Usually known for the satire and comedic parodies of their flagship franchise – Grand Theft Auto – Rockstar Games has taken a more serious tone with their new take on the Old West, Red Dead Redemption. While the game’s open world structure is similar to that of GTA, Redemption is a more refined experience in both scope and story, and accomplishes more in terms of storytelling than most other games in the genre.
Set during the early 20th Century, Redemption’s narrative illustrates the taming of the Wild West, the growth of modern technology, and the ever-encroaching grip of federalized government. Trains and power lines can be seen passing through the larger towns and ranches, and the reports of a “flying machine” are mentioned on occasion. Even early automobiles can be found, though I’ve never spotted one in ‘the wild’ and none of the few parked cars can be driven.
The story chronicles John Marston, a cowboy/outlaw trying to change his life, as he tracks down the members of his former gang who left him for dead. His motive seems obvious at first, but as the plot progresses you learn that the real reason for finding these men is not his own. A lot of the needless side-missions of other open-world games are missing from Redemption, leaving a shorter, but more noteworthy, experience. Characters, as with any Rockstar title, are well voiced and the dialogue is on par with, if not better than, their last game - Grand Theft Auto 4. John Marston himself is well characterized with a rich history, as are many of the story’s supporting characters. These insights into the pasts of the game’s characters help to make the world feel just a bit more believable. Couple that with the stunning playground you inhabit and Rockstar has succeeded to make as real of a world as they ever have.
At times the environment of Red Dead Redemption can feel vibrant and full of life, or desolate, without a soul in sight. Wild animals dot the landscape, and can be as fierce as any human you encounter. Pack animals logically attack en masse, and retreat when their numbers are too few. Fighting a bear while on-foot is truly a nerve-racking experience. Animals can also be skinned and have their pelts and other leavings sold at any store.
There are also some human encounters out in the wilderness. These interactions can range from protecting a man from an animal attack, to wrangling up escaped prisoners, to even stopping a stagecoach heist, just to name a few. The issue here is the frequency at which these events vary. I’ve encountered several prisoner escapes and animal attacks, but have only once seen a stagecoach heist, which ended up with my horse being struck by a train. Some more variety would have been appreciated – for me, and my horse.
While exploring the terrain you also may come across humans in need of more than just immediate assistance. Characters represented by a question mark on your mini-map can be interacted with, and are the closest facsimile to side-missions in the game. Like the strangers you would meet in Grand Theft Auto 4, these interactions have their own cut-scenes and unique dialogue, and are given just as much care and attention as the main plot.
Red Dead Redemption also carries some of the old Western staples you would want. Bounties can be found in the major towns, currying a higher reward if the person is brought in alive. (This seems to be the best avenue for cash, so lasso in some fugitives if you’re strapped.) Gambling can be a good source of income, if you can master it. The usual Poker and Blackjack are present, but older games such as Liar's Dice and Five-Finger Fillet make an appearance. Be warned though, if you don’t know how to play and failed to read the tutorial, the interface on some of these game may be confusing.
That brings up another issue I have with how tutorials are given. With yet another similarity to GTA4, tutorials flash in the upper-left corner of your screen to teach you the aspect of the game you’re about to undertake. The problem is some of these tutorials flash too quickly, and I haven’t found a way to view them outside of either failing the task or immediately looking at the Journal section of the pause menu after they fade away. It would have been nice to have a space in the menus just for tutorials, unless I’ve somehow missed that section entirely.
The reason I bring this up is that when the game was teaching me how to duel, I didn’t read all of the text that was on-screen. Then, when given the task, I barely managed to draw my gun and kill the man. Even now, I’m still not completely sure how to properly duel. More encounters end with either wiping sweat off of my brow or having to start from my last save.
The multiplayer portion of Red Dead Redemption has the standard game modes you’re accustomed to seeing. Deathmatch modes have been renamed “Shootout” and Capture the Flag is instead titled “Capture the Bag.” (Where the flags found in other games are replaced with bags of gold, which appear on the field by lightning bolt.) The lock-on targeting system used in the single-player game is thankfully optional in multiplayer, but certain modes have it turned off by default. Lock-on targeting has always felt like a crutch for new or casual players; so if you’re not a fan of it, find a play-list that doesn’t use it.
Aside from the more competitive game-types, Redemption has the same free-roam mode as in GTA4. In this area, Red Dead Redemption feels an awfully lot like a miniature MMO. The entire game-world is open to you and up to 15 others, with hideouts and challenges – also found in single-player – to tackle either solo or co-operatively. Hideouts act very similar to ‘instances’ found in games like World of Warcraft, acting as replayable areas that net you larger amounts of XP. Challenges are reminiscent of quests found in role-playing games; usually mundane tasks that you complete to earn more experience.
A fairly deep level of character customization helps to personalize your avatar. Completing challenges and gaining levels will unlock weapons, player skins, mounts, and titles for your personage. Aside from weapons these unlocks are only aesthetic, so don’t expect an advantage from having a bull as a mount.
Rockstar has done stellar work at creating both a believable world and an excellent story. Their skill with the open-world genre shines through again, as well as the awesome soundtrack. Some odd bugs and freezes/crashes have occurred, and hopefully will be fixed at a later date. Aside from occasional performance issues, Red Dead Redemption is absolutely one of the best games I’ve played in recent years.