No Country for Dumb Men
Red Dead Revolver was a modest action-shooter-game-thingy released on last generation’s consoles in 2004. I’d best describe it as an unorthodox spaghetti-western game with strange controls and a cast of cowboy archetypes that had the benefit of stylish load screens and trumpet-fueled music music. Red Dead Revolver is the non-sequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, and quite frankly you will not hear the name of the former game in this text review again on account to how little in common the two western games have.
No, Red Dead Redemption is less the sequel to that western game than it is the prequel to Grand Theft Auto 4. It would not surprise me to find that I accidentally shot up Brucie’s ancestor in after an arm-wrestling match in gone wrong.
In Grand Theft Auto 4, you play as a former soldier, transplanted from his home to hunt down a former colleague or colleagues that betrayed you. Your attempts to approach things in an honest, law-abiding manner fail, both because the characters around you are decidedly immoral and because gamers hate abiding by laws. So, you will have to indulge in legally-questionable activities (often involving loss of life) to find your former allies, and do a lot of civilian killing and television-watching if you so desired.
In Red Dead Redemption, you play as a former outlaw, transplanted from his home to hunt down a former colleague or colleagues that betrayed you. Your attempts to approach things in an honest, law-abiding manner fail, both because the characters around you are decidedly immoral and because gamers hate abiding by laws. So, you will have to indulge in legally-questionable activities (often involving loss of life) to find your former allies, and do a lot of civilian killing and cinema-watching if you so desired.
Honestly the biggest difference between Redemption and Grand Theft Auto 4 may be the lack of a sidewalk to veer off on, making it harder to accidentally rack up a Wanted level through reckless abandon. But all things considered, Grand Theft Auto 4 is not a bad mold to be borrowing for your sandbox concept, and Red Dead Redemption successfully plays to most of GTA’s strengths, sometimes even to greater ability.
For example, protagonist John Marston is effective in his role of Hillbilly Bellic. He’s got the same strengths and weaknesses as unrelated cousin Niko: he oozes sarcasm like a leaky barrel oozes rum, he sees through the insanity of the game’s sleazeball characters and he presents himself a respectable, moral-driven man. He does have that same problem Niko had in that all the cutscenes of him defending women and resenting his criminal past do nothing to stop would-be players from tossing a prostitute down a flight of stairs. And he also has that same gullible streak of bending over backwards for every single individual that claims to have “information.” It becomes a bit pathetic to watch the man so willingly slay armies of goons and make large sums of money for certain people because they claim to know something about his targets. Your employers include a variety of western-oriented GTA-castoffs, from the shady snake oil salesman to one or two drunkards, lending the first third of the game a friendly tinge of dark humour.
Then John takes a trip to Mexico, aka the no-fun-zone. The light-hearted parody of criminals fades in favor of a story about corrupt Mexican government battling corrupt Mexican revolutionaries. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps the biggest issue with Red Dead Redemption is that the pacing is rather uneven; you have the obligatory hour-plus of tutorial missions that Grand Theft Auto 4 subjected players to. Heaven forbid, you can’t go catching criminals without first learning how to herd cattle. Then there’s a rising build of drama leading towards your hunt of certain outlaws, and as you finally reach the end of that story arc…you conveniently remember about the leader of your former gang and begin a new quest to hunt him down. After that storyline hits a second peak, there’s another hour of drab, dénouement-oriented missions before the game hits its third climax and the campaign ends. (Actually, once the campaign ends, there’s a side mission you can complete that truly wraps up the plot and brings forth end credits and closure.) I shan’t spoil anymore, but I will justify the game in saying that the peaks of the game’s story are indeed interesting and the endgame is an inspiring twist for the sandbox genre.
Like Grand Theft Auto, it also helps that there is a decent variety of missions to complete. Mind you, there is nothing that compares to the creative odysseys of challenges in GTA4 or San Andreas; you won’t sign up to a gay online dating site to assassinate someone or break in Area 51 to steal a jetpack. But the game at least comes up with a reasonable number of variations on “attack the enemy base” and “fight off the enemies chasing you”, gradually introducing new gameplay mechanics at a humane pace. Most of the action comprises of duck-and-cover based shooting that has since become more the norm in video games than jumping on enemy heads. But the combination of the lack of automatic weapons in the 1900s and the typical outlaw’s poor nutrition makes gun combat a quick, blunt, satisfying affair; it typically takes two shots from your coarse rifles to take down any number of enemies. Unoriginal as it may be, gunning down large swarms of outlaws is more entertaining here than in the likes of Uncharted or Grand Theft Auto or even Gears of War.
Then you have Dead Eye, the one single holdover from Red Dead Re…I mean every western game from the last 6 years. Here, time slows down, allowing you to pick individual shots off several targets at once. The immediate logical use seems for Dead Eye would be to clear out a room of baddies, but I rather enjoy the more oddball purposes; such as sniping birds out of the sky, or blowing the firearm out of an enemy’s hands. As cathartic as virtual murder can be, I found greater enjoyment in disarming an enemy, then tying them up with the lasso, throwing them on the back of the horse and riding to the sheriff as they make assorted vows of violence. An assortment of the game’s side missions offer better rewards for bringing in outlaws alive and as a means of defying the sandbox genre’s typical pro-death message, I was happy to oblige.
Which brings forth the point that Red Dead Redemption is not a game with a want for more to do. At any given point, you can divulge in a bevy of side quests, many with their own story arc. Or you can hunt for bounties, take part in the neighbourhood watch (which is similar to a real-life neighbourhood watch, but with guns), gamble, go hunting, herd cattle, break in horses, raid gang hideouts, search for treasure or get drunk and engage in the most hilarious drunkard physics in gaming to date. Seriously, the bar from Grand Theft Auto 4 has been raised in the field of getting your character plastered and tripping over stairs.
The most interesting missions are the ones you don’t even know about; the game has a funny habit of throwing random events at you. Bandits may raid the town, strangers challenge you to duels, someone throws the idea of robbing a bank in your head, wild animals appear, or the most common of all; the hooker being abused. The town of has no respect for women. You can elect to ignore these events, or take action for the name of boosting your fame and honour. “Honour” is the obligatory good vs bad morality system that nigh every other game must feature, but Redemption smartly uses this in a passive manner, rather than forcing it down your throat the way titles like Imfamous or that last Spiderman game did. “Honour” is merely a reflection of how the people around you react; civilians may hate a scoundrel whom also earns the respect of fellow outlaws with poor dental hygiene, for example. In turn, this feels like a smarter use; enforcing the idea that you the player are in a breathing world that knows you exist and responds accordingly.
There are also a few odd quirks and strange features that hold back the experience; you’ll run into a handful of bugs and glitches; one sidequest cutscene is acted out by two talking, invisible figures, one pulling a con on the other, and their lack of errmm…presence made it hard to figure out what was going on or who I’m supposed to lasso. Another instance saw a herded cow fly off the face of the planet, Earthworm Jim-style, never to be seen until I rebooted my last save. I also wish the game’s quick-travel system was a tad less finicky at times. To quick-travel to a location, you must first start a fire and set up camp, which I presume is illegal to do in the middle of a town square or on a near a lake for whatever reason. I get that the game wants you to always take the scenic route and appreciate all the effort the developers put into their wild rabbit animations, or that the stagecoach drivers need income too. I don’t care. When I have the urge to gun down rustlers, I want those rustlers in front of my rifle now.
Finally, a note on the multiplayer; you can elect to play in ranked matches, which distill the experience into your basic deathmatch/team deathmatch/capture the flag variants. Likewise, a standard online session merely drops challenges, shoot each other, shoot the locals, gang up to shoot the locals and likewise. Playing this mode with strangers is kind of pointless, being that strangers will just mind their own business and take a dump or two in the woods. But as a means to goof off with a group of online buddies eager to exercise the second amendment, this mode is tops.
The cop-out final summary sentence for Red Dead Redemption is “if you like Grand Theft Auto 4, you’ll like this game.” True as it is, this game at least deserves credit for other successes. It’s the first western game that feels like a western game and not the mod of a more popular third of first person shooter. And for all intents and purposes, it may be the most “successful” sandbox game I’ve ever played. What I mean is that it’s the game that best leaves me feel like part of a virtual world in which I have true interaction with. Not in the canned “do this mission to free this percent of town from criminals” structure of Infamous or the virtual playground of cathartic death of Grand Theft Auto, but rather a living, breathing world that you can soak in the scenery and engage in activities befitting a cowboy-person-guy. And finally, this is the first real contender for the best game of 2010.
4 ½ stars