Red Dead Redemption Review
By Gaetano Prestia
Whistle for your loyal horse as the sun begins to set on the horizon. Ride into the sunset through the plains, along dirt roads as wildlife around you eyes you down, waiting for the perfect opportunity to attack. Set up camp amongst the weeds, and plan out your next adventure through the land of the free. Will you travel down south to Mexico, currently on the verge of a civil war between the people and the government, or will you head east to the civilized and technologically advanced towns that you’ve heard so much about? You might choose to stay put in western America, perhaps capturing and breaking-in some wild horses. These are the some of the choices you’ll have in Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s most engaging and engrossing story yet.
Redemption takes place at the start of the 20th Century as technology is starting to seep in through society. Our main protagonist is John Marston, a former outlaw who has since given up his life of crime to start a small family. However, his past has come back to haunt him, and now he must help the government if he ever wants to see his family again.
Marston’s violent and criminal past is evident through the scars that are plastered across his face. As the title’s main character, he is interesting and likable, and has a rough personality that compliments the tough landscape Redemption is set in. As with so many Rockstar games in the past, the lead character is somewhat of a changed man, a person on a mission of revenge and retribution. While Marston isn’t a particularly angry man, his aggression isn’t always pointed at the men he hunts, but rather the men he represents, which seems to perfectly demonstrate the mentality of people living during that period. While he isn’t the hard-nut cowboy you might expect, the narrative is executed well enough, convincing us of just how desperate he is in his struggle to get his family back. Marston isn’t a completely changed man – there’s still the occasional brain-snap where he turns back to his murderous ways – but his objective is clear throughout.
Rockstar really have nailed that whole aspect of survival in the Wild West, and there is a definitive “every many for himself” feeling. Some early missions have you doing things that, while minimally connected to the overall goal of the plot, feel rather tedious. But they have plenty of weight within the experience. As it's the West in the 1800s, you should expect to do things like that, as they have meaning in their own way. Everything you do has a meaning in the long run, and Rockstar push the narrative in several directions, offering you a genuine Wild West experience, while also showcasing the game’s superb character development. There is a very aggressive anti-government undertone throughout the adventure, which is actually fairly accurate for that period. People weren’t used to that smothering authority of the government, and that is particularly obvious as Marston heads down south into Mexico, which is on the brink of civil war between the rebels and the corrupt government officials that run the land.
The story wouldn’t have much weight if it wasn’t set in an engrossing setting, and thankfully, Redemption’s design is thoroughly convincing and engaging. The world is a brilliant fusion of old and new, which is particularly evident in the introduction of the motorcar later in the game (even though you don't get a chance to drive one). You’ll spend most of your time on a horse, galloping through the dust from town to town, and while you have the option to skip travel like you could in the GTA IV adventures, the world of Red Dead is just far too inviting to pass up. While it takes a while to get from one place to another, Rockstar have created a world full of random events that dictate your attention. This is the Wild West after all, and you’re not getting the full cowboy experience if you decide to take the stagecoach taxi to your marked waypoint. You’ll come across stagecoach robberies, females stricken by illness on the side of the road demanding medicine, and even a botanist challenging you to find more exotic plants than him. The world is incredibly intriguing and inviting, and riding from one location to another will allow you to see the raw environment in its fullest.
While Redemption has its similarities to Grand Theft Auto (it shares the R.A.G.E and Euphoria's 'NaturalMotion' engine with GTA IV), they are distinctively different games and it would be completely unfair to compare them at all. The structures are identical, but the environments are so undeniably different that the adventures are just too far a part to compare. A world like Redemption demands that randomness, as it doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of Liberty City to fill the world. There is also an obligation to make this experience as genuine as possible, as the particular timeframe saw, quite arguably, the most change of any recent era. Furthermore, there is a difficulty level throughout Red Dead that compliments what we know about that time period; that it was a very hard time to be alive.
The pacing throughout, particularly in the first few hours, is very slow, something you must play through in order to reach the explosive climax. The overall pacing fits the setting very well thoughout, and there really is no other way it could have been done in order to offer a genuine Wild West experience. Some might find earlier missions especially dull, but it’s the realism in these missions that will ultimately push you through them towards the more action-packed objectives. Thankfully, it actually makes the entire experience that little bit more rewarding. The story is told in time, the characters are introduced slowly, the events are panned out in perfect timing, and the world evolves around you as you make your way through.
Then there is one of the game’s strongest attributes – moral choices. You can choose to be either a fearsome, wild, violent thug, or a respectful, calm and helping servant of the people. While neither will have an influence on how the story pans out, Redemption goes far beyond the main narrative, and how you interact with the world will dictate how the world interacts with you. You’ll often see random events that call out for a moral choice, and how you react will influence your infamy and honour. For example, you’ll often see a prostitute being belted around by a drunken thug. You can either shoot the thug and help the lady, gaining respect and honour with the people, shoot the prostitute and lose some honour while gaining notoriety, or ignore the event altogether, which won’t have any affect at all. If you have a high level of honour, people will approach you more often asking for help, law enforcers will treat you with more respect, and purchasable items might be cheaper. If you’re seen as a troublemaker and murdering thug, you should expect a far more inhospitable reaction from the people.
This aspect of the gameplay gives you a whole new level of interaction, allowing you to develop a more personal relationship with the world based on your own actions. There are so many different options available to you when it comes to developing a personality for Marston, which adds even more worth to the single-player component outside of the main mission structure. When you’re playing through the main game, you don’t really have a choice as to how Marston reacts to characters and how the story plays outs. However, you can be that violent, intimidating cowboy you’ve always wanted to be, simply by doing a few inhuman acts. The choices you have are fused into the world perfectly, helping define the setting as a genuine Wild West world.
As for the gameplay, Red Dead offers one of the deepest, most engaging and entertaining experiences ever. You’ll spend most of your time on horse back, and while the horse controls take a while to get used to, you’ll soon be whistling for your trusty stallion and riding in the wind with ease. The controls initially feel rather wonky, but give it a few hours and you’ll realize how intone they are with the animal and the world. The Dead Eye system, which slows things down to increase your accuracy and to take out multiple enemies in a split second, makes combat as fun ever. The evolution of the system throughout the adventure actually increases difficulty while also increasing in worth. Initially, you’ll only be able to slow down time and take out enemies manually. Then the game will automatically target body parts based on where the crosshair crosses over. Finally, a manual targeting system has you using the right bumper to pinpoint where you want to shoot the enemy. This final stage of the Dead Eye system actually allows for more precise shooting, which is great if you’re a perfectionist that wants every shot to be a headshot.
There are a number of different ways you can approach combat using Dead Eye. If you’re being attacked while on horseback, you can opt to simply take out the enemies with some nice shots to the torso. Alternatively, you can simply shoot the legs of the enemy’s horse, which will send it tumbling along the ground. You can also use Dead Eye on horse without having to worry about going off track. While the horse won’t follow your waypoint, it will stick to the road if you focus your attention on aiming, meaning you can essentially do two things at once. A lot of combat takes place either on horseback or while you’re riding shotgun (quite literally) on a horse carriage. Then there’s the occasional man-on-man showdown, which has you facing off against a foe in a challenge to see who has the fastest hands. This feature actually works really well, having you draw your gun, and then slowing raising it up using the thumbstick, before aiming the crosshair where you want to place your shots.
The cover system works very well; any object can essentially be used as cover, and while blind fire can be a useful tactic at times, its accuracy is typically bad at best. There is an auto-targeting system, but it’s only in place for a few seconds, which actually seems to fall in line with realism and the at-times not-so-accurate weapons you’ll be using. You’re not going to have the precision of rifles that you had in GTA IV, and this is where the use of Dead Eye and the limited auto-aim system come into play. Long-range combat is almost impossible, especially with the larger weapons (unless you’re using the awesome sniper rifle), so moving from cover to cover while quickly breaking into Dead Eye is a tactic you’ll need to use when under heavy fire.
The combat gets progressively harder, which is fantastic, and just as more weapons become available to you, the more aggressive the enemies become. Taking on the Mexican army on the hills of a small Mexican town while it buckets down rain might not sound like a very ideal combat environment, but the challenge adds a sense of realism that compliments the weaponry, aiming and Dead Eye system perfectly. Many of the combat features aren’t just there for show, and you’ll essentially have to use every single aspect in order to get out alive. In some cases you’ll simply be able to move from target to target using auto-aim, but you’ll often be flanked by shooting bandits, meaning Dead Eye is your best option. Thankfully, the Dead Eye system is so much fun to use, and while it can run out quickly, it fills back up almost just as fast if you shoot down enough enemies. You also have the option to buy some chewing tobacco from a general store for a quick refill during combat.
As for the AI (both friendly and AI), there is a decent level of awareness during combat, even if enemies do tend to continually jump into the line of fire after fifty or so of their friends have just been obliterated by a machine gun. Furthermore, enemies don’t seem to take advantage of cover as much as they should, and this is particularly worrying when you’re in control of a gatling gun and they just jump out of cover, stand up in plain sight and begin firing at you. Still, the combat can be intense and challenging, and these very minimal issues with the AI are small fish in the bigger scheme of things. Friendly AI does a fantastic job of helping you out, and you’ll even find in some missions that they do much of the work for you. It happens minimally, and you’ll always end up taking control of the combat towards the end of the mission.
The world of Red Dead Redemption is both gorgeous and artistically accurate, portraying an era that is arguably the most fascinating of the past 200 years. The scope is absolutely enormous, and while the world feels larger than it is due to the traveling restrictions (traveling from one town to another takes time, even with the fastest of horses), the environment is a perfectly designed fusion of desert, green plains, dust, and paved city roads. There is a very intriguing aspect of the world that is difficult to pinpoint, mainly due to extreme changes in landscape you’ll come across as you move from one point to another. Never in a game have we seen a world with such variety and beauty, and it is very much a character within the experience on its own. Whether it’s because of its random events, its eerie peacefulness or its wild tendencies, Redemption offers a world that will stick with you for years.
There are particular moments of sheer beauty, like the moment you first enter Mexico. The music chosen for particular areas is absolutely perfect considering the landscape, and there are some areas of the world that just must be seen and taken in at all times of the day. The rising sign in the morning looks particularly gorgeous in the rough gorges of Mexico, right near the border of America. The setting sun looks gorgeous while riding your trusty stallion through the sands of western America. And the beautiful silence of night can be experienced anywhere, even in the advanced towns of the East, where money and technology reigns.
And then outside of the single-player experience is the online multiplayer, a world that you just must explore. There’s so much to do online with Red Dead, and the Free Roam mode expands on what was offered with GTA IV to give you the freedom to cause as much chaos as you want in a true Wild West setting. There’s plenty of variety in the game modes, and if you chose to opt for the less restrictive experience of Free Roam, you can create your own posse of badasses with your friends to ride the plains, hunt down enemies, terrorise civilians and take down gang hideouts. The multiplayer might be of particular interest for gamers not interested in the slow pacing of the single-player, as it offers quite arguably one of the most enjoyable open-world online experiences ever on a console.
The Final Verdict
Red Dead Redemption is a gorgeous game and one of Rockstar’s most rewarding and momentous experiences. It offers a genuine Wild West world, filled with exactly the kind of characters you’d expect to see in a world like it. And what a beautiful world it is. The lighting is superb and the design right throughout has to be seen to be believed; the attention to detail is outstanding. As for the story, its pacing is slow, built up to a great conclusion that compliments the entire adventure just right. Everything about Red Dead Redemption feels immaculately intone with what we know about the era, and Rockstar must be applauded for that. There isn’t one thing on the presentation side of things that feels like it doesn’t belong, and the combat is engaging and very, very enjoyable. It’s a wonderful, beautiful and memorable experience.