Review by Vamphaery
"The most fully realized virtual world Rockstar has ever created."
The following is one person's opinion. The best and most important review is your own.
This is a Rockstar (of Grand Theft Auto fame) open-world game set at the beginning of the 20th century in America's rapidly dying "old west," and parts of Mexico. If you've played Red Dead Revolver (the game's namesake,) you aren't adequately prepared for what awaits you in this masterpiece of a game. The only thing this game has in common whatsoever with its forebear, is the phrase "Red Dead." This game has much more in common with the critically acclaimed Grand Theft Auto IV than it does with "that other game," but even bearing that in mind, Red Dead Redemption sets the bar so high and hurtles so many fourth walls in creating its immersive and unparalleled game world, that it deserves to be seen as its own distinct experience. Even if you've never played a GTA game, this game is a virtual must-have.
This is in my opinion the most important factor in any game's success as an entertaining and playable experience. If you have played GTA IV, you will know what to expect in terms of the control scheme employed here. It works well and is effective at making you feel in control 99% of the time. There are some very slight issues that may frustrate some players, but on the whole they are negligible.
One is that horse riding controls take some initial getting used to. This isn't a car. It's a living creature. You aren't just driving it. You're riding it. As such, it doesn't take sharp corners the same way a car would. It has a stamina meter (it recharges within seconds) so if it gets too tired and you continue to dig your spurs into its hide, it will gladly buck you off. Likewise, cornering with a wagon pulled by a stream of two to four horses isn't like controlling a car around a tight bend. Finally, there is a slight issue with the edges of cliffs and horses. Your horse will automatically stop at the edge of cliffs, preventing you from tumbling to your (and your horse's) demise. This is useful, but can initially be jarring, especially since the only way to overcome this - jumping using the X button - requires you to fight this "auto stop" mechanic to jump over cliffs that you gauge you might survive the leap down. (Usually you will if you aren't above a certain height.) Once you overcome this very brief learning curve however, it will feel as natural as can be. Riding the range never felt this natural or fun in a game. The most popular horseback riding experiences most mainstream gamers have had in the past were Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and TES IV: Oblivion. I can happily say that this game's horseback riding, animation, and "feel" greatly surpass those experiences by leaps and bounds (no pun intended.) You can whistle for your horse (after a certain point in the game) almost anywhere and it will come running, and if it dies or gets stolen, your previous horse will replace it, or it will simply respawn eventually given enough time.
Another issue is that the same physics-based character animations that made GTA IV such a realistic experience return in Red Dead Redemption. This is a good thing on the whole in my opinion, but at times it can be frustrating to try to get into a door only to have your character widely sway in a circle rather than precisely walk through the doorway you aim him at. The rest of the time though, getting around on foot is no problem, and the weight and feel of main protagonist Marston feels just right for someone carrying a heavy pistol belt around his waist at all times and wearing boots.
Lastly, and perhaps most perplexingly, you cannot swim in Red Dead Redemption. Instead, you and your horse instantaneously meet your deaths upon entering any body of deep water. Why this is the case I cannot say, and I do wonder if perhaps it was originally intended that we would be able to swim, but that it was removed for some unknown technical or gameplay reason. Whatever the case, while disappointing, this by no means ruins or hinders the gameplay experience. In fact, combined with the other perils of life in the old west, it readily helps to increase the sense of trying to survive against the harsh elements. Besides, the amount and quality of content on land is so immense that once you begin to take it all in, you won't care about not being able to swim, or ride boats (apart from a lone water rafting segment of the game.)
And those three points are remarkably minor blemishes on an otherwise excellent control scheme and top notch gameplay.
There is a lot to do in this game. Perhaps more surprisingly and impressively, almost all of it is incredibly fun from start to finish, no matter how many times you do something. First are the main story missions. These never fail to be interesting, fun, and - usually - action packed. I will reserve further details for the "Story" section of this review.
In addition there are myriad side quests. These range from missions that are brief, one-time affairs, to continuing stories complete with character development and interesting plots which continue for several missions throughout the course of the game.
Next, there are the mini games. While these vary in execution in my opinion, they are all playable, and most are actually surprisingly both fun and realistic. These include poker, liar's dice, blackjack, five finger fillet (finger stabbing,) horseshoes, and arm wrestling. The star among them is poker. Not only is it imminently playable, but it plays like the real thing, complete with bluffs (although the AI rarely if ever bluffs, so you have some slight advantage in that respect.) NPC players have dialogue "tells" that you can memorize eventually and use to your advantage. Most importantly, it's just a hell of a lot of fun. It really feels like you're actually playing poker with a bunch of people at a table in the old west, in a saloon, with honky tonk piano being played in the background. This combination of atmosphere, setting, and gameplay is the formula that makes all of Red Dead Redemption great, and this is no exception.
If you're bored with real quests and pastimes, you can track down some of the games many unlockable outfits. These outfits confer special bonuses or just aesthetic alterations, and are comprised of various scraps/pieces found throughout the game, purchased in specific stores, or rewarded for completing certain tasks. Finding them all can be an enthralling challenge, made easier by the ability to "track" them in your journal, pointing you toward their general location.
Then there are the jobs. These include herding cattle, patrolling farms for rustlers and wild animals, and breaking horses. All of these are equally playable, fun, and realistic. You might wonder how herding cattle could be fun, but it really is. You can also make up your own job in a sense, because you can hunt the animals in the game, skin them, and sell the byproducts (skins, furs, meat, horns, etc.) which is quite profitable if you know where the best prices for specific goods are.
Last but not least are the enemy settlements and bounties. Enemy settlements are recurring "bases" full of enemies that you can defeat to earn more fame, money, and item drops. Bounties can be collected by bringing criminals to justice by hunting them down and capturing or killing them. These ensure that even long after you've completed the game, which will take you quite some time, there will still be something to do.
The gameplay mechanics themselves work quite well.
Shooting is an enjoyable and customizable experience. You can use Expert mode to aim freely, or use Casual to engage an easy to use lock-on mechanic. Both feel intuitive and precise after the initial learning curve that all games have (about ten to twenty minutes,) and there is still some challenge inherent in each (although if you want the most immersive and challenging experience, Expert is the way to go in my opinion.)
The game features a slow-down and targeting mechanic called the Dead Eye system, the only part of Red Dead Revolver to return in any form. With a press of the right thumbstick, time slows down, the screen becomes red (making it easier to see targets in detail, even in the black of night,) and you can freely aim at targets. This isn't just a gimmick, either. There are times when you are truly overwhelmed by the sheer number of enemies, and in those instances this mechanic can be a literal life saver. As you progress through the game's story, your Dead Eye abilities will increase, until eventually you can not only aim in slow motion, but also "paint" markers anywhere on enemies' bodies (first automatically, and then at your whim using the RB button,) which will cause you to automatically and accurately fire at those targets when you finally pull the trigger. This allows you to do things like shoot the guns out of people's hands, or the hats off of people's heads. Not only does this make you feel like a total baddass, but it also allows you to honorably avoid killing when it's unnecessary if you want to play a more heroic John Marston. You can also do this in duels, which occur when random NPCs challenge you to shootouts as you become more famous.
Speaking of which, there are both fame and honor meters in the game. How famous, honorable, or dishonorable you are, dictates how NPCs react to you (with admiration or fear, acclaim or derision.) You can be as noble or bloodthirsty and selfish as you want, complete with wearing a bandanna over your face to hide your identity and lose your Wanted status more quickly after robbing the local bank. As you commit crimes, your Wanted status increases, along with the bounty on your head. Eventually, both lawmen and local bounty posses will attempt to hunt you down, although these pursuers are much, much easier to elude than the police (with their cars and other vehicles) were in GTA IV. And you can pay off your bounty at any telegraph location (usually found in the local train station) provided you have the money.
In fact, that leisurely and "only as exciting as you want it to be" pace extends to the rest of the game as well. This game is packed with action and impressive set pieces, but it can also be as slow and laid back as you want it to be. Much of the immersion inherent in the experience stems from things as simple as riding your horse across the cactus strewn land, wondering at the lively environment around you.
One way that this manifests itself is in the game's incredibly impressive and surprisingly functional lasso mechanic. Early in the game you acquire a lasso, which can be used to catch and break new horses (a fairly sedate activity,) catch and hogtie enemies (or innocent folks if you're a dastardly sort,) or even to do things like, oh, I don't know... tie someone up and leave them on the train tracks. Not that you would ever do such a thing... right?
The crowning jewel of Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer is its Free Roam mode. A glorified "lobby," it allows up to 16 players to explore the entire game world, and retains most of its recurring enemy settlements (which are now buffed up in enemy numbers and challenge for co-op adventuring,) hunting challenges, and detail. You can spend hours exploring with friends (which you can merge into a "posse" whose members appear as same colored icons on the world map for ease of navigation and location,) taking on settlements, hunting, fighting other players, and taking in the sights, all the while earning experience points which enable you to level up (to a maximum of level 50,) unlocking new character models, weapons, titles, and mounts. It is a fun and never boring experience, however the downside is that the NPC population has been drastically reduced (probably for performance reasons,) making the remarkably life-like and well populated world of the single player game seem bare and abandoned in contrast. On the plus side, on a stable connection, lag is nonexistent regardless of player count.
From Free Roam, you and your posse or party can embark on any of the game's several categories of competitive multiplayer modes, each of which contain a few different game types. These are more or less standard fare, with a cowboy western twist thrown in for the sake of consistency. Team deathmatch, free for all, capture the flag, and other expected modes are all present. They are fun, but not as in depth or polished as some other, more specifically multiplayer-focused games. You earn experience for everything you do, so it's worth trying everything out just to help level your character up and unlock more goodies for your return to the real star of the show, Free Roam.
Where do I begin? This is an action-packed, full on simulation of a reluctant cowboy hero's life in the old west. You will feel like you're really there. You will feel like you're living another life, just over 100 years ago. Even attempting to describe or explain the quality and level of detail that makes that the case is a daunting proposition, so I will do my best.
The world of Red Dead Redemption consists of fictionalized representations of American southwestern border states around the beginning of the 20th century, as well as some of a fictionalized Mexico of the time. This world is the remnant of the mythologized "wild west," surrounded by an increasingly encroaching modern world on all sides. The first cars are being produced (you can't drive them in the game.) Telephone poles, though infrequent, dot some roads. An iconic steam engine snakes its way across the land, stopping at each small town. At least one town has paved roads and streetlights.
For the most part though, settlements consist of crumbling Spanish ruins, tattered wooden structures bordered by chicken coops and groundwater wells, and even more modest dwellings than that. The attention to detail in these settlements is unparalleled. Tumbleweeds blow through towns, blacksmiths sharpen and hammer their wares, ranchers herd cattle and wrangle horses, patrons stumble drunkenly out of local saloons in which card games, honky tonk pianos, and soliciting prostitutes (you can't sleep with them as the protagonist is a married man, which is a fact at the heart of the story - more on that later) are the norm, ranch hands pump water from hand wells, and stage coaches, horseback riders, and covered wagons regularly come and go. NPCs, of both the standard and villainous varieties, go about their daily lives. Thefts of horses or stage coaches, kidnappings, violent assaults, and more all take place, and you can intervene however you please or ignore their pleas for aid. NPCs carry on sometimes elaborate conversations with one another, often detailing your latest exploits or other recent story events.
Outside of settlements and towns things are just as interesting and detailed. Red Dead Redemption's environment is tantamount to a thriving ecosystem. Wild animals abound. Everything from foxes, to various species of birds, to deer, to coyotes, to bears, to cougars, to bobcats, to rabbits, to moose, to armadillos, to snakes, to wild horses, to buffalo, to cattle, all live, roam, and hunt in the wild. No, they don't just walk around in one area in a scripted fashion continually. Some are more common than others in certain locations than others, but they legitimately travel the world, hunt and kill other animals, as well as NPCs, and even you and your horse. Watching wolves hunting (sometimes you) in a pack, birds perched in trees or bushes flying away when startled by gunfire, cougars chasing down deer, NPCs being chased by coyotes, and more, are all part of the majesty of this game and its world. The first time you hear a rattlesnake rattling and hissing nearby, realizing too late that it was hidden in the brush beneath your feet, you will be impressed rather than annoyed that you just got bitten.
NPCs, forming randomly generated events (which do become repetitive eventually, but are always fun and interesting nevertheless,) also dwell alongside their animal counterparts throughout the wilderness. You will happen upon everything from people offering hunting challenges, to pleas for help that are in reality ruses designed to lure you to your death at the hands of roadside bandits, stagecoaches being chased by horse riding thieves that you can either join or stop to save the beleaguered passengers of the stagecoach, and much more, in your travels.
And these little touches - both the animals and the NPCs - happen on a continuous and frequent basis. You will never be alone or without something to do or see for long. Many games purport to be "living, breathing worlds," but Red Dead Redemption actually delivers on that promise. No, seriously. It really does. It's not a complete simulation, in the sense of NPCs being sims or Tropico residents with their own wants and needs to be met, but the incredible detail and presentation truly immerse you in a world that feels more real and convincing as a fully realized gaming reality than anything previous to it.
Overall, this is a REMARKABLY beautiful to behold game. As with the setting/world, I find it incredibly difficult to adequately describe what awaits you as far as Red Dead Redemption's visuals go, because there is simply so much praise to heap upon them. The textures and models aren't as high resolution or high polygon as the best looking games on either platform, and smaller vegetation in particular looks a bit threadbare, but the combination of all of its elements, effects, and details cumulatively come together to create one of the most REAL looking games I've ever witnessed.
First and foremost, special mention belongs to the game's weather. Sunrises begin when the brilliantly starry sky begins to lighten in the east ever so slightly (remaining pitch dark in the west.) As the light grows, you begin to see the bottoms of clouds above (separately from the rest of the cloud bodies) begin to be lit by the sun from beneath. You then see the enormous, realistically red-orange sun break above the horizon, and slowly ascend, casting breathtaking shadows not only on the ground, but from the clouds as well. Rays of light break through holes in clouds dynamically, and the sky is lit by the colors we recognize as appropriate for each stage of the sunrise, not just a generic hue for the sunrise as a whole before "day proper" lighting kicks in as in most games. It is a dynamic, utterly realistic progression from night, to dawn, to day - which even varies depending upon cloud cover - and is unlike anything I have ever seen in a game before. The same goes for sunsets.
Rain storms begin as clouds slowly form in the distance, then build overhead. Lightning highlights three dimensional cloud structures and casts shadows. The moon goes through phases. Stars are bright and twinkly, as they should be in a world without as much artificial light as we're accustomed to in today's modern cities. Clouds above cast shadows on the ground in real time. Rain causes puddles to form in even the smallest indentations. Both you and your horse's lower legs, tail, and mane become muddy as the ground becomes saturated with water. This is simply the most realistic overall, cumulative weather system I've ever seen in a game.
Environmental effects are just as detailed and dynamic. Your horse doesn't just kick up dust when it gallops. It causes plumes of dust to scrabble down inclines as it slows to a stop on them. Herds of wild horses or stampeding cattle produce the same effects, proportional to the numbers and momentum. Gunfire produces wisps of smoke which linger in space realistically, still visible as you ride through them in pursuit of enemies fleeing while firing at you behind them.
Your journey will take you from America's slowly dying old west, to Mexico, to heavily forested, and in some places snow-covered, mountain ridges. Everything from deserts, to swampy marshland, to snowy, rocky mountains, to lush farmland, to thick forests is depicted here. The progression from one terrain and environment to another is believable, gradual, and subtle. Traveling from the desert areas toward the forested mountains is a beautiful to see ride, replete with gradually decreasing cactus fields giving way to increasingly green, and then snowy, woodland. That's just one example of the game's environmental variety and believability.
Character and animal animations are striking in their realism and detail. (If you can't tell by now, "detailed" is perhaps the best adjective to describe Red Dead Redemption.) No two falls, jumps, or swerves will animate the same. Everything has a sense of weight and momentum. Everything looks and feels procedural.
Characters are well designed and - again - detailed. The protagonist's scarred visage and physical demeanor are just one example of how carefully crafted the game's cast of characters are. Clothing is three dimensional and intricately designed, rather than looking "painted" on. Repetitive NPCs also appear to be rarer (though not nonexistent) than in other Rockstar games.
The sound design in this game is amazing. As an aspiring - albeit not a professional - musician, I'm very keenly aware of sounds and sound design. You can hear everything in this game, and the complexity, subtlety, and richness of its sound design is yet another factor in its stunning realism. As dawn breaks, you can - as a friend recently put it - "almost smell" morning, as birds begin to chirp in nearby trees (they actually nest in them, and you can hear which direction their tweets are originating from.) The roar of a nearby waterfall mixes with the sounds of dynamically billowing wind. The sounds of individual wild life nearby hunting or just roaming reverberate through the air. Canyons and basins yield echos. Gunshots echo across the land, imbuing a sense of distance and direction. Swaying tree branches and leaves, and other foliage, are discernible and originate individually from plants. At night, crickets enter the mix. In a word, the game sounds amazing.
The musical soundtrack, which comes included in the game's Special Edition, was clearly an inspired work and was taken seriously. A few western sounding themes weren't just casually thrown together. You'll hear everything from gently picked acoustic guitar, to lush strings, to songs with lyrics written expressly for the game. And all of it works dynamically and appropriately to heighten or enhance the mood of whatever's happening at a particular moment in the game, without ever detracting or distracting from it. It does what every good soundtrack should do: it adds to the narrative, the world, and the atmosphere of that world, without dictating it or interfering with it. It also fails to fall into cliches, despite still "feeling" sufficiently rustic and earthy.
Red Dead Redemption is the story of John Marston, a former outlaw and ex member of a band of criminals. When, years ago, his gang betrayed him and left him for dead, he decided to go straight. He married, had a child, and started a life for himself on a farm. Unfortunately, his past caught up to him when the newly formed Bureau (forebear of the FBI) kidnapped his family and blackmailed him into pursuing and eliminating his former posse members, in order to put a stop to their increasingly savage misdeeds against the local population. He is forced to reluctantly agree, and sets off to find them.
That is the basic premise of the game's plot, but without ruining that plot, I cannot explain why I feel it deserves such high marks. Instead all I can say is that it is an emotionally engaging tale full of interesting, endearing, entertaining characters. In typical Rockstar style, it also attempts to make some political and social points which are readily evident in their relevance to today's political landscape. The game doesn't beat you over the head with them, however, and leaves them open to personal interpretation.
Marston is a likable and identifiable character in that he wants to do the right thing, but must face the reality of his circumstances and past wrongs. It is from this quest for redemption, quite apart from the forced quest the authorities have him following, that the game derives its title. All of the game's memorable cast of characters have their own motivations, flaws, and attributes. Villains can be sympathetic, and heroes can seem hypocritical. The game succeeds in making you think, as well as feel. It does this as well as any film or book in my opinion, and probably more effectively and viscerally than most can.
This quality extends to some of the game's side quests as well. One in particular, which I will only spoil so much as to say it is the one entitled "I Know You," ends with a shocking and unexpected finale which gave me goosebumps and made me think more than any other moment in any other videogame... ever. It was a stroke of sheer brilliance in my opinion, and if you can, you should play this quest to its eventual conclusion in order to experience this gem. Moments like these are rare in games, and Red Dead Redemption gives them to you in spades.
Red Dead Redemption is a masterpiece of a videogame, and as a jaded, cynical, disillusioned, and frustrated gamer, I do not say that lightly. It creates a vivid, utterly believable world and gives you the freedom to explore it at your whim. It tells stories you will feel and think deeply about and remember for years to come. It lets you play in a setting no other game has successfully or artfully presented before in my opinion. It does so many things, does them all incredibly well, and presents it all with such quality, diversity, and most importantly, fun, that it stands as a testament to what great videogames should be.
Many moments and experiences make this a game you will remember for the rest of your gaming days on Earth in my opinion. From the first time you look out across a vast sea of cacti and sand and notice a train billowing steam in the distance, its headlight slicing through the darkening night, to the multiple plot twists and genuinely powerful and moving events that you must endure before you reach your journey's ultimate destination, you will not forget this game. I am not exaggerating, as would be the case with most games. Play the game from start to finish, and you will understand.
If you have any interest whatsoever in experiencing a fictional, iconic, old western videogame, then do not hesitate. Play Red Dead Redemption immediately.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/25/10, Updated 05/26/10
Game Release: Red Dead Redemption (US, 05/18/10)
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