Rockstar has a way of crafting its games to feel like epic movies. Whether it’s a smooth player strutting through Vice City, or a wannabe mobster in Liberty City, each of Rockstar’s games carries a narrative that often surpasses the best Hollywood has to offer. So, as you are riding on a train into an unknown western post at the beginning of the game, the credits slowly roll, exposing the audience to just a few of the many people who created Red Dead Redemption. The conversation on the train seems relevant for today’s world – religion, politics, and immigration – but it is without a doubt not a critique of modern society; rather, it’s a testament to the fine writing you’ll find throughout the game.
You’ll get off the train, accompanied by some apparent federal officials, but little is discussed early in the game to give the player any insight into who John Marston is. Lucky for us, part of the fun in Red Dead Redemption is learning about Marston, why he’s out west on the U.S./Mexico border, and why he’s so darn good with a firearm. He is not unlike other stars in Rockstar’s sandbox games. He knows how to kill, he knows how to drive (this game it just so happens to be horses and coaches), and he consistently must make moral decisions. He is, for what it’s worth, easily the most likeable protagonist in recent gaming history.
And that says an awful lot about the game since the Wild West is known for creating criminals out of the common man. Marston is not common, though. In fact, he comes from a lawless life and is sole mission throughout the game is to find and capture or kill one of his old gang members. This will not be an easy task as he’s barricaded himself in a fort along with his cohorts. We’ll leave the story there, and let you experience it for yourself.
While the story and how it is all presented is one of the best parts of the game, what truly sets Red Dead Redemption apart from just about any other game is how well it brings the player in to the Wild West. The frontier land of New Austin and the Mexican border territories of Nuevo Paraiso are so realistic that after playing the game for just a few days, we became convinced that all of this happened, and that we were playing some historical piece.
The world is alive. Sure, we’ve said that about a lot of games, but never have we experienced the detail that Rockstar San Diego has put into Red Dead Redemption, which is the spiritual successor to Red Dead Revolver. In classic Rockstar form, there are plenty of side quests, different ways to make money, and townsfolk always have something to say that’s relevant to the story. But beyond that classic style, Rockstar has given us a frontier to explore. Instead of playing through an urban jungle, we find ourselves in the brutal wilderness, complete with animals, harvestable plants, roaming outlaws, vulchers hovering over fresh carcasses, ambient trumpet music, brilliantly lit red rock cliffs, tumbleweed, and some of the best sunsets any game has to offer. All of the animals in the land can be killed. You’ll find wolves, bears, coyotes, eagles, armadillos, deer, and even skunks. Still, there’s a reason for slaughtering the local wildlife – you can harvest animal parts and sell them to shop keeps.
Much of your life is spent on horseback. Still, we wouldn’t recommend getting too attached to the friendly beast, as while you essentially have a designated animal, you’ll quickly find they can be slain just as easily as yourself, either by local wildlife or enemy gunfire. The riding mechanics themselves are solid, but not quite as polished as they could have been. Horses have a tendency to run into walls or cacti when you are trying to gun down some bandits. You’ll have plenty of time to practice riding as there are several races you can take part in to earn some extra money, and increase your horse’s stamina. It’s also not uncommon for your horse to wander away if you dismount. That’s not a problem because you simply need to whistle and your horse will almost always come to find you.
The world is so big that you’ll spend quite a bit of time riding your horse from outpost to town and back again. What makes travel even worse (depending on how you look at it) is that you can get sidetrack simply by looking around for a minute or two. There are plenty of damsels in distress, people who lost their horses, or sick women needing some medicine. The amount of side tasks is enormous, and is a game in itself. Clocking in at anywhere from 15 to 25 hours for the single player campaign, you can easily spend 30+ hours if you try to find all the side quests and take all the dueling challenges the game has to offer. If you want to do a bit of bounty hunting, simply find wanted posters and track down your target. Take him alive for more money, but killing him still gets you some loot.
And here in lies one of Red Dead Redemption’s standout features – the fame and honor system. As you perform various deeds, your honor and fame will increase or decrease depending on your actions. Kill a random drunk guy stumbling out of the saloon and your honor drops. This allows the player to determine how they want to play the game. There is a benefit to playing more honorably, of course, as shops will give you reduced prices on goods, and townsfolk will know you by name, as if they fear you when you walk by.
The towns act as hubs for gathering quests, buying a room to save your game or change your outfit, or doing the more mundane portions of the game – card games, dice games, and other ways to try to earn some cash. Cash is only minimally important in Red Dead Redemption. Sure, you’ll need it to buy medicine or new weapons, but you can get through most of the game with just a few stops to the weapons and general goods stores scattered throughout the land.
The controls in Red Dead Redemption are the standard affair for those familiar with Grand Theft Auto IV. Many of the mechanics are nearly identical, just improved. For instance, the duck and cover system works very well and the auto target mechanic has been revamped just enough to make it unique. The left trigger aims your gun while the right trigger fires off a round. The new Dead Eye system slows down time, and allows you to place your shots like a real gunslinger. This is, after all, the Wild West and Marston is a true master of arms. Duels in the game allow you to use Dead Eye to place shots on your victim. It can take a bit of time to master, but it’s pretty easy to learn this system. For the most part, you’ll earn more points or money by shooting your opponent’s gun out of his hand, but killing him works pretty well too.
Since Marston befriends a rancher, you’ll learn how to herd cattle, lasso horses, and other random farmhand tasks. These missions were pretty slow and slightly irritating, but mastering the lasso is essential, and it can create a lot of fun for those looking to tame some of the wild horses running throughout the land. These missions just go to show that Marston isn’t just about killing. In fact, the game offers more than just the typical “go kill this person” kind of missions, but it’s true that the bulk of your time will be spent spilling blood.
And here lies one of our gripes with the game, and the lead character himself. As we mentioned before, Marston is pretty likeable, but sometimes he seems like a pushover. Your time in game is spent trying to find people to help you take out your old gang member, but all these people who you ask for help seem to have their own needs. Whether it’s a grave robber, Mexican authorities, or a miracle potion fraud, everyone seems to take advantage of Marston. On occasion he makes threats to these people about not wasting his time, but he always ends up going along with the flow. There is one specific character who constantly betrays Marston, and yet he seems more than willing to help him out. That just doesn’t seem how our rough and tumble cowboy would act.
There is just too much to see and do in this game to scratch the surface in this review, but just know that if you are looking for a game that will provide many hours of play outside the main story objectives, Red Dead is for you. And, that’s not even speaking of the multiplayer features. Competitive online modes are terrific, offering a solid starting point for all players. The modes are all traditional multiplayer modes, like deathmatch and capture-the-flag. We really enjoyed how each multiplayer game starts with a little standoff (in two opposing lines). As you are told to draw, people die quickly and then the game starts. There’s a Capture the Bag mode that make you capture bags of gold, which carry some weight, of course.
However, our favorite online mode is the Free Roam, which allows up to 16 players to compete together, or against each other, in the single-player world. You can hunt down bandits together, do some side quests, or just shoot each other in the back when they are trying to rescue a horse. This mode, more than another, seems to offer the most long term potential moving forward.
The game is not without its flaws, largely in the visual respects. We found some hiccups here and there, but the game is so engaging that we easily ignored these problems. At the time of writing this review, Rockstar had just announced that it is aware of these issues and plans to fix them – sure enough, just as we’re going to press, the company announces that a patch has been made available to fix these visual niggles. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the chance to see the updated version of the game for ourselves yet, so for the time being our review will reflect our initial experience with the game. Visual hiccups aside, however, Red Dead is positively exquisite in the looks department.
Outside of the beautiful visuals that open up the vast prairie world, the voice acting and audio are incredible. The cast in Red Dead Redemption are the best we’ve seen in a long time. The dialogue is natural, funny, and often witty. The soundtrack is great, but limited. It’s used in a way that made us longing for a song to play, and when it does, it’s incredibly moving — funny to say about a song in a video game, but it’s true.
Those thinking that this is nothing more than Grand Theft Auto IV in the West will be surprised to see that, in many ways, Rockstar has outdone its last major sandbox game. Red Dead Redemption is arguably one of the best games we’ve played in a long, long time. Sure, it has some minor problems, but overall its story and immense world offer up both engaging and compelling gameplay that any self-respecting gamer needs to experience.