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Red Dead Redemption

Hands-On With Rockstar’s Gritty Western
by Matt Bertz on Jan 28, 2010 at 10:03 AM
Platform PlayStation 4, Switch, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Publisher Rockstar Games
Developer Rockstar San Diego
Rating Mature

As a huge fan of Westerns and Grand Theft Auto, it’s an understatement to say that Red Dead Redemption is in my wheelhouse. Each time Rockstar swings by the office to give us a glimpse my enthusiasm increases, so it was with great anticipation that I took hold of the revolver for our first hands-on session.

For those of you late to the party, Red Dead Redemption is Rockstar’s first fully realized foray into the Wild West. While the company best known for Grand Theft Auto picked up the publishing rights from Capcom for Red Dead Revolver and fine-tuned it for release, Redemption has been built from the ground up with an open-world experience in mind.

The story follows John Marston, an outlaw who has a change of heart when he gets severely injured during a heist and his fellow outlaws leave him for dead. After living three years on the straight and narrow, a shady government law enforcement group that plays by its own rules gives Marston an ultimatum – hunt down his old posse or sacrifice his wife and son instead.

Wild, Riled West
Red Dead’s Open Expanses Are Anything But Empty

Riding the vast prairies in between townships sounds boring, but you’ll rarely be left alone on the plains. Marston comes across ambient activities that offer the chance to earn extra money, find treasures, collect animal skins, or shoot some men behaving badly at nearly every bend in the dusty road. In our short time riding through the wilderness, we helped a farmer save his kidnapped daughter from a gang of rapey bandits, hunted a pack of wolves for their pelts, engaged in a sharpshooting challenge by shooting vultures, and helped recover a man’s stolen stagecoach. The towns also offer a host of random activities. Locals will bet you money on a friendly competition of five-finger fillet or Texas Hold ‘Em, and you may have to stop a druken saloon patron from roughing up a lady of the night. The NPCs also react naturally to the random chaos you can cause in the world. After we roughed up a man who looked at us funny in the Armadillo saloon, he returned later with a gun and opened fire on us right in the bar.

Before the Rockstar team lets us dive into the game, they show off a new scenario that finds Marston working in tandem with the Mexican army. In previous missions we’ve seen him enlist the help of the rebels, so it’s clear Marston isn’t above playing opposing sides against each other to further his cause. In this case, the goal is to infiltrate the rebel stronghold atop a nearby red rock cliff.

As the small band of Mexican soldiers takes cover behind a few wooden crates, rebel snipers stationed on the ridge above open fire. As Marston picks off enemies with his rifle one by one, we watch them tumble to their deaths off the side of the cliff. Once the snipers are neutralized, Marston and a squad of about a dozen soldiers shoot their way up the side of the cliff. Marston uses all of the weapons at his disposal, emptying his six-shooter into enemies with the slow-motion Dead Eye painting mechanic, throwing Molotov cocktails (which Rockstar dubs Fire Bottles) at large groups of rebels, and pulling off brutal gut shot executions when the fighting gets up close and personal.

As the sun sets, a smoky haze falls over the battlefield and I take a moment to appreciate the amazing vista where this fight is taking place. The impressive desert setting looks like it’s ripped straight out of an Albert Bierstadt painting. Gorgeous landscapes like this aren’t uncommon in Red Dead – every location I’ve seen thus far is equally awe-inspiring.

Shifting back to the fight, the Mexican army finally overruns the encampment. Marston reconvenes with the head of the operation, and in the background we witness the army executing the remaining rebels by shooting them off the cliff. No Geneva Convention? No problem.

For our first hands-on action, Rockstar jumps us to a different point in the game. Marston and his horse trot into the quaint, dusty desert town of Armadillo in search of Bill Williamson, a former partner in crime who is rumored to shack up in the area. To locate him, we must enlist the help of the town marshal. Before he’ll agree to help, however, Marston must accompany him in hunting down a local group of bandits terrorizing the town.

After spotting one of the bandits stumbling out of the saloon and mounting up, I whistle for my horse. As the horse trots up, I hit the Y button to get in the saddle and start following the petty criminal to the group’s hideout. Controlling the horse takes getting used to, but it handles well once you learn the nuances. By double-tapping the A button, Marston digs in his spurs and the horse picks up speed. A quick tap of the right shoulder button pulls back the reins, signaling the horse to slow or stop. Press the left shoulder button and Marston pulls his firearm for use on horseback. As I gallop toward the hideout with the marshal, the bandits spot me and open fire.

Anyone familiar with Grand Theft Auto controls will feel right at home in Red Dead Redemption. Jumping off the horse and into combat, I pull up the weapon wheel with the left shoulder button to select the rifle, then dive into cover by pushing the right shoulder button. Sensing a lull in the enemy fire, I pop from cover to take aim with the left trigger, line up a headshot, and fire.

The gunplay is nothing if not visceral – the weapons pack a serious punch, and the Natural Motion animation further cements the feeling that you wouldn’t want to be on the other end of these gun barrels. My next attempted headshot misses its intended target, but the bullet drives into the bandit’s shoulder, the force of the shot sending him twisting emphatically just like in the old spaghetti western flicks. I spot another bandit scurrying away out of the corner of my eye, train the sights on him, and pop him in the leg. The impact sends him face first into the ground, and he frantically crawls toward cover with his gimp leg dragging behind. Before he finds refuge, I send him to an early dirt grave with a shot to the back of the head.

With most of the enemies neutralized, I switch to the shotgun and charge the house. The few remaining enemies pour out the door of the nearby house, but I push them right back in with the explosive blasts from my gun barrels. The enemy hideout is cleared, and the marshal thanks Marston for his help.

After taking down the gang, Rockstar fast-forwards to another mission. This time Marston crosses paths with a drunken Irishmen who owes him a Gatling gun. Our renegade cowboy has heard this shtick one too many times and he’s run out of patience. Rather than wait for the vagrant to sober up and deliver the weapon, he demands that the drunk saddle up and take us to it immediately. The alternative, Marston promises, isn’t pretty, and that vague threat is enough to help the bumbling idiot sober up. As we ride out, our guide rattles of a list of excuses as to why he hasn’t followed through on his promise yet, and warns us it won’t be easy to recover the gun.

The Gatling gun is located in a heavily guarded mine, and as the pair approaches the site, two mounted guards trot out to meet them. At the sign of first gunfire, our cowardly guide rides off, promising to return with a wagon to transport the gun. It’s up to me to take down the encroaching party. Using the slow-motion Dead Eye ability, I down one rider with a pistol and then procure our lasso for a more creative takedown on the second guy. As he rides toward me guns blazing, I toss the lasso, yank him to the ground, and move in to gut him with a knife.

Moving past the downed guards and around the bend, bullets start whizzing by Marston’s head; the miners have taken arms. The Gatling won’t trade hands without a lot of bloodshed, and I’m more than happy to oblige. Moving into the mine, the environment offers several ways to dispatch enemies. TNT barrels can be used to take out groups with earth-shattering explosions, and a well-placed shot can send a hanging gas lamp onto a nearby enemy, setting him ablaze for a fiery death. Once I clear the mine of enemies and locate the gun, I load it onto a rail cart and push it out the mine. Once Marston makes it to daylight, the Irishman pulls up with the wagon and we make our getaway.

My experience with Red Dead Redemption has me chomping at the bit to spend more time in the gritty Western setting. Rockstar says the game is content complete, and the next few weeks will be spent fine-tuning the gameplay. In the meantime, check back for new details about the multiplayer as we lead up to the April 27 release.

Products In This Article

Red Dead Redemptioncover

Red Dead Redemption

PlayStation 4, Switch, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Release Date:
May 18, 2010 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360), 
August 17, 2023 (PlayStation 4, Switch)