Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Released: 21st May 2010
Other Formats: PS3
The American Old West, home of the cowboy, ranchers, county sheriff's and the ubiquitous noble steed. The dusty plains of the Western desert of late 19th century-early 1900s have barely been touched within video games, even with the recent Gun and Call of Juarez series mantle that there's much fun to be had within the setting. Red Dead Redemption is Rockstar's attempt- the latest sandbox entry from the studio that brought us the 'Rage' Engine that powered GTA IV. The stunning technology here used to craft one of the most stunning settings yet seen in a videogame of any type. The dry desert plains unsurpassed as far as the eye can see, the mountain ranges, the exquisitely detailed towns, cacti and other flora all visually sumptuous and intricately used to bring the first true, open expanse of the wild west yet seen on consoles. Similarly, the country and western soundtrack lays a backing track over the high definition picture and is potently memorable when used, with added environmental sounds, from the crow of circling vultures seeking their prey, to the rhythmic thump of horse hooves enveloping the desert floor all adding that something extra to the experience. Populated by Rockstar's truly memorable and lovingly crafted characters- from corrupt government officials, brutal and dirty criminals, overenthusiastic Mexicans, dependable sheriffs and cannibalistic miscreants, Red Dead Redemption is another frank reminder of the way that videogames can be used for storytelling in as much of a capacity as film. Whilst the plot isn't particularly strong (our hero, the gruff and dishevelled John Marston, seeking to redeem his previous life of gang-hood), the wealth of intriguing character personalities is enough to carry it through and is remarkably strong as a result. Whilst I don't feel that Marston is strong in terms of depth of character or personality, making it difficult to empathise with him, he was nevertheless a joy to play. Not that the voice work is to blame however, which is again absolutely sublime and well acted.
The environment is meticulously detailed and visually intriguing. Staples from across the Western genre are used throughout. Towns, such as the main hub of Armadillo are built upon foundations of the saloon where residents drink aplenty, blacksmiths, general store (where items can be bought and sold), and doctors, as well as the train station in which the steam train chugs to from across the landscape in a billow of dense, black smoke. The main hubs of the world that govern the sprawling wilderness are also where your safe houses are likely located, bought for a sizeable sum of money, the use of which allows you to save the game or change one of the many different outfits that grant different abilities (one may make the law kinder to you, for instance). From the friendly province of MacFarlane's Ranch to the more cautious Mexicans over the river, citizens speak their pieces, and interact on a superficial manner whilst you walk idly through the maze of wooden buildings.
Comparisons have already, as expected, been drawn with GTA IV for obvious reasons. The analogy of “GTA on horses” is perhaps a little belittling however, even as the HUD, map and overbearing structure are all suitably identical to the aforementioned. The clunky and difficult combat system also makes a habit in returning, with Rockstar seemingly keen on its integration (much to the annoyance of many gamer's, no doubt). For the most part, it works on the barest of levels, although the pop in and out of cover is far from a natural fluid movement, resulting in waves of frustrating gun fights, of which there are many. Although the guns of the period feel nicely weighted and powerful, it's the addition of the 'dead-eye' mechanic which is really brilliant (of which there are 3 levels and allows time to be slowed down and targets painted for a quick kill). It's a great step forward and it'll be interesting to see whether this will progress into future games or whether it will stick to the gun-slingers of the West. The way in which weapons are interchanged is also a slight differentiation from Rockstar North's masterpiece- here, a press of 'LB' brings up a radial menu to choose your piece from (taking over from the D-pad quick buttons). It would be a fully successful system were it not for the way play doesn't stop while selecting weapon, meaning death if not quick enough in the selection process. Yes, believe it or not, Red Dead Redemption does have its faults. The insistence on the 'tap A' system to run, sprint, or to spur your otherwise responsive horse on, makes travelling to missions and roaming the countryside often laborious and somewhat of a chore of the highest annoyance and puts me on the fast track to 'Repetitive strain injury' (although it does give chance for some fantastic character dialogue exchange synonymous with Rockstar's back catalogue!)
Further changes, such as the use of an inventory, that holds items and maps is a nice addition and also provides a quick-save mechanic in the form of the camp-site which can be erected for Marston to get a quick rest and a 'save game' in whilst alone in the wilderness. The reassuring glow of the burning camp-fire in stark contrast to the starry night sky. Fast travel can also be used here to skip to points on the map. Red Dead Redemption also makes use of a morality system, governed by the 'Fame' and 'Honor' meters. Positive honor can be attained through positive action in the world, such as saving someone from a kidnapping or rescuing a stolen carriage (such encounters are procedurally generated and none more scripted than your own actions) whilst negative honor arises from negative actions. The 'Fame' meter is an overarching meter that quantifies how renowned to the townsfolk you are as a character. By completing main story missions, undertaking encountered events in the correct way or helping out strangers, ranging from procuring medicine for ailing women to finding a man's lost son, the more likely others are likely to know of Marston and act in accordance to his 'Honor' level- for instance, shopkeepers will likely offer discount if 'Honor' and 'Fame' are both high. The 'Wanted' system has been designed extremely well. Whilst the same GTA-like red circle of danger indicates the area of where those looking for you are placed, upon leaving the circle for a sustained amount of time, instead of everything returning to normal, a bounty is placed on your head for a value in dollars that is reflected in the severity of the crime committed. The bounty can be lifted before a bounty hunter comes to kill you by using a “letter of excuse” or paying the value of the bounty off. It's an intriguing system and works much better than the police wanted level from Liberty City, in laying down a more persistent, realistic law enforcement mechanic.
The procedurally generated events are only the start of what is likely to be experienced from start to finish in Redemption, however. And whilst the use of which acts as a huge leap forward in terms of our attitude towards sandbox gaming as a whole, the rest of the game is just as brilliant- full of rich, dense landscape, diverse characters, locations and attitudes and values whilst the variety in mission design and structure makes it a more fulfilling experience than I have yet seen within a game of this type. Games that are so large in ambition often grow monotonous far too quickly, GTA IV struggled itself with repetitive mission design after all. Here, set piece arrives after set piece meaning the plot gallops along at a fair old pace- a steam train has to be protected from a gun-toting gang on horseback, a hijacked train has to be caught before it careers over a cliff, a 'Troy'-like wooden horse attack on the Fort Mercer stronghold, “The Great Mexican Train Robbery”- never does it seem the team have run out of ideas which is no doubt a result of the fresh genre they have tapped into. The shift in location, from the orange and brown palette of America, to the whiter sands of Mexico and the more civilized world, also ensures the game play never feels stale or dull. Side missions- from card games, “Five finger fillet”, hunting the wildlife that teem the environment, picking plants or finding treasure can also be completed for extra cash and 'honor'. Tearing down 'Wanted' posters from the side of buildings will also allow you to become a bounty hunter, hunting criminals and delivering them to the county jail, alive or dead. The good old Western staple of the 'duel' in the center of town also makes several appearances. Making use of the dead-eye system, opponents can soon be felled to the ground as they challenge you, the “famous John Marston”.
It's a game that works on so many levels. As a Western it's one of the most successful of its type, delivering themes of love, the seek for redemption, honour, political struggle, gang conflict and criminality in its gritty setting. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, as a game, it can be heralded as one of the best of the year so far no question. Although it does have its fair share of technical niggles and slight poor design choices, it ultimately never fails to deliver and brings its A-game to the forefront every step of the way. A top game of the highest order.