Red Dead Redemption
- May 17, 2010 09:00 AM PT
Arguably Rockstar's finest effort to date, Red Dead Redemption does an exquisite job of capturing the iconic essence of the Wild West, presenting one of the most engaging and enjoyable open-world climates in recent memory with the dusty plains of New Austin.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: The PS3 version of Red Dead Redemption was not made available to us at the time of review, so this review focuses exclusively on the Xbox 360 version. We will post impressions of the PS3 version, including thoughts on the exclusive content, as soon as we are able.
In the fifteen hours it took me to clear Red Dead Redemption's expansive core campaign, the thing I found myself most surprised by was how consistently likable rough-and-tumble protagonist John Marston remained throughout. He's a stark contrast to Red Harlow, the star of 2004's Red Dead Revolver; that character was built in the mold of Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" and rarely spouted an unnecessary syllable. Marston, on the other hand, shares more in common with Unforgiven's tragic hero Bill Munney: he's a family man who is unceremoniously thrust back into a past life he can't leave behind. He's one of a dying breed of sunset riders who are facing extinction and are doomed to go out in a hail of gunfire.
From the start of Redemption's bullet-riddled narrative, Marston operates from the familiar gray moral zone native to all of Rockstar's leading men. Forced to confront his past in order to save his future, Marston's sweeping transition from bounty hunter to unlikely freedom fighter to, finally, grizzled relic in an endangered era makes for a captivating arc, and paints Marston as one of the more sympathetic antiheroes in recent memory. Marston's confrontation with an America that doesn't want nor need him brings to mind GTA IV's Niko Bellic, but his desire to find a peaceful place for himself and his family makes Redemption's yarn something familiar yet utterly unique. It kept me earnestly interested in the jaded cowboy's quest for restitution long past the main story's snowcapped conclusion.
In typical Rockstar fashion, Redemption plays host to a motley crew of liars, outlaws, substance abusers, and would-be revolutionaries; each is a riff on classic Spaghetti Western tropes, but they're well-rounded and interesting enough that they never feel contrived. Portrayed with cinematic precision, these saints and sinners breathe life into Redemption's vast landscapes; they're also excellent counterpoints to Marston's lone wolf persona, serving as memorable foils and friends in the process. And even though Marston's salvation frequently takes a backseat to the varied quandaries of these frontiersmen (and women), they're engaging enough to make players want to see their stories through to their just end.
As diverse and memorable as Redemption's cast is, however, it's the game's expansive open-world of New Austin that lifts the experience well above the latest crop of open-world sandboxes; it's also the main reason why the "Grand Theft Cowpoke" comparisons are both irrelevant and inadequate. Swapping cars for tumbleweeds and skyscrapers for open ranges, Redemption's frontier landscape effortlessly evolves from dusty plain to painted desert and back again, with all manner of rustlers, bandits, ranchers, and a menagerie of region-specific fauna breathing life into the land. I often passed on the option to quick-travel from camp or ride in a stagecoach taxi in favor of heading out on a trusty steed, as the genuine thrill of clopping through Redemption's rich scenery offers up as much promise as the youthful portrait of America that it paints; from ad hoc hunting sessions to playing judge, jury, and oftentimes executioner to any number of randomly generated disputes, there is a lot to discover and do in the wild frontier. Helping matters is the fact that Red Dead Redemption is, by all measures, Rockstar's best looking game to date; the game's masterfully crafted and stunningly detailed environments are beautiful to look at, and thankfully don't share Liberty City's brown, muddy "realism" filter.
But what makes the treks across Redemption's tumultuous terrain work so well is undoubtedly the game's equine element. Horseback riding is expertly implemented, and brings an indisputable facet of authenticity to the title on par with so many silver screen serials and dime-store novels. It's from atop horseback that players will spend the majority of Marston's journey, and the satisfaction that comes with mastering a mount is well worth the strife that might come with first climbing into the saddle. Shooting while riding, for instance, or heading up your first cattle drive may take some practice, but the genuine thrill that these iconic activities offer make them both worthwhile and satisfying when they finally "click".
Of course, because it is a Rockstar title, Redemption doesn't completely stray from the company formula. While it strives to create its own legend, it still adheres to the open-world mission structure pioneered by Grand Theft Auto, with assorted letter-based waypoints serving as launch pads for any variety of optional and plot-progressing missions. These run the gamut from Rockstar staples like racing and playing cabby to more period-specific assignments like horse-breaking, saloon shootouts, or riding a posse on any number of ambushes. Gamers who had qualms with GTA's reliance on secondary fetch missions will likely take issue with Marston's recurring role of errand boy, but the sheer quality and unpredictable nature of the tasks at hand -- not to mention the much needed inclusion of inter-mission checkpoints -- helps make these side missions a rewarding diversion.
Redemption's post-mission Honor system is also worth noting: a reputation scheme that, unlike Grand Theft Auto, which inherently assumed you'd be playing as a sociopath, allows Marston the opportunity to be recognized by society as either a respected law-abiding peacemaker or dreaded saint of killers. I chose the virtuous path for my initial playthrough, and used my reputation as an upstanding lawman to claim hefty store discounts and, on more than one occasion, get away with murder. The nature in which New Austin's denizens interact with you as your percentage statistics tick higher only serves to compliment the in-depth world Rockstar has created, and while an occasional, "Well, if it isn't the John Marston!" won't single-handedly make Redemption a Game of the Year contender, it's a nice feature, and one of several that makes Red Dead Redemption's love letter to the Wild West well worth revisiting.
One of Redemption's most notable aspects, and likely one of my favorite features, is the game's superb audio design. Every boot step, quick draw, hoof clop, and gun shot drips with Wild Western authenticity, capturing the iconic essence of the lone outlaw in an unforgiving environment to a whip-cracking tee. Redemption's soundtrack, skillfully composed by musicians Bill Elm and Woody Jackson, admirably channels Ennio Morricone's work on Segio Leone's classic Dollars trilogy, with finely assembled whistles, harmonicas, and trumpets subtly commanding the game's onscreen action.
I was able to spend a considerable amount of time online with Redemption's beefy multiplayer component as well, and I can safely say that the potential for plenty of Moonshine-swilling nights of deathmatch debauchery is most certainly there. Redemption's online modes offers up a few variations on traditional multiplayer staples, with Shootout and Gang Shootout subbing for Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, and the gold-fueled Grab the Bag, Gold Rush, and Hold Your Own acting as alternatives to Capture the Flag. From the initial Mexican Standoff to the last lingering gunshot, Redemption's multiplayer works remarkably well and only serves to complement and build on the title's exquisite single player campaign.
However, I don't feel that I can give a solid thumbs-up or down to Redemption's most ambitious multiplayer feature; the Free Roam "lobbies", which offer up the entire open-world of New Austin to sixteen players for posse-forming, gang-conquering action, is a brilliant concept, but it's really up to the players to make the most of it. Still, the competitive multiplayer modes offer a lot of meat for gamers to feast on, and it's actually Rockstar's finest effort to open their worlds to online exploration to date.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that Red Dead Redemption is such a terrific title. Rockstar is one of the most consistently creative and talented developers in the industry, and their commitment to excellence shows in each and every product. Although this is said of almost every single new Rockstar product, Red Dead Redemption is arguably their best effort to date, if only because it distills all of the lessons they've learned from their previous titles into an engaging, expansive, and enthralling world. But the best part of Rockstar's open-world oater is its honest and open appreciation for the iconic Western genre; Its Wild West setting is memorable and stays true to established genre lore while still managing to add its own wrinkles and twists. It's one of the most appealing game worlds I've experienced in my recent memory, and it holds enough thrills to keep you playing from the very first bullet to long after the ride off into the sunset.
PROS: Enormous, engaging world; expertly captures the look and feel of the Wild West; likable protagonist in John Marston, who boasts an interesting, worthwhile narrative
CONS: Errand missions can get a bit tiring; occasional pop-in