Our Story So Far: Redeemed

 
Red Dead Redemption is the best game Rockstar has ever made.  Let that comment sink in for a minute.  If you don't already know, Rockstar is the company behind the Grand Theft Auto series.  Aside from whipping up a media frenzy, the GTA games have been best known for their ability to push video games forward.  Much of their development is geared towards creating huge open worlds where anything can happen, and the player can pursue the story at their own pace (or not pursue it at all).  For this reason, I would say Grand Theft Auto 4 was a more important game than Red Dead Redemption, as its engine made incredible bounds in creating a believable world and some decent gameplay within it.  GTA 4 had a bunch of issues, though, that eventually wore down my good will and left me feeling more bitter about it than it probably deserved.  Red Dead Redemption takes all the issues I had with GTA 4 and fixes them, and in my eyes it well surpasses the game it was built off of.

Red Dead Redemption takes place out in the dying days of the Old West, during the early years of the twentieth century.  The Industrial Revolution of the East Coast has made its way into the Wild West and begun to tame it.  Automobiles, gatling guns, and steam engines are all finding their way out into the formerly lawless regions, and "civilization" is finally making its mark.  You take control of John Marston, a former outlaw who has tried to leave his past behind him.  Unfortunately there are those who are unwilling to let him do so, and so John is forced to go hunt down a former member of his old gang, Bill Williams on, and bring him to justice.  As the game opens, you're left to believe that the battle between these two men will be the main conflict of the story.  But as you learn what is forcing John to hunt his one time friend, you soon see things aren't so simple.  John Marston has to deal with some shady, naive, and sometimes downright despicable characters to try and finish his mission.  The West that Red Dead Redemption paints is the dirty and violent kind, not the noble and heroic one of the classic Westerns.  This is the Deadwood style Western, so expect plenty of brutal violence and racism here.  Yet John usually tries to stay above all that, wanting only to do his job and go home.

The character of John Marston can actually clash with the open world that Rockstar has created here.  You can live out your fantasies of being a heroic gunslinger or a down and dirty outlaw.  If you want to hunt down criminals, save people from wild animals, and defend stagecoaches, you can do so.  If you want to rob banks, travellers, and trains, well you can do that too.  The world is yours to do with as you please (though the world will react to you accordingly).  But if you turn criminal, that doesn't seem to reflect in the way John acts through the story.  He remains former outlaw who has tried to turn a new leaf.  Or I guess I should say I assume he does.  I didn't really break the law very much, though I do confess to shooting my poker opponents now and then.  I felt bad about it, though, so I'd always reload my last save afterward.
 
Speaking of which, I found myself spending a ton of time playing cards in game.  I have no idea why.  I mean, I'm still just playing Poker and Blackjack against a computer.  The game just does such a good job with its atmosphere that sitting down to gamble on the cards just feels right.  You really feel like you're playing against other people (until they start getting way too lucky, leading you to be convinced the game is cheating).  And I love how the cards look slightly worn and dirty too.

 
 
That's one of the great things about Red Dead Redemption: it does a fantastic job of creating an authentic feeling atmosphere.  You just feel like this is the Old West.  I felt like this is how is must have been, even though I have no idea what it was really like.  Atmosphere is something GTA4 did really well, and this game follows right along with it.  Most of the game is wilderness, and there are many different regions with their own distinct look.  And all of them look gorgeous.  The graphics in this game are top notch, at least in terms of the world.  The people can look odd, sometimes, but they usually look just fine.  Red Dead's musical score fits just right as well, enhancing the game in just the right way without ever overpowering it.  It was so good that I actually bought the soundtrack, which I rarely do.  Adding to the atmosphere are the random encounters that pop up as you travel.  People get shot at, bandits try to lynch innocents, horses get stolen, etc.  These can get annoying as the game goes on, but you don't actually have to do any of them.  They just help the world to feel alive, rather than just a big empty place.
 
The gameplay itself is pretty good too.  It basically takes the gameplay of Grand Theft Auto 4, but I still feel like Red Dead improves that part too.  The health meter has finally been stripped out here and replaced by regenerating health.  I don't think regenerating health needs to be in every shooter, but it feels like a necessity in the Rockstar games.  I can't tell you how frustrated I got in GTA4 when I died near the end of a mission just because there wasn't a health pack nearby.  We also get a real checkpoint system in Red Dead.  Thank the good Lord above.  Those two factors were my biggest and most hated issues with GTA4, and are why I got so negative about that game.  It just plain sucked to die in that game.  I had to turn off the console after failing a mission near the end of GTA4 because I couldn't bear the thought of doing that whole mission over again.  It still kind of gets my blood pressure up to think about some of those moments.  Red Dead is a far better game in my opinion thanks to this reason.  Some might feel Red Dead is too easy now, but I felt way more compelled to keep on going than I ever did with GTA4.  If I died, it wasn't a big deal.  And it helped the game just flow better.  I may be milking the GTA comparisons a little too much here, but I want you to understand why I think this is such a big deal to me.  The multitude of frustrations I felt in GTA4 were almost completely gone in Red Dead Redemption.  Rockstar finally got their combat right.

Probably the biggest thing to get used to is riding a horse.  This is vital too, as you will be on horseback for the majority of this game.   Assassin's Creed 2 had a really simple and intuitive system for horseback riding, so it took me a while to figure out how Red Dead's system worked.  I kept expecting it to be like AC2, but Rockstar took a slightly different approach.  You have to tap on a button to increase speed, and then hold that button to maintain the speed.  It sounds simple, but it took me a while to finally get it to feel just right.  Once I got it, though, it worked really well (though I still kind of wish you didn't have to keep holding the button.  My thumb got kind of sore on long trips).  Traversing an open world can often feel like a chore as you progress in these kinds of games, but for some reason I never got tired of riding my horse around in this one.  Fast travel is an option here, and one I chose quite often, but I still loved to just set a path and ride.  That just must be a testament to how amazing the world is that they've made here.
 
But it was the story that was king to me.  The story and atmosphere blend together to make an unforgettable experience.  I cared about the story of John Marston and really wanted to see it through to the end.  There were other games I was playing at the time, but Read Dead Redemption always took priority.  The voice acting is top notch, and this helps to give each character their own personality.  This is a game that got its hooks into me from the opening scene, and they still haven't really let go (and I've been done with it for weeks now).  That's something special for a video game to pull off.  Simply put, Red Dead Redemption is one of the best games I've ever played, and absolutely the best game Rockstar has ever put out.  All the ideas that they've tried to pull off in their other games have finally come together in the right way here.  Yeah, they could still improve on this one too, but for once I don't feel like it was missing anything ( Bully may be the only other Rockstar game that fits this description.  Maybe I just feel the Grand Theft Auto games are lacking?  Maybe).

So is Red Dead Redemption my favorite game so far this year?  Actually, no.  And considering all the praise I've heaped on it up to this point, that should tell you how much I liked tomorrow's game.  If you read my intro to this "Best Of" series, you probably have an idea of what's coming.  So stop by tomorrow to see just how that game managed to take the top spot.
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