by an old friend of Sam’s, currently incarcerated by a shady group of individuals and being grilled for answers about just what happened throughout the course of the game. The voice actor for this character does his job well and makes these bits of exposition feel like you’re really caught up in the midst of a modern spy movie; which for all intents and purposes you are. Right from the outset, Conviction presents a pretty strong Bourne Identity vibe, what with the rogue agent on a mission of discovery and all. The locations actually feel very espionage film-esque as well. You’ll see a mansion in Malta, secret research laboratories, and even the Lincoln Memorial and the White House. The backdrops they provide really do a lot to strengthen that feeling of being one of the world’s most bad-ass super spies.

Adding to the immersive element of the narrative is the new idea of how to present mission objectives. The Ubisoft Montreal team came up with the idea that instead of having a clumsy HUD popping up onscreen telling you what to do next, they would instead project your mission objectives onto the environment. This is just downright cool. If your next objective is to, say, interrogate Captain McTerrorist then “interrogate Captain McTerrorist” will be projected onto a wall, doorway, pillar, or whatever in real-time. It gets even more impressive when you realize that they actually put a virtual projector into the game, so walking in front of whatever surface the objective is printed on will result in the words also projecting *onto you*. It’s a really impressive element that adds an artistic feel to the game. So overall the presentation is great; even if the plot does sometimes feel a little like this.

But as interesting as a game’s presentation may be, it wouldn’t be worth much if the game wasn’t fun to play. Luckily, Splinter Cell: Conviction is a lot of fun, so no worries. When previews of the gameplay began to emerge on the net, it caused more than a few murmurs of discontent; and understandably so. Gone is Sam’s ability to move the bodies of his opponents, as well as his darkness and noise meters and a few other tricks such as the split jump. All of this results in a game where you’re perhaps a bit less stealthy than before. Sam isn’t hiding from his enemies so much as stalking and hunting them like a well-armed tiger with Michael Ironside’s voice. Your arsenal also now consists of everything from pistols to assault rifles to shotguns, meaning that you’re not necessarily toast the second somebody spots you; instead it’s sometimes feasible to blast your way out of trouble with enough bullets. If you were looking for the invisible Sam of days gone by, then you might be a bit upset.

Don’t get me wrong, though; this is still very much a stealth game. Play it like a shooter game and you’re gonna get hurt. Staying undetected is still the key to success more often than not, and even if you happen to mow your way through a crowd of enemies with a 12-gauge that’s about as subtle as Dennis Rodman, then you probably won’t feel very accomplished about it. The real enjoyment comes from taking out your enemies as silently as you can. The stealth mechanics have been reworked to accommodate this new, faster-paced stealth action. When you’re obscured in darkness, the color in the game fades into black-and-white, letting you know that you’re more difficult to see, which I honestly prefer over the somewhat awkward darkness meter of past games. I recall one instance in the first Splinter Cell game where I was simply crouched in a corner with a guard looking right at me. Yet because my darkness meter was maxed he just turned and walked away. Enemies aren’t quite that stupid anymore. If you try to hide “in the open” like that, they’ll still see you, so don’t try it. Also, a cover system has been implemented into the game, much in the same style as existed in another Ubisoft title Rainbow Six: Vegas. Now, I love cover systems, and Vegas’ system has been my favorite for the past several years. I’m happy to say that Conviction has now stolen that place of honor. While it retains the idea of actively holding the left trigger instead of using a single button press, it also incorporates movement. If you’re hiding behind a box, and you want to hide behind that dumpster ahead of you, you can simply aim your crosshairs at the corner of that dumpster and press another button to dive behind it. Using this system to creep up behind an unsuspecting enemy feels incredibly intuitive, and I very much hope that other developers will learn that *this* is how cover should be done.

Other new features include interrogation sequences, which are interesting in a sadistic, holy-crap-why-would-you-do-that? kind of way. The problem with these sequences is that they are obviously highly scripted, so that you can only interact with fairly obvious environmental objects, and you’re trapped by invisible walls in a fairly small area, making these interrogations feel less impressive than they could have been. The game also incorporates a “last known position” feature, which leaves a silhouette of Sam in whatever area the enemies believe him to be in. It’s pretty simple, and we’ve seen similar ideas before (minus the silhouette) in games like Metal Gear Solid years ago; but using your last known position as a lure to guide enemies into a trap as you take them out from a pipe on the ceiling ends up being amusing… perhaps more than it should be, now that I think about it.

But perhaps the single biggest new feature that has been added to Conviction is the inclusion of the Mark and Execute system. With this, players can “mark” a number of targets, putting a floating arrow above their heads. When the arrow turns red, that means they’re in your sights and you’re free to tap a button and take out any enemies you marked all at once. Some people wrote this off as a simple “win” button, but don’t be deceived; you can’t just go through the game executing everybody you see. You have to first earn the ability to mark targets by performing a melee kill (which you should be doing anyway just because they’re fun to do). Also, each weapon has a limited number of marks, the maximum being four, while most only have two or three. This means that you can mark four people at most with this ability then after you use it, you have to perform another melee kill. It actually provides a good balance between ranged and melee attacks throughout the game, and the feeling of reward you get from marking a room full of bad guys, breaking down the door, and then popping off a string of headshots in the space of a heartbeat actually provides some of the most memorable moments of the game.

And really, that’s what it all comes down to. When trying to decide if a game I’ve played is worth the money, I usually ask myself if it provided any “holy crap that was awesome” moments; the kind of stuff that we nerds gather around the water cooler and relate back and forth to each other to pass the time. If it did, then I’m usually pretty satisfied with it. As of now, Splinter Cell: Conviction has given me a good handful of those moments in the single player campaign alone, and co-op has provided me with a good deal more. I recognize that many die-hard fans of the series won’t necessarily appreciate the changes that have been made to their beloved franchise; and I can understand that. But for me, Conviction got me excited about stealth games again, for which I have to give it credit. Instead of losing its former glory and fading into obscurity, it climbs atop the shoulders of its predecessors and strikes a triumphant pose, having emerged as a hero in its own right, and certainly earns my praise as my favorite game in the series.