It’s hard to imagine that there was once a time when the number of Western television shows and movies outnumbered those about World War II. Our strange obsession with the Second World War continues today, with countless video games, television shows, movies, books, and comics focused on that period. Despite the insane number of properties that concern WWII, the same can’t be said of Westerns anymore. At some point during the late 60s, American audiences grew tired of gunslingers and bandits. Sure, the odd movie or television mini-series cropped up from time to time, but for the most part, the Western was dead. The last decade saw a small resurgence from the genre with the help of the television show Deadwood, a big budget remake of the Elmore Leonard classic 3:10 to Yuma, and even video games like Gun, Call of Juarez, and Rockstar’s Red Dead Revolver. Of course, Red Dead Revolver, as enjoyable as it was, wasn’t really Rockstar’s game. They picked up the license from Capcom, and Rockstar did the best they could with what they were given, but they weren’t able to capture the mysticism or scope and grandeur of the west. In fact, it would take another five years until Rockstar was able to bring their true vision for the franchise to life.
With Red Dead Redemption, the current generation successor to the title, Rockstar was hoping to stake their claim in the oft-forgotten genre for good. Formally announced in February of last year, Red Dead Redemption appeared to be an amalgamation of the developer’s popular Grand Theft Auto sandbox style and popular Western tropes that had the potential to not only be a successful video game, but the shot in the arm the genre needed to get back on its feet. With absolutely stunning visuals, a story that invokes the most traditional Western archetypes, multiplayer that’s instantly addictive, and a gameplay style that’s both fun and easy to learn, Red Dead Redemption just might be the best thing to happen to Westerns since John Wayne was born.
Red Dead Redemption is the story of John Marston, a former outlaw blackmailed by the government into hunting down the leaders of his old gang. Marston’s bloody journey takes him through the American southwest and into Mexico at the turn of the century, and in typical Rockstar fashion, will have him running into characters he must first assist in order to get one step closer to his goal. Western fans will find the game’s story and world influenced by the likes of filmmakers Leone, Hawks, Peckinpah and Ford, as well as writers L’Amour and Leonard. There isn’t much new ground tread in the game’s story, and Marston’s roguish reformed outlaw doesn’t do anything The Man With No Name, Ben Wade, William Munny, or every member of the Magnificent Seven didn’t do first, but that doesn’t mean the tale isn’t compelling. In fact, the way in which Red Dead Redemption pays tribute to all that came before it while putting a slightly modern twist on every aspect makes it all the more engaging. Every person you interact with during the story is well written, and some even have enough character that you could see them starring in their own spin-offs.
In an effort to allow gamers to impart some of their own personality onto Marston, Rockstar also included a somewhat simple morality system in the game, allowing players to decide for themselves if they want to be a ruthless cowboy or a man trying to atone for his past sins. Unfortunately the morality system doesn’t fit into the story they’ve crafted as Marston is generally a good man throughout the game, which makes it rather difficult to play the game as a villain. Of course it’s still possible, but the cut scenes will always show Marston, despite doing whatever it takes to get the job done, as a man with a heart, making it hard to find the motivation to shoot everyone on sight. The narrative could have been much stronger if Rockstar’s honor system was removed, especially considering there’s also a meter tracking your fame. As it stands though, Red Dead Redemption’s story is very compelling, and will be the driving force behind your motivation to play through many of the game’s more monotonous missions.
Despite being fun to play, Red Dead Redemption’s missions don’t offer much in the way of variation. Every task you take up to further advance Marston’s mission requires you to go to a point on the map, shoot a bunch of people, and then meet up with the person who needed your help in the first place to let him know the job is done. Occasionally, those people will accompany you on a mission, but for the most part, you’re on your own with nothing but your horse and a pistol as your company. There are infrequent side quests where you’ll have to hunt animals or pick flowers, but a strong majority of the missions you’ll embark on will always end in a shootout. Now it could be said that complaining that too much shooting in a GTA-styled game is akin to complaining about there being too much racing in a NASCAR game, but there’s at least more potential here for other mission types that Rockstar really dropped the ball on. Don’t get me wrong. I think the gunplay is actually pretty solid, even if the gun management menu is a bit awkward, and the game’s slightly improved (over GTA IV’s) cover system is intuitive and easy to understand, but the whole “go somewhere, watch a cut scene, shoot someone, watch a cut scene” aspect is getting a bit tired. Thankfully, there are just enough optional tasks to occupy yourself with to take a break from the repetition.
In between the major story missions, you’ll have time to try your hand at the game’s other optional quests like treasure hunting, animal hunting, bounty hunting, poker, liar’s dice, black jack, horse wrangling, night watch duty, horseshoes, and gang hideout missions. All of the gambling mini-games are a lot of fun to play, but I’ll be perfectly content if I don’t ever have to play another game of horseshoes in my life. Bounty hunting is technically more of the same ride and shoot action, but bringing men back alive for more money provides a solid challenge. Finding the game’s ten or so buried treasures was my favorite distraction, as not only did it result in a pretty solid payout, but every chest had yet another map, keeping the quest going right until the conclusion of the game. Horse wrangling and animal hunting are very different missions than we’re used to seeing in this type of game, and thus are oddly compelling despite how boring they are. Wrangling at least lets you get some solid lasso practice in, but the actual act of breaking a horse requires little skill. Many of the towns you discover will sometimes become overrun with bandits, and you’ll have to clear them out to save the inhabitants. It’s yet even more shooting, but, like the rest of the aforementioned tasks, it’s completely optional, so if you don’t feel like doing it, you don’t have to.
Stranger missions return from GTA IV as well, though they’re implemented a bit better here. There are actually two types: random and scripted. There are over a dozen scripted stranger encounters, and they’re generally all fetch quests of some variation. One particular stranger quest is particularly harrowing, and expands on the story a bit, rather than just being a random task for you to complete. The random stranger missions do shake things up a bit more, putting you on the spot to duel, track down a recently escaped criminal, stop a thief, catch a stolen horse, or assist a pretty lady on the side of the road only to find out it was a trap, and have to end up shooting a bunch of outlaws. Dueling is a great deal of fun, but the fights are rather easy, never providing the depth of challenge you would expect. The only issue I have with the random stranger missions is you can often fly right past them on your horse, and if you don’t turn around in time, you miss out on your chance to complete the mission. It’s not a major issue at all, but it can be frustrating nonetheless.
Perhaps the largest change to Rockstar’s GTA formula is the removal of cars in favor of horses. The horses control pretty well, but not great, and just like in GTA, there are different types of horses that will perform better than others. The most intriguing mechanic is how horses can ride faster when they’re actually on a trail versus riding off the beaten path. It makes perfect sense, and even though it will use cars, I hope it’s a tactic Rockstar brings into their next title LA Noire. The only knock I have against the horseback riding is that it takes so long to get anywhere in the game. The late game missions especially will have you traveling back and forth across fairly large expanses of the countryside, and it can get pretty lonesome. Sure, when you’re not in the middle of a mission and you want to travel quickly, there are stage coaches and trains, as well as the ability to fast travel from a campsite, but for the most part, you’ll be relying on your horse to get from point to point.
Red Dead Redemption’s multiplayer is chock full of options, and will provide countless hours of enjoyment once you’re finished with the single-player campaign. You can choose to play single or team deathmatch, or Red Dead’s version of capture the flag, Gold Rush/Grab the Bag, but Free Roam enables you to do any and all of those things in addition to roaming the game’s entire map with fifteen other people in search of trouble. You can posse up with up to seven other people, and run around fighting outsiders, take on gang hideouts, or complete challenges in an effort to level up and get better guns and horses. Challenges, like killing five grizzly bears or collecting “X” number of flowers, provide just that little bit extra to do when you’re waiting for the rest of your friends to come online to play competitively or cooperatively. I have but two complaints about the multiplayer. You can’t play any of the mini-games like horseshoes or poker online with friends, and there are still quite a few freeze outs and dropouts happening on a nightly basis. In a way that second problem is good because it means there are probably a lot of people trying to play the game, but it comes at the expense of other people who are also trying to play that same game.
When it comes to Red Dead Redemption’s visuals, the only words that come to mind are stunning, brilliant, beautiful, and superb. The West has never looked as good as it does in this game. From the red-hued rock formations, to the snow-covered mountains, to the sunrise breaking over any plateau, every detail is replicated perfectly in game. In a Western fan’s mind, there is a picture of the idealized mythological Wild West, and Rockstar captures it so well that it’s going to be difficult to see that time period any differently. The towns sprinkled across the vast landscapes are wonderfully brought to life with varied populations, roaming outlaws, and people who actually know your name. There’s a genuine feel of authenticity to Rockstar’s West that was missing from their first attempt, and I’m glad to see their dream of a video game Western finally brought to life. Any of the characters you interact with for a story mission are fully detailed, and are much more impressive than those found in even the last Grand Theft Auto expansion. However, many of the other NPCs aren’t quite as nice. From a distance, sure, pretty much everything looks great. It isn’t until you get close up to many of the characters that you see how flat their textures are, or just how many of the same models repeat more than a few times over.
While I do enjoy the game’s score quite a bit, it doesn’t pack the emotional punch that Ennio Morricone’s once did. It may be a bit unfair to use that comparison, but Morricone is easily has the most recognizable sound when it comes to the genre, and his technique for orchestration is unrivaled when it comes to Westerns. That said, I’ve listened to the score for Red Dead Redemption countless times on its own already, and love its distinct sound, but it’s not nearly as strong as it could have been, and many of the repeated cues lack substance. There’s no single take in this game that’s nearly as memorable as it should have been, and while I didn’t expect anything in the game to come close to rivaling the famous duel music from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, I at least expected something to stick out. Perhaps I set the bar too high, but when you’ve been waiting for a game like this for as long as I have, you tend to hope for the most brilliant game of all time. While Red Dead Redemption isn’t quite in that league, it certainly holds its own, and makes a strong case to be in the running when Game of the Year contenders are announced.
At the end of the day, Red Dead Redemption is the finest Western game ever created. Sure the competition wasn’t all that stiff, but the bar Rockstar has set for anyone who follows is extremely high. It’s not quite perfect, and at times it can be repetitive, but the developers do so much right here, it’s easy to forgive the miscues. There is simply no excuse to miss out on a game this good. Besides, you may find yourself turned into a fan of Westerns just by playing this game. You’ll be better for it.