Step in front of a runaway train, just to feel alive again.
Despite being big on the silver screen, there really haven't been a ton of western video games and even fewer good ones. Sure you've got your Call of Juarez, Gun, and Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist but in general, we're all about space marines, military shooters, and sexy ladies playing beach volleyball. Now, Rockstar has given the past as much attention as the present or future with Red Dead Redemption, a game where you slip into the boots of frontiersman John Marston and embark on an epic journey for atonement.
You'll be controlling Marston as he navigates the sprawling landscape on foot, horseback, stagecoach, or even motorized buggy thing. While there's a story present, the nature of the game doesn't exactly force you to follow any specific path though you'll probably want to see how the entire tale unfolds... That and there's about half of the gigantic map that won't be available until you do. Instead, you'll be able to head off and hunt any number of wild animals, accept bounties, gather flowers, or partake in a fairly good number of minigames. I personally spent plenty of time throwing horseshoes, but there are also fully realized and entertaining Texas Hold'em, Blackjack, Liar's Dice and Five Finger Filet minigames. If for whatever reason you're angry that someone just won a huge pot in Hold'em, feel free to whip out your double barrel shotgun and dispatch his cheatin' self.
Considering the sandbox nature of the game and the obvious comparisons to previous Rockstar titles, Red Dead Redemption made it difficult for me to really play the bad guy. Not mechanically of course, if I wanted to I still could have rolled up on some prostitute, lassoed her, and pulled her behind my horse until she expired. No, what I'm talking about is a sense of morality. You're in the old west where it's perfectly acceptable to blow the head off of someone who just stole your horse. While that doesn't necessarily relate to today's justice, it really kind of removes the need to act like a complete jackhole and still get your job done. Thus, going in and role playing as Marston felt much more satisfying than being a random psychopath. This also helped with the game's Fame and Honor system, as well as keeping the bounty on my head non-existant.
Helping out random strangers and completing story missions will earn you points towards fame, honor, or both. The more famous you become, the more people of the world will turn a blind eye to your actions and some will even think they're better than you, challenging you to duel. You'll be become more feared or loved on the Honor scale in response to how you handle situations and each notch on that belt will bring specific perks. Going down the wrong path will bring about a bounty on your head and people who will look to collect on that. You'll be able to get pardon letters to help clear your name, or you can just pay off the bounty. Money isn't exactly falling off of trees though, so you may want to put on a bandana before you decide to go on a murderous rampage. Sometimes the game doesn't really do a great job of explaining all the different systems at play, so it may take some getting used to. I'm still not entirely sure why I win or lose while dueling folks.
John's mission isn't a clean one by any means and you simply can't get through without skinning your smoke wagon, but at least there's an honest purpose to his actions. Marston was once an outlaw running with a gang of would be Robin Hoods until life caught up with him. Deciding to settle down with a wife and child, he left his gang only to be pulled back into the fold by Edgar Ross who serves at the primary antagonist. Ross, who is a government agent, kidnaps Marston's family and tasks him to take out his old running mates or never see his family again. The tale is well crafted being very western in style and substance, including some very cool and deliberate pacing particularly during the climax and resolution, and I personally became very invested in many of the main characters, particularly John himself.
While performing various tasks during the story, you'll travel through one of the coolest deserts you'll ever see in a video game. It isn't just a bunch of sand either, Rockstar spent plenty of time throwing brush, tumbleweed, points of interest, and small towns all over the map. The attention to detail is quite impressive and it really is one of the nicest looking environments around. You'll even roll through canyons and gang hideouts with varying terrain on your trusty steed. Animation is handled by the Euphoria engine found in games like Backbreaker andThe Force Unleashed, so you'll get some really cool reactions. Shoot someone off a horse and there's a chance their foot will get stuck in a stirrup while their horse gallops onward; blast at a horse's legs and watch it crumple as its rider is jettisoned with a graceful sense of pain. There's even a full day/night and weather cycle with impressively cool thunderstorms.
Along with this impressive use of graphical and animation technology comes a very potent and gripping soundtrack. For the majority of the game it's primarily instrumental with period and location specific tone. Additionally, the voice acting for just about everyone in the game is great and Rockstar actually took the effort to ensure if an on-screen character's got a cigar or cigarette in their mouth, they actually sound like they do. When you finally make it to Mexico, keep your ears peeled for one of the single coolest uses of music ever in a video game.
As a complement to the single player, there is a fully realized multiplayer component available called Free Roam. While taking place within the same landscape as John Marston's tale, this is a completely separate, somewhat persistant mode where you'll be able to assault gang hideouts, assault each other, or play a few different version of capture the flag by going after bags of gold. Completing certain tasks will gain you experience points which will eventually get you to level 50, unlocking something for you each step of the way. You get customized titles, different (and better) horses, and a ton of different character models you can use. I found the most enjoyment in joining a posse and taking down each of the game's gang hideout locations, but was disappointed that the minigames weren't available to play and the somewhat empty world felt a bit too soundstage instead of a real bustling arena.
It's certainly strange coming into the summer months and having multiple contenders for game of the year, but Red Dead Redemption is squarely in the running. A huge world with a mountain of content, beautiful landscapes, tremendous soundtrack, and wonderfully crafted story, this is likely the best western game you'll ever play.
- One of the best looking games around. Who thought the desert could be so captivating?
- Great western story that hits all the right notes and paces itself in old cinema fashion.
- Multiplayer isn't some throwaway mode; it's pretty awesome.
- Clint Eastwood's mexican poncho.
- Quirks of the sandbox formula still exist.
- Some gameplay systems aren't really explained well.
- The weapon selection radial menu sucks.