Review by HailToTheGun
"Red Dead Redemption is the king of the wild west and may have just staked its claim for the throne of sandbox games"
The Wild West Is Full of Life
Former outlaw-turned government slave, John Marston is plucked away from his wife and son after resigning from his life of gang robbery and mayhem. At the risk of losing his family, John is forced to hunt down and capture or kill his former brothers in arms. With his sights set on the western frontier and across the borders into Mexico, John's search for his three compatriots sets him on a course that will lead to his redemption - so he hopes. It's not the most groundbreaking concept put forth from a Rockstar game, and surely one that isn't going to be taking home any originality awards. But what it lacks in freshness, it more than makes up for it with pure style and local color. The characters are all unique and possess their Rockstar-trademarked eccentricities, the voice acting is on par with the best there has ever been, and the sheer variety of people you will meet spanning this twenty-plus hour journey is astounding.
That latter part is both a blessing and a curse, however. While the variety of characters livens things up and results in never a dull moment, Rockstar seems to have abandoned the notion of story-wide characters save for Marston himself. By that I mean, the game is split up into three main sections, and each section will focus on a particular group of characters and a specific goal. Once you have finished that section and move onto the next, you'll rarely see those characters again throughout the entire game. With the exception of two or three who pop up briefly near the end, it's as if they completely vanish from existence after you're done with them. Whereas in Rockstar's previous title, Grand Theft Auto IV, characters like Roman, Brucie, and Packie will show up frequently throughout your progress offering more missions. Granted, I can understand why Rockstar chose this approach: in the context of this game, it's easy to believe these characters will not and cannot just uproot their lives to travel cross country with you in search of your former partners, as opposed to GTAIV when it was simply driving through one single city. And for that, I don't hold it against them. I would have just enjoyed seeing one or two of these characters make themselves more useful in the long run, especially the few vagrants who seemed to have no particular place of residence.
That isn't to say that their use, though limited, was not appreciated. For the short time each set of characters is on stage, they're largely enjoyable to watch and listen to. Particularly the Marshal in Armadillo and later, and only for a very short time, Landon Ricketts of Chuparosa, Mexico. The star of the game, however, and for my money Rockstar's most poignant main character, is John Marston. Fashioned out of the typical American cowboy, Marston dives head first into his task with tremendous heart and soul, but also with reluctance. The price to pay to see his family alive and well is to kill the men he had once considered friends. Throughout the game you will see the mental strain this has on Marston as he struggles with the idea of justice and redemption. Can killing these people really absolve him of his own horrible past? Is it worth absolving? By the game's conclusion, Marston and the player will both have their answers in what I feel to be Rockstar's most powerful and moving conclusion to date.
Home on the Range
The wild west is as vast and free as one might expect, and this time, the world is literally your sandbox. If there's one thing people crave, and rightfully so, in a game like this, it's the ability to go anywhere and do anything. Guess what? You can. Rockstar seems to have taken a page out of the Yakuza franchise in the sense that the world is full of random events that you may or may not choose to participate in. Should you be riding your horse along and see a person stranded on the side of the road, you can decide to help him or her. Or maybe you see someone being chased by wolves or cougars. Will you kill them, or let nature take its course? These and nearly a dozen more types of events happen everywhere, all the time, and your actions based on these events will have an effect on your overall Fame and Honor levels. It's amazing how much time you will lose simply riding around and experiencing everything the game has to offer before you proceed to dive headfirst into the actual meat and see that exploration is only half the fun.
The combat has seen a drastic overhaul from GTAIV and feels much more responsive. Enemies drop believably with proper bullet placement and the addition of the Dead Eye mechanic makes for some very cinematic kills when things get too hectic. My only major complaint with the combat is when it takes place on a horse. Like GTAIV's drive-bys, you can shoot while riding your horse. The thing is, the position of buttons requires you to either stretch your fingers in absurd ways or completely release from the stamina button which controls the horse's forward movement. This means your horse will come to a slow crawl or even a complete stop while you're trying to aim and shoot. What makes this even more ridiculous is that sometimes when you're being chased and you turn to aim at the attacker behind you, chances are that person will have rode right on passed you.
Speaking of horse controls; the horse handles very differently than a car and requires a bit of learning to get used to. The most frustrating thing about the horse is that you will have to constantly maintain a steady press of the stamina button if you want to maximize your speed without losing stamina. Simply holding down the button will only make your horse ride in a slow gallop. Pushing too much will result in a quick sprint, but will also deplete your stamina very quickly and possibly cause the horse to throw you off. This can get very tedious considering you will be spending a lot of time on your horse during missions. Finding a good balance of when to press the button and when to hold it down is key to maximizing your horse's mobility. Much of this is alleviated by the game's fast travel methods, though. Setting up a campsite out in the field or using one of the stage coaches will allow you to travel to any town or waypoint you have set up.
When not associating with the game's supporting cast, there's plenty of stuff to do on the side. And it's actually fun. In addition to the random events, there are Stranger quests you can find - small, multipart little quests completely separate from the story that you'll find from various people you encounter in the game. They range from searching for missing people, exploring different areas, breaking in a horse, and more. They also serve as a very effective way to ease the player into this early 1900s world where everything was just so very simple. There's a particular Stranger quest that pays strong homage to The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, so Clint Eastwood fans keep an eye out. In town you can partake in bounty hunts or night watch jobs for extra cash and honor. You may also come across various people who will challenge you to a duel, which will put your Dead Eye and aiming skills to the test.
And then there are the minigames. There are few but all fit the time and place and one would be remiss if he or she did not at least try them all once. Poker, Blackjack, Liar's Dice, Horseshoes, Five-Finger Filet, just to name a few. All of which offer enough variety and depth that they alone could add a few hours to your overall time. Finally, the challenges. Four different ranked challenges that span the length of the game, requiring you to fulfill certain requirements and in return be rewarded for your troubles.
Online, you can join either free-for-all or team based 16-player games that begin with a standoff behind the borders of Mexico and then open up into the rest of the games world. The multiplayer offers a nice break from the single player campaign and features many of the same mechanics of GTAIV's online component, with its own improvements to make for a much more enjoyable experience.
A Gorgeous Frontier
Let me get this out of the way: Red Dead Redemption is possibly the best looking sandbox game to date. The level of detail and craftsmanship and the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that have been spilled to make this game look this good is astounding. Simply staring out across the frontier at the sunset, looking out into the horizon, is one of the most striking things I've seen from a game in a long time. Every rock, every cacti, every mountain, every little thing has been so finely sculpted and individually placed that it makes you appreciate just how beautiful the old west actually once was. Character models are gritty and intricate and the horse animations are mind-bogglingly realistic. The game is not without its faults, however, but not as far as the visual beauty goes. The occasional clipping of character models and other minor bugs will pop up here and there, never enough to completely detract from the game but sometimes providing a nice laugh, particularly the few model-screw ups of the PS3 version. Birdman, Mule Girl. Hilarious, but also not good.
The music is, on the other hand, absolutely flawless. While it's mostly nothing you haven't heard from any western movie, it's the use of the game's soundtrack that really makes it stand out. Rockstar made not only an effort to make the game look good, but sound good in all the right places. Particularly the four lyrical songs used. I got chills hearing them all at their appropriate times and I get chills now just thinking about those moments. That's the sign of a memorable soundtrack.
And The Verdict Is
Red Dead Redemption is the king of the wild west and may have just staked its claim for the throne of sandbox games. The sheer variety of things to do, the personal journey of John Marston, and the beautiful marriage of sound and sight make this game an absolute must-play for anyone and everyone.
Pros: Entertaining cast of characters and a true star protagonist; excellent gunplay on foot; memorable story with a powerful finish; a sandbox game that's actually fun to explore; fun and sometimes hectic multiplayer; beautiful environments and music
Cons: Horse controls seem to work against you; occasional bugs
The Final Verdict: 9.5/10
This is Rockstar's finest hour. Do yourself a favor and experience it.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 06/10/10
Game Release: Red Dead Redemption (US, 05/18/10)
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