(First published on Gamepad Magazine, 21st January 2011)
RED DEAD REDEMPTION (2010) – ROCKSTAR
When you come to think of it, the Wild West is the perfect setting for an action game. Just think; shootouts on horseback, duels in the street, John Wayne strutting around in a big hat, you can’t go wrong. Strangely though, the gaming world has never really picked up on it. There have been a few attempts to bring the idea to life, (most notably in Neversoft’s overlooked title GUN), but it is only with the arrival of Red Dead Redemption that the action of the Frontier has been truly recognised. Dubbed as Grand Theft Horse, RDR takes the work that was put into GTA4 and applies it to the Wild West with stunning results.
Personally, I think that Red Dead Redemption features one of the best plots ever featured in a Rockstar game. Set in 1911, you play as John Marston, a former outlaw who has tried to escape his past life and become a rancher. However, his family are taken into custody by Government officials and he is told that he must capture or kill Bill Williamson, a former member of the gang he ran with. However, upon arriving at Bill’s location at Fort Mercer, John is shot and left for dead before being rescued by a local rancher. What then follows is an epic saga across the fictitious state of New Austin, as you try to bring Bill to justice. The beauty of the story is that the simple task John has been set evolves over the course of the story, leading to some traditional Rockstar twists and turns, and one of the most genuinely shocking finales I have seen in a game in a long time. The story is also helped by the character of John Marston; whereas previous Rockstar heroes seem willing to do anything to get to their goals, Marston is a more humane character, driven by the desire to get home to his family. In general there’s a great cast to interact with, and in the traditional Rockstar style everyone seems to have a flaw in their personality; from the fraud salesman West Dickens, to the stereotypically pissed Irish, and the amorous Abraham Reyes, you will remember the story of Red Dead Redemption long after its finishes
RDR’s gameplay is based mainly off of the GTA4 engine, and that’s not a bad starting point. The main obvious difference to consider is the time period: there are no cars in 1911 for John to drive, so you use horses instead. There is a wide range of horses available for John to ride, with different levels of stamina and speed, and in typical fashion they can be found in the wild or stolen. Initially it is quite difficult to get to grips with horse riding, but via the highly useful in-game prompts and experience, you eventually get used to it. If you don’t fancy travelling though, there are several ways to quick travel across the world, via stagecoaches and camps
Similarly, because it’s 1911 John doesn’t have access to a RPG – weaponry is again time specific, meaning that a wide range of revolvers and rifles are your friends. You can also get access to throwing knives, dynamite, sniper rifles and a hand operated Gatling Gun as you progress through the game. The shooting is quite a satisfying experience: using the left trigger John will auto aim on a target, but then you have the option to aim for different body parts. Shooting is also where the game’s gimmick comes into play, with the introduction of ‘Dead-Eye’: while aiming, clicking in the right stick will slow down time and give John incredible accuracy for about 10 seconds worth of time, meaning that you can pick off several enemies in seconds. Its rechargeable, so there’s no excuse not to get into cover to use it, and it does give you a feeling of being the fastest man in the West.
And so with the basics in place, now we can analyse the mission structure. True to form, Read Dead Redemption is an open world game where you can take missions on whenever you want, so long as they show up on your map. Completing the story missions opens up new contacts and advances the plot, whilst also unlocking new territory to explore. Also returning from GTA4 are the ‘Stranger’ missions, where certain individuals will set you a task to go and complete. Where RDR improves greatly on GTA for me though is the introduction of random events in the game world. As you travel around, you will encounter stagecoaches being attacked by bandits, people who have had their horses stolen, jailers who need prisoners returned etc., and you can interact as you see fit; ignore these events completely, or intervene for small cash rewards and boosts to honour and fame. You can then buy newspapers throughout the course of the game with reports on different events that you may have been involved in, and people will start to recognise you in the streets. It’s the little touches like this that make the game world feel more alive, and prevents the experience from becoming overly linear. It should also be noted that Rockstar has finally implemented the ability to replay story missions whenever you want from the main menu, allowing you to improve stats and get a better ranking for the mission. I have wanted this feature since Vice City, and I have high hopes for it being implemented into GTA5.
Credit is also due for the world of Red Dead Redemption. The states of New Austin and Neuvo Paradiso are vast and varied, throwing in all sorts of environment from scorched deserts to rolling plains, from snow covered forests to industrialised towns. There has been some criticism levelled at the fact that the game world is quite a barren place, with little interaction outside of the hotspots of the towns, but I feel that it is necessary in order to build the sense of being the lone cowboy of the Frontier. And let’s remember that 90% of the buildings in GTA4 are inaccessible; instead of buildings we now have cacti to admire. Much joy can be derived from just simply riding around on your horse and admiring the small little details put into the world as the sun sets in the distance. There’s another counter to the argument that the world is barren as well; quite simply, it isn’t. There’s a hell of a lot to do in Red Dead Redemption. At any time you can engage in games of Poker, Blackjack, Liars Dice, Arm Wrestling, and Five Finger Fillet in the various towns and settlements. There are jobs to break in horses and become night watchman. You can go and clear outlaws from their hideouts for various rewards. Or you could simply start shooting and raise hell with the authorities. Add to this a huge amount of animals, ranging from rabbits to grizzly bears, that roam about and are just begging to be shot and skinned, and you have a game that you can spend hours on at a time.
The online multi-player, similar to GTA4, it is set away from the main game, and there is the option to get involved in a free roam across the entire world with up to sixteen people, or several free-for-all and gang matches. There is also an outfitter allowing you to choose the title, character model and ride for your player. The simple XP system in place rewards you for all sorts of tasks; killing other players, winning matches, completing gang hideouts and many more, and as you level up you will unlock new weapons and mounts with which to dominate the online world. I must say, I prefer the multiplayer of RDR to GTA4; you can join with up to 7 other players to form ‘posses’ as you travel across the world, and this prevents the senseless massacre that was GTA4’s Free Roam mode. I would recommend only going into the multiplayer after finishing the main story though, as some places you have not visited can be easily spoiled by the random spawning.
As alluded to before, Red Dead Redemption has a stunning game world, and true to fashion it looks absolutely beautiful. The characters and animals all have suitable animations, watching a horse run and leave horseshoe prints in the mud is a quite a feat to behold. It also seems that Rockstar have now got in game faces spot on, just look at the scars on Marston’s face for attention to detail (and with the upcoming LA Noire putting even more effort in, we can assume that Rockstar is at the forefront for facial animation). Perhaps overall it does not have the same impact that GTA4 had when it came onto the market, but it is still a fantastic game to look at.
Soundwise, well it’s a Rockstar game so you would expect nothing short of outstanding. I am happy to report that this is indeed the case. Sadly, there are no radio stations to enjoy, but instead these have been replaced with a terrific ambient soundtrack, full of harmonica, horns, and angry guitar twangs suitable to the time of the cowboy (clearing taking much inspiration from the great Ennio Morricone). It helps the setting enormously for me, as walking slowly down the street of a Wild West town with badass music in the background cannot help but make you feel cool. Standout tracks from the game include the haunting Dead End Alley, and the wonderfully named Triggernometry. RDR also benefits from what I assume is a new Rockstar strategy on the voice acting front: whereas old titles like Vice City and San Andreas were filling with famous talent such as Ray Liotta and Samuel L Jackson, both GTA4 and RDR have a cast of relative unknowns, but this then brings through the personality of the characters more than the men and women voicing them (for example, Officer Tenpenny basically became a parody of Samuel L Jackson rather than his own man in San Andreas), and the people employed for RDR do a very good job, with Rob Wiethoff standing out prominently for making John Marston into a complex man.
Unfortunately, Red Dead Redemption is not completely exempt from criticism. The game has attracted criticism for being very, very buggy, which is highly unusual for a Rockstar game which is usually tested to destruction. Rockstar have kept up to date with patching the game, and when I started playing I was able to obtain the latest patch from Xbox Live. Combined with installing the game to the hard drive I encountered no problems in my playthrough, but if you do not have an internet connection then you may find yourself with problems. I am also greatly annoyed by the fact that John Marston cannot swim. I hated this with Vice City, and although the impact is reduced here due to the lesser amount of time spent near water, it is still highly frustrating. Finally, it can be argued that RDR suffers from a similar problem that all Rockstar games seem to undergo: is it perhaps a case of too much of the same thing? With the GTA formula, because of the wild and stupid world in which it is set you can get away with various set pieces (most notably with San Andreas – jet packs anyone?), but with Red Dead Redemption being set in a more realised world, the same process of get your horse, go here, shoot the bandits, return – it can grate after a while.
Overall however, it has to be said that Red Dead Redemption is a great game. The tale of redemption through the eyes on John Marston is a stirring experience, and there is a more than capable game underneath it all to enjoy. The game has also become a great example of the power of downloadable content, with Rockstar releasing four separate packs, including a set of free to download Co-Op missions, and the horror based Undead Nightmare expansion, capitalising on the recent gaming hunger for a zombie mode. I would say overall that I actually prefer this to GTA4, and the acclaim that this has received from the gaming community is well deserved. One of the best of 2010, and a must play for all systems.