The American West. Everybody knows it – the Wild, Wild, West is one of the most fictionalized, most romanticized periods in modern culture. Actors and writers alike have made their fortunes based off of this period of time, and at this point it’s becoming increasingly more difficult discerning fact from fiction… Well, except for that film with Will Smith – I think we can all agree that that movie was just a load of bull.
When Rockstar announced that that were making Red Dead Redemption, I was a little sceptical to start with. To this day I still haven’t played Red Dead Revolver, and the closest thing anyone could liken it to was Grand Theft Auto on horseback, and that isn’t really much of a selling point. It’d be different, sure, but is that enough to justify going out and spending $60 on a game when their last $60 sandbox, Grand Theft Auto 4, is now being used as a coaster with the shiny side of the disc pointing upwards?
Both games are sandboxes from the same company, only years apart – and those extra years of experience, and a more nuanced tone, make for a drastically different game in many ways: not just the obvious difference in theme, but Red Dead Redemption has a maturity about it that simply elevates it above the parody that typifies the developer’s flagship series. What RDR lacks in rocket launchers, jetpacks and silliness, it makes up for in having a gripping and emotional story and well-rounded characters that avoid the stereotypes found in Liberty City, San Andreas and Vice City. If John Marston has a fat, useless cousin who just gets wasted and likes American mammaries, the player doesn’t need to know about it.
There’s a purity of vision and focus on display here that the studio has never bettered, and Red Dead Redemption was Rockstar’s own redemption in my eyes. At the very least, it’s simply a spectactular game.
You are John Marston – an outlaw who left his life of crime with the prostitute he fell in love with. They married, had a son named Jack and settled down on their own little piece of land. Just as things started going right for Mr Marston, the big bad Federal Government swoops in and abducts John’s family, telling him that all he has to do to get them back and be granted amnesty for his life of crime is round up the members of his old gang and bring them to justice.
Fortunately, John is the best gunslinger since Val Kilmer in the movie Tombstone, and at first this seems like a relatively easy task. The problem lies in that the ol’ gang has since disbanded and by now (1911) have spread out over the two fictitious US states of New Austin and West Elizabeth, and the fictitious Mexican state, Nuevo Paraiso. What’s worse is that his old boss, Bill Williamson, now has a new gang – and is hell-bent on not being brought to justice.
Unfortunately, Marston is a bit of a dumbass, and goes straight to Bill’s stronghold at Fort Mercer to confront him. As punishment for his brash actions, John winds up being shot and left for dead. He’s rescued by local rancher Bonnie MacFarlane, who patches him up and teaches him the basics of ranching. John pulls himself together and sets about trying to attack Fort Mercer properly – by weakening Williamson’s gang, and making friends of his own. Despite a clear romantic tension between Bonnie and John, he never succumbs to his attractions, instead remaining faithful to his family.
It’s not a particularly novel story, but it’s a fantastically well-structured game. Instead of simply robbing cars from people, you have to travel on horseback. If you want a horse, you have to tame it. Red Dead Redemption is not a game which hands you stuff and says go have fun. It’s a game which points you in the right direction and says “go get em, ex-cowboy.”
Obviously, you can blitz the story in about 20 hours if you really want to, but it’s a sandbox for a reason. Rushing around focussing purely on your end-goal will only piss off the people around you as you ignore their cries for help. It seems that Marston lives in a rough neighbourhood during tough times. If you go out at night, there will be men attacking prostitutes in the streets. If you go out during the day, there will be bandits attacking convoys and public hangings. It’s up to you to save or ignore these helpless civilians – and the way you treat the community affects the way they treat you. Good deeds earn you Honor and Fame, which have some amusing effects on the gameplay. High Honor gets you twice as much pay for jobs and and discounts in store, while lawmen and eyewitnesses alike will sometimes overlook petty crimes. Players with low Honor however get an evil looking horse, people are terrified of you and you even insult people instead of greeting them as you walk into town to see them shutting their doors to you.
The combat in Red Dead Redemption is surprisingly tight. It’s similar to GTA in that you either use cover or you die, though it’s not as wooly as the shooting in Grand Theft Auto IV. You can blindfire and freeaim, as you’d expect, but you also have this nifty mechanic called Dead Eye, similar to Fallout’s VATS system. Time slows to a crawl as you line up your shots, and then rappidly pop caps in whichever extremeties you feel like; you can shoot to kill, or you can shoot your quarry in the knee, hog tie them to back of your horse and collect a higher bounty for returning them alive.
Hell, you can even lasso your enemy from horseback and drag them back to town if you want – the weapons and combat (Dead Eye excluded) are all accurate for the time period, and spectacularly well-done.
As previously mentioned, if you run around being a dick, shooting or robbing civilians, people won’t take a shine to you. A witness will run to the nearest sheriff and tattle on you – you can bribe or kill them if you’re quick enough, else you are going to get a bounty on your head. You can pay it off yourself, or run it up until you are pursued by either US Marshals or the Mexican Army, depending on where you are and who you are pissing off. Either way, to absolve you of your crimes, you have to pay your dues – if you don’t have the money (or a pardon letter), you get assigned bounties to fulfil until you earn your freedom. Fortunately, if you have high Honor, you pay less for a pardon, and if you have low Honor, people won’t tattle for anything less than straight up murder.
This all being said, Red Dead Redemption isn’t perfect. It doesn’t have the same level of polish that a GTA game would have, and at release, it was notoriously buggy, leading to plenty of memes originating on Youtube, such as the infamous invisible horse (which led to Marston floating through the air like some kind of Wild West version of Wonder Woman) and some truly hilarious problems with the game’s physics. The horse controls, while clunky, are better than the driving in GTA 4’s famously lumpen vehicles, but that’s not really saying much. What the game lacks in polish and graphics however (if you’re really, really picky about graphics), it makes up for with its beautiful soundtrack. Between the acoustic guitars and the fantastic voicework, this is a world you actually feel a part of. Check out our Defining Moments article about the border crossing to Mexico if you don’t believe me.
Finally, there’s a multiplayer aspect to the game, which I lasted a few hours of. I wouldn’t even mention it but Dale would tie me to the train tracks like a moustachio’d villain if I didn’t [Oi! – Dale]. It has both co-op and competitive modes for up to 16 players simultaneously, with the competitive action featuring the standard shootouts and a capture the flag you’d expect. The Free Roam mode is quite interesting, however. You can buddy up with up to 15 other players to explore the entirety of the single-player map; you can even form posses and have mini skirmishes, simply shooting each other in the face, or working together to assault bandit hideouts and forts. Hell, you can even just go on a hunting expedition together simply because you fancy taking on a forest full of bears. Red Dead Redemption has a fair bit to offer, no matter the reason you come to the table. It’s pretty quiet these days, but it has a hardcore community that simply refuses to move on.
All in all, Red Dead Redemption is remarkably solid. It’s a game which tackles hot-button topics like racism, immigration and the government power vs personal freedom and shows how socially ingrained they are – not just in America but the world over. Unlike the often-controversial Grand Theft Auto, it tackles these issues sensitively and with plenty of heart. Red Dead Redemption is one of the best sandboxes you’ll ever play, and well worth a shot if you haven’t had a go already. When you finally complete the story, you’ll put the controller down and say “god damn”, before booting up the Undead Nightmare DLC for some zombie-fueled alternate-reality nonsense.
Red Dead Redemption is a rare gem of a game that you really don’t want to miss.
Now give us a damn PC version, Rockstar.