Video Game Review: Red Dead Redemption
The scenery in Red Dead Redemption is absolutely stunning.
By HERIJA GREEN and MIKE CHEN
I’ve always been a fan of the gritty Western flick with films like Unforgiven, Open Range and 3:10 to Yuma rating among my favourites. There’s just something about all that open land and lawlessness that appeals to me on some level. So when I started seeing trailers for Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption I became intrigued. I saw more, and that intrigue became excitement. By the time the release date approached I was concerned I’d allowed my expectations to become too high. I was wrong.
Red Dead Redemption exceeds all the lofty hopes I had heaped on it to emerge as easily one of the best games of this generation on any console.
Despite putting a lot of different options at your disposal, things are very nicely streamlined when you’re on foot. Your targeting reticule is little more than a dot, but that doesn’t matter since the default auto-aiming system locks on whenever you hit the left trigger and an enemy is in view. If you’re overwhelmed you can activate Dead Eye, which slows time and allows you to target multiple foes at once by simply clicking the right analog stick. Thanks to those functions, the shooting aspects of Red Dead Redemption are easy to master very quickly.
The only moderately frustrating thing when controlling John Marston is that the “Y” button is essentially a jack-of-all-trades. You skin animals with Y, you mount your horse with Y, you pick flowers with Y, etc. It’s usually fine, however there are times when you’re trying to ride your horse and instead grab the driver of a stagecoach and fling him to the ground. Now you’ve committed a crime and the law is shooting holes in you. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it can be pretty frustrating.
Things can get a bit tricky when you’re on horseback as well. Moving your horse in tight quarters is often clumsy, and I definitely grew tired of constantly hitting “A” to prod my horse and then holding the button down so the horse would maintain its speed. It’s primarily frustrating when engaging pursuing enemies. Rotate the camera so you can line up a shot and suddenly your horse is veering in the wrong direction. I generally slowed down to take on pursuers, but there are occasions where your time is limited and that isn’t possible.
Overall, though, I still found riding and controlling the horse even at top speed to be more enjoyable than most of the driving sequences found in the Grand Theft Auto series. So, while it can be annoying at times, it never came close to dissuading me from riding across the entire map.
I’ve seen games that have more impressive graphical elements than Red Dead Redemption — the cut scenes in Final Fantasy XIII, the lighting in God of War III — but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one that created such a beautiful and completely convincing world like this. Rockstar has absolutely nailed the Wild West vibe here from the foliage to the animals to the various structures. It’s uncanny.
Never before had I spent so much time in a game just looking around and admiring the scenery. I routinely bypassed the option to fast travel from one location to another because I loved traversing through this world so much. There are a million little touches that make this game feel like a real place teeming with life. Birds constantly soar overhead, packs of coyotes scatter at the sound of gunfire and poisonous snakes rattle a warning from beneath the shrubs. The skylines are beautiful, particularly during sunrise and sunset, and when the clouds open up puddles begin forming on the usually dusty trails while water beads up on the “camera lens.”
The scenery only tells part of tale as you’ll also be treated to some excellent looking people and animals to interact with. More so even than how everything looks, however, is how it all moves. I’ve never seen a game capture such realistic movement for essentially everything in the game. The horses in particular look phenomenal — and just wait until you shoot someone and watch them get stuck in a stirrup and taken for a ride by a panicked horse. The whole thing is a visual tour de force.
Amazingly, the game’s audio presentation matches the graphics every step of the way. The soundtrack is among the best I’ve ever heard, perfectly accompanying what you’re seeing. When you’re slowly ambling through the desert it’s subdued, even silent at times. Conversely, when it’s time for a major gun fight it builds and serves to heighten the action. Different music is also heard based on where you are, which means you won’t be hearing the same things exploring New Austin as you do hunting armadillos in Mexico. Special mention should be made of the tune that plays upon your arrival south of the border. It’s unlike anything else you hear in the game and makes that moment feel important.
I’ve noted in the past that BioWare and Rockstar stand alone when it comes to voice acting, and Red Dead Redemption once again reinforces that belief. Everyone does a great job delivering the typically excellent and authentic sounding dialogue, highlighted by the Sam Elliot-inspired character Landon Ricketts. On top of that, the game features great sound effects. The animal noises are perfect and somehow they made drawing your gun from its holster exciting every time.
Everything begins with a lengthy train ride from Blackwater to Armadillo, and the game wastes no time in establishing the back story of early 1900s America in the West. You play as John Marston, a former gang member gone straight that has been roped into helping the government track down and eliminate some past associates. Most notably you’ve been asked to take down Bill Williamson, who has taken up a leadership role in the gang and has been making life miserable for the residents of New Austin. Once Williamson establishes in no uncertain terms he’s unwilling to go quietly it becomes your charge to bring him to justice by any means necessary.
That’s the basic plot for Red Dead Redemption, and it sets the stage for a sweeping narrative that takes place in three distinctly different locations. It’s actually much more diverse than Grand Theft Auto IV, which was of course based on New York’s five boroughs, as you’ll be treated to all different types of settings from the dirt poor pueblos of Mexico to the relatively advanced Blackwater.
The missions are typical Rockstar fare as you’ll once again need to offer your aid to a wide cast of characters in order to enlist their help in return. However, this structure does provide what is arguably the weakest aspect of the game — that Marston’s tale tends to fall by the wayside and you’re more or less swept up in the tide of the events happening around you. It seemed far too common to hear Marston crack wise or offer a half-hearted objection when the people that are supposed to be helping him ask for yet another task to be done on their behalf. One would think a notorious killer, even a supposedly reformed one like Marston, could be a bit more persuasive.
Eliminate that overarching theme from the equation and you’re left with a fairly diverse set of missions with numerous standouts that you’ll want to play again and again. The peripheral events that you find yourself caught up in are beautifully fleshed out and told in an interesting manner. In fact, it’s so well done that you’ll find legitimate satisfaction when those that have wronged you get their comeuppance. Plus, the scope of the story narrows considerably toward the end, which in many ways makes up for the feeling that you were just along for the ride early on. It also doesn’t hurt that the game’s conclusion is simply awesome.
Of course, this being a Rockstar title, there’s an absolute ton of things to do outside the scope of the main story. The meatiest of these distractions is assisting strangers with their troubles. Marked by a “?” on the map, each of these people have something they need your help with, and many of these side stories play out over multiple parts. The tasks range from simple to fairly time consuming, but they’re all worth experiencing.
You’ll also be given plenty of extra opportunities to wield your gun as you hunt down wanted criminals or clear out gang hideouts. Or if you’re looking to kill time instead of people, there are games of poker and blackjack to be played, horseshoes to be tossed and some funny films to be watched in the local cinemas. Break horses, arm wrestle, hunt for treasure…the list goes on and on.
Red Dead Redemption also does a nice job of encouraging you to take part in optional activities by making them pay off in otherwise unobtainable items like new outfits. For instance, you might need to win a hand of poker in a specific town, collect a bounty alive and complete a night watch assignment where you patrol a ranch or town looking for trouble. It’s a smart choice. The game also has a series of challenges to complete in areas like sharpshooting, survival, hunting and locating treasure. Reach Level 10 in all of them and you unlock (you guessed it) a new outfit.
As if all of that wasn’t enough to keep you entertained for months, there’s a deep and engaging multiplayer experience to be found as well, under the guise of a lobby. Entitled “Free Roam,” it allows up to 16 players to explore an identical representation of the offline map together. Within this world you can team up to form posses, assault gang hideouts, battle the other players in the room or do relatively mundane tasks like hunting animals to complete online challenges. The possibilities are nearly endless here with new challenges arriving via the Social Club — Rockstar’s free online community — and downloadable co-op missions in the works.
Upon leaving Free Roam you can engage in some basic competitive multiplayer modes, which don’t stand out particularly outside of the wonderful environments (they’re ripped from the single player after all) and opening firing line where all the players draw down on each other. It’s not that they aren’t fun; it’s just that there isn’t a ton of variety. The fact that auto-aim is turned on in most online matches also reduces the skill necessary to play. On the plus side, there are even more challenges to complete here and as you level up you’ll unlock more guns, character models and mounts (you start with a lowly burro) for use in Free Roam.
As much as I’ve written here in praise of Red Dead Redemption, there’s still a ton of things to be seen and done that I haven’t even touched on. This is one of those rare games that create a truly unique and memorable experience. It’s a must own title and currently a strong contender with Mass Effect 2 for Game of the Year honours.
For me, one of the great ironies of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series is that the driving is terrible. It’s always too imprecise to perform the specific actions you need to get away from law enforcement (or perform some mundane task in a limited amount of time). Because of that, Red Dead Redemption is already a cut above Grand Theft Auto.
You’ve probably already heard that Red Dead Redemption is simply Grand Theft Auto skinned into the Old West. With all due respect, that’s a very apt description — from the former-outlaw-running-from-his-past protagonist to the variety of random tasks needed to earn money and gain respect to the HUD and controls, this is very similar to everything you’ve expected out of GTA. And yet, it’s totally different, which is why I find it even more enjoyable than Niko Bellic and his wacky cousins.
Now, I’ve always considered myself a science fiction or modern-era kind of guy. Fantasy doesn’t really do it for me and, outside of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, neither do westerns. Red Dead Redemption does, however, and I think that it’s because it takes the tried-and-true GTA formula and twists it around. Plus, not having cars is a bonus, as riding horses is a great deal easier.
With GTA, you’re bound to get lost in the city maps as you try to find your location. Playing as John Marston, you’re probably not going to get lost very often because there aren’t giant buildings and highway on-ramps to throw you off. In fact, when you’re traveling from A to B (easy, thanks to the GPS-like map), you can simply rotate the camera and take in the magnificent scenery that Rockstar created. During my initial hours of the game, I often found myself standing over a gorge or riding into a sunset and stopping simply to enjoy the amazing graphics.
Of course, looking good only takes a game so far — it’s gotta play well, and Red Dead Redemption excels at this. Be forewarned, if you’re not fond of GTA’s somewhat clunky controls, you’re going to find the same faults with Red Dead Redemption except for one major exception. The shooting mechanic improved over the life of the GTA series, but Red Dead Redemption gives you one new critical feature: Dead Eye, which slows down the world while you aim. Suddenly, the somewhat imprecise shooting controls ease up on you — which is a world of good, especially when you’re trying to drive a dying man to town in a covered wagon while fending off outlaws.
As for the missions, it’s what you’d expect from the makers of GTA: core missions that advance the plot and side missions that earn you money or open up other areas. Combined, these missions can range from hunting down gangs of bandits to searching for missing people to, um, following a dog around town. Okay, some of them are winners and some of them aren’t, but what it all cumulatively succeeds at is bringing this turn-of-the-century world to life.
Here’s the final thing that probably sums it up best: throughout the game, I never really empathized with Marston too much. However, the world around him was so enthralling that I could overlook any storyline clichés or cardboard characters to simply enjoy virtually living in the Old West. Sandbox-style games have taken all sorts of twists and turns over the past few years, but Rockstar shows that once again they know how to do it best — and they didn’t even involve stealing a car.