I had a brief working vacation at the end of May in New York City. At the time, I had played Red Dead Redemption for a week. The longer I was away from my XBox, The more I dreamt of the the open plains of New Austin, the Mexico bordering state that Red Dead Redemption's hero John Marston (Rob Wiethoff) calls home. It's 1911, and the sun is finally setting on the old west as "civilization" approaches. Marston is a former outlaw who hung up his spurs after being left for dead by his own gang. Married and settled into the quiet life of a farmer, Marston's world is disrupted by the sinister Agent Ross (Jim Bentley) who charges him with tracking down the members of his old gang. Redemption is hard to find out there on the dusty trail, and Marston is about to find out just how hard.
Red Dead Revolver was developed in 2002 by Rockstar San Diego for Capcom, but the publisher dropped it. Following Take 2's acquisition of RSD that same year, the company gave it an overhaul and released it in 2004 to boffo sales and a bit of egg on Capcom's face. The game was well put together, but I recall it as being rather unexciting and somewhat boring. The story was an awfully familiar revenge tale, and it was outstripped a year later by Neversoft's underrated, too-short open world western Gun (to which Redemption owes a small debt). It had one neat thing that Gun ripped off- a Matrix style slo mo aiming mechanic called Dead Eye. The sequel to shares only the spaghetti western setting and the Dead Eye mechanic, but more than that, it represents a leap forward not just for the franchise, but for the Rockstar open world/sandbox model itself.
The big difference between Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV, the gamer learns quickly, is that it seems more ALIVE than Liberty City. A strange reaction at first, since the expanses of New Austn and northern Mexico are sparsely populated by comparison. But there's so much going on that you just out of the corner of your eye. Animals ripe for hunting patrol the landscape. Criminals prey on helpless citizens going from town to town. One time I was strolling by and five outlaws on horses were dragging some poor bastard on the ground. It's hard to go far without stumbling on a freeroaming event, a minigame, or a sidequest. The game has a stranger sidequest system similar to GTAIV's. However, the sidequests are much better developed and longer, there's more of a feeling you're actually getting something out of it besides an amusing cut scene.
Horses also control better than cars. And the scenery- wow. Even playing on a standard definition television, Red Dead Redemption is a visually rich game on par with the best the 360 has to offer. Deserts, trees, flowers, boulders, passerby, buildings- all have terrific amounts of detail. Even though the game has a very well implemented fast travel system, you'll often find yourself just cruising the world, trying to complete many of the game's ambient challenges. What's great is that going from mission to mission no longer feels like a chore. While Dan Houser supervised the game and co-wrote the script, RDR feels very different from what Rockstar North has done with open world concepts. I really hope Houser and Rockstar North take the right lessons from this game.
Rockstar soundtracks are great no matter what the studio, and Red Dead Redemption is no exception. The score by Bill Alem and Woody Jackson owes heavily to Ennio Morricone, but it's haunting and beautiful in its own way. In fact, I'd go so far to say it's one of the best game soundtracks of all time. There are also several original song compositions by artists such as Jose Gonzalez, whose "Far Away" became a favorite of mine.
The actual gameplay is pretty simple, using familiar cover based run and gun tactics. The Dead Eye mechanic works like this: you get enough kills and head shots, and the meter fills up. You go into DE, and the world slows down to offere better aiming. Eventually this mechanic improves to the point where you can paint targets and take out multiple guys in seconds. The ragdoll physics in this game are very good, to the point that every conflict feels utterly brutal as bullets (or fists) tear apart your enemies. The game's not overly difficult, but makes up for this by creating frenetic, tense missions with some pretty good enemy AI. Enemies aren't stupid enough to just walk into your bullets, and will take cover and adapt to what you're doing. Usually you can circumvent this by turning on the Dead Eye, but there are still some unnerving moments to be had as you're frenetically reloading and a whole posse has come after you. Like most open world games, You can do whatever you want, ie go back to being the outlaw John Marston used to be and rob banks and terrorize townsfolk, although the game encourages you to be a nice guy given how brutal the reputation system and wanted levels can be. The reputation system has a few nice perks but it doesn't really affect the overall arc of the game- Marston's attitude remains unchanged throughout the narrative, a formerly nasty but basically decent man trying to live his life. In the wake of BioWare's double punch of Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, it actually feels kind of retrograde. Or like playing Fallout 3.
While RDR can be pretty easy, it is by no means a game you can wrap up in a week. Red .Dead Redemption has lengthy narrative that will take you through at least 20 hours of gameplay. The script, written by Houser, Christian Cantamessa (the Manhunt series), and Michael Unsworth is a pastiche of the entire scope of the American western film. In addition to the plot's initial paralells to the Wild Bunch, there are allusions to High Noon, Unforgiven, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and more. The writers keep their own original spin on things, however. One problem I had with Grand Theft Auto IV was that the entire game world and story felt too cynical for its own good, where everyone including Niko Bellic was either a hypocrite, a jerk, a hypocrite, a fool or a hypocrite. In Red Dead Redemption, while there's the requisite cynical side- when you get to Mexico, surprise, the revolutionaries are just as corrupt if not more so than the oppressive government they're trying to overthrow- Marston himself is a trusting (actually too trusting), likable fellow, and some of the people he meets along the way are genuinely decent folk. There's some light in this world, unlike the contiunal morass that Niko Bellic finds himself slogging through. While like previous Rockstar games, some of the more interesting characters have a tedency to mysteriously drop out of the narrative, I remembered well characters like the ex-gunsligner turned lawman Landon Ricketts and jttery con man Nigel West Dickens. The voice acting is, unsurpriginsly, uniformly good. If I had to pick a standout performance besides Wiethoff, it would be master swordsman (really) and actor Anthony DeLongis as Marshal Leigh Johnson. Johnson at first seems an ancestor of Frank McReary, a cynical, ineffective jerk. But soon you realize he's just extremely pragmatic, and that's part of his charm. He also gets what I consider the best line in the game. I'll leave you to decide what that is.
However, the narrative is by no means perfect. Grand Theft Auto IV may be heartless, but it's far more tightly plotted and there are fewer holes. A good deal of the plot depends on Marston, who comes off as pretty smart most fo the time, making some catastrophically stupid decisions in the beginning and ending sequences of the game. While most of the villains are well developed, Ross is a venal cartoon, and there's something uncomfortable about the way the game demonizes "The Agency", though that may just be my own reaction to the near psychotic (though not wholly unjustified) anti-Federal sentiment going on these days, which the writers couldn't have predicted.
Despite its flaws, the game's story holds you in its grip until the rather surprising final sequence. Without spoiling too much, it turns out that the final missions in the game are usually not the kind of final missions you'd find in most games. But that's because the game's playing a narrative trick on you, one which you'll guess long before Marston does, but when the payoff comes, it's appropriately shocking and left me speechless. The ending of this game makes the ending of Grand Theft Auto IV look like "What If the Thing Continued to Mutate?" (LOOK IT UP). It's rare that a game can reach in and carve a piece out of your heart, but warts and all, when the credits roll at the end of Red Dead Redemption, you feel spent, burnt, and not a little bit lost.
Thankfully, the game's multiplayer is here to cushion the blow. Rockstar San Diego has taken the freeroaming environments of many racing games and slapped that framework onto New Austin. The player can wander about the countryside, attacking bandits or other players, or you can join a posse and square off in standard death matches or oddball or fortress defense or what have you. It's tons of fun and like in the single player mode, there's a staggering amount of content to unlock and stuff to do.
In the opening scenes of Garth Ennis' (very good) 2007 western miniseries Streets of Glory, two brothers stake their claim out in the old west. The younger brother, who's never been to the land they've purchase, immediately exclaims "YOU NEVER TOLD ME HOW BIG IT WAS!!!!" Of course, both brothers soon learn that within that incredible, breathtaking vastness, there's plenty of sinister people and places, and very little hope. Red Dead Redemption is a beautiful, beautiful playing game (even when it's riddled with glitches), but it's also one of the most emotionally downbeat games I've ever played. That works in its favor, but there's something about this game that I can't help but feels reflective of our current troubled times. John Marston tries to live a good, peaceful life, tries to be a good man and do right by his family, but he's continually beset by forces on all sides, as the west itself is dying and encroaching on the individual. In some ways the open plains of New Austin take on a darker, narrower meaning later on in the game. An America where things keep getting worse and surrender feels like the best option. The supposed heroes are just as corrupt as the supposed bad guys. In GTA IV this is a cause for feeling superior; here it's a cause for mourning. As another great song says, There must be some kind of way out of here, for John Marston, and for all of us.