Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
High times and cheap thrills on the last great American frontier
“Change is only good when it makes things better.” “Old friends make the worst enemies.” Spoken in the early goings of Red Dead Redemption, these two sentiments encapsulate the successes and shortcomings of the game itself far more than they do any of its narrative themes. For even as Rockstar’s ambitious Western adventure strikes out in some promising new directions, it is held back at times by a certain slavishness to the developer’s own open-world storytelling formula.
Set in 1911 in the American Southwest, Red Dead Redemption tells the story of John Marston, a reformed road agent forced by the federal government to track down and eliminate his former gang. John’s quest takes him to all corners of the game’s sprawling map, from a ranch in southern Texas to the forts of war-torn Mexico all the way to the snow-dusted pine trails of the Rocky Mountain foothills.
The stark, natural beauty of Red Dead Redemption’s visuals cannot be overstated. Each vista feels almost physically tangible, like an Albert Bierstadt painting brought to life. The sky is an infinite stretch of pastel hues, its radiant sunrises and friscalating dusklight often giving way to raging thunderstorms replete with lashing rain and terrible stabs of lightning.
And where there’s lightning, soon follows thunder; Red Dead Redemption’s spectacular audio design also deserves recognition. Each meticulously crafted soundscape is an intricate patchwork of pitch-perfect audio cues that seamlessly integrate with Bill Elm and Woody Jackson’s dynamic musical score. As John rides the range, guitar chords and whistled melodies float in and out like tiny bursts of color, humble homemade fireworks against a vast, open sky.
The game handles well, too. Players spend the better part of Red Dead Redemption on horseback and the equestrian controls require just enough finesse to be engaging without feeling frustrating. Gunplay is similarly enjoyable, if a bit on the easy side. Auto-aiming works like a charm and the ingenious “Dead-Eye” system allows players to slow down time in order to strategically place their shots. The only elements that could have used a bit more polish are John’s lunkish on-foot maneuverability and the game’s overly sticky cover system.
Red Dead Redemption’s story is ambitious in its reach but frustratingly mixed in its execution. The stage is set for an epic tale of one man’s final stand against the inevitable, but the meandering narrative never quite lives up to its initial promise. The story is also undermined by a string of clichéd and unlikeable supporting characters straight out of Rockstar central casting.
Fortunately lead writer Dan Houser’s dialogue pops well enough from moment to moment and most scenes are peppered with nice character fillips and clever nods to the genre. However, the story’s broader themes are quite muddled, particularly as the narrative approaches its dénouement. At one point in the final hours a villainous government agent gives a soliloquy about flower-picking and manslaughter that is so convoluted and nonsensical that even the characters he’s addressing appear flummoxed. Deadwood, this ain’t.
However, there are also times when Red Dead Redemption’s writing shows welcome signs of maturity. Marston himself is a likeable family man whose actions over the course of the story are refreshingly consistent with his character. And during the game’s surprisingly affecting final chapters its story, characters and themes finally weave themselves into something genuinely compelling. If only the first 90% of the game had been as focused.
In addition to about 20 hours’ worth of story missions, Red Dead Redemption offers a staggering variety of fun side-activities. There are dozens of animal species to hunt and unique sidequests to undertake, as well as sharpshooting challenges, pistol duels, buried treasures, bandit camps, card and dice games and an endless supply of randomly generated civilians in need of aid. After spending 21 hours completing the story, I’m only at 73% completion.
Red Dead Redemption also features a comprehensive and highly enjoyable online multiplayer suite. Players can posse up with their friends and freely roam the range, undertaking challenges in the world or getting into organized gunfights and capture-the-flag matches. Each in-game action earns players experience points, which can then be spent to unlock new outfits, mounts and weaponry. Although the upgrades are largely cosmetic, leveling up in multiplayer is an enjoyably compulsive process.
Despite Red Dead Redemption’s occasionally over-familiar design it is all but impossible not to be drawn into its beautiful, evocative world. The game’s initially promising narrative setup winds up feeling a bit squandered but its satisfying and varied gameplay, deep multiplayer and incredibly immersive setting make it easy to recommend nonetheless. Saddle up, amigos; tonight we ride.