Review by rickyl3
"I have a sudden urge to watch Clint Eastwood films..."
The History Lesson and the Overview:
The Wild West is historically one of the most well-covered settings in media history. Back in the actual time of the Not-So-Wild West and early motion pictures, it was as frequently produced as pirate films and physical comedy reels. Hollywood revived it in the 70s with Spaghetti Westerns, most notably Clint Eastwood's "The Man With No Name" Trilogy. This begs the question, why hasn't been there a slew of Western-themed video games? Call of Juarez and Gun each tried to answer this call, but Red Dead Redemption answers it most strongly. With that having been said, the game suffers from some errors in writing and programming, but the it is still an undeniably strong title. John Marston is certainly a lovable progtagonist and a memorable one too.
The World: The game is, like every Rockstar game, an open-world, open-ended experience with those dime-a-dozen choices that developers seem to be shoe-horning into their games now. The world itself comes alive frequently, except when it doesn't, which happens entirely too often. Allow me to illustrate this point: I could be riding along in the wilderness searching for herbs. While searching, I may come across someone asking for a ride to the nearest town on my horse. As I approach, they may pull down from the saddle and steal my horse. While they steal my horse, a cougar may maul my horse and thief, look at me, then slink off into the foliage from whence it came. This occurred to me within my first two hours of play. The game has a tendency to generate fantastic "You'll Never Believe What Just Happened" story material. However, the game spawns these events and creatures too infrequently to make the sprawling landscape truly come alive. You will often find yourself agonizingly riding your horse to a destination because of the badly implement quick travel system, wishing for anything to break the monotonous beat of your horse's hooves. This becomes especially evident if a player chooses to focus on the game's ambient fetch quests.
Programming: There are noticeable programming hiccups within the game, but they only become evident upon playing through the game again or failing a mission. Frequently, you are escorted to story mission locations by characters on their own horses or by riding with them on their wagons. To build the characters and entertain you, the developers programmed in conversations to tide you over until you arrive at your destination. The programmers also decided to have these wagons and horses move so quickly to their destinations that the character's have to stop their conversations. Upon playing again, one realizes that there are extra lines of dialogue that can only be heard if the non player characters are forced to slow down by running into a wall. Other times, two separate conversations have been recorded for a situation, and the game randomly chooses between them. This can frustrate those that want to truly experience all of the game, since they cannot be certain that there is only one conversation for this moment in time or if the computer is simply messing with them.
Saving: This should go under programming, but it irks me enough to be brought up separately. The game features an auto save system which will remember approximately what you have done so far upon completion of certain things. It does not remember where you are. It does not save any fallen corpses. It does not save any hogtied hostages. It doesn't save any differences in the game world other than those that have affected your stats page in any way. You can save at a safe house that you either rent or purchase, but this creates an obsolete save point system which should have been eradicated years ago.
Movement: This game is rather obviously made in the Grand Theft Auto engine, in a good way. The controls are generally fluid, though jumping remains an issue. John Marston can climb low fences with relative ease, but if that ledge is even slightly not parallel to the ground, he will instead attempt to hurdle jump over it and fail miserably. Its amusing to watch the first few times, but eventually, watching this notorious bounty hunter's progress foiled by a 3 foot fence can become tedious. Additionally, don't even try jumping onto or over rocks: it will never work, ever.
Combat: Combat is simple and handles well. There is absolutely no wobbling of the cross-hairs, even while on horseback, which makes aiming easier. Unfortunately, the fact that the "cross-hairs" is a small white dot in a screen that will generally remain bright beige due to the desert surroundings make it difficult at times. If one were to put on the "Casual" aiming mode, the game becomes an exercise in tedious shooting-gallery style gameplay because the game will automatically lock onto an opponents stomach and will remain stuck to the that opponent, allowing you to casually slide the now-red reticule up to his face. This also makes a switch from Casual to Normal or Expert incredibly difficult. You have a standard array of weapons, although you'll find yourself passing on nearly all of them for a weapon you get at the beginning of the game. Blood splatters everywhere, and every wound has the same splatter effect. It is nice to see people affected by where you shoot them, though you never enjoy it because if you don't shoot them in the face, they'll always fire back it you, forcing you to shoot them in the head whenever possible. Cover can be annoying. If the game considers a rock to be "round", John will shimmy around it while in cover behind it. Unfortunately 99% of the rocks in the game are considered "round", so you might find yourself walking into a face full of buckshot because you pressed a button which plasters Marston to the nearest surface and then tried to move... often.The gunfights are generally large scale and sufficiently epic. The missions almost all revolve around combat, so get used to it.
Dead-Eye: One of the hooks of this game is the "Dead-Eye" combat mechanic. It has three stages unlocked at different points of the game. First, Dead-Eye slows down time, giving you more time to line up shots. Second, it automatically "paints" points to shoot at people as you scroll your aiming-dot over various parts of people. You'd better be sure-fingered to not waste ammo on useless target areas. The third level allows you to choose the areas on a target that are painted, then fire at all painted areas in sequence. This can cause frustration as targets continue to move, albeit slowly, while in Dead-Eye Mode, which may ruin your painted shots. If you are thinking to yourself that the third level is essentially the first level with a time delay, you'd be absolutely right.
Money: You play mini-games such as various gambling games and some jobs to earn money, though hunting and doing missions tends to be much more rewarding. Hunting can become tedious once you watch the skinning animation or the herb-gathering animation for the 50th time in 30 minutes. The gambling games are faithful representations of the real-world equivalents and there is no real twist to them. The jobs consist of a miniature quicktime event and a small scale gunfight in the form of horse-breaking and patrolling a property's perimeter, respectively. You'll spend money on items which refill meters that are either not on-screen (health), refill over time anyway (Dead-Eye), or magically summon specific breeds of horses should you get yours killed. Once these things are purchases, as well as some guns, money quickly piles up, offering only the collection of safe houses and wild gambling to whittle away at your fortune.
The music is not bad, but it is minimalistic. Often, no music will be heard, leaving you at the mercy of ambient sound effects, which is usually only your horse galloping, which never changes, no matter what surface your horse is galloping on. The game includes some nice storms with incredibly varied thunder sounds. You'll often find yourself skipping time through them because aiming with your with aiming dot can be difficult amongst the white rain drops. The music usually swells during gunfights and adds an appropriate sense of urgency to combat. The tracks fit the setting well and evoke images of Spaghetti Western movies. However, the muted trumpet wailing which occurs through most of the campaign in Mexico sounds more befitting of a bluesy jazz club than Mexico, though the sad feel does match with the storyline that takes place there.
The World: The world is nothing special. It has several metric tons of two-dimensional grass tufts and lower-resolution textures. However, from a distance, it can be stunning at times. The landscape changes realistically and what can be seen looks real enough. The game absolutely does not suffer from pop-up physics or fog-of-war issues, as it has one of the most impressive draw distances in recent memory. The animals look okay, as do the hoards of random baddies you'll be blasting through, though you will definitely feel the clone henchmen factor kick into effect relatively early on.
The Characters: The characters are more detailed than the world, and this shows especially during cutscenes. They are varied enough that they are easily recognizable if somewhat generic in the Western-y-ness. All of the genre archetypes are present as well, including the crazy prospector, the sheriff, the cowboy, the outlaw,the drunks, the whores (not very much), the Mexicans (lots of those), the lady-in-a-man's-world, the father of said lady, and, of course, the hillbillies.
The Writing: The game very much goes for the Spaghetti Western "The world hates everyone's guts, and everyone is only out for themselves" rule. Once again, this is not a bad thing. It is what makes the genre famous. Of course, to break the bleakness, characters of genuine goodness are mixed in. Only one true paragon of humanity exists, and she is not the protagonist. The other "good" character hates the protagonist's guts. Every other character is ultimately selfish in one way or another and/or a complete jerk. There are several disjointed themes juxtaposed: redemption, industrialization, the true meaning of freedom, and the value of government, to name a few. The problem is that, along with the characters, there is not enough bridging these ideas to dissuade the player that Rockstar is not a bunch of anarchistic Puritans at times. Often times, characters will allude to conversations that never took place which could be slightly jarring, but it doesn't disturb the narrative very much.
The Protagonist: Marston himself is constantly switching between being angry, moralistic, and nihilistic. When he's angry, he threatens characters for not fulfilling promises that were never heard by the player (perhaps they were a part of those conversations that kept getting cut short). When he's moralistic, he preaches like a reverend, but his words can show a sort of simple wisdom. When he's being nihilistic, he spits in the face of his own morality and walks away. The writers could not decide which direction to go with this character fully. With just a little bit more transitional writing, he could have come off as confused, but as it stands, he seems slightly schizophrenic. Nonetheless, his never-say-die and no-compromises attitude will endear him to players, especially when they find his motivations.
The game is all-around above par. A little bit more polish, especially in the writing department, would have made it virtually unblemished. As the game stands, a host of minor flaws keep it from reaching this potential. This should not deter those thinking about trying the game out. Its definitely worth a try. If you like what you see at first, buy it and treasure it. Otherwise, borrow it off of a friend first or rent it to plow through it at least once, as this game is sure to become a standard for future games in the genre.
Overall Score: 8/10 - Very good, worth at least an extended rental (GameFly, Blockbuster, a friend) and a solid purchase well-worth its full purchase price.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 06/07/10
Game Release: Red Dead Redemption (US, 05/18/10)
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