The term "sandbox game" has changed to encompass any title with an open world, even if there's very little to do outside of the main plot. They don't give players much of a chance to play around or do something beyond exploring mostly empty cities or countrysides. Red Dead Redemption is perhaps the most true sandbox game yet. The game's real strength isn't in its story line or challenging gameplay but in the fact that everything exists to give players the freedom to live out their cowboy dreams. If you want to be an outlaw or vigilante, rob trains or save damsels in distress, Red Dead Redemption lets you. As a challenging video game, it is flawed. As a cowboy sandbox, it's hard to imagine anything better than Red Dead Redemption.
Red Dead Redemption may technically be a sequel to Red Dead Revolver, but other than a few small references, the two games are completely unconnected. Red Dead Redemption is set in the dying days of the Wild West. The horse and carriage are on their way to being replaced by the car, train tracks have connected the country, and the frontier way of life is on its way out. You play as John Marston, one of the last of the true cowboys. A former outlaw, Marston had retired with his family and tried to go straight, but the government wasn't willing to let him go scot-free, so they kidnapped his family and gave him a mission. In order to get them back, Marston has to hunt down and kill the members of his old outlaw gang. He has to track down the wily criminals and stop them or risk losing his wife and son forever.
Red Dead Redemption's plot is quite a mess. While the outline of an interesting plot is there, it is very muddled and poorly executed. Characters change personalities almost on a whim. The game can't seem to decide if he's a world-weary cowboy trying to set things right or a heartless bandit who's willing to do anything that's necessary. In two unavoidable plot missions, Marston goes out of his way to rescue an innocent and then kidnaps women to be raped. It becomes even more nonsensical when he refuses to take any action at all. The people he's working for repeatedly use him or lie to him, and Marston gets angry a lot but doesn't do anything about it. One of his employers sends him on a mission to die, and his only response is to go back for another mission afterward, holding on to the paper-thin excuse of, "Well, I need information," as justification. The final act of the story is really good and does a lot more for Marston's characterization than the rest of the game. It also leads to a very unique twist and a surprisingly strong ending. It isn't enough to save the rest of the story, but it's a lot better than the muddled mire that came before.
The basic gameplay of Red Dead Redemption can best be summed up as Grand Theft Stagecoach. If you've ever played a Grand Theft Auto game, the structure is basically identical. Marston ends up in a small town with nothing but his trusty revolver and the clothes on his back. From there, you have to slowly build up your reputation by doing missions for various people around the world. Each mission you do advances the plot and unlocks more of the world to explore. Combat is based on the GTA 4 gameplay, complete with powerful auto-lock and cover mechanics. They're a little awkward but don't detract from the experience. If anything, the auto-lock is still too good, although you can tone it down in the game menu. Your weapons are the traditional set of pistol, rifle, shotgun, grenades and sniper rifles. The most notable weapon is the lasso, which allows you to capture enemies alive or hog-tie them. It's not the most useful weapon, but it's a lot of fun to use.
The real change to combat comes in the form of Dead Eye mode, which is basically a visual representation of Marston's cowboy skills. At any time, you can press the right analog stick to activate it. Doing so causes time to slow down, giving you more time to aim shots. The longer you spend in this mode, the more of your Dead Eye meter you use up. Dead Eye regenerates naturally but fills up much faster if you kill enemies and score headshots. As the game progresses, your Dead Eye skill levels up. At level two, you automatically lock on to enemies as you sweep your cursor over them in Dead Eye mode, allowing you to pull off fancy targeted shots on multiple opponents. At level three, you can mark targets to shoot, making you even more accurate with each shot. By going into Dead Eye mode, you can clear a room of enemies in a few seconds or pull off insane tricks, like shooting a fleeing enemy in the kneecaps from a mile away.
Red Dead Redemption has the problem of your player being too powerful. It may sound like an odd complaint, but it is true. Dead Eye mode is overly powerful and recharges so quickly that you can slaughter entire rooms without any trouble. Marston is too durable and capable of absorbing more damage than makes sense. Even if you get in danger, you can chug inexpensive healing items to quickly get back to tip-top shape. By the end of the game, I wasn't even bothering with cover because it seemed like a waste of time. While this sort of power is fun when you're not in story missions, it makes a lot of sequences pretty dull. Even if you give yourself a series of handicaps, the game still struggles to keep up. You can access a Gatling gun in a few game segments, but it's actually easier to get off the gun with infinite ammo and shoot guys with your rifle instead.
The closest thing to actual danger in the game is the duels. Every so often, Marston is challenged to a duel by a would-be gunman who's out to make his name. Duels are one-on-one and play out like small minigames. Both combatants start with their pistols holstered, but Dead Eye bullet time kicks in once the duel starts, and you have a few moments during which to target various enemy body parts. You can aim for vulnerable areas like the head or limbs, or for the opponent's gun. As you aim, your cursor pulses from red to white. Depending on the color of the cursor when you press shoot, you'll do more damage to the enemy with that shot. Depending on the power of the shot, you fill a gauge at the side of the screen. Filling the gauge wins the duel, but if the enemy has a greater gauge than you, it's an instant game over.
These duels aren't so difficult except for one nagging flaw: The game doesn't tell you what you need to do. In some of the duels, shooting the enemy's gun with a full-power shot is an instant win, and it earns you extra honor to boot. In others, it has no effect at all. It's never made clear which duels can be won without deadly force and which ones can't. The ones where you're required to kill your opponent are mostly obvious, but there are a few that you can lose because you didn't realize that the game wanted you to kill the enemy.
As you'd expect from a game set in the Wild West, cars are almost nonexistent. You get to see one or two during the course of the story but never drive one. Mostly, you rely on horses for transportation. Horses are easy to control, although they're not simply hairy cars. You guide them with the analog stick and press the X button to spur them on. Holding X makes them maintain a gallop, while tapping it makes them boost forward at the cost of replenishing stamina. While it's possible to play the game GTA-style and steal a transport every time you need to, it's neither wise nor necessary to do so. Your horse is your partner, and it's better if you stick with one mount for as long as you can. You can buy horses or break in wild horses, but once a horse is yours, it remains yours. You can whistle at any time to summon it, and it will almost always show up during plot missions if you need it. It's rare for a horse to be killed, but if you act stupidly, your horse will die, forcing you to wait a while before summoning another one.
The main set of story missions in Red Dead Redemption are rather bland. Most of them involve a lengthy ride, followed by a brief shooting gallery segment against unmemorable foes. Most of the time, you're fighting small groups of forgettable baddies, and joined by some wacky, potentially offensive, stereotype. A little more variation in the missions would have been nice. With all the game mechanics, it feels weird that almost everything boils down to a shooting gallery. Even duels are relatively rare, which is a shame because they're pretty fun. The game also does a poor job of adapting the story line to the free-roaming nonlinearity of a GTA game. Segment tutorials may show up after you already did a nontutorial version in another mission, or characters will reference things that you haven't done yet.
Beyond the main story, Red Dead Redemption begins to shine. The world of New Austin is filled to the brim with things to do. The list is staggeringly long, and finding everything you can do can take ages. As soon as you start the game, you're basically bombarded with choices. You can go bounty hunting to find some criminals, make a ton of money from hunting and skinning animals, spend your days playing poker and Liar's Dice, engage in challenges with various people around the countryside, herd some cattle and break some horses, or rob a bank. The game even features an honor mechanic, which rates how liked (or disliked) you are and can lead to special rewards. Likewise, you can become more famous as you do missions, which leads to bounty hunters or fame seekers tracking you down to challenge you. Committing crimes earns you a bounty, which can skyrocket as you do bad things, causing the law and money-hungry hunters to stalk your every step. If you want to become the most wanted man in the Wild West, it's entirely possible. The game gives you a stunning amount of things to do, and the entire countryside seems to give you more as the game progresses.
Red Dead Redemption almost punishes you for using the available quick travel options. No matter where you are in the game, you can instantly travel to any other location you've discovered. Some cost a small fee, like the stagecoach taxis you can take from towns, while others are free. You almost never have to venture through the countryside, but not doing so causes you to miss a breathtaking number of events. On one trip from town to town, I discovered a woman being attacked by bandits, a sheriff who was trying to capture escaped prisoners, a hunter who challenged me to a contest, and a trap laid by a group of ne'er-do-wells who wanted to rob me. All of these were random encounters that I stumbled across in the wilderness, but they made the world feel full and alive. Had I simply teleported to my location, I would have missed all of these. Far more than GTA 4 or most sandbox games, Red Dead Redemption's world is full of things to do. You can go ages without touching the lackluster story, and the game is at its best when you're far away from Marston's main mission.
In stark comparison to the story line missions are the Stranger missions that you can pick up while wandering around the world. These missions are triggered by finding random strangers and are a lot more interesting and unique than the main plot. They tend to follow a similar formula: Marston comes across someone in a bad situation and helps them out. This can involve anything from hunting down a lost child to blackmailing a politician. Some of these plotlines even include multiple outcomes, depending on the choices you make. Some don't involve any action on the player's behalf at all but are simply ongoing adventures that occur as you're adventuring around the world. Most end in some form of tragedy, but the tragedy feels more consistent with the Wild West setting than the wacky GTA-style characters who populate the main story. While it's tempting to use quick travel options, you'll miss some of the game's finest moments if you take a stagecoach instead of exploring the countryside.
To further extend Red Dead Redemption's substantial value, it also includes a pretty amazing online multiplayer mode. At any time from the main menu, you can hop into a multiplayer game. There are some competitive multiplayer games, like deathmatch or capture the flag, but they pale in comparison to the Free Roam mode. You and a group of friends can do whatever you want, whether it's teaming up to take down gang hideouts, wandering into town for a shootout, or whatever strikes your fancy. It basically turns the single-player sandbox into a multiplayer one. There isn't as much to do in multiplayer as there is in single-player, but this is made up for by the fact that you're accompanied by a group of friends to keep things interesting. The multiplayer has a couple of flaws, such as the lock-on system making certain game types unbalanced, but they're not enough to detract from the fun of wandering the Wild West with friends.
My time spent in New Austin was marred by a fair amount of glitches. The enemy AI broke on multiple occasions, leading to characters standing around, frozen in silly positions, so I walked up and hog-tied them with my lasso. In another instance, an AI character who I was following suddenly stopped moving and fired at nothing. More than one story mission had events that failed to trigger, leading to strange conversations where characters reacted like something happened, but it hadn't. Near the end of the game, a very important cut scene was marred by the appearance of the floating clone of a character who hovered in the middle of the scene. The game also froze on a few occasions, almost always when I was going into a new area at top speed. Aside from the freezing glitches, none of these ruined the game, but they occurred often enough to be inconvenient.
Red Dead Redemption is a nice-looking game, although it has some technical flaws, such as slowdown, pop-in and awkward animations. Marston's running animation is amazingly silly and encourages you to stay on a horse as much as possible. Fortunately, most of the game's visuals work wonderfully. The Euphoria engine, when combined with slow-motion Dead Eye shots, creates some picture-perfect Wild West shootouts. There's nothing quite as immersive as watching Marston take out a swarm of baddies, the entire sequence looking like a carefully choreographed movie shot. It doesn't always work, so some of the sequences look a little absurd, but it works enough to benefit the game. The voice acting is of a mixed quality. More than a few times, the actors seem to be reading lines without knowing the context, which works heavily against the silly script. There's enough good acting to keep the game going, and the soundtrack has an appropriately foreboding feeling.
If you look at the main game, Red Dead Redemption isn't the best. With rock-bottom difficulty and an inane plot, grinding through John Marston's adventure is a tiresome experience. However, it's one of the best sandbox games ever released. When you're not working on the story missions, Red Dead Redemption is an absolute treasure trove of freedom. You can spend your days as a hunter, a gambler, a bounty hunter, or whatever else comes to mind. It only gets better once you go online and play with other people, turning the entire world into your playground. Marston's adventure simply serves as a way to introduce you to New Austin. Once the story is over, you're free to do whatever you want, and it's up to the player to decide what kind of cowboy he wants to be. In this respect, Red Dead Redemption has no equal.
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