How the West Was Wanting
Warning: Mild, vague-ish spoilers in this review. It’s a patent-pending Late to the Party review, so I’m not too concerned.
I just finished Red Dead Redemption and, I have to say: it would’ve made a pretty good movie. However, that’s not something you want to say about a video game.
It’s impossible to spend more than fifteen minutes in the world of Red Dead Redemption without being overwhelmed by the game’s graphical fidelity. Everything in the world looks absolutely beautiful, from the muscles flexing realistically on your horse to the stunning landscapes you can explore on it. The animations are really top-notch as well, with the characters moving convincingly both in cutscenes and in combat. The facial animations were really believable and not at all robotic looking. The characters emoted with a lot of nuance and fidelity and it was often fairly easy to forget that the visuals were computer-generated.
But that’s only to speak to what the game looks like. How does the game play? Not very well, in my opinion.
It’s easy to dismiss the game as Grand Theft Auto with horses without playing it, but it’s even easier to do so once you’ve actually spent the 20 hours necessary to complete the main story thread. Anybody who’s played a Rockstar game should be (but apparently isn’t, given the game’s overwhelming positive reviews) immediately reminded of the missions of all of the Grand Theft Auto games. The game pretty much never stops sending you on wild goose chases or inserting you in glorified shooting galleries. The few mission types that are slightly more original aren’t very compelling either, as it pretty much consists of mind-numbing turret sequences and tedious cow herding. If I wanted to spend an hour farming (which isn’t that absurd of an estimate of how much time you spend wrangling animals over the entire game), I would play Harvest Moon.
Harvest Moon would probably be a much better time, as you would actually feel like you’re in control of something. In typical Rockstar fashion, your angry and violent protagonist just so happens to be the most patient, generous outlaw in the world. The next Rockstar game should just be titled GTA: All in Good Time, because that seems to be the stock line for story-critical NPCs in Rockstar games. Maybe I’m the crazy one, but I really feel like--after playing Red Dead Redemption--Rockstar is the most overrated game studio in the industry. Their games, in many ways, feel more formulaic than some of the most derided, oversequelized franchises of this generation.
Though Red Dead Redemption deals with your character somewhat more consistently than the Grand Theft Auto games (as there are fewer opportunities for mass slaughter followed by a cutscene of the protagonist regretting his violent past) there really are some frustrating elements of the plot. At one point John Marston exclaims, “I never was good at following orders.” Really, John? You and your Rockstar protagonist brethren do nothing but follow orders for the entire game. As someone who plays games to express my agency (which I thought most other people did as well), this makes for a really unsatisfying experience. When I was in the Mexico chapter, I thought I’d finally found a bit of the story that was meaningfully interactive. I assumed that you could either roll with De Santa or Ricketts. I finished the Ricketts path and the De Santa mission point was still on my screen. At this point, John Marston is slaughtering hundreds of people on both sides of a civil war. I know this is in service of John Marston’s apathy or moral ambiguity, but come on. It’s just absurd.
The ending has gotten a lot of attention, but I found it to be fairly anticlimactic. Your time “down on the farm” really felt like it dragged (though I understand it was supposed to be a bit of a lull) and the final firefight felt nearly as dull as the dozens that preceded it. The gunplay doesn’t feel bad; it’s just not rewarding or challenging enough to stand up on its own. The game really felt poorly paced, in general. They could have told the same story and cut out probably 10-15% of the story missions. The cutscene following the bank heist mission in Blackwater is so frustrating and is one of many examples of John Marston allowing his story to take longer than it needs to. It’s strange that I feel so disconnected from John Marston, because you spend pretty much the whole game playing as him. That’s the Rockstar way, though. Your choices don’t matter and you never feel like you’re in control, and I really don’t like that. You could make the argument that Rockstar wanted me to feel helpless because John himself was being compelled to do things by the government, but that doesn’t seem like a healthy direction for a 20-hour, big-budget game. Like I said at the top of this review, it makes the whole thing feel like it would have been better in every way as a movie.
While I’m not a big fan of the actual beats of the story, but I’m not such a detractor of the game that I won’t acknowledge the quality of the many colorful characters in the game and the dialogue between them. They’re voiced very well, even if Jack Marston apparently grows up to be Les Claypool.
A few small but important notes before I finish up this review:
I found the in-game economy to be totally pointless. I always had way more money than I knew what to do with and saw no reason to ever buy a horse (or ammo or anything else), even though there are something like a dozen different kinds you can buy. There was rarely any good reason to collect herbs or hunt, either.
I also couldn’t stand the weapon-switching interface. It never felt fast enough and, for some reason, after re-loading a checkpoint, the game would think I wanted to go into a firefight with a lasso, knife, or my bare hands by default. I don’t understand how nobody in QA said, “maybe the default selected weapon should at least be the last thing you used, or maybe a pistol.”
Additionally, the provided cover in the game is nearly useless sometimes. The best example of this is probably the bank mission in Blackwater. You're on a roof with some companions shooting at a building full of baddies below. There's a concrete wall you start stuck to in typical cover-based shooter fashion, but it's way too short and bad guys have no trouble shooting you anyways.
Games should be empowering and challenging. I spent most of the game feeling rather powerless and pretty bored though, which isn’t what a good game should do. A lot of the gameplay felt really tedious and/or overly familiar from Grand Theft Auto. I don’t know how seemingly every game reviewer (professional or otherwise) forgot the structure and gameplay of every game Rockstar had made previously, because Red Dead Redemption is really just Grand Theft Equus. I don’t want to discount the quality of very specific parts of the game, but it really seems like Rockstar is much better at designing game worlds than they are at designing gameplay. Red Dead Redemption is no surprise, in that regard.