In addition to bad action, kung fu, and the geek staple sci-fi/fantasy movies, I’m a huge fan of Westerns. Be it old-school oaters like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 60s fare like The Wild Bunch or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, or modern reinventions of the genre like Unforgiven or Tombstone, I’m game. Horses, six-guns, outlaws, shoot-outs…what’s not to love? But as an avid gamer, the genre has been almost criminally under-represented over the years. There are a few notable titles scattered over the past few console generations, but mostly it gets overlooked in favor of gritty war games or visually inventive flights of fancy. Enter Red Dead Redemption.
Rockstar Games’ “spiritual successor” to 2004’s modestly successful Red Dead Revolver stays true to the studio’s proven open-world sandbox roots, shifting away from the dense urban environs of the Grand Theft Auto franchise in favor of the sprawling open plains and deserts of the Old West. You play as former outlaw John Marston, a surprisingly erudite man attempting to leave the ugliness of his past behind, recruited/blackmailed into service by the federal government to track down his former gang leader and associates. Reluctantly strapping on the six-gun, Marston ventures back out into the dangerous wilds of the U.S./Mexico border country to hunt down his former friends.
[ad#longpost]The first thing that struck me about the story presented is the timing. Set in 1911, the game immediately establishes a certain distance from the “traditional” Western tale…the world and way of life that Marston is being forced back toward is dying, ridden under by the inexorable tide of Western expansion and technological progress. Even your earliest conversations with the residents of the frontier town of Armadillo reinforce this idea, with a great deal of muttered resentment about increasing federal interference into what was previously a very independent and self-reliant place. This also casts Marston as even more of an outsider than the typical Western anti-hero: he’s not just a throwback to a wilder time that is slowly disappearing, he’s been actively co-opted by the encroaching federal government to help them “domesticate” the region. Sent by parties he has no love for to hunt down friends he no longer claims, and resented by the very townsfolk he is ostensibly making safer, Marston’s a sympathetic character without being too angst-ridden or too romanticized.
Gameplay will be immediately familiar to any veteran of Rockstar’s GTA titles. The sprawling setting is filled with people that have information and help that Marston needs, but all require a few favors before delivering on their end of the bargain. In addition, there are a host of lesser concerns–bounties to hunt, broncos to break, gambling, duels in the street, hunting game and selling furs–that provide opportunities to the player looking for a bit of extra scratch or just a break from the story to digest the latest developments. As with the GTA games, this leads to the one immersion-breaking aspect of the whole affair: if Marston is such a dangerous man, why would he put up with being strung along by the various wastrels and low-lifes that have the info he wants? It’s a minor quibble, but about the fourth time a certain snake-oil salesman sends you on some fool’s errand rather than tell you what he knows, you’ll want to shoot the old man in the knees ’til he talks just as badly as I did.
In addition to the more structured activities, the very “alive” nature of the world around you provides some entertaining and challenging distractions as well. While riding the trails from town to a bandit hideout, you may encounter a stagecoach robbery in progress, or lawmen chasing an outlaw at full-tilt across the plains. In these situations, you’ve always got the choice to play it as an upstanding citizen or revert to your outlaw roots, acquiring fame (or infamy) and honor (or dishonor) as you do. Rack up a sufficiently high bounty on your head, and your troubles will be amplified by law enforcement seeking your head and townsfolk afraid to deal with you at all. Out in the wilds, you’ll also find “Strangers,” denizens of the frontier that have some particular problem or request that you can help them deal with. To date, most of these sidequests have invariably taken turns to the dark and deeply weird/disturbing, which raises certain suspicions in me about the overarching narrative and setting that I can’t get into without spoiling things (especially if my hunch proves correct as I complete the last third of the game). Perhaps in a later post protected safely by spoiler cuts.
Multiplayer modes include all the standard shooter fare we’ve come to expect: deathmatch games, capture the flag variants, etc. The “Gold Rush” mode adds a new wrinkle to CTF gameplay, as collecting the titular bags of gold slows down your movement speed, making you an easier target. This adds a certain level of strategic thinking and timing to the mode that is at least slightly novel. Where RDR’s multiplayer really shines, though, is the Free Roam mode, which opens up the entire enormous single player map. Therein, you can form posses with other players, and ride throughout the land fighting bandits (AI-controlled), holding up stagecoaches (likewise), hunting wild game, running from the law, or fighting other players. The open-ended nature of this game mode makes it feel more like an MMO than a shooter, and it’s a hell of an experiment. While public free roam matches are prone to the same kinds of griefing douchebaggery any PvP-oriented MMO is, the private free roam still allows for accumulation of experience points, so those not interested in being repeatedly hunted by players thirty levels their senior can still advance themselves.. Taking a cue from the enormous popularity of the Modern Warfare games, additional levels unlock new weapons, character models, and mounts, as well as “brag” titles to display over your character name.
Technically, the game is up to Rockstar’s typical high standards. The visuals are stunning and character animations (particularly facial expressions and dialogue sync) are very good indeed. Special mention goes to their obviously extensive work on horse animations — the animals move and react in an uncannily natural manner, surpassing any such effort I’ve seen in previous games. Sound design is likewise excellent, with a strong score punctuated by event-driven changes to enhance the mood in tense sequences and slow it down in reflective moments. The voice acting is fantastic, which is crucial in keeping players engaged. The actors really dive into their roles with some range and emotion–an all-too-rare occurrence in video game voice work. The controls feel tight and, after a short learning curve, fairly intuitive, though driving a wagon or stagecoach remains a touch on the awkward side. There have been numerous stories elsewhere and a fair number of YouTube videos depicting glitches in the game or freezing problems, but I confess after 40+ hours of play, I haven’t encountered anything of the kind.
Rockstar has knocked one out of the park here, dropping what I think is their best open-world effort to date. Those more intrigued by GTA’s setting than its gameplay might not be hooked, but if the lure to you is the vast open world to play in, RDR is right down your alley. For those that can quote the odd line from Tombstone or Silverado, this one is a must-play.
Click here to buy Red Dead Redemption for Xbox 360 from Amazon.
Click here to buy Red Dead Redemption for PS3 from Amazon.
Click here to buy Red Dead Redemption Strategy Guide from Amazon.
Click here to buy Red Dead Redemption OST (MP3 download) from Amazon.