Looks like Mario Kart with Little Big Planet people, you might think when you see the game case for ModNation. Well, congratulations, you’re a video-game reviewer. There’s not too much to add to that knee-jerk assessment, other than: (1) the graphics don’t have LBP’s tactile stop-motion feel, and (2) funwise, the gameplay’s got nothing on Mario Kart (any version). But you do get to customize your little rag-doll racer to the point of tedium. The degree of detail under your control makes it entirely possible to spend hours of playtime without ever putting rubber on the road. Get the angle, texture, and shape of your character’s ears just so, then upload your handiwork to the ModNation server. Download a car someone else customized, then commit the runtime of Inland Empire to applying layer upon layer of skull decals to the body. And build your own racetrack, hopefully one you can actually come in first on.
Placing and showing in ModNation aren’t too difficult, but once the game’s career mode begins requiring you to win to advance, you’ll feel the pain of losing a photo finish to SOME RAT BASTARD WHO’S NOT EVEN USING HIS DAMN TURBO. He was eight car-lengths behind you 30 seconds ago — what the hell happened? It’s a frustration players of racing games with inferior AI have known for years — the computer-controlled cars suddenly double their horsepower once you pull ahead of the pack. In the interest of full disclosure I have to admit at this point that I suck pretty bad at a lot of video games — even ones I play regularly — so your mileage may vary. The best way around this is to play with other humans; it’s primarily a party game. Just don’t let that one annoying stoner friend of yours spend an hour angling the arc of his avatar’s eyebrows. You know the one we mean.
Red Dead Redemption
Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Sometimes it seems like Rockstar produces two types of games: solipsistic sandboxers like Grand Theft Auto, and stylish, cinematic shooters like Max Payne. Red Dead Redemption does nothing much to disabuse; it’s basically a combination of the two with a cowboy hat on top, and it’s just about as awesome as that sounds.
Red Dead Redemption lets you walk, run, and ride horseback for miles and miles in the boots of John Marston, a scar-faced Clint Eastwood stand-in, in a 30-plus hour mash-up of spaghetti westerns and Deadwood. Marston’s an outlaw turned family man forced to take down his old gang after government agents kidnap his wife and son. I strongly doubt that was standard operating procedure, even in 1909, but if your brain’s logic center has no off switch you must be one miserable gamer.
Redemption rewards your willful stupidity more than most; there’s an engrossing storyline underneath the goofy Texas (aka New Austin) twang. I spent the first few hours laughing at the cheesy dialogue between Marston and would-be love interest (if Marston weren’t a married man — morally, he’s closer to Marshall Dillon than the Man With No Name) Bonnie MacFarlane, but then got genuinely upset when failing a mission led to her death, even though it just meant hitting the redo button. Also, when my horse fell down a cliff and died, I replayed about 20 minutes of the game rather than get a new one, but if you tell anybody that I’ll deny it.
This brings up a key difference that keeps Redemption from becoming GTA: Horse Thief: You can’t just shoot a traveler off his horse every time you’ve got to get somewhere. Well, you can, technically, but you’ll have the law on your trail and you’ll lose honor points — the game’s way of keeping you honest. Any crime you commit sullies your reputation, which affects the way people treat you (most evident in the price of goods at stores). This system gives you decent incentive not to shotgun the unarmed townsfolk, but it becomes frustrating when you utilize Dead Eye — the game’s take on Max Payne’s bullet time — which allows you to slow down time while you select multiple targets simply by dragging your crosshairs over them. This comes in handy, for example, when you’re facing off against the sort of yellowbellied varmint who’d use a lady as a human shield. Deliver a pinpoint headshot before he can even think to pull the trigger, but get carried away and you’ll wind up Menendezing his captive (and both their horses, and any stray dog that happens to be walking by), too.
The other issue is a potentially bigger deal: Once you leave New Austin for Mexico (I’m not sure why Texas gets a pseudonym and Mexico doesn’t), it’s all cartoonish accents and sombreros, and a wizened white hombre who’s too much of a savior figure for his shit-hole town for my taste. I’m not really qualified to judge how offensive this is, but playing the role of a greeengo Texas gunslinger blasting holes in poncho-clad outlaws, especially given America’s current racial climate, makes me pretty uncomfortable. •