Red Dead Redemption Review
There's been lots of talk lately about Rockstar Game's open-world, gun-slinging adventure Red Dead Redemption finally getting the Old West genre “right.” As I'm about to reveal in this review, it's easily the best take ever, not to mention my favorite game of the year thus far. But I still hate to see it be the only game getting full credit for successfully bringing the wild west to gamers; last year's Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood did a fine job of arming players with a six-shooter, and even 2005's Gun was an inspired effort. I'm not sure the source of this sub-genre not catching on is a lack of decent games, as much as it is a lack of gamers willing to play them—for many there's just no comparison between looking down the barrel of a rusty old shotgun, and shouldering an alien-blasting rocket launcher. That said, Rockstar's admittedly awesome take, coupled with their reputation and faithful following of Grand Theft Auto fans, will hopefully get the genre recognized, and maybe even send gamers diving into the bargain bin for an old copy of Gun.
Now that I've said my two cents (okay, more like a nickel) on that topic, let me get to the good stuff. Red Dead Redemption isn't just GTA in a cowboy hat; although that analogy is accurate to some degree, it offers so much more, and ultimately yields Rockstar's most satisfying sandbox title to date. As hundreds of films have already shown us, the wild west is rich with gorgeous environments, colorful characters, intense action, and engaging storytelling. The developer has successfully mined all of these aspects, while also applying their edgy vibe and proven play mechanics to deliver an unparalleled effort.
The things you're asked to do in any given moment don't break any new ground, and will in fact be very familiar to anyone who's walked a Liberty City mile in Niko Bellic's loafers. Stealing a horse isn't all that different from hijacking a car, the gun-play is very familiar, albeit more refined, and even simple things like moving your character around or triggering missions fit snugly into the Grand Theft Stagecoach analogy. You'll also notice things like keeping pace and holding a conversation while on horseback is almost identical to doing those same things while riding a motorcycle in The Lost and Damned. Similarly, setting way-points, saving your game, and quick-traveling are all executed in GTA4-like style. Hell, piss off the sheriff, and you'll even gain a “Wanted” level. But by leveraging what worked in previous games, including the same RAGE engine that powered GTA4, the designers have been able to focus on building a world brimming with immersion-creating moments and authenticity, or at least what the best television and film westerns have taught us to be authentic.
The setting alone is breathtaking. All the expected touches are there; rolling tumbleweeds, big blue skies, rows of cacti, snow-capped mountains, sun-soaked deserts, and stretching vistas that wouldn't look out of place on a postcard. If you've seen it in a Clint Eastwood western, you'll find it here brought to glorious cinematic life. But it's the smaller stuff Rockstar does so well that will really transport you to this turn-of-the-century world. For me, it was touches like a darkened sky forewarning a storm, the accurate “clip clop” of my horse trampling across a rickety bridge, or the wobbling wheels on a stagecoach that continually sold the setting. Galloping toward the sunset while a white-tailed doe runs alongside your steed is also pretty impressive.
Of course, this is still a Rockstar game, so you also have the option to break the majestic moment with a bullet and take Bambi out. Hunting wildlife is a big part of the game's economy, so if you want to buy that new revolver, you better have the stomach to shoot, gut, and skin adorable animals. Over 40 types populate the massive world, and trying to add each one to your trophy case quickly becomes an addictive side activity—I almost squealed like a kid on Christmas when I finally skinned a skunk. If killing critters isn't your thing, there's plenty of other ways to earn loot. As with GTA4, there's no shortage of shady folks willing to pay you to do their dirty work; from tracking bounties to tricking some old coot out of his valuable property, I found a variety of missions that allowed me to line my saddlebags with gold. What I appreciated most about these activities was that they felt more organic to the world than GTA4's side quests did. Where that title's bowling dates and taxi jobs pulled me from the main story, Redemption's saloon poker games and horse-taming tasks felt like a complement to the narrative. And these non-critical activities barely scratch the surface of what awaits armchair cowboys; you can also pick sides in random gun fights, rescue hostages kidnapped by bandits, storm hideouts, hunt for hidden treasure, and herd cattle.
When I wasn't whittling away the hours hunting wildlife or making a name for myself by completing side jobs--Redemption's inhabitants realistically react to you based on a well executed fame and honor system—I found the time to follow Redemption's main narrative. As reformed outlaw John Marston, you'll have plenty of opportunities to draw your weapons on targets that only have two legs. As expected, the critical path is littered with bloody shootouts, surprise twists, and crazy characters And regardless of which side of the law they're on, you'll have a blast shooting, saving, or simply chatting with the game's personality-packed cast. Dumb-as-dirt deputies, grizzled lawmen, drunken psychos, slippery con men, and damsels in distress are never more than a mission or two away. Excellent voice acting and detailed animations further complement their presence.
Once you've completed the 20-plus hour campaign and put that same amount of time into side activities, you'll still want to return to this wide-open wild west for the multi-player action. The brimming title certainly doesn't need the extra content, but Rockstar went above and beyond anyway, and included competitive and co-op play. The former is fun, but standard stuff--you and up to 15 of your friends can engage in team or free-for-all shoot-outs and compete in gold-looting capture the flag-like variations. The latter, however, dubbed Free Roam, allows you and your buddies to recreate all your favorite Silverado and Tombstone moments. Wrangle up a gang of fellow gunslingers and carve your own path through the entire single-player map; storm enemy hideouts, engage in shootouts, go hunting, race horses, or just raise hell. The freedom to author your own adventures as well as participate in more structured activities almost make this mode feel like an Old West MMORPG. You can even level-up your character and earn bonus-granting experience in Free Roam, adding the sort of RPG-like appeal Modern Warfare's found success with in its online modes.
Whether playing with a posse or taking the lone ranger route, there's simply a ridiculous amount of things you can do in Redemption--on and off the critical path, online or off--but most feel less like busy work and more like they belong in this world. With few exceptions, that's something I rarely experience in a game that offers this much freedom. Of course, my lack of boredom is no doubt colored by my bias toward the Old West genre; while I had no problem taking a break from saving stagecoaches and storming compounds to collect rare plants on the prairie, this might not meet all gamers' tastes. And as much as I loved my time in Redemption's endlessly rich world, I can't turn a blind eye to its many bugs. Objects clipping through one another, the world popping in as it loads, and frame-rate stutters are common occurrences. And, while I never experienced it personally, I've heard reports of players getting stuck in the architecture. All these things are common in games of this size, but that doesn't make them any less annoying.
That said, the shortcomings are fairly insignificant and easy to overlook in light of what's been accomplished overall. Sky-high production values, Rockstar's signature style, and variety-packed gameplay that actually feels natural to the story and setting make this an easy Game of the Year contender. All that, and they've included an impressive suite of multi-player modes to satisfy the frag-happy masses. I'll say it again: Rockstar isn't the first to craft a compelling game in this setting, but they've raised the bar considerably with Redemption and have hopefully made the struggling sub-genre “cool” enough grab the attention of mainstream gamers.