Red Dead Redemption
With high noon duels, lawless frontiers, and gruff leading men, the Western genre seemingly has all the essential pieces to make a smooth transition into video games. But as past six-shooters like Dead Man’s Hand, Call of Juarez, Gun, and Red Dead Revolver found out, dressing your scruffy hero in a duster and giving him a revolver isn’t enough to captivate audiences accustomed to firing rocket-propelled grenades and light machine guns. For Rockstar’s first full-fledged effort in the genre (the company purchased Red Dead Revolver from Capcom), it decided to do what it does best – explore the topic at hand with an immersive open world.
Red Dead Redemption is set during the birth of the 20th century, where the expansion-minded federal government is moving swiftly to domesticate the untamed frontier. With railroads and telegram lines connecting previously isolated communities, the new cowboys are exploitative businessmen and aggressive legislators aiming to expand their power bases. To keep this development moving along unabated, the feds have created the Agency, a new branch of law enforcement determined to rid the outer territories of the violent gangs running rampant.
John Marston used to be one of those outlaws; he’s got the scars and practiced trigger finger to prove it. But after his gang left him for dead during a robbery gone awry, Marston embraced the quiet life, settling on a ranch, taking a wife, and having his first child. Like his spiritual predecessor, Grand Theft Auto IV protagonist Niko Bellic, Marston eventually discovers that running from his past doesn’t mean he can escape it. Using evidence of his past transgressions against him, the Agency makes a persuasive proposition: Hunt down the last living members his former gang, or kiss family life goodbye. Marston begrudgingly grabs his six-shooter and heads out in search of his long-lost brothers in arms.
While Red Dead Redemption’s setup reads like a Clint Eastwood script, the gameplay construct is pulled straight from Grand Theft Auto. In order to track down and confront his wayward outlaw friends, Marston has to consort with an unsavory cast of snake oil salesmen, drunks, grave robbers, washed up gunslingers, dissidents, and corrupt politicians. Assistance doesn’t come easy, as Marston must complete fetch quests and rack up kill counts to earn their trust before they divulge any useful information. Those who tired of the errand boy mission structure of Grand Theft Auto IV won’t find any solace in Red Dead – to get what he needs, Marston helps peddle cure-all tonics, aids in finding a lost treasure, puts in time herding cattle on the ranch, and rescues kidnapped citizens. The game is at its best when it embraces gunpowder-centric missions that only a Western era game can deliver; my favorites include assaulting a gang stronghold with a posse of regulators, protecting a supply train on horseback, and fighting up a treacherous mountainside to locate an enemy camp.
Given the limitations of the era’s weaponry, Red Dead’s gunplay is surprisingly exciting. Each weapon – from six-shooters and repeaters to sniper rifles and Gatling guns – has a distinct feel, and the hit detection system couples with Natural Motion’s Euphoria animation technology to create visceral shootouts. Shotgun blasts blow enemies violently backward, sniper shots to the shoulder spin bandits around, and if you nail a fleeing enemy in the leg, he’ll feebly crawl toward the nearest cover. When large groups of bandits descend on your position, you can activate the slow-motion Dead Eye ability to paint a large swath of enemies and watch in awe as Marston effortlessly puts them all in an early grave. Less practiced gunslingers can stick with the friendly snap-to auto-aim mechanic borrowed from GTA IV, but if you want to up the challenge, I suggest turning it off.
The story moves along at a fast clip when you’re hot on the heels of your former gang, but the second section of the game finds Marston deeply involved in the birth stages of the Mexican civil war. To meet his obligations to the Agency, he must first get cozy with both the corrupt ruler of the border region and the upstart rebel hell-bent on taking power for himself. This tangential plot drags on far too long without engaging the task at hand, and the game’s momentum suffers for it.
But with such an expansive land to explore, Red Dead Redemption is even more alluring when you’re roaming between missions. Given the large territory, the game has a more measured pace than GTA, which gives you time to admire the gorgeous vistas on display all around you. With desolate Mexican drylands, dust-swept plains, and the towering northern mountain ranges, Rockstar perfectly captures the untamed majesty of the North American landscape. If you get tired of galloping between far-reaching destinations, simply set up camp and use the fast travel feature to get back on task.
Though the world of Red Dead Redemption is immense, it’s far from barren. Myriad systems of engagement breathe life into the world of Red Dead, compensating for the narrative lulls. The countryside is populated by packs of animals, traveling citizens, and bandit strongholds. Once you embrace the rural rhythm of the Wild West, the game opens itself up much like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. While traveling on horseback to a mission, I often found myself side-tracked in pursuit of the many sub-quests. You can sharpen your survival skills by collecting flora, hunting dangerous animals like grizzly bears and cougars, scavenging for treasure, or perfecting your sharp-shooting skills by targeting the buzzards circling overhead. Each of these tasks has its own progression system, and your fame will increase along with your ranks. Colorful strangers also riddle the landscape, and these side missions offer a fresh change of pace from dealing with the miscreants Marston must aid in the narrative.
The shantytowns and bustling cities littering the land offer an equally deep level of engagement. While in town you can shop for provisions, watch a hilariously offensive silent film warning of the dangers of women’s suffrage, take a night watch shift to protect the sleeping village from burglars, play a game of horseshoes, or head to the saloon to play a game of chance like five finger fillet, blackjack, liar’s dice, or Texas hold ’em. Try to cheat at poker and you may find yourself facing your accuser outside the cantina. Though the saloons have plenty of ladies of ill repute vying for your attention, don’t expect any GTA-style sexual congress – John Marston is a faithfully married man.
Like Fable, how you conduct yourself affects how townspeople, lawmen, and bandits react to you. Help a stranded man retrieve his stolen horse, and your honor will increase. As your honorable reputation grows, people start to give you the benefit of the doubt and let small acts of disobedience slide. But if you spend your free time robbing banks or killing innocent passersby, citizens may start forming posses to hunt you down.
Once Marston finishes his tour of duty in Mexico and returns north of the border, he heads to Blackwater, the region’s capital city, to work with the Agency directly to find the leader of his former gang. With cobblestone streets, a cinema, and automobiles, evidence of technology’s reach is everywhere, and you get a sense that everything you just experienced in the open plains is about to disappear. Red Dead then culminates with a memorable, unexpected finale that strays from traditional storytelling techniques and instead relies on the sense of immersiveness only a video game can impart.
Red Dead allows you to round up a posse of friends to roam the game world, which also serves as the multiplayer lobby. In this free roam mode, your posse can terrorize towns or try to collect the bounty on another gang of reckless outlaws. At any time, you can jump into competitive multiplayer matches as well. These modes are Western-themed versions of individual and team-based deathmatch and capture the flag modes, plus another mode that tasks you with collecting more gold than your opponents. No matter the format, each match starts with a Mexican standoff, with the last man standing gaining a head start on the rest of the competition. Dead Eye carries over to multiplayer, but works in real time. While this may not be as powerful a tool as it is in single-player, it preserves the gameplay balance and comes in handy when you find yourself behind a group of enemies. With 50 levels and unlockable character skins, mounts, and titles, the multiplayer is a fully featured complement to the excellent single-player experience.
To succeed where other Western games have failed, Red Dead Redemption deftly recreates a sandbox playground of a tumultuous historical period swept away by technological progress. The game perfectly captures the expansiveness of frontier life and the gritty gunplay of spaghetti westerns, rightfully earning its place alongside the great Western films and the best Rockstar games.
Rockstar's latest open world masterpiece, Red Dead Redemption, raises the bar for Western games.