Red Dead Redemption is an open-world third-person shooter from Rockstar Games, released for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Vitals.


Title: Red Dead Redemption.
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego, Rockstar North
Genre: Third-person shooter, GTA-style open-world sandbox, western.
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Release date: 2010/05/18

Overview.

Red Dead Redemption is a loose sequel to an earlier Rockstar title, Red Dead Revolver. The game is built on the RAGE engine which is more well-known as the backend for Grand Theft Auto 4. The theme of the game is a late-era Spaghetti Western, set in the early 20th century in a fictionalized version of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. The player assumes the role of John Marston, a former outlaw who is being coerced by government officials into hunting down members of his old gang. These officials have taken Marston's family hostage. Marston's abilities are similar to those of GTA4 protagonists. He's able to run, jump, climb, and fight with hand-to-hand weapons or firearms. Automobiles exist in the game but are exceedingly rare; most travel in the game is on foot, horseback, wagon, coach, or railroad. Marston cannot swim.

The gameplay is extremely open. If the player wishes, Marston is free to simply wander his surroundings. He can explore, hunt, search for buried treasure, harvest wild flowers and herbs, assist strangers, drink, gamble, rob stagecoaches, etc. The game encourages and awards much of this open activity through various challenges that Marston can complete on his travels. Missions often follow the standard GTA-style format, having Marston ride to a destination, fight a group of enemies, and return to town. This isn't always the case, though. Some of Marston's missions involve much more traditional "cowboy" activities. He must catch and break horses, drive cattle, protect farmland from wild animals, engage in classic "ten paces, turn and fire" style gun duels, and so on. Many of these activities feature a "weapon" that isn't included in any GTA title, the lasso. Marston can use it to catch and lead horses, or to chase down and immobilize fleeing men and women. In the latter case, he can either hogtie his victim or simply drag the person by their ankles at the end of his rope. Marston can throw a hogtied person over the back of his horse for transport. In "dead or alive" bounty hunting missions, this is how he returns the captured fugitives to justice. Another ability new to Marston versus other GTA-style protagonists is bullet time mechanics that he can activate both in duels and in regular combat, briefly slowing down the action to more carefully pick and plan his shots.

There is extensive open land for Marston to explore and travel through, and the game has a fully realized day/night system with varying weather. Hazards outside of settled areas include bandit gangs, wild animals, and ambushes by people pretending to be travelers in distress. Marston also frequently encounters legitimate travelers in distress, having the opportunity to chase down and return stolen horses and runaway wagons, to rescue stage-coaches from attacking robbers (or aid the robbers!) and to save people who are fleeing from wild animals.

The game tracks two separate statistics about Marston's exploits throughout the game: fame and reputation. Fame simply dictates how many people have heard of Marston. As the number increases you will hear passersby recognize you, or even spend time at campfires where other men while away the evening telling tall tales about your exploits. Reputation dictates whether society loves Marston as a heroic gunslinger or fears him as a murderous road agent. Marston can obtain different outfits as he progressed through the game, and use these outfits to disguise or enhance these aspects of his reputation.

Towns in the game are mostly small and widely dispersed. Towns are the center of the in-game economy, where Marston can sell things he obtained on the hunt, purchase weapons, ammunition, horses, clothing, and other supplies.Law enforcement exists, but in very limited numbers. Near towns, violations of the law can land Marston in jail or have him chased by aggressive posses. This bounty grows over time, similarly to an Elder Scrolls title such as Morrowind or Oblivion. There's also a mechanic similar to the wanted level in GTA but unlike GTA, law enforcement doesn't spawn endlessly. Marston can easily overcome all opposition from the law except in the most civilized areas of the world.

The game features rich multiplayer capabilities, with both cooperative and competitive play possible. Cooperative play in particular has benefited from additional downloadable content since the game's initial release, with the addition of many new game types and other features. There has also been some single-player DLC, most notably a standalone campaign called Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare.

Impressions.

Rockstar titles are enormous, and empower the player in a variety of ways that less open games do not, but this often leads to a common criticism: they implement so many things at once that very few of them are done exceptionally well.

If this were a third person shooter and nothing else, it wouldn't be a great game. The cover system is too limited, the gunplay is a little clunky, the level design is quite sparse, the enemy AI isn't particularly creative. If it were just a cowboy/ranching game, it wouldn't be a great game. Horseback riding isn't as nice as the version we saw in Shadow of the Colossus but it's at least a little better than the various Assassin's Creed iterations. Farming is almost nonexistent, herding only happens during a handful of missions and doesn't offer enough incentives for success, there isn't enough differentiation between the various horses you can catch and break, plus no realistic stabling and training. The title has similar problems as a hunting game, as a racing game, etc.

The brilliance of the game isn't in the implementation of particular details, but rather in being able to do so many different things, and in having all of it count toward John Marston's history and identity in the region. With this game, Rockstar is second to none at this game at making a world the player can actually occupy.

In a post in a video games related thread on an Internet forum I frequent, I wrote this shortly after the game's release:

This game has me worried I may suffer from antisocial tendencies. Within the first 24 hours after purchase of the game I had:
  • Kicked a dog for barking at me.
  • Attempted to shoot the horse out from underneath the woman I was racing.
  • Knifed to death the first man to bust me in poker.
  • Shot a cow in the head with the sawed-off shotgun.
  • Intentionally let coyotes kill an unarmed man who was screaming for my help.
  • Used the lasso to drag a woman out of a saloon by the neck.
  • Hog-tied her and thrown her on the back of my horse.
  • Fled town with three lawmen chasing me, slow enough that they could keep up.
  • Shot to death two of the chasers outside the town limits.
  • Roped the third lawman with my lasso, on horseback, and dragged him for something like half a mile, which essentially ended the "wanted level."
  • Escaped pursuit and made my way to train tracks through the deep desert.
  • Left the hog-tied woman lying across the railroad tracks.
  • Set the controller down to mix a drink while I waited for the train to come.
  • Laughed hysterically when I couldn't find her body after it had gone.
  • Reloaded from an earlier save to reset my bounty to zero and continue playing the game for high honor.

Reading back over this a little over a year later, I'm struck by how concise a narrative it became. The John Marston I decided to play on that first evening was sadistic and ill-tempered, and the game gave me so many different ways to play out that idea that it really doesn't matter that I went completely off-story. It still reads like something you might expect to see out of a villain in a western.

I found the writing in the main storyline to be high-quality. The story is compelling and isn't afraid to challenge the audience a little bit. John Marston genuinely struggles with the moral consequences of his prior life as an outlaw, and whether he finally repents or not is strongly left for the player to decide through his gameplay. The story doesn't aim for resolution so much as for pathos, and I think it easily achieves that.

I also felt like the game offered absolute freedom to the player in a way that not even the GTA titles have been able to live up to. John Marston can live as an honorable man, or as a vicious thief and killer, and the game finds ways to reward both paths. I even unlocked an achievement (Dastardly) during my violent experiments with women and train tracks on the first night. This freedom is why the cooperative multiplayer experiences were so well-received by fans: you can play the heroes, you can play the villains, and you can do it together in a way that affords opportunities for a surprisingly cinematic creativity.

The game is very stable. There were very few game-breaking bugs, unfinished quests, NPC scripting problems, or anything similar. What few glitches do exist are mostly graphical in nature--you might occasionally find a horse clipped halfway into the ground or a wagon floating in midair, but it's very rare that these problems manifest in ways that would prevent you from enjoying the game.

Conclusions.

I think this is one of the very best games of its generation. It offered a breakthrough multi-player experience, an engrossing single-player story, and commercially successful DLC. It successfully demonstrated that the open-world anything-goes approach of GTA games can be adapted to other genres, and it did a great job of making an immersing interactive experience out of the exploitation film aesthetics it drew from. There's just so much room to take the ideas that this game introduced and expand on them. In fact, I think that Red Dead Redemption is a good place to start if you're trying to imagine what a cowboy/western themed MMO needs to feel like.

Red Dead Redemption honors the cinematic deconstruction of the classic western. Its protagonist is pure anti-hero, and the game itself spends a good deal of time wondering aloud what place the cowboy has as the Old West finds itself giving way to railroads, telegraphs, cars, and old-world government corruption. It's fertile ground for storytelling, and Red Dead Redemption used its loose and exploratory structure to tell a lot of interesting stories around the subject.

The game did so well critically and commercially that it's hard to imagine it won't see a sequel, but (as with Bully) it's a little hard to imagine what a sequel would actually look like. It sort of feels like they said it all. I think that's probably a very good thing.

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