Red Dead Redemption Review
Red Dead Redemption (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Released: May 18, 2010
A lot of folks never fully grasped what made games like Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto IV and Far Cry 2 truly great. It isn’t the characters or the writing or the action; those games really succeeded because of the worlds their developers built for them.
Red Dead Redemption is like that. Rockstar has created a beautiful vision of the American West and the Mexican desert, with environments ranging from desert to plains to forests and even wetlands. It’s all a sight to behold, and it would have been difficult to predict that riding a horse through vast expanses of empty desert could be such a wonderful experience. I started a second playthrough immediately upon completing the story for review, because I just loved existing in this world, to the point where even the most mundane of activities in the game were wildly compelling.
Marston’s first few assignments involve clearing rabbits out of a garden, racing horses, herding cattle and roping and breaking wild stallions. My Marston then spent his nights patrolling a ranch with a dog, looking for trespassers. He took the money from that job and played some horseshoes, and then he lost his paycheck playing poker. The stereotypical gamer would respond to this idea with disdain; “Let’s just shoot some people, jeez,” he says.
But those who think that way are missing the point. These “missions” exist to immerse the player in the world that the engineers at Rockstar have created. And it works wonderfully; by the time my Marston began to deal out some extreme violence, I was able to understand the world of 1911 New Austin (aka Texas) and the character of John Marston.
Speaking of Marston — he rides into the West at the behest of g-men who are holding his family captive while he attempts to seek out and kill a group of outlaws he used to run with. The story is slight; it’s more The Wild Bunch than Unforgiven. What that means is it’s all about the characters and how they interact with each other — more so than it is about having a really thought-provoking narrative. That’s not to say the story doesn’t have its fair share of absolutely perfect moments, like when Marston first meets the leader of the Mexican revolution; but for the most part, progression through the story feels more like a reason to explore new areas and meet some insanely interesting people than to find out what happens later in the game.
In fact, the narrative almost feels like it’s holding the game world back by having Marston talk about how urgent his quest it. I call this Oblivion Syndrome; you want to ride the land and see what there is to see and get into whatever trouble you can find, but the narrative desperately wants the player to stay focused on the mission, and the game provides Marston, if not the player, a tangible reason to do so.
This was an idea Gearbox understood perfectly when they put together Borderlands. In that game, the goal is simply to gain fame and fortune, and everything there is to do in the game is a means toward that end. Whereas in Red Dead Redemption, you might need to take on a bounty hunting job for cash here and there, but, for the most part, taking on side missions feels antithetical to the plot. Every sandbox game doesn’t need to be as loosely structured as Borderlands, obviously, but I use that example just to illustrate that sidequests need to be at least somewhat integrated into a game’s narrative so that there might actually be a plot-driven reason for them to exist.
The way the story eventually plays out, though, is perfect in that sense, assuming you don’t 100% the game beforehand. I won’t elaborate, though, so as not to spoil it.
It may seem like I dismissed the importance of game writing in my lede, but I would like to point out that this game really makes it clear how important good writing, and good voice acting to go along with it, is to gaming. Those gamers, like me, who play dozens of games each year, can easily become desensitized to bad writing and acting, to the point where we stop being irritated by all but the most atrocious examples of each. I would not, in a vacuum, say the writing and acting in this game are better than good, with some exceptions, but in comparison with most games, those aspects are absolutely stellar. I don’t mean to give a backhanded compliment to Red Dead — the writing and acting are certainly solid throughout — but I do mean to directly insult those developers who don’t make high quality writing and acting a significant priority.
The gunplay in this game is fine. Fighting on foot is less than thrilling, but, thankfully, there is just as much, if not more, combat that takes place on horseback or while riding on a stagecoach or train or while behind a gatling gun, and those bits make up for what the mechanics themselves lack. The game shakes things up a good bit, and that prevents the combat from ever getting too boring.
Speaking of horses, it takes a bit to get used to riding horses, because it’s not really similar to the way other games handle it. It’s essentially emulating real riding with a button push, so while it’s not exactly intuitive, it works once you figure it out. Note: it doesn’t take long to figure it out.
I feel like heaps of praise are due to the game’s “honor” system, Red Dead’s version of morality. If you help people, you gain honor, and if you go around wreaking havoc and shooting or hogtying random folks, you lose it. That sounds pretty basic, but I like it because there are huge advantages to being good, such as eventually getting half off at shops, and being bad just makes everyone hate you. If you’re bad enough, actually, posses will hunt you down and shopkeepers won’t sell you things. There is legitimate motivation to behave yourself in this game.
The game has a pretty enjoyable online multiplayer mode to go along with the main story, but it’s really just going to be an afterthought to most gamers. Free roam is the best part; you can gather a posse of players and battle gangs or marshalls or each other throughout the entire game world. But the competitive multiplayer modes are just a passing amusement, just there to be there. They’re nothing more than bonus content.
One nitpick: players cannot customize the control scheme or use an alternate scheme. This is not a huge concern with the Xbox 360 version, but it is an irritant on the PS3 version, because L2 and R2 are mapped to aiming and shooting, respectively. Obviously, that is not the setup most PS3 gamers will prefer.
In the end, I could complain about how the game’s structure is basically GTA in the Old West (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing anyway) or how you’ll encounter some texture pop-in or how the character textures don’t always look so great up close, but those things don’t matter. What matters is that Rockstar has created a wonderfully compelling game world in which we can have great adventures. What matters is that it’s a world I will gladly go back to over and over again in the weeks to come, even though I want to finish Final Fantasy XIII and there are a ton of other big releases out this month I would like to devote my attention to. What matters is that this is a great damn game.
Beautiful and compelling game world
Cleverly written characters
Some perfect story moments
Solid acting and writing
Tangible motivation to be good
Bland on-foot gunplay
Can’t customize controls
The side missions are antithetical to the narrative (Oblivion Syndrome)
Competitive multiplayer feels unnecessary
Overall Score: 93/100
Need help? Stuck on a tough mission? Can’t find what you’re looking for? Check out our Red Dead Redemption Walkthrough