I've been wanting to play this damn game since its pre-release hype train first started rolling down the tracks. First of all, I definitely consider myself a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series and Rockstar Games in general. Second, a Western? A serious, open world Western done by a studio I like, using proven tech? Sign me up, right? Third, after its release the game got more or less lauded by critics and gamers across the board. Actually, the fact that the game (shamefully) never made it to PC is one of the few things brethren of the “PC Master Race” have to be jealous of the unwashed console masses over. So, yeah, this game has definitely been high on my list for a while now.
So, at long last...
"John Marston, brooding in the rain..."
One of my first impressions was my surprise about just how damn slowly the game takes off. Sure, the first plot point is early and suitably dramatic but after that? Molasses city. Worse yet, I felt a little bit of that old open world “err, what do I do now, and why do I give a shit about doing it?” feeling set in almost immediately. Another factor here is the engine. GTA 4's engine (which Red Dead Redemption uses) is beautiful and impressive in many ways, but it feels seriously clunky in some others. Shooting, riding horses, hell, just walking around can feel a little awkward sometimes with getting stuck into odd looking animation loops or clipping through objects in weird ways probably the most common offenders. As I concluded with GTA 4 years ago, once you get used to the engine’s “feel” and some of its idiosyncrasies it’s just fine, good even. Besides, blowing a bandit off his horse with your revolver feels magnificent. That lead up definitely hurts the early game though.
So I wasn't quite as impressed as I thought I’d be at first. Boo hoo! Soon though, the absolutely incredible execution of Rockstar's world crafting started to steer my opinion back around. The rolling plains teaming with wildlife, campfires in the Mexican desert, seedy frontier towns filled with whores and bandits, and other appropriate tropes of the genre are all here and feel just great. The immersion started taking hold to a serious degree as I found myself riding my horse from location to location more appealing than the various "fast travel" options and being overly concerned with Marston's wardrobe and preference in firearms. As I've mentioned here before, being able to feel deeply immersed in a game world tends to be one of the more compelling factors in whether or not I'm going to love a game and have no doubt, this is where RDR shines the brightest.
"The environments are damn beautiful, in an empty sort of Western USA kind of way."
I would definitely have to say the game’s serious tone has a lot to do with this. GTA 4 was mostly a serious affair but served with a massive side of the often not-so-subtle satire the series is known for but RDR is almost entirely straight-laced. So focused in fact, that while your character is free to go on murderous rampages if you desire (apparently not too out of character given his outlaw past, though that is debatable) he has absolutely no interest in patronizing the local working girls due to being a dedicated husband. Wow, is this the same Rockstar?
I wouldn't go as far as to say the game's writing is anything amazing, however. I mean, the game is filled top to bottom with clichés from classic Westerns and while this mostly feels like honest tribute from fans of the genre, I feel like a few of the characters I encountered early on were walking stereotypes. This is a common trait of Westerns though, even in some of the more acclaimed modern movies, and the few characters the develop into being likeable and fairly interesting (John Marston, our protagonist, chief among them) more than make up for that. One of the bigger underlying themes of the story, the death of the "old west" as it is an allegory for the way we grow and change, is fairly well worn as well. It could have still been a damn fascinating theme if delved into a little deeper. Shame that. As an aside, this game has got me absolutely fiending to watch gritty modern Western movies like nothing else. Argh!
"Herding cattle is just one of the many tedious virtual jobs you can toil away at."
One last, minor disappointment is with how damn similar this game plays (mechanically speaking) to any other GTA inspired open world game. Sure, you’re on a horse in the plains instead of on a Faggio in Liberty City, but damn! Part of me would actually much rather this game have been a much shorter, more focused experience that took chances with some different mechanics. It would have probably lost something in that, sure, but the déjà vu I felt while racing from point A to point B while trying to shoot all of the red dots on my mini-map certainly detracted from the experience if only a little.
Finally, I know it’s been spoiled a million times over now but I’ll still avoid mentioning specifics: I thought the unconventional structure of the ending was quite interesting. The game continues on after it would seem like a typical place for it to have concluded and does so more than once! Not in a “ha ha, got you!” kind of way, it's actually fairly consistent with the rest of tone of the game. I've yet to really decide whether this was a good thing or not (I can't stand playing a game when it feels like it's worn out its welcome and false endings definitely don't help) but it is fun to think about in any case.
Anyway, overall the experience was awesome. Not perfect by a long shot, but unique and worthwhile all the same. I regret not jumping into the game when it launched so I could experience the fun looking multiplayer a little but that is a common downside to clearing out one's backlog, I suppose. Next up I’ll be playing through the expansion pack, Undead Nightmare, but first I think I need to watch another episode of Deadwood…
Xbox 360 screenshots shamefully stolen from elsewhere, as usual...
Warning: potential DLC quest (Knights of the Nine) spoilers ahead!
From Garn's recollections:
Wasting no time I set off to Chorrol where the spirit of Sir Casimir told me I'd find the holy Gauntlets of the Crusader. The Chapel of Stendarr in the west end of the city was where Sir Casimir had been when he was cursed by the gods for his misdeeds, causing the gauntlets to slip from his hands and remain, forever immovable. In the chapel I discovered the Gauntlets just as the spirit claimed. I spoke to a priest there, Areldur, who told me more of the popular folklore surrounding the now celebrated artifact. Unexpectedly, he also told me that an ancestor of Sir Casimir's had made a pilgrimage to the chapel recently and suggested I speak with him down in the chapel hall.
"I wonder what other mundane possessions of Pelinal Whitestrake are now holy relics?"
Kellen was a sickly and miserable man who had come to Chorrol to learn more about the relic in an attempt to free himself from the pains of his ancestor's curse. At first I could not fathom what I could do to help. I had well practiced and powerful magics to cure the sick and heal wounds but I could not possibly undo a curse of a god. That is, not without help from the god. I spoke more to the priest Areldur who, showing some considerable guilt, confessed that he indeed knew of a way to free Kellen but had not thought to sacrifice himself to perform it. I was taught a holy spell that could absorb such afflictions and with some assistance from Areldur I was able to free Kellen from his undeserved fate. The only problem was that I now carried Sir Casimir's curse. I was stronger than Kellen and, though it weakened me considerable, could endure it. When I returned to the site of the artifact I discovered that my sacrifice had won me favor with Stendarr and I could now pick up the Gauntlets of the Crusader. A crowd gathered to see me wearing the gauntlets and cheer me as I departed through the city gates. It seemed like this quest of mine stood a chance of greatly increasing my renown throughout Cyrodiil but I was so focused on my goal I spent little time pondering the ramifications.
Next I journeyed to the west of the Imperial City to a hidden shrine to Kynareth that lay deep in the Great Forest. Sir Juncan fell before he could complete his quest so his spirit had little to tell me about what recovering the artifact might entail. I arrived at the shrine in the dead of the night but Avita Vesnia, a priestess of Kynareth, stood by vigilantly regardless. To my surprise she knew well of the relic I sought and, without any hesitation, directed me to a place she called the Grove of Trials in order to test my worthiness before the goddess. I planted a torch in the ground for light and stood with my sword and shield at the ready, not knowing what to expect.
"Bear bear bear bear bear bear bear bear!"
Suddenly I heard the quickening footsteps of a charging creature bearing down upon me. When I turned I saw the most incredibly massive bear I had ever encountered. Luckily I was able to raise my shield before it could maul me. Thinking quickly, I devised a plan to roll away from the bear and wedge myself between some boulders that rested on the edge of the grove. As long as my shield could hold out I could give myself some much needed time to come up with a better strategy. Before I knew it the bear ceased its attack. Confused, I slowly dropped my shield to find the bear calmly walking away from me. Of course! Kynareth was the goddess of the elements and therefore maintained a powerful bond with nature. Had I attempted to strike down the bear I would have no doubt failed in my test, or perhaps worse. Avita soon approached and directed me to a small hidden cave wherein I found the relic, the Boots of the Crusader, safely waiting for me.
"Sure, but try to look a little less happy about it, will ya?"
I returned to the Imperial City to rest and restock on supplies before returning to the Priory of the Nine to gather more information on the remaining relics. While there was no crowd to see me leaving Kynareth's shrine, I was greeted by several people, including the priest Areldur from Chorrol, who had all heard of or been a part of my mounting success in the quest to retrieve the Crusader's Relics and wished to join the reformed Knights of the Nine. I had not specifically sought to reestablish the order but I supposed that I could always use more assistance and, besides, someone would need to safeguard these holy artifacts after I was done with them. I set my new recruits to the task of attempting to clean and repair the old priory as well as recruiting craftsmen to help us with restocking the armories. This would be a suitable base of operations while I continued my quest for the relics of the Crusader.
The spirit of Sir Henrick told me of how he set out on his own to continue the search after the Knights of the Nine had collapsed. He was successful in recovering the Shield of the Crusader but rather than using the relic he and his men set out to safeguard it. Although he died before the renovations to the old fort were complete, Sir Henrick did at least know where it was located and soon I was on my way to the ruins of a Fort Bulwark near the Black Marsh border.
"Just when I was starting to miss killing mages...."
Even as I approached Fort Bulwark from afar there were signs that the site was occupied. I slew two mages who attempted to attack me on sight outside on the crumbling battlements and cautiously entered the ruins. Upon accessing the more intact lower levels of the fortress I discovered the passageways lit with the flicking light of freshly fueled torches. Sir Henrick had implied that he and his followers had planned for special defenses for the old fort and soon enough I discovered them: Traps lay in various intersections, deadly (though now unmanned) choke-points divided sections of the structure, and clever mechanisms such as mechanical drawbridges were placed to slow would-be invaders. This was far from the first trap filled ruin I had explored but these designs were devious indeed. Still, it seemed that the current group seeking to recover the long lost Shield of the Crusader were not your run of the mill treasure hunters and tomb looters and had already bypassed most of these obstacles. This, I discovered from some journals near one of their camps, was a group of rogue mages and conjurers. While I didn't know their purpose in trying to recover the artifact it was clear from their violent demeanor they weren't exactly holy men attempting to honor the Nine. As evident, I encountered a Sir Thedret locked away in a make shift dungeon they had constructed. Upon releasing him he told me how they had tortured him for information on the relic and were planning on executing him soon if he hadn't cooperated.
"Paying my respects at a shrine to Julianos."
Able to catch many of these mages unaware, I easily killed them. It was the last two secrets that challenged me and were indeed a tribute to Julianos, the god of knowledge and logic, in their cleverness. Eventually I succeeded unlocking the long unseen shrine that held the artifact and carried the powerful shield away to the next site.
The Chapel of Zenithar in Leyawiin held the tomb of Saint Kaladas in its undercroft. The spirit of Sir Ralvas swore that the chosen few of those who would pray before the shrine would be given a vision. This vision was a test of faith, a gaping chasm that could only be crossed by those free of doubt. Some of the holiest crusaders in history, including Sir Ralvas himself, had attempted this challenge many times and failed. Indeed, when I arrived in Leyawiin I met Carodus Oholin, a warrior who had come to test his faith previous to my arrival and who had decided to stay to help protect the artifact. Thankfully, the rumors of the reestablishment of the Knights of the Nine were spreading and he eagerly let me pass without so much as an unkind word. In the undercroft I was granted a vision and in that vision I strode across the chasm, floating high above a void filled only with darkness, and picked up the Mace of Zenithar on the other side.
"Aurorans all up in my shit."
All was not to be so effortless, however. When I returned from my vision and back into the main chapel I found Carodus Oholin and others besieged by heavily armored Daedra the priests called Aurorans. Servants of Umaril, they claimed, they Daedra seemed intent on stopping the relics from being assembled. It was a vicious battle and I regret that we could not stop the Aurorans from harming everyone in the chapel. Several died and several more wounded. Carodus Oholin, who was both greatly offended by the attack and impressed by my success in recovery of the artifact, vowed to return to the priory with me to join the order. We left Leyawiin with great haste not knowing what else Umaril the Unfeathered might have planned for those that might stand in his way.
Warning: potential DLC quest (Knights of the Nine) spoilers ahead!
From Garn's recollections:
Waking the Dead
Wading into the murky waters of Niben Bay I could see what seemed to be the vaguely stony shapes of man-made structures. There was only one way to be sure I was at the right place so I dove into the water and began to swim deeper. Sure enough, it seemed to be a ruin just as I had seen in my vision the night before. I swam to the surface for a fresh breath of air and then dove down to what appeared to be the submerged entrance of the ruin's inner chambers. After breaching the doorway and swimming another 15 feet or so I climbed out into a dry section of the temple ruins. I explored the musty passages until reaching a lower level, which seemed to be much more intact, and soon I stumbled across the dust coated skeleton of a long dead adventurer. Searching his body I found several interesting items including an odd signet ring and an old, barely held together journal. I decided then that this would be a good to rest and catch my breath.
"On second thought, maybe I *won't* join the Knights of the Nine."
The journal was written by a knight named Sir Amiel and detailed how he once belonged to an order called the Knights of the Nine who were devoted to recovering and safeguarding the various relics of the Pelinal Whitestrake, referred to by Sir Amiel as the Crusader’s Relics. He mentioned that the order had possession of several of these holy relics before it eventually disbanded due to strife within its ranks. The relics scattered to the individual knights who had originally recovered them. He also mentioned that in his old age, still dedicated to the cause of the Knights of the Nine, he had journeyed there, to the Shrine of the Crusader, in an attempt to recover the Helm of the Crusader. Perhaps most intriguingly of all, he wrote that the ring could be used to unlock a hidden underground chamber in the order’s old priory that housed their last remaining relic, the Cuirass of the Crusader. It occurred to me immediately that if I could find this priory and it had somehow escaped being raised by bandits by then my quest for Whitestrake's relics would be well on its way. I first had the matter of the Helm to attend to.
As I ventured further and further into the ruins of the shrine it became apparent that, as with many ancient ruins, this one was haunted by undead. I fought my way through the various passages and chambers until I finally breached a small side passage that lead to the shrine itself: the Helm of the Crusader was still there, intact and unguarded. I carefully took up the relic and hastily made my way out of the ruins and back to my horse. It was time to find this ruined priory of Sir Amiel's!
"Finding the Priory. It's a bit of a fixer-upper."
After some time spent researching this Knights of the Nine order at the Arcane University’s library I soon had a foggy idea of where the Priory of the Nine was located, a spot I had stumbled upon early in my post-prison adventures in fact, and set off for the forests of the West Weald. It took quite a few days of searching but eventually I discovered a small compound nestled against a hill in a particularly secluded part of the forest. The priory compound consisted of a chapel, a large house, and a few miscellaneous out buildings including a stable. Exploring the vaguely familiar abandoned main house I found it to be as relatively intact as I recalled. While I had no doubt that it had been looted clean long ago I saw no sign that the basement area had ever been discovered never mind actually breached. Using the ring in the spot mentioned in Sir Amiel's journal caused plumes of dust to shoot into the air as a complex mechanism lowered a section of the floor into stairs leading down to a basement door. The basement itself was standard fair for a house like this though there was a heavy door on one of the walls. Using the ring to activate the unlocking mechanism revealed another large room that no longer appeared to be under the main house of the priory at all. I was fascinated. I cautiously explored a bit of this room, which appeared to be a crypt, until I spotted an armor stand that held what was doubtlessly the holy relic itself.
"Hitting ghosts with a sword is actually harder than you might think."
I approached the relic to examine it but was startled to have the spirit of a knight materialize before me to block my path. As it paused to regard me several more such spirits surrounded me to form a circle. The lead apparition then announced that even in death the original Knights of the Nine would protect the last of their sacred artifacts and that each would face me in honorable combat. Now, I had vanquished many spirits before, and a great many warriors, but the ghosts of some of that era’s greatest knights? I truly did not know what to expect of this. I drew my Daedric longsword and lifted my shield for battle. One at a time he called them up to face me. Sir Henrik, Sir Caius, Sir Torolf, and so on. While each of the spirits fought well, some better than others, none of them could best me in martial combat. At last it was the lead knight’s turn and though our duel lasted a longer time it too bowed before me in defeat. I had bested the challenge and the Cuirass of the Crusader was mine.
"Yes, I *am* Pelinal Whitestrake reborn. You're welcome."
I carefully gathered the relic and began to put it into one of my bags while keeping a careful eye on the ghostly knights behind me, yet they did not leave. Much to my surprise, in fact, they re-took their places and stood at attention. The lead spirit then turned to congratulate me on my victory and to announce that they were at my service on my search for the remaining relics. I don't know if they simply assumed that my purpose was just or if they somehow knew of and trusted something deeper inside of me, but they were seemingly at my disposal, with the spirits soon each providing me with priceless information about where the other relics had been lost and how I might recover them. With two of the artifacts at hand and a what seemed like most of the information I'd need to find the rest, this quest had turned from one I accepted with curiosity and skepticism to one that not only I wanted to finish, but it seemed like I might finish quite easily.