For both literature and motion pictures, the American Western is one of the more revered genres in existence. The age of frontiers, lawlessness, and morally ambiguous heroes has been heavily romanticized and deconstructed over the decades. For such a rich genre, one would have expected a similar outpouring of video games that use the Wild West as an effective gaming backdrop. While gamers have been flooded with games about medieval kingdoms, space operas and World War II, titles about the taming and takeover of the Wild West has been mostly absent. We had lightgun shooters and a few games that gave the Western very unique spins (Wild Arms 3 and Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman come to mind), but it wasn't until the previous console generation that we got more realistic Western titles. One of those was Red Dead Revolver, Rockstar's first attempt at crafting an action game about revenge set in the West. Despite the game's history of publisher changes, it turned out well and the fans wanted to see Rockstar try its hand at the genre again. Six years after Revolver's release, Rockstar has come back to the Western but with a different perspective on the game. As a result, Red Dead Redemption is a very ambitious, yet familiar, title that's the best open-world take on the genre since Gun.
The year is 1911 and America, along with the rest of the world, is on the cusp of a wave of changes. The great railroad project has been completed, and more people from the East Coast are heading west. Technology has gotten to the point where cars are becoming more prevalent, and the Wild West is coming to an end. You play as John Marsten, a former outlaw who has given up his old ways and settled down with his wife and child. As in most Westerns, however, he gets dragged back into his old life through circumstances beyond his control. His wife and son are kidnapped and held for ransom by underhanded government officials, and the only way to get them back is to go after his old posse members.
The predecessor, Red Dead Revolver, was a typical action game with set levels and linear progression with little to no side-quests to keep you entertained. In stark contrast, Red Dead Redemption follows in the footsteps of Rockstar's biggest gaming franchise, Grand Theft Auto, and becomes a purely open-world experience. You still complete missions to progress through a story that lasts an average of 20 hours, and your missions will contain more variety than just slaughtering everyone in your path. You also have plenty of diversions to keep you busy between those missions, naturally doubling or even tripling the amount of gameplay time in the single-player mode alone. Some of the same characteristics also carry over, including the ability to steal horses instead of cars, obtain a wanted meter for any nefarious actions, and generally torment the populace.
There are enough differences, however, that make the game feel like something more substantial than Grand Theft Auto in a Western motif. Instead of the enemies dropping both ammo and cash when killed, only the ammo is automatically dropped. Players will have to search bodies to get cash and other items. Although the game is set during the turn of the century, horses are still the preferred method of travel, so you have to watch the horse's stamina or risk being thrown off. You can also try to tame wild horses or steal horses from other riders, but since you can always call on your horse from any spot in the map, horse-jacking seems rather futile.
Red Dead Redemption also runs on a fame and honor system. Fame is gained for finishing any activity in the game, and more fame opens up more missions. No matter what, fame can only be gained, and it never diminishes over time. Honor is a completely different metric and is measured by the deeds or misdeeds you perform. Things like shooting the gun off of someone's hand or saving people in trouble will raise your honor while shooting innocents or killing people when their backs are facing you lowers your honor. While fame helps you become known in the world, honor determines how people will react. High honor helps you gain praise and favors from the community while low honor makes people fear you as they clear the streets or become more hostile anytime you enter town. The mechanics are fairly simple but certainly add more depth to the world Rockstar has created.
Some of the characters are the most engaging ones seen in a game yet. You won't encounter too many memorable ones, and some come dangerously close to being caricatures of Old West stereotypes (i.e., the drunk Irishmen), but most of the characters seem to be normal and grounded in reality. As always in these games, the most interesting character in the bunch is your protagonist. Despite everything you're doing, Marsten remains a level-headed individual who exhibits plenty of patience in his quest for revenge. He is a generally polite person, especially toward women, and his moral compass is still sound despite his past life as an outlaw; as a married man, you don't engage in any activities with the brothel women. With many open-world titles asking you to play the villain time and time again, it's good to see one in which the protagonist is a likeable individual.
The single-player mode can be split up into two distinct sections: missions and everything else. As in most open-world games, the story-based missions aren't always fun or sensible. This isn't to say that the missions are boring. Helping out the lawmen with cattle rustlers or finding outlaws within the jurisdiction always becomes the source of a good gunfight, and considering the events laid out in the opening cut scenes, the farmhand missions become necessary. However, some of the missions feel like unnecessary diversions that have been engineered to lengthen gameplay. The salesman missions, for example, aren't necessarily exciting while the whole Mexican arc feels out of place since you're trying to play both sides of the conflict without having any real stake in it. Some people also don't give you good reasons for taking on the missions in the Mexican arc. This doesn't discredit the game's beginning and ending sections, which are particularly strong, but it feels as if the middle segment of the story drags down the pace.
The game doesn't force you to tackle any story mission in a particular order. In fact, like any open-world game, you're free to do what you want at just about any time. For Red Dead Redemption, this is where the world comes to life and the game becomes much more interesting. The range of activities in which you can partake is pretty wide and not only lengthens the single-player experience but, at times, becomes more fun than most of the required activities. There are some benign activities, such as taking shots at the bar, watching one of two animated silent films at a small movie house, or playing high stakes poker for some quick cash, but most of the side activities become more exciting. You can become a bounty hunter and chase down wanted crooks. Depending on your skill and whether you've learned to hog-tie people, you can bring in the bounty, dead or alive, for cash. If hunting people isn't your style, you can go animal hunting instead, using the hides of animals you've skinned for cash and item creation. While most of the animals are easy to defeat, you will come across more dangerous ones, such as cougars and bears, which will give you a hard time but are worth much more.
As your fame grows, so does the desire for others to challenge you to duels. The Dead Eye mechanic is put to good use, as you can target plenty of areas to gain more fame and honor alongside dispatching your rival. You can also grab treasure maps and search for treasure, better items, and better weapons throughout the landscape as well as find pieces to several different suits that give you access to other high stakes activities or give you combat boosts. The most surprising feature is strangers' requests, which can happen anywhere and at any time. The requests include ambushes that are designed to steal your horse or kill you, talking people out of their land, saving people from being hanged, or finding lost loved ones. Like all other side activities, these are purely optional but make quick-travel devices, such as stagecoaches, less appealing because they reduce your chance of partaking in these random events.
Multiplayer plays a big part in the game's longevity once you've completed the single-player story mode. Like most multiplayer games, there are standard deathmatch and team deathmatch modes set in specific areas of the world as well as a few variations of capture the flag. There's also a Gold Grab mode, where players race to grab as many gold bags as possible and stash them in their hideouts before the timer expires. While all of these are good to have, the most intriguing mode on the disc is Free Roam. This plays out much like the single-player mode in that the whole world is yours to explore, but this time, there are 15 other players in the world with you. Either alone or with your posse, you can do just about anything you want here, from conducting impromptu horse races to spontaneous gunfights. Unlike the single-player experience, there are no random NPC characters you can involve in the fun. Most of the time, you have yourself, your horse, and the opponents populating the world. The game has CPU enemies in the bandit camps, though, so if no one else is around, you can still have impromptu gang fights.
The good thing about the multiplayer is that it is much easier to access this time around. Unlike Grand Theft Auto IV, which required you to get into the single-player game before accessing multiplayer via the cell phone menu, the multiplayer option is immediately available from the title screen. You can still jump into multiplayer from the single-player game pause menu, but those who want to boot up the game for a quick online session won't have to jump through so many hoops to do so. There's even the option to join up with your party in the multiplayer menu, making it easier to ride out with your posse. This mode also adopts a leveling system. Like most multiplayer games nowadays, you earn experience points for eliminating a non-CPU player online. Those experience points earn you a few perks and different characters and outfits for your online persona, giving you more of a reason to stay online until the level cap is reached.
There are a few things that mar the multiplayer experience in Red Dead Redemption. For one thing, each death results in a load screen before respawning. The load screens are quick and understandable, considering that the whole world is open to you, but for those who are used to having confined areas in multiplayer, the idea can be a little jarring. Another issue is actually getting into some of the organized games. Entering Free Roam mode is no problem, but there are times when a structured game begins and you're given a prompt to indicate that you can join it. Hitting the button prompt will do nothing most of the time and results in several attempts before you can finally enter the game. Luckily, Rockstar is aware of the issue and is in the process of releasing a patch to address it, but until it goes live, consider this a ding against the mode.
The controls for the game feel tight and responsive. Marsten controls well on foot, and his fighting isn't great, but most of the combat will be done with firearms anyway. The aiming is rather easy since the game locks on to enemies almost anytime you zoom in, so those looking for more of a challenge are better off turning off this mechanism. Horseback riding also turns out to be a much easier affair. Steering the horse and shooting from the horse are rather easy in comparison to other vehicles in most open-world games. The same can be said for stagecoach driving, and though it can't exactly turn on a dime, you won't get the sensation of fishtailing all the time either. About the only time the controls start to give you trouble is when you get the horse stuck between a few rocks, and you'll simply turn in circles if you don't position the camera correctly.
Like Grand Theft Auto IV, the graphics show off the power of the engine and the talent of the developers. Every character model, from Marsten to the enemies to the bystanders, looks great with plenty of detail and very few blurry textures (if any). Though large crowds don't congregate too often in the game, there is no slowdown when they do. The animations are smooth, especially the lip sync, which is perfect each and every time someone speaks. No action looks like it is missing frames or is rushed through, and the accompanying physics system helps enforce the realistic look, especially when enemies slump to the ground or tumble down cliffs.
The environments also look good, and even though most of what you'll see consists of desert canyons and worn-down towns, that doesn't mean that they look any less impressive. The lighting from the game's day and night cycle looks very realistic, and the weather engine makes for some great incidental details, such as mud puddles left behind after some heavy rain has fallen. Vegetation sways nicely and bends realistically when it is trampled over. There are no signs of stretched textures, and there's very minimal clipping with on-screen objects. Unfortunately, the game shares some of the same weaknesses as Grand Theft Auto IV, namely with texture pop-in. It gets better after installing the game to the Xbox 360 HDD, but any fast traveling will cause the game to produce visible pop-in of better-looking textures. While the review was done after some of the patches had been released to the public, it should be noted that some offline players will get random people in the world with completely mismatched textures. While the glitch won't happen often, there's a greater tendency that it'll happen without the patch.
Rockstar has rarely disappointed in the sound department with any of its recent titles, and Red Dead Redemption keeps that streak alive. The soundtrack mixes between ambient sounds and actual musical score. The ambient effects are quite good at conveying the mix of civilization and wilderness that is the West. The galloping of horses and the sounds of other wildlife — antelope, bears, buzzards and rabbits — breathe life into your surroundings, as does the creaking of wooden wagons and stagecoaches. The conversations in town add to the ambiance and ensure that there are more important things in the world for the NPCs. When the score kicks in, it rides the line between classic spaghetti Western and modern Western sensibilities, providing the right mood whether it's a dramatic or action-filled sequence or if you're just galloping through the countryside on your steed. It becomes complementary rather than overpowering, mixing in well with the effects and voices. Speaking of voices, the acting is well done. Both the major and minor characters turn in good performances, and there's plenty of conversation during most non-story-related game moments, though some characters tend to repeat a few lines during combat. Overall, the sound is worth turning up the speakers.
Red Dead Redemption is by no means a perfect game, Western or otherwise. The middle segment of the plot feels tacked on, and you won't encounter many interesting characters. Many of the missions aren't very exciting, and there are a few glitches here and there concerning both the audible and visual aspects of the game. Even with all of that going against it, the game remains engaging, especially when you're not on a story-based mission. The world feels more alive than most modern open-world games. The protagonist is one of the more interesting heroes to come along in quite some time, and the beginning and end of the story more than make up for the lackluster middle. Multiplayer becomes a good, long experience best shared with friends, and the freedom found in single-player mode carries over to the online segment quite nicely. It might not be as polished or as familiar as the world of Liberty City, but Red Dead Redemption proves that the team at Rockstar Games is still master of the open-world genre. Fans would do well to pick up what can now be considered the best Western game out so far.
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