Review: Red Dead Redemption

June 3, 2010, Author: Trent Pyro

I take my hat off and wipe the sweat and dirt from my brow. The sun beats down on the bone-dry plains, skewing my view, the horizon rippling with the heat. Around me lie four men, gaping bullet wounds still oozing shiny red. A pack of vultures circles overhead, one swooping down presuming a meal. I draw my revolver and take a shot, downing the hungry bird. I take its feathers; I’ll sell them later, maybe get enough for a gin at the saloon. I take one last glance at one of the bodies, a man dressed different from the rest. It was he who I was saving, supposed to be anyway, that is. The scum got the better of him this time, got the better of me. Can’t win ’em all.

I whistle, and my strong, black beauty of a steed comes careening over a hill. She stops by my side, and I give her a reassuring touch as I vault onto her back. Kicking my heels, she cries out and peels off, quick as lightning. As I pound toward the horizon, town of Armadillo my destination, I hear a cry. I glance to my right; a woman is in trouble, battling a couple of rat bastard banditos, intent on having their way with her. I pull back on the reigns and draw my side-arm. In the Wild West, it never ends.

That is just a small tale, one of the millions that can be found in Rockstar’s latest epic, Red Dead Redemption. It’s a game I’ve been clamouring to play since it was announced over a year ago, and it doesn’t disappoint. Let me tell you the tale of the game that finally makes all your Wild West dreams come true.

What’s yer tale, pilgrim?
Red Dead Redemption follows John Marston, an ex-gangster and bandit now settled with a wife and child. When shifty, new government agents turn up on his doorstep, he’s forced into an impossible situation; hunt down his former criminal friends or his family gets it. Tough and resolute, Marston accepts and is shipped off to Blackwater with naught but his revolver and the location of his once brother-in-arms, Bill Williamson. The tale tracks Marston’s progress in finding his old comrades and bringing them to justice, straddling morality, loyalty, honour and deceit. It’s a fantastic journey to say the least and to reveal any more would be to ruin it for everyone. This is a story you have to experience for yourself. Rockstar’s trademark brilliance in the map department (mini or otherwise) shines, allowing you to easily pick up the story where you left off and never leaving you confused as to what to do next.

John Marston is a brilliant character. He is immediately likeable; a rough guy with cast-iron honour and a stronger will. His toughness and affinity for bloody violence betray a considerate and kind soul. He’s a great balance of personalities; never seeming too soft, yet never descending into Punisher levels of miserable, staunch toughness. He’s the guy at pub who’ll let you buy him a pint if you knock his over, but who’ll spark you out if you refuse to replenish his beverage. In many ways he’s similar to one Niko Bellic; likable, grounded and intriguing. While Niko was funny but not really heroic, Marston achieves something very difficult for a game character; he’s cool but a fire burns inside. He moseys around, strutting through towns and tipping his hat to ladies, but you know that if anyone messes with him he will tear them apart. Following his personal journey and seeing how he develops as a person is one of the most attractive elements of the game and keeps you hooked until the very last scene. It’s a long journey, and lucky for us Rockstar has made it one of the most action-packed, enthralling and decidedly fantastic experiences ever to stop us getting bored!

The good, the bad and the awesome
To explain everything that is doable in Red Dead Redemption would be a tome in itself. So I’ll start with the obvious comparison and work from there; Grand Theft Auto IV. RDR uses the same engine (Rockstar’s own RAGE), is made by the same people (technically) and has almost the same controls. It’s set in a massive, open world with a distinctly realistic population and features some of the best written, animated and voice acted characters in gaming history. So far, so similar. This is where the similarities end, however, because RDR quickly becomes so different from its present-based cousin that you can scarcely believe it has anything to do with it.

While the controls will be easily familiar to players of GTA IV, the difference is in the detail. Picking weapons is now a breeze, a hold of LB bringing up a neat weapon wheel. Tapping it draws and holsters the selected side-arm, an important ability given how the populaces of the many towns react to you. B is now the universal action button, but context sensitive stuff is often fielded to X and Y for convenience and never, ever feels awkward. Jumping and climbing is less stiff than GTA and Marston runs like a human rather than some kind of deranged marionette (yes, I mean Niko). The cover system gets a couple of improvements; SWAT turning between cover, Gears-style is now more fluid, as is leaving cover and moving up. It’s still a little clunky and leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s nice to see Rockstar San Diego have ironed out some creases left by Rockstar North’s city escapades.

The guns handle realistically, which is both a blessing and a curse. The authentic crack and kick of the revolver and the satisfying boom of the double-barrelled shotgun are brilliant, but don’t expect to hit much further than a couple of hundred yards without a sniper rifle. Firing from horseback is initially a nightmare, and requires much practice to get spot on. Generally, the shooting is brilliant, each shot sending a fantastic echo around the vast land, harking back to old West shoot-outs we all know from movies.

Dead Eye makes a return from RDR’s spiritual prequel, Red Dead Revolver and is thankfully one of the only things brought over. A click of the Right Stick slows the world to a crawl, throwing everything into a sepia dream. Aiming in brilliant slow-mo, you can crack off shot after shot, taking down fast-moving enemies and tricky targets with ease. That’s just the first level; level two lets you paint six targets and then snap back to reality, leaving Marston fanning his gun like a pro and wiping out whole posses of bad guys in a second. Level three lets you pick specific body parts to mulch, leading to some hilarious kills and brilliant fun.

John Marston - The gentleman gunslinger

John Marston: The gentleman gunslinger

Instead of giving you a tiresome list of everything you can achieve in Red Dead Redemption, I’m going to cover it all with one line and a short explanation. Anything you’ve ever wanted to do as a cowboy, RDR lets you do it. Never has a game captured the imaginations of countless youngsters, dressing up and bombing around with cap-loaded guns and toy horses. I for one was hugely into cowboys when I was a wee nipper, and RDR has given me the chance to feel like a real Wild West hero. Want to catch a bandit? Shoot him in the kneecaps, then lasso him and tie him up, chuck him on the back of your horse and ride him back to the sheriff. Want to gamble away some dollars on poker, get drunk and have a fight? Head to any saloon and your wish is granted. Almost every angle is covered, from those who want to be a daring hero saving damsels to the cruel-minded among us who want to be a terrifying bandit pillaging towns and taking out cops. Even peace-lovers, should they want to, can trot around capturing bad guys and helping people find things. Hunt animals for their skins, lasso and break wild horses for yourself or a ranch, chase down robbers for a reward or rob the bank yourself.

Red Dead Redemption may not have the living, breathing city that GTA IV bragged about but it has gone one step further; a living, breathing world. Every corner of New Austin bustles with life; animals, birds and people of all kinds. GTA was alive with the hustle and bustle of Liberty City, people rushing to work, slinking around ready to cause trouble and driving like lunatics. RDR is positively teeming with life of a different kind, the tundra replete with nature. Each county has its own style and mood; Cholla Springs’ arid yet beautiful deserts and Gaptooth Breach’s shear rocks and canyons just two examples. It’s a different way of keeping us interested and it works flawlessly.

Just a few more things to say before I gush about how awesome Red Dead Redemption looks and sounds. Two key factors influence how the people of New Austin receive you. Honour is affected by your decisions relating to how you help people; kill the robbers and save the caravan or kill the driver and assist the crims? Honourable players will be loved by the townsfolk, receiving store discounts, lenient bounties for any law-breaking mistakes and more pay for jobs. Dishonourable players will be feared and hated by the people, looked down on by the cops but embraced by the criminal fraternity. It’s the first time I’ve experienced a morality system than genuinely has the ability to completely change the game. Fame is also important, tracking how well known you are across the West. The more famous you are, the more it affects your experience; bad guys will turn and run from a famous, very honourable characters, while civilians will scream and call for the sheriff if your famous, dishonourable guy strides into town. Both mechanics combined enhance the game no end, and allows for totally different experiences for everyone.

The Wanted system returns from the GTA series, albeit with a difference. Every crime you commit adds value to the bounty on your head. The higher the bounty, the stronger and more numerous your pursuers. The only way to get rid of the price is to pay it yourself or find a pardon letter. This system is nice and realistic, but considering how little money you make at the start it can be fatal. I found it very easy to rack up a $250 bounty and so early in the game I was barely making a few bucks per job. I had hunters and lawmen after me constantly until I finally found a pardon letter and got it sorted. In other games, this would be annoying, but Red Dead Redemption manages to make it feel fair, like it’s pushing you to be good or deal with the consequences of being bad.

Red Dead Redemption looks absolutely gorgeous. It is honestly one of the best-looking games I’ve ever seen, and in terms of set design and authenticity, the best by far. While GTA IV wowed with decaying brick and degraded neighbourhoods, RDR shines with weathered wooden structures, camps far out in the desert, epic mountain ranges and chalky Mexican houses. Every inch is rendered in glorious detail, down to the ageing of the wood and the cracked, weathered signposts hanging outside the stores. The draw distance is mammoth, echoing triumphs such as Fallout 3 and Just Cause 2. Its realism is breathtaking and it goes a long way to trapping you in the dream that is the Wild West and keeping you there. The vast desert plains and hilly regions between settlements are a dream to behold; I defy anyone not to crack a smile when they gallop over a hill on a dirt road, only to be met by the stunning sunset, casting a vast and fantastic orange glow over the whole scene.

The citizens of New Austin take character animation to a new level. Important characters (those with lines that feature in cut-scenes) are astoundingly well animated and rendered. Never before have I been able to tell that a character doesn’t like me, or doesn’t trust me, just by watching his eyes. Tiny movements are what allow us to read each other’s faces, and Rockstar have included these in the game to great effect. Even those with less of a part to play are totally believable; drunks in the saloon, housewives, police, gunslingers, bandits, doctors, ranch hands, rustlers and so on.

Oh yes, you can see that far...

Oh yes, you can see that far...

It is obvious that every effort has been made and every step taken to make the most absorbing and realistic-looking world in Red Dead Redemption and Rockstar San Diego have succeeded. I find myself walking instead of running through a town, taking in the atmosphere of the place and watching every corner for signs of an attacker. Sometimes I just canter through the desert, perusing the wildlife and drinking in the landscape. Amazing.

Ennio Morricone, eat your heart out…
In line with all its other elements, Red Dead Redemption sounds fantastic. Gunshots crack and bullets ricochet, recalling fond memories of playing as a kid and watching Wayne and Eastwood take down bad guys on TV. In fact, it’s as if Rockstar nicked the sound effects from both those legendary movies and stuck them in RDR. This is no bad thing; every sound is authentic, if not to real life then to the Western movie world. This all adds to the distinct impression that you’re playing the best cowboy movie ever.

Real praise, however, goes to the voice acting. John Marston has a gruff yet gentle tone, effortlessly twisted into a menacing growl or war cry when necessary. It’s instantly recognisable as a cowboy voice, but unique enough to stand out as John Marston’s voice. All the other characters are voiced fantastically well, with not a bad one among the bunch. Funny characters are genuinely comedic, serious ones make you listen and the bad guys really scare. So many developers forget that animation is not everything when it comes to crafting a character and leave some amateur hacks to blurt out emotionless lines. Rockstar, true to form, have excelled and created characters that are full of fun, intrigue and soul by using talented actors and a razor sharp script.

Last but definitely not least, the soundtrack. Not since the breathtaking vistas painted by Ennio Morricones score to Once Upon A Time In The West have I heard music so epic and so bloody brilliantly suited to a Western. Every instrument and musical element is familiar yet original and apparent. It does its job better than most soundtracks; it sets the scene, enhances the visual splendour and moulds the experience into an unforgettable one.

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