Review: RED DEAD REDEMPTION Not Just "Grand Theft Horse"


What I've felt. What I've known

Sick and tired, I stand alone. Could you be there?

'Cause I'm the one who waits for you

Or are you unforgiven too?

-“Unforgiven II” Metallica

The place and time colloquially known as “The Old West” holds a unique footing in the popular imagination.  It was a time where the right combination of near lawlessness, killing technology and the possibility of great fortunes attracted the ambitious and ruthless into a great open space.  The Old West holds a mythic feel as a period out of time and as far flung as stories about knights or samurai, brought now into the modern age of gaming by Rockstar’s San Diego studio in Red Dead Redemption.  A third person sandbox action/adventure out now for PS3 and Xbox 360 that embraces a non-romanticized vision of the era, where the prevailing mood is not of the brave pioneer spirit and righteous justice, but isolation, madness and death.  

The year is 1911, just three years shy of World War I, the catalyst for all major world events of the recently passed 20th century, and John Marston is experiencing a resurrection.  Years ago, a gang of outlaws he rode with left him for dead after a botched robbery, but he survived and went on to a new life as a farmer and a family man.  Only his past lived on as well, and it’s back to drive him to return to the frontier and hunt down his former friends so he can finally put an end to the man he was.  

John Marston is the ultimate culmination of the evolution of the crime-saga lead character that made Rockstar famous.  From the fully thuggish, blank-slate and at the time nameless lead of GTA 3, to Tommy, who was betrayed by his own mob family in Vice City, through to San Andreas’ CJ, who’s descent was born out of loyalty to his friends and family, and finally the emotionally scarred war veteran Niko of GTA 4, lost in the American Dream.  Each time around the lead’s actions become more, if not ever completely, justifiable in the context of the character’s past and their future goals.  Marston’s mission is one of the titular redemption; he's forced to earn his better life, a task made easier in an age of violent frontier justice, fitting for any character just one moment away from a complete rampage.

It would be easy just to call Red Dead Redemption: ‘Grand Theft Horse,’ but Rockstar let themselves take a few chances rather than paint over Grand Theft Auto 4 with a sepia toned brush.  The classic mission structure remains, requiring you to travel to certain points on the map to initiate the story missions, which are the usual array of fetch quests, assassinations and races.  One change is that this time failure resets you to a checkpoint, no longer leaving you stranded far from the start of a mission.  Stranded you would be, as the game world, while not massive, is suitably large to convey the vastness of the west.

The terrain subtlety and effectively transitions from grassy plains, to swampland, rolling hills, rocky wastes and high deserts that all look great up close, but are breathtaking when you crest a hill and see the wide open plains stretched out in front of you.  The game’s phenomenal draw distance really delivers when you see a small town far in the distance and can gradually approach it, sight unbroken by loading screens.  Gradually being the operative word, since although cars have been invented by 1911, neither you nor anyone you know owns one, meaning that the horse will be your primary mode of transportation.

The concept that horses are not cars, but living things is easy to grasp, but put into practical use requires a different way of thinking when it comes to moving about.  ‘Accelerate’ too much by spurring your ride and he’ll buck you off.  Horsehide is also not a thick as Detroit steel, providing you with little cover that also bleeds when shot just the same as you.  Horses and men aren’t the only things dying in the wastes, the fictionalized American southwest supports a range of wildlife that can be hunted down and skinned to raise a little extra money, that is, when they or the two-legged, upright variant of such animals are not hunting you.

Manhunting is at the core of Red Dead Redemption, and the controls and weapons do a good job of delivering the chaos and excitement of shootouts.  You start with a six-shooter and a rifle that will both serve you very well, but your arsenal both improves and expands with shotguns, dynamite, Molotov cocktails and even rudimentary sniper rifles with glass scopes that are often a little dusty and slightly blurry from wear.  

The bulk of the combat is done from the game’s third person perspective that will unfortunately swap which shoulder you are firing over with little control over the choice and a simple snap-to cover system that if you and the camera are not lined up correctly will attach you to an exposed position long enough to ruin your whole day.  The weapon select is a combo of a shoulder button and the left stick, which can get a bit slippery in action, and the lack of some sort of quick draw button can be fatal if you are out hunting and are caught in an ambush carrying a knife (or worse) into a gunfight.  A lock-on system would help as well, especially if you’re in the mood to start a brawl in the local saloon.

Although you are permanently outnumbered, you can even the odds with the franchise’s Dead Eye mode, which lets you aim in bullet-time and as it develops, paint your targets and unleash a barrage of shots like in the opening of The Rifleman.  Lastly, when it’s one on one, a quick draw contest will test your reaction time, aiming ability and, most entertainingly, your nerve as every instant you wait before drawing improves your aim, but could cost you your life.

Typical with the franchise, diversions are plentiful and varied.  From games of skill and chance, like Horseshoes and the super-addictive Liar’s Dice, strangers both random and fixed will beg for your help with their problems.  Resolving them will reward you with fame and honor (or dishonor, depending on your choices) which will subtly effect how people react to you.  If the idea of a crime spree is irresistible, the application of a mask will preserve your reputation after you’ve lost the marshals and their posses, and if necessary paid off your own bounty.

Visually, aside from the occasional pop-in of textures, Red Dead Redemption is a beautiful game, with storms that thunder along the open spaces with rain that even feels wet.  The day/night cycle produces stunning sunsets, but once it’s dark, it would behoove you find a place to sleep the night away, combat in the dark gives no advantage and will lead to frustrating failures when distant detail is too obscured to pickup on in the days before the electric light.  Character animations are solid, especially deaths, in mid-battle reloads, or how you will tumble down a steep slope, rather than just slide off.

On the audio side, the voice work, backed by great writing that really shows with the many conversations that reflect on your in-game actions, is good, but not great, with many forced and grating accents, especially from the lead.  The music is especially unfortunate, making you feel like you are stuck in the intro to a mid 80's rock ballad for the rest of your life (specifically Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience”) with its soundtrack of similarly sounding spaghetti western movie sound-alike themes.  You’ll miss the seemingly simple touch of a car’s radio very quickly.

The multiplayer experience takes place in the same open world of the core game, akin to how it was done in GTA 4.  It’s an interesting approach, where you can earn XP to upgrade your multi-player avatar by completing ambient missions by yourself or with ‘your posse’ of friends outside of the stock DM, TDM and CTF variant modes.  Unfortunately, while you’re exploring this version of the world, you’re likely to be set upon by griefers who will be much better armed than you for a long time before you get your bearings.  The actual multiplayer modes start with the clever concept of a head-to-head or team-to-team showdown, where you are simply lined up in front of each other and compelled to draw down on each other, the prize being an advantage of position and score to start the round.   

Although DLC extensions are promised, including co-op missions, which will be ‘free’ (aka: not finished before the street date), Red Dead Redemption, with plenty of ambient escapades and fifty ranks to earn in multiplayer can last as long or as short as you feel like.  Once you sit by a fire and listen to an old prospector tell tall tales about your exploits, you’ll be hooked.

Red Dead Redemption is available now on Xbox 360 and PS3


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