Review by UnaidedCoder

"A gallop with a few clumsy steps."

Red Dead Redemption was, leading up to it's release, a game I didn't pay much attention to. While this was mainly due to commitments at the time, I have also long since made it my policy to firmly ignore a game that is being hyped up the trench by it's fanbase to be. It has served me quite well in not being disappointed by unrealistic expectations. So here is what I knew going into Red Dead Redemption: It was by Rockstar Games, it was a western and it apparently had some never before seen multiplayer mechanic. It was enough to get my attention, since I fairly enjoyed GTA4 and I have a spot softer than tenderloin shot out of a cannon for westerns. With that knowledge equipped, I jumped into the single player.

Close to a week and I'm at 99% of the single player's completion, and my feelings on the game are fairly conflicting. One thing was clear: the game was barrels of fun in it's own right. The gunfights were frantic, the horsesriding was rugged, and all the staple activities of the west were there. But for some reason it didn't always feel like a western. Looking back, I can nail this problem down to two issues:

First, the game's plot is terrible. I cannot go into much more detail than this without spoiling it, but there is no strong structure or overarching conflict to keep the plot tight and focused. Events just happen in a sequence with only flimsy reasons or causes connecting them. Admittedly most of this problem lies in the game's beginning, wherein few important points are established and we ultimately get an inappropriate sense of what points are going to be important later on.

Secondly, the game takes place far too late in history, in the year of 1911. Some points feel very old west, but other times we begin creeping more into something out of a Bonnie and Clyde flick. If the game took place 8 years later, we would see our cowboys sporting Thompson Submachine Guns. This sort of era wouldn't be a problem if the game and plot kept everything strictly rural, but unfortunately the slick new advancements of the times are prominent in some areas.

On top of this, about half the characters in the game (particularly the earlier half) are largely unlikeable. Many, John Marston included, are hostile towards each other for reasons usually either unwarranted or unrecommended (there is little reason half the people you ally with don't shoot you in the back of the head and be done with you during some of the cutscenes, such as the drunken chore Irish). Some are clearly meant to be unlikeable, but others appear to have been written to be likable despite such behavior. This attempt, if it existed, largely fell short.

So yes, if you enjoy plot (even in a Rockstar game) you are going to have a few issues with Red Dead Redemption. Many advocates for the plot love many of the individual moments or points, but the fact is that the overall experience from beginning to end is far worse than the sum of it's parts due to it's execution. However, beyond that, the gameplay itself is, again, excellent and should keep you occupied and entertained as you go for full completion, if you so wish. The wold itself is also an astounding accomplishment in free roam: it really, truly does feel alive. Most freeroamers place you in a sort of complicated ant farm, where everyone you meet are mere shells with a collective intelligence and cops with a GPS tracker on your ass 24/7. Red Dead Redemption, however, makes every person you meet seem like people, in a world where they interact amongst themselves.

The world is also filled to the brim with a functional ecosystem. A varied selection of lifelike fauna roam the wilderness for you to hunt, and for the AI to hunt (and be hunted by) periodically. You'll also catch sights of coyotes killing and running off with prey such as rabbits, probably before you develop the game's required phobia of rabid cougars. There is also a selection of flora as well, which, annoyingly, you are tasked to spend quite a bit of time collecting. It is for this reason that multiplayer got off on a sour note for me. While it was indeed still populated with animals (to varying degrees of density based on latency at the time) and people quietly riding down the street, it was far less thriving than single player. This is obviously a limitation of the online servers, but the excuse is not the problem here. The problem is that it leaves you imaging how much more amazing it would be for multiplayer to be like the single player experience with the added multiplayer framework, instead of stripping out some of the best parts (including my favorite weapon, the lasso).

On top of that, the tradeoff for other people to play with is somewhat problematic due to the game's freeroam scoring mechanic. At the time of writing, the freeroam play is essentially a griefing engine. There is a loading screen message that tells me it is more profitable to cooperate rather than kill each other (which is true), to which I have to wonder if Rockstar actually that that was going to happen the majority of the time with online gamers being who they are. The inability to play freeroam with no FF or without everyone's location being broadcast to everyone else aggravates this, and loses an entire dimension of gameplay in the latter case.

Once you do get people cooperating to take on a horde of bandtios, however, it can be a real blast. Even between the game's only 7 in-freeroam activities, you will find a good bit of enjoyment from them in multiple playthroughs as you work to gain all the toys and mounts leveling provides. The in player combat, when appropriate, can be barrels of fun as well. Should you not have the people necessary for either, you can instead spend some time doing the game's various challenges in single and multiplayer alike.

Where does Red Dead Redemption stand as a game? It's fun, if repetitive. Where does it stand as an experiment in multiplayer gameplay? While I feel it may not have stood up entirely as people believed it would, I'm glad to see someone in this industry trying something new with the model. Maybe Rockstar's risk will open the gates to get other freeroam developers to streamline the system, which would make it worth it's weight in gold in the long run.

Where does Red Dead Redemption stand as an experience? It totally depends on what you are looking for. If you want an old style freeroam, it will serve you well. If you want a western game, however, it has been done much better with games such as Call of Juarez and it's prequel. Ultimately, I recommend you check it out despite it's flaws to see if this new idea in gaming will work for you. It's not for everyone, basically being a love it or hate it product.

My recommendation? Rent it to see if you like it. If you do, you certainly won't beat both single and multi in one week if you have a day job.

Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 05/26/10

Game Release: Red Dead Redemption (US, 05/18/10)

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