Red Dead Redemption is a game that should be experienced by all
Rockstar are completely deserving of their name. Along with other great developers like Blizzard and Valve, the Grand Theft Auto masters belong to a tier of gaming visionaries who can essentially do no wrong. Of course, Grand Theft Auto was developed by Rockstar North whereas Red Dead Redemption was created by Rockstar San Diego, but the games are very similar in some respects. The biggest things both games have going for them are their deep, intriguing stories and the respective worlds that they have these tales take place in. I can't help but draw parallels to Grand Theft Auto IV over the course of this review, as the gameplay featured has is supported by many of the same pillars, but that was already a great game and Red Dead manages to stand tall beside it. Red Dead Redemption is probably the best video game ever inspired by the Western genre, and if either the open world genre of video games or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (or both) are to your liking, this game probably is for you.
Much like in GTA, the story progresses by way of missions that various quest-givers tell you to complete. There are multiple smaller stories within the overall branch, and the characters are always interesting and, as is Rockstar's wont, voiced with huge skill by a talented set of voice actors. Standouts are Marston himself, his nemesis Dutch and the police officer that keeps bossing him around throughout the game named Edgar Ross.
The storyline brilliantly portrays the racism, the misogyny and the brutality of those times. As you might expect, the humour is definitely there to keep it all light, but the game treats these themes with the precise amount of seriousness. It is extremely impressive. Again, much like in that car-stealing franchise, the story and its characters in particular is the main drive and one of the two biggest reasons why everyone should play this game.
The other reason is the world itself. Rockstar has really outdone itself here. The Western feeling is portrayed so well that it made me want to go look at some Western movies when I had finished the game. In fact, my respect for the setting has greatly increased after having played Red Dead Redemption, as the Old West was something that I didn't have too much interest in before.
The overworld represents parts of North America and Mexico and is filled with absolutely beautiful sights. I will never forget the first time I rode to the top of one of the mountains and managed to frame the perfect image of the lone rider looking out into the sunset. Red Dead still rolls on pretty much the same engine as GTAIV did, and as such there are games out there that look better, but the vistas were some of the very best I've ever had the pleasure of seeing. Riding across a grassy plain at great speed, chasing after wild horses is an exhilarating experience.
The horses in Red Dead are some of the best since Shadow of the Colossus' Agro. Getting them up to speed and keeping them there can take some getting used to when you first start the game, but once you figure out the rhythm to tapping the A button, you can pretty much keep your horse galloping at all times without having it ever run out of stamina. You can yank riders off their horse and attain one that way, but you'll mostly be chasing one with a lasso in hand. After that, a short mini-game will take place that has you balancing yourself atop the buckling horse. Keep this up long enough and the horse will be yours. And while I didn't necessarily build up a relationship with my horse, it did always make me feel bad when I accidentally had it die, be it for some stupid and hilarious reason (e.g. I accidentally shot it in the back of the head as I was hunting deer out in the Great Plains) or by the hand of an enemy. If you've ever played GTA without cheat codes, you might know the heartbreaking feeling of losing a flashy sports car that you only ever so rarely come across because you drove it into the water. Thankfully, John Marston can purchase a good horse from a vendor in the various towns scattered across America, which allows you to receive a new horse of the same type by whistling for it. This is a really clever way to avoid frustration, because there is nothing worse than having no transport in a game where just about all places or interest are separated by huge tracks of land (though, again, those tracks of land are always nice to look at.)
The missions manage to switch things up quite a bit over the course of the game. While any game can be boiled down to “go here, shoot guys, return”, Red Dead always managed to give me a new weapon, an intriguing scenario or a nice environment such as a fortress or a forest to work my way through. The great cutscenes from GTAIV are matched here. You'll grow to hate most of the people attempting to boss John around soon enough, but justice always gets served in the end and the characters are always so interesting that they feel like a reward for performing any given task.
In fact, the ending of the game is so satisfying that it deserves special mention here. Rockstar's game tricks you again and again, having you shape your own version of the truth before being thrown a new twist that turns everything on its head again. Multiple times, I thought that I had just witnessed the ending of the game, only to have the game load right back up and allow me to continue. There are many plot threads to resolve, but unlike a Metal Gear Solid, Marston resolves it all. As the final credits rolled, I experienced a complete sense of closure that I rarely come across in games. I had lived through this game with this troubled man, and seeing the way it all ended up was just great.
The gunplay has also been retooled ever so slightly since Niko Bellic's adventure. Because the whole game takes place in a transitional era of upcoming technology, there are some classic guns like the Cattleman Revolver and some of the more 'crazy' weapons like sniper rifles and gatling guns. You can take cover and pop out to shoot enemies. If you get into a tight spot, you can use “Dead Eye” to slow down time and mark spots that you're aiming for with little crosses. After you exit Dead Eye, the true gunslinger in cowboy Marston will rise and shoot them all in rapid succession. It's a great and flashy way to quickly get rid of a lot of enemies, and probably one of the most fun mechanics in the game.
There are plenty of missions, strongholds and other random activities to complete. All the gambling games you might imagine in the classic saloon setting are present, and stuff like poker and Liar's Dice double as a great distraction and a source of cash. I reckon I've already spent around two and a half hours just sitting at a poker table, trying to bluff at my NPC opponents. If a mini-game manages to be that compelling, you know that a game is on the right track. Of course, there are some inferior distractions as well, such as a quite plainly terrible horse shoe-throwing side activity.
On top of that, there are plenty of random events in the world such as women being assualted by drunks in a sexual frenzy or men being robbed. Other than that, there are also “strangers”, encounters with individuals that have something interesting to say and may send you on an errand of some sort. Surprisingly enough, these sequences were as entertaining to me as most of the story cutscenes. There is some hilarious stuff in here, and some slightly discomforting stuff as well. Above all, these self-contained micro-stories show off just how good Rockstar San Diego are at sketching worthwhile characters and getting a few laughs out of the player while they're at it.
There is a minor choice system in the game that awards you points for either doing the right thing or being evil and abstaining from putting yourself in danger. Honestly, it seems like moral systems were just fashionable in gaming at the time and that the meter was put in just for that reason, as I noticed no real effects on the gameplay. The only thing that changed was that nuns often came up to me asking for money because I had a good reputation, which seems like it is hardly a reward for helping people out.
There is also a substantial multiplayer component to RDR, but it did little to compel me. The world is open for you to explore with up to 8 players in Free-Roam, or you can get into some action quickly by choosing one of the competitive modes. The thing is that New Austin and Mexico are really big places, and a mere 8 players make it all feel really empty. Adding to that is a lack of NPCs when you play online, and the fact that most of the distractions in the main game aren't available in multiplayer. Honestly, the only things you can do are to shoot other players, or to shoot NPCs alongside other players. That's perfectly fine, but the ability to play poker, for example, should have been in there from the get-go. As it stands, you have to pay a sum of money for a DLC pack that includes this ability, but that is hardly any consolation. As a big fan of GTAIV's Free Mode, I had expected to adore Red Dead's online modes, but I found it to be a very hollow experience.
Nonetheless, Red Dead Redemption is an absolute gem, and one that you should really play. Its focus on the Old West theme is executed to perfection, its gameplay is fun and its story is one of the best to have come along in recent years, not to mention its ending, which might just be the most satisfying climax I have ever seen to a game. Rockstar San Diego is worthy of commendation for their achievement, and what better way to reward them than by going out and putting down some money for it. It will be worth your while, I assure you.