Rockstar has a well-deserved legacy of making really engaging, if somewhat wacky and ultra-violent, sandbox titles, one where the player assumes the role of a mass-murderer of some note. Ever since the first Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar has been poking fun at various eras of history, but they’ve never strayed further back than the 80s. The most recent game from the studio, GTA IV, took a look at modern America through a very skewed lens, using the viewpoint of immigrant Niko Bellic to make a commentary on our post 9/11 society.
For their most recent title, Rockstar has decided to eschew the modern trappings of GTA IV and travel all the way back to the Old West; 1911 to be precise, an age where the cowboy still roamed the plains, but the government was slowly encroaching on the frontier. Players assume the role of John Marston, gravelly-voiced gun for hire, forced to hunt down his old gang members at the behest of the Bureau of Investigation. Does Rockstar’s traditional formula survive in the Old West, or does the corpse get picked apart by vultures when I’m done with it?
From the outset, the game does sort of appear to be GTA in another skin; the earlier missions are designed to break you in to the game’s style of play, teaching you how to ride horses, or shoot the antiquated weaponry. A lot of the opening missions involve herding cattle, something I really could have done without. Fortunately, once the game takes you to the town of Armadillo, the sense of containment disappears faster than an errant puddle in the desert; the game allows you to pick your own pace from here on out, something that I appreciated greatly. Red Dead features a wide variety of mini-games and other quests to distract you, and all of it is well integrated inside of the game world. Poker, Liars Dice and an assortment of hunting and gathering tasks await you out in the wilds.
It’s odd to turn on your system with the sole goal of picking flowers to raise your Survival skill, but Red Dead Redemption makes every little nuance of its presentation so much fun that I actually enjoyed gathering herbs or skinning dear (Marston’s one-liners as he filets the creatures are particularly enjoyable). For a world that appears a lot more barren than the hustling metropolis of Liberty City, New Austin has a lot more going on than that admittedly sterile city. Wildlife is abundant, and the frontier is packed with folks who either need your help, or would like nothing more than to rob you and leave you for dead.
Galloping along on your trusty steed is truly a sight to behold in this dusty wasteland as the engine that powered GTA IV can make for some remarkable vistas. Let me say that, as cliché as it is, riding into the sunset is still a powerful touchstone, even in a different medium. Since most of the game takes place in a desert, you would expect the endless stretches of sand to get weary after a while, but the game is so harshly beautiful that this though never enters your mind. A merciless sun beats down over your head as tumbleweeds blow across a dusty trail, and a lone guitar strums a few notes, giving you a feeling of grandeur and loneliness at the same time. One of the standout moments in the game, atmosphere-wise, is when you first enter Mexico, lost and clueless a long way from home. I won’t spoil this for anyone, but suffice it to say that this is one of my favorite moments in gaming, and I wasn’t even killing something.
Something new to Red Dead Redemption is the addition of a morality scale, where the player can choose to make John as beatific or as malevolent as they choose. I picked the nice guy path, and by the end of the game, people were tipping their hats to me and thanking me for my good work. I also picked up a few weapons for fairly cheap thanks to my discount, and I could break a few laws without anyone throwing a fit. The game treats you fairly well if you decide to be a Good Samaritan, and I’ve heard that taking the outlaw path doesn’t net you anything too great as a reward. Maybe someone who’s gone down the renegade trial can comment, but this morality in the game seems very, very lopsided.
Red Dead Redemption also features a wide array of characters to populate the landscape, and true to form, the game is very well written and acted. All of the characters are fully realized, and I knew I was going to enjoy my time in Marston’s shoes immensely as soon as I heard him speak. As great as the writing is, however, a few members of the cast did get on my nerves a bit. Nigel West Dickens, the wily snake-oil salesman, is bearable for the most part, but those he associates with are among some of the most abrasive characters I can remember. Seth is repugnant for both his mannerisms and his chosen hobby, and Irish deserves the stick he’s been getting for his stereotypical portrayal of your average drunken Paddy.
While these two stock characters don’t really play out so well, there are a few people that I wish John Marston spent a bit more time with. Marshal Johnson and Landon Ricketts are two bad-ass gunslingers, the latter reminding me a great degree of some very prominent Western film stars (and Revolver Ocelot from Metal Gear Solid). Another thing that rubbed me the wrong way about the narrative is that a few of the missions felt a lot like padding, particularly in the lead up to the first big battle of the game and a few bits in Mexico. Spending a couple hours running with Seth for absolutely no benefit really didn’t engender me to the game’s mission structure.
While we’re on the topic of the few things Red Dead Redemption does wrong, the amount of glitches I’ve encountered, especially in the last act, is astounding. On a few occasions, I would hogtie a criminal or bend down to pick a plant and John would freeze in the act and the head’s up display would disappear. None of the buttons would work (even the guide button) and I was forced to restart the game, sometimes losing a bit of progress. At some points, the framerate dropped very low, around fifteen frames per second if I had to guess.
The inelegant cover system from GTA IV also returns, and it’s as imprecise now as it was then. The game is very finicky when it comes to taking cover, and sometimes you will just plain fall off of whatever you’re ducking behind, leaving you open to fire. At one point, I dropped into cover only to be vaulted a hundred feet up in the air and plummet to my doom. Additionally, the movement controls are very sluggish, and maneuvering John is imprecise. Climbing over objects is a noteworthy frustration, and even walking up steps can be aggravating. On top of that, nothing in the game can swim, be it John or his steed. At one point, I whistled for a horse then watched as, to my horror, it plunged into a lake and died.
That said, I’ve sunk over a day’s worth of playtime into Red Dead Redemption, and I think that this game has a lot of longevity to it. The multiplayer is particularly fun, and the upcoming co-op mission pack will be a blast. Red Dead came so close to earning that coveted S from me, but I just couldn’t forgive it for the issues I had with the controls, bugs and the narrative. This game is still excellent, perhaps a serious contender Game of the Year, and like Alan Wake, I urge you to give this game a try. You will not be dissapointed.
So, that’s my take on Red Dead. How many of you have played it, and what do you think? Also, raise your hand if you hate cougars with a passion.
How does our grading system work? Check out our grade chart!
Note 01/04/2011: Since Red Dead Redemption is my personal game of the year for 2010, it’s only fitting that it gets bumped up to the grade it truly deserves. As with Mass Effect 2, the original grade was attributed to me trying to be hard-nosed. While there are minor hiccups with the game, Red Dead Redemption is a gaming tour de force. That and Undead Nightmare is amazing.