Saturday, 2 October 2010

Tom Clancy's HAWX 2 (7/10)

Dogfights in HAWX 2 can be exciting, but some dodgy AI and lackluster missions stop this game from being an air combat ace.

In air combat terms, the word furball is used to describe a densely populated dogfight. You'll find yourself in plenty of furballs in Tom Clancy's HAWX 2, and for the most part, they're tense, exciting, and rewarding. But these furballs don't always go down well. Inconsistent enemy AI and poor collision detection can mar an otherwise fun aerial fracas, and while the new non-fighter focused missions can be interesting, they simply feel out of place in this game. HAWX 2's faults may weigh it down and prevent it from reaching the stratosphere, but it still manages to soar at times.

One of the places HAWX 2 reaches decent heights is its narrative. Original protagonist Colonel David Crenshaw mainly takes a backseat this time around to let the focus shift onto three new hotshot pilots from the US, UK, and Russia. In typical Tom Clancy fashion, the plot is a country-hopping potboiler that mixes in Middle Eastern insurgents, the rapidly-becoming-a-cliche Russian ultranationalist forces, and a potentially devastating nuclear threat. There are even nods to other Ubisoft Tom Clancy franchises, such as Ghost squads, and you occasionally have to provide air support for them. Most of the story is told through cutscenes that take place in dark briefing rooms, through grainy satellite images, or via radio chatter midair while in the midst of a dogfight. Those aren't ideal ways to get the plot across, and the story does take its time to heat up. The eventual narrative payoff is solid enough, though, and you'll likely get invested in it long before the game's equal parts exciting and frustrating climax.
The game's missions similarly start slowly, with its first few forays content to spoon feed you the basics of HAWX 2's arcade take on air combat. Controls are easy to get your head around. It gets a little more complex when using advanced commands, such as ordering wingmen, but it never borders on the complexity of a sim. You get to fly 32 different planes from the US, British, and Russian forces, including famous ones like the F22 Raptor, Harriers, and several models of MiGs. Although there are subtle differences in speed and maneuverability among planes, they all feel responsive and fly quite well.
Novices may take a while to come to grips with the skills required to chase down other planes, but after a few missions, you can easily hold your own against enemy fighters. This is due to the fact that bogeys in HAWX 2 start off pretty dumb, seemingly content to fly in straight lines for easy missile locks. But the challenge rises significantly in the second half of the game, with enemies becoming much more acrobatic and aggressive. This leads to some exciting missions where the game's dogfighting mechanic shines through. It's a lot of fun to take on large waves of aerial enemies, pulling off insanely high Gs as you try to outmaneuver opponents. A high-speed flythrough of a fireball that was an enemy plane milliseconds ago is one of the greatest thrills an air combat game can provide, and HAWX 2 provides those moments in spades.
But by the end of the game, the difficulty spikes unevenly. You can be on the tail of a tricky opponent for up to five minutes or even longer, with the enemy firing off a seemingly infinite number of flares to throw off your missiles during the entire chase. It can get frustrating, especially at higher difficulty levels when your missile complement is drastically reduced. And because many objectives are time sensitive, having to waste time chasing and gunning down that flare-happy opponent can lead to plenty of failed missions. Thankfully, the game has a pretty good checkpoint system so you don't have to retry entire missions from scratch. You also get your full arsenal back when you retry a section, which is a welcome exploit that allows you to get past the tricky AI.
The game's sometimes poor collision detection is another source of frustration. This is particularly apparent when flying in the third-person view, as you find yourself in plenty of crashes after inadvertently flying too close to the ground, a mountain, or a cliffside when it looked like you had plenty of room. Normally, this wouldn't matter in a high-flying air combat game where your fighter plane has lots of room, but HAWX 2 features several missions where you have to navigate your plane through tight, constricted spaces (particularly in the final mission where it almost becomes throw-your-controller-against-the-wall worthy).
Flying and fighting aren't the only things you'll be able to do with your planes in HAWX 2; you will also take off and land in several missions. The controls for these are pretty easy to get the hang of, with landing the trickier of the two. If you're having difficulties with getting back on the tarmac, you can use the game's Enhanced Reality System to guide you in (the ERS made its debut in the original game as a visual guide to show you how to evade tricky situations, but its use here has been drastically cut back to landings and one specific mission). While it can be conceptually pleasing to see a mission through from take off to landing, it still seems like an odd addition to a game like HAWX 2. If you're an action fan, having to land your plane after just surviving an all-out aerial assault can feel like an anticlimax; flight sim fans will feel the controls are too simple to be any challenge.
The game's other attempts to get you out of the cockpit are just as ill fitting. HAWX 2 tries to break up the dogfighting action by letting you control unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance missions and even gets you behind the turrets of an AC-130 for a very Modern Warfare-like death from above section. The UAV missions are fairly monotonous--you have to mark buildings, identify targets, and track vehicles to eavesdrop on phone conversations (and it's as exciting as it sounds). The AC-130 is the more fun of the two--if only for the sheer firepower at your disposal-- but even this is on rails and requires little more than moving a target reticle around.
HAWX 2 fares much better when it sticks to its core competency--fast-paced hijinks while in the fighter pilot's seat. It's not always about straight dogfighting, as the missions here feature some good variety. You have to pilot stealth ships using infrared, do close flybys of satellite dishes to identify radar-jamming sources, escape from a fiery airfield with no weapons while being tracked by bogeys, quickly switch from aerial targets to taking out ground defenses, run escort for naval, ground, or air allies, and much more. Despite some of the problems you run across with tricky enemy fighters, flying in a fighter plane rarely gets boring in HAWX 2. Playing through the game's 20 missions takes about 12 hours, but there's some good replay value to be found, thanks to an Arcade mode that has you replaying through the story missions while meeting specific challenges. There's also a Survival mode where you have to fight off waves of enemies and a Free Flight mode that lets you fly around the game's large maps without fear of getting into a skirmish.
Multiplayer options in HAWX 2 are more robust than in the original. As in the first game, HAWX 2 features drop-in/out co-op for up to four players, and you can play through either individual missions, through the entire story campaign, or even on Arcade mode levels. Playing through with friends is good fun, particularly during the more intense dogfights. UAV and AC-130 missions are not particularly engaging when done in groups--instead of taking control of different aspects of the vehicles (such as flight and weapons), all players will just have their own UAV or AC-130, which makes these missions incredibly simple to complete.
When it comes to playing competitively, HAWX 2 offers team battles where opposing planes aren't the only things you'll have to combat. Various targets--some static-like satellite installations and others dangers like naval frigates--populate the play fields and can be destroyed for extra points, but in most matches they tend to be ignored as players concentrate solely on taking each other out. Up to eight players can engage in dogfights, and these matches generally run pretty well online. The game also has its own perks system. As you earn experience points and gain levels by playing the campaign and online, you can unlock new planes and abilities (both passive and triggered) that can be used in competitive matches. These can range from cutting down the time it takes for you to achieve a missile lock, shortening the cooldown time for cluster bombs, increasing the damage your plane can take, and more.
HAWX 2 looks best when you're in the air, with the game's use of satellite images making the large areas you're flying in look quite realistic. Mountains, valleys, forests, and real-world locations, such as Moscow, all look great from a height, and it's not until you get closer to the ground that things start to look decidedly dicey. Flying in any lower than a few hundred meters reveals blocky trees, poorly defined structures, and plenty of low-quality textures. The game's cutscenes may not look as bad as the ground in HAWX 2, but they're not great quality either, thanks to stiffly animated character models. The planes are deservedly the stars here; they're all rendered in good detail and pleasing to look at in flight due to nice little touches, such as vapor trails streaming off wings or visual shimmers around exhausts. The sound, too, is a winner. The music reaches great bombastic heights during missions, and it's pleasing to listen to the various explosions, gunfire, missiles, and other effects.
While HAWX 2 tries to surpass the heights of its predecessor by bringing on more features and modes, the game only truly shines when it focuses on aerial combat. Imperfect as it might be, there's still plenty of fun to be had in blasting through the skies in pursuit of your enemies and getting involved in some serious furballs. Everything else is HAWX 2 just seems like a distraction.

FIFA 11 (9/10)

FIFA 11 is more playable, refined, and feature-packed than any FIFA game before it.

After a steady rise in quality over the last few years, FIFA 10 added yet more welcome new features and game modes while refining the core gameplay. It's a tough act to follow for FIFA 11, but thanks to more realistic gameplay, new game modes, and more features, this is the best and most comprehensive FIFA game yet. The main improvements are refinements to the gameplay, rather than revolutionary new game modes as we've seen in previous years, but they're significant enough to make EA Sports' latest offering well worth the upgrade.

The changes to this year's game aren't all immediately apparent, but they are welcome and make the game deeper and more realistic. The biggest change is the physicality between players--whether it's a winger holding off a defender, or two players tussling in the box, FIFA 11's players are constantly fighting each other for the ball. This increased tactility has an impact on the gameplay, adding an emphasis on player strength and speed, making player interaction more brutal, and producing some nice touches that add to the realism. For example, if you perform a crunching tackle, the tackler will sportingly tap the downed player on the back as he runs by to collect the ball. There's also much more variation to the passes and shots; you won't see the same shots being taken repeatedly, while positioning, footedness, and environmental factors such as rain all have a real and notable impact. Scoring is also more difficult than before; improved goalies are harder to beat than in FIFA 10, and shots, particularly those lobbed over the keeper, are harder to get in the net.
Much more emphasis has also been put on individual players and how they operate within the team, thanks to the new Personality Plus feature. This is a system of attributes that affect players' skills, from how accurately they pass the ball to how quickly they can control it from the air. Topflight teams boast players with skills across the board, and to get the most from players you need to know how to play to their individual strengths. For example, a player like Wayne Rooney has an inherent ability to score from short range, whereas Steven Gerrard is a much better long-distance shooter. The system works well, and you can feel the difference between players as you control them on the pitch. This personality system also extends to celebrations--you can now hold down the A button to do trademark post-goal dances from famous players, and if you're online, you can also interact with the goal scorer with new team-based celebrations.
The only new game mode in FIFA 11 is Career, which combines the Be a Pro and Manager modes from previous games and gives them a slicker visual presentation. You start out your 15-year career as a player, a manager, or a combination of the two, with responsibility for different activities depending on your role. As a player, you can choose to take control of an individual team member, such as your Virtual Pro player, or play as the entire team. Since you can choose from both options on a match-by-match basis, you can mix things up during your career to keep it interesting. As a manager, you have considerations such as bringing new talent to the club and making sure all your players get experience on the pitch. There are slight tweaks to the management side this year, such as a two-stage negotiation process that also involves wage discussions with the player. It's an improvement and adds depth to proceedings, while coach feedback allows you to keep better tabs on your squad than before. The career mode has definitely improved the existing modes by rolling them into one structure--the presentation is great, you have more flexibility to play games in different roles, and you can compare your career accomplishments with friends' accomplishments on online leaderboards.
The headline feature this year is the new option to play as a goalkeeper in offline and online game modes. The prospect of being the keeper may not sound that exciting, but the controls are intuitive and it can be fun to play as him in short doses. The camera shifts to a behind-the-player perspective, and you control movement with the left stick and diving with the right, with the aim of maintaining a good position while diving at the right moment. The process is made easier by visible lines that predict the path of the ball, as well as a marker that shows the optimal position to be in, and you can even snap to this spot by holding the left bumper. While it's inevitable that much of your time is spent waiting around, you can shout instructions to your team in offline modes by pressing buttons to indicate when they should cross, pass, and shoot, allowing you some tactical control over the game. Ultimately, it's a welcome addition to finally control the keeper, but it's unlikely that you'll want to play through an entire career as one unless you're eager to unlock achievements for doing so. The main benefit comes online, where it's fun to play as the keeper on an occasional basis.
Online, FIFA 11 is as robust and fun as ever, and it boasts 11 versus 11 online play for the first time. This is the first FIFA game to include EA's online pass system, so you need to input a code included in the box in order to play online. The Live Season feature continues, updating real-world player data throughout the football season for 400 MS points per league, or 800 MS points for all five. The hospitality settings option, which was introduced in 2010 FIFA World Cup and saves your FIFA settings to EA's servers, also makes an appearance, allowing you to import your preferences from the earlier game. The online game modes are all familiar--head-to-head ranked and unranked matches are still a lot of fun online and mostly lag-free, while the 10-versus-10 team play mode has been expanded to 11-versus-11 for the first time. You can also play the game with up to four players locally on one machine.
It only takes a couple of button presses to jump into any of the online match types, but there are also lobbies for those who wish to tweak their match options or chat with other players before a game. You can also set up friend leagues for others to join, with multiple matches played between each player in the league in order to decide the victor. You can also play ranked matches with your Virtual Pro player, and set up your own club with your Virtual Pro and recruit other players to join your team. In all, there are an abundance of online game types for you to get involved in. That said, there are still areas where the game could be improved; being able to download your Game Face for your Virtual Pro is neat, but it still needs to be done through a fiddly process involving a computer and a camera or webcam, rather than an Xbox Live Vision camera.
FIFA 11 preserves the series' tradition of slick presentation, with excellent commentary, easy-to-navigate menus, and a great soundtrack. The commentary is insightful and is naturally delivered, with anecdotes about the history behind the major clubs and recognition of derby matches, although the commentators will frequently start to make a point only to cut themselves off when something else happens. This year's soundtrack is also particularly noteworthy, with 33 tracks from the likes of Gorillaz, LCD Soundsystem, and Mark Ronson, and the ability to play weekly podcasts in the game is a nice feature. The commentary, presentation, and music have always been good, though; the only standout addition is a leaderboard on the main menu that compares your accomplishments to those of your friends.
Off the pitch, there are a couple of new additions that add to an already robust set of features. The creation centre allows you to create players and teams through a Web browser and then share them with other people to download in the game. The customisation options are impressive, letting you tailor the look, stats, and even mental approach (such as "argues with referees") of your player. A replay theatre has also been added--highlights are automatically compiled at the end of each match, and you can save them in video form locally or online. If you save them locally, the video format avoids the need to load the game up to watch them back in-engine, although the videos are saved in a low-resolution format. The music and chants feature is also a good addition, allowing you to import songs and audio clips into the game, with an impressive level of customisation. For instance, you can choose a specific song to play when your favourite team scores a goal, and your chosen recording will sound as if it's coming through the stadium speakers.
Thanks to key improvements to the core gameplay this year, FIFA 11 is the best and most addictive version of the game yet. The improved player characteristics and animations result in a deep and rewarding experience that feels as exciting and unpredictable as the real thing. It also boasts key online and offline improvements, with full 11 versus 11 online play for the first time in the genre, and a new career mode that brings together the single-player game in a much more enjoyable way than before. There may not be any new revolutionary new game modes this year, but with matches, leagues, tournaments, multiple career options, and 11 versus 11 online, it's as feature-packed a football game as you could want.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Alan Wake (8.5/10)

Creepy atmosphere, fantastic combat, and clever storytelling make Alan Wake's quest thrilling from beginning to end.

Until last night, you had never fired a gun before, but priorities tend to change when you're being hunted by unholy creatures of the night. In Alan Wake, darkness is your most fearsome enemy. The shadows are home to monsters who shun the light, growing more powerful as they slink through the jet-black unknown. You hear a noise behind you and spin around to examine your surroundings, pointing your flashlight from tree to tree, scanning the ground while you ready your trigger finger for the imminent attack. The world of Alan Wake is one of fear and tension--a place where it's perfectly acceptable to be afraid of the dark, because if you're not, you'll be enveloped by the evil forces that dwell just beyond your field of vision. The foreboding atmosphere that permeates every inch of this wilderness never lets you forget the dangers that await the unprepared, but the feeling of dread that defines the early portions dissipates as you get deeper into this moody adventure. Alan Wake doesn't offer enough surprises to keep you unhinged, but the storytelling is so enthralling and the combat is so frantic that you'll be sucked in until the thrilling conclusion.

A vivid imagination can be a dangerous thing. Alan Wake has been suffering from writer's block ever since he released his most recent best-selling novel two years ago, but he soon realizes there are much worse things than being unable to put pen to paper. A story he's written but has no memory of has come to life, flooding a quiet mountain village with demonic creatures that torment his every waking hour. The dark forces that populate this night-time adventure should be familiar to anyone acquainted with the horror genre, but the unique storytelling gives this game an identity all its own. The acerbic protagonist relays his thoughts on the outlandish events happening all around him through incisive yet oddly poetic prose that breathes believability into these supernatural events. Alan Wake's brash nature makes him unlikable at times, but his unwavering focus to save his wife at all costs makes it easy to empathize with him.
The most interesting aspect of the storytelling comes in the form of optional collectibles you find as you wind your way through dimly lit forests. Pages from your unpublished manuscript lie just off the beaten path, and it's in your best interest to snatch these up even though you have to venture deep into the deadly forests to do so. These passages frequently foreshadow events, giving you a snippet of something terrifying waiting for you around the bend. Other times, they fill in details tangential to your own quest, giving you a peek at what other people in the town are up to. These pages flesh out the story in fascinating ways, but there are even more elements tucked away if your eyes are sharp. Abandoned TVs and radio sets can be switched on to trigger brief expositions that give you another look at what is going on just beneath the surface. The television show is particularly intriguing. Modeled after The Twilight Zone, these creepy scenes contains all the twists and moral lessons the classic series is known for.
The excellent combat builds on the fantastic storytelling, ensuring there is never a dull moment during this roughly 12-hour adventure. Alan Wake has a handy way of dealing with dark-fueled creatures: shine a flashlight on them. You carry said light source in your left hand, and you use this to weaken enemies who dare to challenge you. By pointing it at them for a few seconds, you destroy the darkness inside of them, making them vulnerable to your firearms. This mechanic is not only original, but also leads to thrilling situations. When you're surrounded by a gang of growling beasts, you have to choose one individual at a time to spray with your life-sucking light, and balancing your aim to keep all attackers at bay is exciting. If baddies get too close to you, you can duck out of the way at the last second, triggering a slow-motion dodge that lets you quickly retaliate before they have a chance to attack a second time. Because there is so much ammunition sprinkled about and your health regenerates after every battle, you'll rarely succumb to their aggressive advances, but each encounter is still exhilarating.
Exploration is as important as combat when trying to make your way through these haunted woods. Going off the beaten path is the only way you can find the missing manuscripts and television sets, and there are hidden weapon caches that aid you in fending off this unrelenting horde. Aside from your standard pistol, you can nab a hunting rifle and a shotgun, which make short work of poltergeists at close range, as well as a few explosive weapons that quickly dispose of anything that fears the light. Toss a flashbang grenade into a cluster of foes and watch them melt away into nothing. There are also little touches that add to the tension. Rapidly tapping X reloads your ammunition more quickly, and your frantic button taps mirror Alan Wake's movements as you both try desperately to stay alive. At times, you'll find generators that, when activated, energize nearby lights for you to take shelter in. But starting these up requires a few precise button taps that can be mighty stressful when an axe-wielding ghost is breathing down your neck.
The prologue starts things out with a heart-racing encounter. Seemingly alone in the woods after a brutal car crash, you make your way slowly through the foggy forest to the lighthouse oasis on the other side. Of course, a peaceful walk in the woods soon takes a deadly turn, and you find yourself sprinting for your life toward a cabin, barricading yourself inside moments ahead of the imminent danger. This electrifying scene sets up the tension that hovers above you at all times, but sadly there are few instances during the rest of your quest that match this confrontation. Alan Wake's moon-lit wanderings become predictable just a couple of hours into the game. There are a few different takes on the core action, such as escort missions and a novel twist on the classic turret sequence, but not many genuinely surprising or completely unexpected events. Because the storytelling is strong and the combat is rousing, the game never becomes stale. But the lack of memorable moments weakens the impact of the chilly atmosphere, and you're rarely startled despite the supernatural events happening all around you.
Thankfully, the eerie forest you spend most of your time in is so well realized that you'll hardly notice you're doing the same thing for much of the game. A cloud of fog blankets the forest, adding an extra shroud on top of the suffocating darkness. The thin beam of light produced by your flashlight offers a glimpse at what's hiding behind the pitch-black cover, but it cannot produce enough light to ever make you feel safe. Enemies circle around you like wild raptors, luring you into thinking they're coming from your front side, and then when you least expect it, you'll find an axe implanted in your back by a demon who snuck up behind you. Foreboding music increases this desolate feeling. The subtle score that underlines your quest for survival keeps your nerves on edge and your neck hair raised. The slight awkwardness to Alan Wake's movement is easy to ignore once you become entrenched in this gripping adventure. The mood is so beautifully represented and consistent throughout the game that you'll be hard pressed to tear yourself away.
Above all else, Alan Wake’s gripping storytelling really sells the protagonist as a famous author. Every moment of this story is fraught with tension. Wake's narration is filled with as many questions as answers because he has no explanation for the strange events occurring all around him. And the missing pieces from the manuscript, radio program, and television show are doled out in such deliberate chunks that they slowly string you along until the full secret is revealed at the end. The clever storytelling ties in with the dreary atmosphere, building on the fear established from the very beginning with subtle use of lighting and a moody musical score. Unfortunately, the path you march down rarely offers any surprises, which makes your actions take on a by-rote feeling after a while. But the combat is so satisfying that it's largely able to overshadow this misstep. Alan Wake is a riveting adventure that will keep you glued to the screen until the very end.

Red Dead Redemption (9.5/10)

This stunning Wild West epic raises the bar for open world action games, and stakes its claim as one of the most engaging games this year.

As you ride the train west from the northern city of Blackwater, you have no idea what's waiting for you in the frontier town of Armadillo at the end of Red Dead Redemption's intro sequence. Conversations between other passengers clue you in to the state of the nation, and a quick look out of the window tells you that the territories are as untamed as they are beautiful. But it's not until you step off the train in the well-worn boots of protagonist John Marston and have to sidestep a drunk staggering out of the saloon that you realize how alive the world feels, and how much fun you're going to have exploring it. Similarities with recent Grand Theft Auto games are immediately apparent in the controls and the HUD, though both have been improved in subtle but important ways. Those basics, in conjunction with excellent gameplay, a great story, and a sizable multiplayer suite make Red Dead Redemption something very special.

When you arrive in Armadillo for the first time, you're a small fish in an extremely large pond. None of the townsfolk have ever heard of John Marston, and they're too busy believably going about their business to pay you much attention unless you bump into them. The gameworld stretches for miles in every direction beyond the confines of the modest town, and if it weren't for a number of mandatory missions that deftly familiarize you with the controls and gameplay mechanics early on, the prospect of venturing out into the wilderness could be daunting. Marston is a deeply flawed but very likable protagonist, and therefore it doesn't take long for him to start making friends in the New Austin territory. One of them, a ranch owner whom you meet early in the game, gives you both a place to stay (which doubles as a place to save your progress) and a horse to call your own, and it's at this point that you're more or less free to do as you please. Marston's lengthy and occasionally surprising story is linear for the most part, but it's told through missions that don't always need to be completed in a specific order, and you're free to ignore them for a time if you'd rather just explore the giant Wild West sandbox you're playing in.
Whether you're galloping between locations where there are missions available or just trotting around aimlessly, Red Dead Redemption's world is a far easier one to get sidetracked in than most. That's because in addition to the dozens of excellent and varied story missions, there are countless optional undertakings to enjoy--most of which offer some tangible reward in the form of money, weapons, or reputation. While you're in town, you might choose to gamble at card and dice tables or tear a wanted poster from the wall and do some bounty hunting, for example. And when you're in the middle of nowhere, opportunities for gunfights and the like have a habit of presenting themselves or even forcing themselves upon you. Random strangers in need of help can show up at any time, and while it's a little jarring to find two or three strangers in the same predicament back-to-back, most of their requests are varied and fun for the short time that they take to complete. You might be called upon to retrieve a stolen wagon, to collect herbs, or even to rescue someone being hanged from a tree. There's no penalty for ignoring strangers, but when you help them you collect a small reward and become a little more famous in the process.
Fame is interesting in Red Dead Redemption, because it's measured alongside but independently of your honor. Regardless of whether you're doing good deeds or bad, becoming increasingly famous is inevitable as you progress through the game. How people react when they recognize you is determined by your honor, though, which can be positive or negative. If you spend your time acting dishonorably, townsfolk might be terrified of you, but if you're considered a hero, they'll go out of their way to greet you and might even applaud as you ride into town. Either way, there are pros and cons to becoming something of a public figure. People won't bother to report you when you steal a horse if you're famous, and any bounty hunters or posses that come after you when there's a price on your head will take twice as long to try again after failing the first time, for example. On the flip side, as you make a name for yourself you become a target for gunslingers who are looking to make names for themselves, and so you're challenged to duels that play out entirely using the game's slow-motion "dead eye" mechanic.
In duels, even though speed is a factor, dead eye affords you an opportunity to place your shots precisely. The head is the most obvious target, but occasionally you might be required to (or wish to) win a duel without actually killing your opponent. With practice, you can shoot a gun out of an enemy's hand as he makes his move, which is especially satisfying and makes you more famous than killing someone outright. Dead eye can be used in much the same way during regular play, but a slowly replenishing meter limits how often you can trigger it, and given how effective the lock-on targeting system is, you're unlikely to need it much. With the exception of sniper rifles, you can lock on to enemies from a great distance with any weapon. Then, once you're locked on, you can tweak your aim to target a specific part of your enemy. Nudge your aim up just a touch, and there's a good chance you'll get a one-hit-kill headshot. (You do that so often that it's likely to become a reflex every time you raise your weapon). However, you don't always want to kill your enemies, because, for example, once you learn to use a lasso, you have the option to bring bounties in alive. It's more challenging, but it also doubles your reward, and it's extremely satisfying to shoot a criminal in the leg so that he falls to ground and can only try to crawl away, hog-tie and slump him over the back of your horse, and then deliver him to the local sheriff.
You can also use your lasso to rope wild horses, which is a fun way to upgrade or just replace the mount that you spend so much time with. After catching a wild horse, you wait for just the right moment to mount it and then, via a simple minigame in which you maintain your balance as the horse tries to buck you, you break it. Initially, you might want to change your horse just to get a color that you like (there are lots to choose from), but it's also fun to keep a lookout for rare breeds, because they not only look a little more impressive but are also noticeably quicker. Regardless of what kind of horse you ride (including those that are pulling carts and wagons), the responsive controls work in the same way and make it easy to adjust your speed from a walk to a trot, canter, or gallop. You also have the option to match your speed with that of any character you're riding alongside, which is incredibly useful.
As you spend more time with the same horse, it rewards your loyalty by increasing the length of its energy bar, which determines how long it can sprint at full speed. You shouldn't become too attached to your mounts, though, because Red Dead Redemption's world is both a dangerous place and one in which horses occasionally behave unpredictably. There's nothing wrong with a horse walking around a little when you climb off it, but if you leave it close to a deep river, you run the risk of losing it if--as we witnessed on one occasion--it stupidly steps in, because, like you, horses can't swim. Horses also have a habit of not staying put when you tie them to a hitching post, so you then need to whistle for them to come to you from wherever they've ended up or run the risk of inadvertently stealing someone else's identical mount. Other, more avoidable ways to lose a horse include its getting shot by enemies or attacked by wild animals, though the controls for shooting from the saddle are good enough that you really have only yourself to blame if that happens.
Red Dead Redemption's varied wildlife adds a great deal to the world and also makes it a dangerous place to let your guard down. Crows, hawks, eagles, and vultures fly overhead; armadillos, raccoons, deer, and skunks try to stay out of your way; and cougars, coyotes, wolves, and even snakes can be dangerous if they see you before you see them. All of these species and lots more inevitably cross your path, and whether they're solitary creatures or hunting as a pack, their behavior is always believable. Furthermore, all of these animals can be hunted and then--via an animation that sees blood spattering on the screen--harvested for their skins, meat, and other valuable body parts. Beavers, boars, bobcats, bears, buffalo, bighorn--all have something to offer, and all pose a slightly different challenge.
Other than the fun of the hunt, the main reason to kill most of these animals is so that you can sell the aforementioned body parts to a store owner the next time you're in town. Sometimes, though, there are additional incentives in the form of ambient challenges that, as the name suggests, reward you for objectives that you might complete in the course of regular gameplay. For example, sharpshooter challenges include shooting people's hats off and shooting birds out of the sky from a moving train. Hunter challenges, on the other hand, include one-shotting grizzly bears and taking down a pack of wolves using only a knife. For a change of pace, treasure hunter challenges present you with a treasure map that often amounts to little more than sketches of a landmark, and challenge you to locate the treasure hidden nearby. You become a little more famous every time you complete one of these challenges, and beating a significant number of them is a requirement for unlocking at least one of the different outfits that Marston can change into.
Marston is an impressively detailed character whose scarred face and default outfit play big parts in making him wholly believable as a 30-something gunslinger. Other than donning a bandana that covers much of your face (and hides your identity so that you don't affect your fame or honor while performing certain actions), there's nothing you can do about the scars, but by putting on a different outfit you can change how certain people react to you. There are more than a dozen different outfits to discover and unlock. Some of them, like the duster jacket and the poncho, are easy to unlock and offer no real benefit other than making you look even more dangerous. Others, though, such as military and gang uniforms, can be obtained only after completing multiple challenges, and wearing them makes certain factions more accepting of you. There are even a couple of outfits that can make gambling more fun: one gives you the option to cheat anytime you deal in a game of poker, and another--acquired by signing up for the Rockstar Social Club--grants you access to a high-stakes game.
Believe it or not, even while cheating at cards and gunning down hundreds of enemies, it's possible--with only one exception during a plot-critical mission--to make it through Red Dead Redemption's entire story without ever getting on the wrong side of the law. It's fun to play as a heroic bounty hunter, but it's also fun to be chased by one, or several. Much like the system in GTA, being spotted committing a crime alerts local law enforcement, and until you outrun them, they pursue you relentlessly. Your crimes aren't completely forgotten the moment you escape in Red Dead Redemption, though, because every crime that you commit raises the bounty on your head, and the only way to clear that is to visit a telegraph operator and either pay the amount of your bounty yourself as a fine or present him with a letter of pardon--which isn't easy to come by. It's a great system, because in conjunction with fame and honor it really makes you feel like your actions have lasting consequences.
Depending on how much time you spend completing optional challenges, Red Dead Redemption's single-player mode can take you anywhere from 20 to 40 hours to play through. If you're in a rush to get through the game for some reason, you can use stagecoaches and quick travel options to move between key locations on the gigantic map instantly, but there's so much fun to be had out in the wilderness that bypassing those areas isn't recommended. You should also know that while bugs and glitches are few and far between, there's at least one stagecoach driver who apparently isn't great at math and might inexplicably charge you $100 (not an insignificant sum of money, given that it's enough to buy property) on top of the quoted price for a journey. Other problems worthy of note during our 30-plus hours in single-player included a conversation between Marston and another character in which only Marston's lines could be heard, an attempt to crouch behind a decrepit overturned wagon that resulted in Marston being thrown high up into the air, and a cutscene in which two versions of the same character--one injured and animated, one neither--appeared alongside each other. You might also notice characters having some pathfinding problems when confronted by hitching posts, stacks of crates, and the like, but beyond these extremely rare issues, the world of Red Dead Redemption is very difficult to find fault with. It looks incredible, it sounds superb (though the excellent soundtrack occasionally swells up without reason), and it's just a fun place to spend time regardless of what you're doing or whom you're doing it with.
In addition to its lengthy single-player offering, Red Dead Redemption boasts a good number of multiplayer modes that support both competitive and cooperative play. No matter which mode you want to play, all multiplayer sessions start out in Free Roam. Here, you and up to 15 other players are free to do whatever you please with the entire gameworld at your disposal. You can shoot each other, you can cause trouble with townsfolk, you can form posses to complete gang hideout missions, or you can become the session's most wanted outlaw and then kill or steer clear of any other players who come looking to collect the bounty on your head. Your character in Free Roam mode is persistent, and as you earn experience points you gain access to additional character models, better weapons, and superior mounts. It's unfortunate that you don't get to design a character from scratch, and it can be frustrating to enter Free Roam as a level-one player riding a burro and armed only with a pistol, but it doesn't take long to level up, and even high-level players can be killed with just a few bullets if you can get close to them.
When you enter competitive online modes, you don't get to use your persistent character, and everyone is on a level playing field. The five modes on offer are free-for-all and team-based versions of Shootout and three versions of Capture the Bag. Clearly, these modes are variations on the traditional deathmatch and capture-the-flag themes, but they do more than just apply a Wild West lick of paint to them. For starters, all multiplayer games kick off with an awesome standoff in which all players stand around in a circle (or in two opposing lines if it's a team game) and wait for all hell to break loose when the word "Draw" appears on the screen. And in Capture the Bag modes, the bags of gold that you carry weigh you down so that you move more slowly, making you an easy target in the free-for-all Gold Rush and making escorts or cover fire vital in the team-based Hold Your Own.
Between the Free Roam and competitive modes, there's enough great multiplayer content to keep you playing Red Dead Redemption long after you've watched the credits roll at the end of the superb single-player mode and gone back in to finish up any optional challenges and missions that you missed. This is an outstanding game that tells a great story with memorable and occasionally laugh-out-loud-funny characters. Think about great moments that you remember from spaghetti Western movies, put them all into one 20- to 40-hour epic feature, and picture yourself in the starring role. Now you have some idea of what's waiting for you in Red Dead Redemption.