Game Title: Red Dead Redemption
Genre: Action Adventure
Platform: PlayStation 3
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: May 18, 2010
Overall Score: 10/10
Review Author: ResidentZoidberg
Welcome to the Wild West, where lying, cheating degenerates can prosper and life isn’t as simple as “cowboys and Indians” or “good versus evil”. Now go kill a bear with a knife.
Growing up on both westerns and videogames, it’s almost inexcusable to me how the two so infrequently mesh in a satisfying manner. The Old West. The Wild West. It has always seemed like a setting ideal for videogames, rife with lawlessness and conflict. Yet, the few forays we’ve had into this marvelous era of American history have been generally flawed or stricken with mediocrity, entirely unable to capture the spirit that made the period so enthralling. Until now.
Rockstar Games has managed to deliver one of the few truly satisfying Western games the medium has seen – a game that also happens to be one of the finest in the industry as a whole.
Set in the American Old West of 1911, Red Dead Redemption follows, in name alone, its predecessor, Red Dead Revolver – a property picked up by Rockstar that was somewhat well-received. The game centers on John Marston, a reformed outlaw after being left for dead by his gang, whose bloody past comes back to haunt him as he is forced by government officials to track down and kill his former brothers in arms for the safe return of his wife and son. While the Easter Eggs are welcome, the nods to all of my classic Western favorites are plentiful, and there is plenty of humor (aside from the much prevalent satire/irony), Red Dead is mature in its story-telling, offering up a thought-provoking and poignant narrative that is as much social commentary as an interesting character study featuring revenge and redemption.
The story spans miles of untamed and inhabited territory that makes for a compelling, dynamic open world, brimming with life and personality. The landscape is diverse, featuring plenty of locales, and often awe-inspiring, capturing the beauty of a once untamed west. Stand around too long, however, and action is sure to find you. The game world is littered with dynamic and unique events which you can typically choose to partake in or ignore, whether you stop to help a women stranded out on the old dusty trail or find yourself being robbed at gunpoint with a decision to make.
There are a lot of decisions to make in Red Dead Redemption, in fact, which all play into the gameplay. While most actions net a certain amount of Fame, they also award Honor – positively and negatively, which each have their own impact on the game. Drive Honor downwards, for instance, and people will fear you, quaking in your presence. Acting as an upstanding citizen (not trampling, kidnapping, or otherwise killing citizens, for example), on the other hand, makes you popular among the locals and eventually leads to discounts from most shopkeepers.
While both paths have particular benefits, those treading the less honorable path will likely find themselves in a familiar scenario – being hounded by sheriffs with a “wanted” sign and a bounty on their head. Different crimes have different bounties – drive the price high enough and more law enforcement officers will be after you, including US Marshalls. Bounties can be paid off in most towns and cities dollar for dollar or with a pardon letter. Of course, there’s also always the option of paying your debt to society by spending some time in the slammer.
There’s still more to do in the world of Red Dead Redemption aside from the main quest and unique world events. Towns are brimming with life, offering all of the amenities one might expect out west – various shops and gunsmiths, property to purchase, random (and often hilarious or interesting) encounters with “Strangers” offering side missions, jobs breaking horses or doing a night watch, and gambling minigames ranging from Texas Hold ‘Em to Liar’s Dice to Blackjack to arm wrestling to horseshoes to Five Finger Filet. I remember saying to myself that Red Dead Redemption, for me, held up its $60 price tag simply as a poker simulator, given the insane amount of hours I spent simply cleaning chumps out in Texas Hold ‘Em and, later, Liar’s Dice – all of which is tracked, including your earnings/losses, in a comprehensive “statistics” page.
On top of all that, there are four classes of “Ambient Challenges” with increasing levels of difficulty, ranging from herb collecting to treasure hunting to marksmanship and hunting skills when roaming the plains. Hunting the many species of animals in Red Dead Redemption is another remarkably fun way to spend countless hours (and rack up major profit selling skins), too. Larger towns and areas also offer bounty boards, where you can take on the challenge of going after bounty heads for decent payoffs – more if you bring your catch in alive.
Still, with all of that being said, there’s more that I’ve failed to touch on in terms of interesting things to do and ways to spend time in Red Dead Redemption’s remarkably detailed and stunningly accurate portrayal of the old west. There’s no way to truly capture the games open spirit until you wander its lands aimlessly for hours on end, feeling wholeheartedly engrossed.
While the game features a wide open representation of the Wild West, it’s not without direction. The main story takes on a familiar mission structure, which introduces a full spectrum of unique and interesting characters that we’ve come to expect in Rockstar games. More surprisingly, missions which one might expect to eventually feel repetitive or mundane stay fresh and avoid becoming a slog – possibly because the genre is so underrepresented in videogames, or possibly because they help to establish the world and its inhabitants as honest, real, and believable characters. Even when you might feel like going from mission to mission to mission is taxing (though there’s an unbelievable amount of content available to enjoy between missions at whatever pace you like) or that you’re being jerked around like an errand boy, the irritation actually works in context of the story, helping you identify even more with Marston.
The game controls in the standard third-person shooter manner, with a convenient weapon select wheel for quick access to your diverse, period-accurate arsenal. Auto-aim is turned on automatically for all but “Expert” targeting, allowing you to quickly snap to foes and dispatch them with ease. One main gunplay mechanic, lifted from Red Dead Revolver, is Dead Eye mode, which stops time, allowing you to paint targets with the targeting reticle commensurate to the number of bullets in your weapon and blow them away. The horse controls are also some of the best I’ve experienced, while the horse’s movement animations impress.
Visually, the game features wide open vistas and stunning landscapes with admirable draw distances. The west has been recreated with a noticeable (and remarkable) attention to detail and authenticity. Character models are look good in whole and the art direction is top notch. Character animations are smooth, while the physics make for some visceral and compelling gunplay (especially when you realistically blow out a leg and watch the varmint try and crawl away). The lip-synch is also well done – a must for a game this dialogue heavy.
The voice work is great, adding another layer of believability and immersion to the game and enhancing what is an impressive, thoughtful, and gripping narrative, while gunshots and other ambient sound effects enhance the world even more. The writing is some of the best the video game industry has seen, with almost all of the content a reflection and poignant critique not only on the society and culture of the game world and old west, but of today. As usual, Rockstar once again offers a variety of both layered and downright insane, hyperbolic characters. The narrative is at its best in the game’s closing chapters, offering a unique and unexpected game design decision not made lightly.
Rockstar San Diego was also so kind to offer up multiplayer options in addition to the content-heavy singleplayer mode. In Free Roam, players are free to roam the exact same vast expanse of the singleplayer map, meeting (and potentially killing) players along the way, earn experience and leveling up through the completion of a huge list of challenges, and posse up with up to eight other players. Leveling up gives your character access to a variety of perks, including better mounts (horses), weapons, and new character skins.
Multiplayer also features competitive game modes. While at their core they are standard multiplayer fare (TDM, death match, capture the flag), they feel fresh enough with the period-unique weapons, map, and game world to be incredibly fun. One particularly inventive decision is that each match starts with a duel, with all characters meeting center stage and scrambling in a wild shootout duel to see which team or character gets off to the better start.
If all of that’s not enough for you (greedy!), Rockstar has recently released a Co-op mission expansion pack, Outlaws to the End, available absolutely free of charge.
Anyone citing the Western genre’s lack of prominence in gaming as a concern for Red Dead’s quality need not be concerned. Anyone fearing the title to be no more than “Grand Theft Auto in the west” need not be concerned, either (coming from someone who was overwhelmingly disappointed with GTAIV). What we’re left with is a genuinely fun, interesting, unique title that is brimming with content that could easily eat up hundreds of hours, not even including the multiplayer and newly released (free) co-op DLC. Red Dead Redemption is a benchmark for both story-telling and compelling open worlds in the industry and an absolute godsend for those of us who love the Western genre.
Please Note: The views expressed in this message are the views of the review author, who is in no way affiliated with SCEA or PlayStation.com.