Review by BloodGod65

Reviewed: 03/29/11

The Outlaw Torn

Anyone who has graduated high school should be well aware of America’s tumultuous history. From the moment it was settled to the present day, our country has been a veritable highlight reel of defining moments and disparate eras; from the brave new world of the roaring twenties, to the naive optimism of the post World War II days, to the traumas of Vietnam. All have revealed some aspect of the American psyche and played a part in what the nation has become. But no time period is more indicative of the American spirit and character than the days of the westward expansion. Those years spent taming a savage landscape showed just what Americans could do and what we were willing to do to get what we wanted. It was a time that brought out the best and the worst of the American people, and it is no coincidence that it is still one of the most crucial pieces of our national identity.

It strikes me as odd then that the West has largely faded from mass media. For the most part, Hollywood has abandoned the West and the game industry never embraced the genre to start with. Even so, I’ve always wondered if gamers would get a “Grand Theft Auto” for the western genre – a game that could revolutionize, modernize, and bring the Western back to prominence. With Red Dead Redemption, we finally have that game – I just never imagined it would be an actual Western GTA.

Redemption is, in many ways, Grand Theft Auto with a western skin applied. From design, missions, and mechanics, Red Dead Redemption has a lot in common with Rockstar’s most well known property. I’ll get into the details momentarily, but even the game’s narrative has a conceptual hook that isn’t entirely dissimilar from GTA IV.

John Marston is a man with a troubled past. He spent his youth running with a gang and taking part in all sorts of heinous deeds. Things changed when he was left for dead by his former friends. After being abandoned, Marston left the life of the outlaw behind, married and had a son. But the past is never content to stay in the past, and the government comes calling. A group charged with taming the lawless frontier kidnaps Marston’s wife and son and demands he hunt down his former friends. With little choice but to agree, Marston sets out in hope of finally laying the ghosts of his past to rest.

While there’s certainly more than a mere echo of Niko Bellic in John Marston and his quest, there is one crucial difference. Unlike the goons of GTA IV, the characters in Red Dead Redemption are actually likeable. Even though they’re just as despicable, it is easier to relate to them. Where Niko was a former criminal who fell back into the life for no reason other than his own stupidity, Marston is forced to take up his guns and deal with all sorts of crooks and madmen because his family is at stake. Other characters show Rockstar’s ability to craft interesting personae, such as a snake oil salesman who is perpetually hounded by angry customers and a grave-robbing treasure hunter.

If the plot of Red Dead Redemption bears a resemblance to GTA IV, the gameplay is essentially its clone. While a few elements have been switched out for the sake of setting – vehicles have been replaced by horses and machine guns have been replaced by six shooters – all the traditional Grand Theft Auto elements are present and accounted for. Mainstays such as the massive open world, side activities, various contacts and multiple mission strands; they’ve all made the translation into Red Dead Redemption. And, as always, I can hardly fault Rockstar for reusing a winning formula.

But if there’s one thing I wish Rockstar didn’t insist on bringing into Redemption, it’s the stupid, redundant missions. Long time Grand Theft Auto veterans are by now accustomed to the rather uninspired missions the company trots out with every iteration – escort missions, fetch quests, and others that just drag you across the map for no good reason. Unfortunately, these all appear in Red Dead Redemption – and with frustrating regularity. Even at the very end of the game you’ll be enduring such tedious tasks as blasting crows off a grain silo. Through the course of the game you’ll also have to suffer through things like patrolling a ranch at night and herding cattle. John Marston is supposed to be an outlaw, but he often comes off as little more than a ranch hand.

However, there are quite a few memorable and exciting missions interspersed throughout the game to offset the mediocrity of the others. Some of the best include a scenario that has Marston defending a train with a Gatling gun, rescuing a rebel from execution, and – my own personal favorite – storming a cliffside fortress with a battalion of soldiers.

While these sorts of grandiose missions are few and far between, the game maintains a constant level of excitement with its regular gunfights. Redemption shares the same basic shooting and cover mechanics that were introduced in GTA IV, and they are excellent, just as they were in that game. There are several settings for target lock, so you can have the computer lock onto and track targets or forego any sort of aim assistance. The latter is definitely the way to go, but for those whose hands may not be the fastest in the west, the computer assist is nice. The cover system also remains largely unchanged since the previous GTA, although it has been tweaked so aiming isn’t as buggy.

There are a few more nuances to combat, the most noticeable of which eliminates any sort of health meter in favor of a health regeneration system. This makes the game flow more smoothly than Rockstar’s previous efforts because it isn’t necessary to waste time trekking back and forth to safe houses to restore health between missions. Since Marston ends up in a gunfight in nearly every mission, this is especially nice.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Western if there wasn’t Dead Eye. As in every other western game, this allows Marston to slow down time and pick off enemies at will. Over the course of the game, players will advanced through three forms of Dead Eye. The first simply slows time and allows Marston to shoot. The second targets any enemy the player paints with the reticule and then fires. The final variation allows the player to mark and shoot targets. While each Dead Eye level is ostensibly more powerful than the last, I still wish Rockstar had allowed players to choose which one to use. The second variation is almost useless, and the first would have been useful for the entire game.

Duels also make plenty of appearances in Redemption. These play out similarly to other Western games on the market, and have Marston drawing his gun and shooting his enemy before they take him out. The difference is that there is a meter that must be filled before firing, which is done by pulling the trigger as the targeting reticule pulses. Do so and a large portion of the meter will be filled. Screw it up and a tiny part will fill, making Marston hesitate before firing. It really isn’t a sensible system, especially since the player should be able to fire any time after pulling a gun. There were plenty of times when I whipped out my pistol, put a target right between my enemy’s eyes and then had to target him a half dozen times more just to get Marston to shoot.

While the frontier was renowned for its violence and gunfights, there is more to do in Red Dead Redemption than just kill everyone in sight. Rockstar seems to have taken the criticisms about the dearth of side activities in GTA IV to heart because they’ve crammed Redemption to the breaking point. Apart from the main story missions, Marston may also meet some interesting characters around the land. These operate much like they did in GTA IV, and the stranger often gives him some task to perform. They can usually be pursued at any time, and ultimately serve to flesh out the world.

Similar events frequently crop up, but unlike the strangers, these random events don’t need to be found. People stranded in the wilderness may ask for a ride back to civilization or you may encounter a group of bandits attacking a carriage. Outlaws also regularly break free from the authorities or steal horses. While these events are unavoidable, it is up to the player whether or not to intervene. Choosing to ignore events incurs no penalty but taking action will affect your fame and honor.

Fame and honor are the equivalent of the morality systems found in many other games. Marston acquires fame for completing missions and it essentially measures how well known he is. The more renowned, the cheaper goods are in stores. Honor is closer to the traditional good/evil scales. If Marston acts like a good guy, people will often turn a blind eye to any crimes he may commit, while bad guys will have to deal with angry posses and bounty hunters. Should Marston revert to his former criminal ways by killing and stealing, he will also have to put up with the immediate consequences of police action and a bounty on his head.

The wanted system works a lot like it did in GTA IV, where authorities have a sphere of influence that must be escaped until the heat dies down. Considering that the only means of transportation is by horse, getting away is pretty easy. To avoid further pursuit, Marston can always go to a telegraph office and pay off his bounty.

There are plenty of other things to do in Marston’s world. In any given town you can play all sorts of gambling games, such as poker, blackjack, Liar’s Dice, and Five Finger Fillet. There are also several types of ambient challenges that can be pursued at will. These include things that involve hunting local wildlife, collecting herbs and flowers, hunting buried treasure, and sharpshooting, which requires Marston to perform feats of gunplay like shooting the hats off people’s heads.

One thing Marston can do deserves special discussion. This being the Wild West, there are no cars to steal. Instead, the primary mode of transportation is by horse. Just like a carjacking in GTA, Marston can steal any horse he comes across, even if it already has a rider. He can also use a lasso to break wild horses. After lassoing a horse, Marston can jump on its back and by keeping him centered, Marston will stay on the flailing animal before it finally gives up.

While the gameplay certainly fits the bill for a western, the world itself helps to cement the atmosphere. It is, without a doubt, the best rendition of the western frontier to appear in any video game. From the scrublands and forests of the north to merciless Mexican desert and its monolithic mesas, no game has ever captured the desolate majesty of the West as well as Red Dead Redemption does. There’s more to it than just ambiance though; the game is genuinely gorgeous. There are plenty of details, from the mesmerizing day/night cycle to the wildlife and foliage that can be found in every area.

And as excellent as the graphics are, the soundtrack makes the setting all the more sweet. It is, simply, the best I have ever heard. The music, with its grandiose lonesomeness, follows the same template set down by Hollywood westerns decades ago, and I daresay it is every bit as good as anything Ennio Morricone has ever done. Rockstar has also assembled an excellent cast of voice actors as well – possibly the most fitting since San Andreas. Marston’s actor, with his gruff sarcasm, is a perfect fit for his role and his voice is one you’ll never tire of.

Red Dead Redemption is the best western game ever made. While this is not a genre that offers much competition, Redemption easily trumps all others – even Call of Jaurez: Bound in Blood, which had been the only Western game worth talking about. Even though it isn’t perfect (but in the end it was only Rockstar’s insistence on filling the game with mindless, mediocre missions that kept the game from making the grade) it is a game unlike any other. No game has ever given us a vision of the west quite like this, and I daresay no game will ever do so again.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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

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