When talking about Rockstar’s latest triumph, Red Dead Redemption, it seems inevitable that comparisons are drawn to another prominent Rockstar franchise, the Grand Theft Auto series. Skeptics say that “it’s basically GTA with horses, cowboys, and Mexicans,” and while the people that think that are partly right, at the same time they are completely wrong. The biggest similarities are the obvious ones, which are the open world style and mission based gameplay. However, the list of things that make the title a completely unique and engaging experience trump anything that makes it similar. Red Dead Redemption isn’t an evolutionary step but rather a revolutionary step in the sandbox style action adventure genre. With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar has once again reaffirmed that if anyone out there is going to “out do” them in a genre that they have pretty much created, they better try really hard as the bar has been set so high that it may just be out of reach.
While Red Dead is a successor to 2004’s Red Dead Revolver, it does have its own unique identity. You see, with Revolver, Rockstar set out to recreate the Old West during the mid 1800’s. You know, the same “Old West” cliche where people duel at high noon and the good guy always wins. With Redemption, Rockstar focused more on the “Death of the Old West,” or the end of an era, as the game takes place at the turn of the century. The “Old West” as the game’s inhabitants know it as will never be the same, as the Government is now becoming more and more involved with laying down the law in the newer and lawless territories of the union.
Just from reading that description, I’m sure you’re probably thinking to yourself, “this sounds pretty deep,” and you’re absolutely right. Just like many other great titles from Rockstar, while the mood at times can feel light and even hysterical (especially with all of the satire), the underlying themes found below the surface are what grip you and never let go.
What’s so great about this is that so many (ignorant) people consider Rockstar to be so “controversial,” but what they always fail to realize is that Rockstar is probably the most socially, culturally, and politically aware game company in the world. One shining and not-so-subtle example of this I found during my play-through was the use of the name “Blackwater.” In the game it is described as a government-run security agency that is helping to “clean up” the Old West; and when I say clean up, I mean capture and/or kill any bad guys in the immediate area. As I write this review, there is a “security” company sanctioned by the US named Blackwater. They are based in Iraq and Afghanistan and are helping to also “clean up” the “lawless” old world in the Middle East. See the parallels here?
What Blackwater is doing is spreading democracy and civility by any means necessary and at the same time keeping the blood off of the hands of the American government. So is this just a coincidence or did Rockstar just use videogames as art to represent and bring to the forefront an example of modern day injustices and hypocrisies? It may be a reach but I’m going with the latter. I won’t bore you with any more real-world comparisons – I think you get the idea. Okay, back to the review.
In the game you play as bounty hunter by trade, John Marston. He’s a reformed outlaw who has been recruited by Blackwater and the government to take down members of his old crew. However, he is not only in it to clear his own name, as the same men he needs to bring to justice have also taken the lives of his loved ones. Marston is genuinely a good man who just so happens to have made some bad decisions in his life and in-turn has also done some bad things. He is no saint, but then again, in the Old West, who is?
With that said, that’s where this game gets its name from. It’s John Marston’s dark and twisted journey to Redemption. And it’s up to you, the player, to see how good, or not-so good, you have to be to earn it.
The game opens up with Marston riding up to Fort Mercer, where he calls out his old riding buddy, Bill Williamson. The two exchange words, Williamson decides he has heard enough and that’s when he pumps Marston with a few slugs and leaves him on the road to die. A young female rancher by the name of Bonnie McFarlane, sees Marston. She comes to his aid and nurses him back to health. When he finally comes to, this is where the story officially opens up. It then proceeds to grab a hold of you and never lets go. I don’t want to spoil anything in terms of story so I’ll cut it off right here.
The characters you encounter along the way are all very different from one another. All of them are seeking something different from their life in the Old West. Some are looking for fame and fortune, some for political power (or freedom), some for revenge. As you help them achieve their goals they in turn help you achieve yours and at times even come together when you need them.
There are many characters throughout the story that just become more and more interesting as you get to know them. The best is traveling on horse back across the plains with one of the main characters and listening to him or her go back and forth with Marston. It really adds a sense of realism and humanity to all of the main players. I was even let down at certain points after I would complete every mission for a particular character and they didn’t show up on my map anymore, that’s how strong some of the connections to the characters are.
The biggest main character in the game (besides Marston) has to be the game’s world. It’s always alive, with real time sequences no matter where you are. This is achieved by the use of Rockstars dynamic events system which is tailor made to take into account the players actions, decisions, and locations and adjust to it accordingly. This means, at any given moment, you’ll see bandits holding up travelers on the road, shoot outs at the local saloon, hangings, and even domestic disputes between “ladies of the night” and their…err um “clients.” You can decide to jump in and choose a side. Whether you help out or are part of the disruption will affect your level of “Fame.”
Wait a minute. Did Rockstar just throw in an RPG-esque feature into the game? Oh hell yes they did – and it adds another reason why you won’t put this one down. That’s right, I just said the word Level. By leveling up John’s fame you gain respect from the all of the inhabitants of the games world. Townspeople are more likely to come to your aid, shopkeepers give you better discounts, and thieves and thugs are more cautious to test your gangster.
If you’re not in the mood to grind through main story missions, the townsfolk will provide you with plenty to keep yourself busy. You can join the local night watch, or even take it easy in a saloon and play some Texas Hold Em’ (amongst many other games you can play). Maybe you’re more of a frontiersman, and if so, you can explore the vast land and go hunting. You can kill and skin animals and trade that in for some cold hard cash. In other words, you will always find something to do.
Now, what would a Western inspired game be without some serious gun play? Just like the latest entry in the GTA serious, RDR uses a fairly easy and responsive cover system. Everything feels right on the money and responsive for the most part, there are definitely bonus points in there for full camera control. The addition of the dead eye shooting mechanic makes every single shootout you play exciting. The best way to describe it would be a mix of bullet time (seen in dozens of 3rd person games) mixed in with some precision strategic target marking. It’s done by clicking the right stick, marking your targets, then pulling the trigger. Let’s just say that at every chance you get to pull the trigger in this game, you feel like the baddest mother-effer on the planet.
The one thing I wasn’t a fan of was going from cover to cover. You can vault over cover, but the character just stands there. I think It would be better if the player is able to vault over cover and in that same motion advance to the next cover spot. It is a nitpick but I do feel that it’s something that should be taken into consideration for a follow up or any other games in the genre with a similar cover mechanic.
Visually, RDR doesn’t initially impress. When I first turned it on, I almost started to think that GTA IV (which uses the same RAGE engine) actually looked better, even though it had released almost two years prior. However, this was all within the first 5 minutes of the game, before I had ridden on my first horse. Once I did, my opinion completely changed. When you catch a glimpse of the amazing vistas in this game you will be in awe. There were times where I would just stand at the edge of a cliff and just stare at towns in the distance, with the mountains as a back drop and skies that look like a painting and just think to myself that Rockstar really achieved something special here.
Unfortunately, the very same visuals that helped me become immersed also helped to point out some flaws, as well. One of the most prevalent was texture pop in. I would be racing from one town to another on horseback and find myself staring at what was going on off the road rather than what was in front of me. Why, you ask? Because bushes were magically appearing out of thin air. Another issue I encountered (only once) was character sliding. This was following the end of a mission and consisted of John being stuck in a static position and literally sliding, instead of walking across the map. Normally, I would tear a game up for this, but because the rest of it is so good, I wont let these issues bring it down.
How do you make an already great game into a classic? If you ask Rockstar, it’s easy. All you have to do is add a multiplayer component that’s just as engrossing and entertaining as the single player game. So, while RDR packs the more traditional competitive multiplayer modes that many popular shooters today have (Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, etc.) it’s the Free Roam Multiplayer mode that is the proverbial ace up the sleeve. In this mode, you and 15 others can roam around the full game map, where you’ll have access to pretty much anything.
You can go hunting, play games and even form posses of up to 8 players and take on the enemy AI, all of this while earning experience points to level up your character. There are 50 levels and you can earn horse and ammo upgrades as well as unlock new playlists, characters, and challenges. Achievement and Trophy abusers rejoice, as RDR will be keeping you plenty busy with goodies to earn and items to unlock, with secret bonuses mixed in as well.
I don’t want to keep you much longer as I am sure after reading this you already know where this review is going. Red Dead Redemption, is not only a must buy for this year, but also a must buy for this generation of consoles. Yeah, the game isn’t perfect, but when you see what Rockstar set out to do (and achieved) you will be left nothing short of amazed. No one has ever released a western game with such a great level of depth, detail and value, and now Rockstar has raised the bar so high that I don’t think anyone will come close for some time. We’re only in June and E3 is still a few weeks away and I already have my early pick for game of the year.
:puts on cowboy hat and rides off into sunset:
A Second Opinion By Chad Awkerman:
I don’t often play these types of action/adventure games. Grand Theft Auto? No thanks. However, there is one thing I’m a sucker for – a huge, open world to explore. But, it can’t just be and ol’ open world, it has to have a unique or fantastical setting. Again, GTA doesn’t fit that bill. To me there is something inherently wrong with going on a rampage through a modern city, whether it is in a video game or not. However, change that setting to the old west, and things become a lot less controversial and more period-specific.
But, let’s talk more about the game world. I’m a huge RPG fan, as many readers here know, so getting heavily involved in a game that strays rather far outside that genre is a rarity for me. However, there are many elements in Red Dead Redemption that fans of RPGs would do well to check out. Those are what drew me to the game in the first place.
The aforementioned open world is one of them. It is a joy riding around exploring various nooks and crannies of the different areas in the game, from the dry, barren landscape of New Austin, to the wind-carved majesty of the Mexican countryside, to the swamps and snow-blown mountainous areas of the north. I have been to places in this country that resemble all the locations in this game, and I have never seen such an inspired digital recreation of what it actually feels like to be out there.
Some may question this comparison, but one of the first things I thought of when I started playing Red Dead Redemption is what RPG-type games I can compare it to and I came up with Oblivion and Mass Effect. It is a huge, open world, with varied environments and quests everywhere you turn like Oblivion, yet it has the third-person shooter perspective and controls, as well as a strong, defined main character and story like Mass Effect. Coming from an RPG background, the combination of those two games put in the old west setting is a recipe for success.
The random challenges you can come by in Red Dead Redemption, such as the sharpshooting and survivalist challenges, are reminiscent of similar features in many RPGs I’ve played. The choices you have, while not a necessity for a great RPG, do bring out that side in me and spark that RPG fire. Sure, I might chase down a thief that took the shopkeeper’s hard-earned cash, but do I keep it for myself or do I return it to the owner? John Marston, the main character, is, by pre-definition, a fairly good character, yet you can alter his persona in everything besides story segments by the actions you take.
“Buying” safe houses, horses, weapons and such also trigger the desire to collect everything possible, another thing that is great about many RPGs. This isn’t even to mention the unlockable outfits, which is a feature not found often in Western RPGs or many games outside the RPG genre, unless we’re talking about armor changes in FPS games. And then what is the point, since you aren’t seeing your own armor very often anyway.
Finally, the story itself takes you on a wild, fun journey that rivals many narratives I’ve seen in RPGs. Sure it isn’t as convoluted and deep as those from that genre, but it is throught-provoking and deceptively heartwarming, all the same.
Many years ago I was bound to the idea that nothing outside the RPG genre would suit my tastes. Of course, since then I’ve broadened out a lot, and I’m glad I did, because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have played Red Dead Redemption and had the poetic, surreal experience that this game provides. It isn’t perfect, nor is it actually an RPG, but those are not requirements for a great game, which Red Dead Redemption most definitely is.
- Title: Red Dead Redemption
- Developer: Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar North
- Publisher: Rockstar Games
- Platform Reviewed: PS3
- Release Date: Available Now
- MSRP: $59.99
- Review Copy Info: A copy of this title was provided to DualShockers Inc by the publisher for reviewing purposes.