Reviewed: July 4, 2010
Released: May 18, 2010
Iíve been playing video games for more than 20 years now, but no single company has been more single-handedly responsible for consuming as much of my gaming time as Rockstar Games, which is impressive since the first game I ever played of their was Grand Theft Auto on the Dreamcast. Itís also impressive because Rockstar doesnít put that many games out, but when they do you can always expect it to be epic in scope, massive in size, and loaded with controversy.|
Back in 2004 Rockstar released a western-themed game, Red Dead Revolver, which was pretty rare for the time. Prior to that, there were only a handful of westerns and none with nearly the vision of Red Dead. Since then weíve have a few more contenders, most notably, GUN from Neversoft; a game that I prophetically dubbed, ďGrand Theft Auto: Dodge City" back in my 2005 review. Here we are, five years later and Rockstar has turned my witty metaphor into a full-fledged epic western adventure game that, in my opinion, far outshines any of the Grand Theft Auto games, and is quite easily the best western game ever released.
Red Dead Redemption manages to include just about every staple of the western genre and combines them into one epic action-adventure. I was worried that Rockstar would try to put too much of an adult spin on the title merely for the sake of maintaining their controversial image, and while the game is peppered with salty language and plenty of murder, attempted rape, cannibalism, and general western mischief like drinking and gambling, Redemption is probably one of the more family-friendly M-rated games out there.
While Rockstar allows you to play the game as you see fit, there is a built-in morality system in place that tracks your fame and honor. Shoot a man in cold blood and your honor drops, but shoot a guy slapping around a prostitute and your fame and honor increase. And then there is the law. Despite your claim to be a bounty hunter working for (or at least with) the law, you can still do bad things and that will always trigger your wanted level. The more unlawful acts you do the higher your wanted level and reward status until you are either captured or head to the nearest telegraph office to wire transfer your fine and clear your record.
The story is almost inconsequential to the game as it is spread far and wide across the American Southwest and Mexico. When the game starts you find yourself playing John Marston, a man hunting down an ex-partner who has shacked up in a fort with a bunch of gang members. You get shot and are taken in by Bonnie, a local ranch owner who gets you back on your feet and presents most of the opening tutorial missions. Here you will learn a bit more about John's backstory, what he is doing and why.
As with most Rockstar games, Redemption is open-world gaming at its finest and you are free to go just about anywhere and do anything whenever you want. There are a few restrictions that keep you from getting into Mexico or into the Northern Territories too early in the game. At any time there will be one or two mission-givers available on the map as noted by initials. You can go to these locations and participate in major narrative events the progress the main story, but that is only a fraction of what this latest Red Dead has to offer.
When you arenít plugging away at the 20+ hour story you can engage in all sorts of challenges like hunting, sharp shooting, treasure hunting, breaking wild horses, and even some recreational challenges like poker, blackjack, liars dice, and horseshoes. If you are up for a rhythm button-matching challenge, check out the 5-finger fillet game. You can also find wanted posters and hunt down criminals, either killing them or bringing them in alive for twice the reward. There are survival challenges that send you questing for rare plants and herbs in certain areas of the map, and there are the larger and more involved Stranger missions that pop-up at random, some spanning multiple encounters.
There are hundreds of these challenges built into the game, most with several levels of expertise and rewards for completing them, and then you have the whole Rockstar Social Club, an online community that encourages even more competitive gameplay and organized events. The variety of gameplay is unparalleled and even after 60+ hours I have yet to tire of exploring the landscape for more adventures. The treasure hunting is by far my favorite, as you get treasure maps scrawled on parchment with crude drawings of landmarks like a tree or a rock then maybe a dotted line showing a path ending at an X. It might be hours or even days later before you stumble on that tree or rock formation and something clicks in your memory.
While Rockstar has always done well at creating a living, breathing city, I was surprised how well they turned the desolate plains of the Wild West into something even remotely interesting. Iím sure there werenít nearly as many people riding around on dusty roads in the real 19th century, and I still tell people about standing in the middle of the desert by myself and some guy comes riding over the horizon, stops right next to me, and proceeds to pee on a nearby cactus. WTF? Most random encounters are usually a tip of the hat "howdy", but you have women in distress and the occasional horse thief posing as someone needing a ride.
You can't have a cowboy game without a horse and John will have several before the game is over, both through upgrading at the general store or by simply hopping on a wild horse and staying on him until he is broken, which involves a fun balancing mini-game. Purchased horses are your property and become the default horse that appears when you whistle for it. Interestingly enough, the range of your whistle and your horseís response appears to have no limit, but you can get into trouble if, like my horse did, you whistle and he blindly runs off a cliff to reach you. Dead horses are replaced but youíll have to wait awhile and they never seem to be as pretty.
Your horse is great for getting across the map at a decent speed but for really long trips you may want to use the quick travel feature of the campsite. By using this you can not only refill your ammo (improved campsite only) you can instantly jump to any previously visited city or targeted waypoint. The downside to instant travel is that you will miss out on any random encounters or Stranger missions that might possible trigger if you were to actually make the trip.
While the game is loaded with impressive cutscenes that make the most of the game engine graphics, much of the narrative is told through simple conversations that take place during scripted rides from point A to B. Itís a clever way to bury exposition while making you feel like you are still playing the game, and you can always skip the trip or ride ahead to the destination in most cases.
The game auto-saves frequently and there are numerous properties you can purchase or rent to save your game to one of the three available slots. If you die during a mission you are prompted to try again from the checkpoint or abandon the mission entirely. There are plenty of ways to die in Red Dead Redemption but none of them are game or interface related. I am annoyed that neither John nor any of his horses can swim. Sometimes it can be hard to stop a speeding Kentucky Saddler before you end up in a pond or river and the red wash of death fills the screen.
Controls are surprisingly good, both on foot and on horseback. Your learning curve for piloting a horse should be no longer than it took you to master driving a car in GTA. You can rapid-tap the A to sprint or hold A to match the speed of a nearby horse or wagon. Left trigger aims your guns and right trigger fires. You also have the Dead Eye mode, which invokes a slow-motion event allowing you to paint multiple targets (or a single target multiple times) then empty six rounds into them. This tactic proves most useful in hunting missions, especially birds in flight, and in the quick draw duels with various villains throughout the game.
Red Dead Redemption has it all; stagecoaches, train shootouts, bank robberies, Clint Eastwood Mexican ponchos, tailor made gentlemen suits that allow you to cheat at poker, gangsters, hideouts, lost gold, and even a wild ride down the Rio Grande on a raft. And when you have exhausted all the single-player fun (assuming that is even possible) then head online for all sorts of Free Roam adventures with up to 16 players in your own private little MMO. If you want to scale back the adventure Rockstar has just released ĎOutlaws to the EndĒ, a free co-op mission DLC that let you join up with three friends or strangers in some class-based, multi-objective missions that require skill and teamwork.
The online modes offer all sorts of challenges, many ripped from the main game and all with their own rewards both for character customization, new horses (you start on a burro), and better weapons. Red Dead Redemption offers the most playable content, both online and off, as far as quantity, quality, and diversity. I canít see this game ever getting old, and hopefully more DLC is in the work.
Technically speaking, Redemption has a few minor issues with graphics, most of which are due to the epic scale of the game. I can only imagine how good this game will look on the PC. Details will pop in on the horizon and even rocks and trees will suddenly alter shape as you get closer, but honestly, you have to be looking for these faults to see them. Most of the time I was just in awe of the majesty of what I was seeing on the screen. The night and day effects, the weather, the sunrises and sunsets, the first time I rode along the towering cliffs on the Mexico-side of the Rio Grande River were all magical moments. The detailed architecture and layout of the cities, the ranches, and the exquisite detail of the wardrobe on all the characters is unmatched, and donít even get me started on the fluid animation for the horses. These creatures look like they are alive.
And we canít overlook the stunning audio presentation, starting with professional voice work from basically a bunch of unknowns. Rockstar has never been a company to rely on using star talent to sell their games yet they consistently find some of the best actors to perform these memorable roles. Clint Eastwood couldnít have done a better job bringing John Marston to life, and even secondary characters like the Bonnie, Nigel West Dickens, and especially that creepy grave-robber guy are unforgettable. Sound effects are perfect with plenty of galloping hooves on various surfaces and all sorts of gunfire and random sounds of wildlife like the howl of a coyote or the growl of cougar or the snort of a wild boar. The 3D mix surrounds you in all these sounds and actually helps you locate people and events and enhances the gameplay.
I could go on and on about how great Red Dead Redemption is but you should already be playing it, and I need to get back to it. In my opinion this is the best game Rockstar has delivered since Vice City, and is easily my all-time favorite Rockstar game to date Ė yes, it even beats out Bully. You donít have to be a fan of westerns to enjoy this game. The Wild West is merely the backdrop for one of the best action-adventure games you are likely to play on this generation of console. Itís more than a game Ė itís a cowboy simulation.