It’s hard to think of a game in the last 10 years that experienced more of a penthouse-to-outhouse effect in the court of public opinion than GTA IV. It released to rave reviews from gaming sites of all shapes and sizes, and absolutely crushed the single-day and first-week sales records of its day.
However, after the honeymoon, vocal dissenters surfaced in droves. Some decried the more serious tone the story attempted to take at a time when the Saint’s Row series was rising to take over the tradition of over-the-top absurdist violence that had previously defined the GTA franchise. Others were frustrated at the driving, or having to go out on dates and bro-dates, or with any number of ancillary activities in the game. In less than a year from release, gamers were suddenly all too happy to tell Niko Bellic not to let the door hit his Balkan ass on the way out.
Leading up to the release of Rockstar’s latest opus, Red Dead Redemption, the guarded cynicism in most gaming communities was palpable. While at first it might worry some to hear that many of the things the developer tried to accomplish with GTA IV are also part of RDR, there’s no cause for alarm. Most of the elements that just seemed out of place in Liberty City are, in the context of New Austin, right at home on the range.
Red Dead Redemption tells the story of John Marston, a reformed outlaw looking to move on with the rest of his life. When the government kidnaps his wife and child, he is forced to come to terms with his former life; the only way to secure his family’s freedom is to bring his former partners in crime to justice.
Marston’s journeys lead him from frontier homesteading lands, to a Mexico in the throes of revolution, to a bustling town representing the advent of modern civilization in the Wild West. In a similar vein to all the cities in the GTA series, the environment is extremely vibrant and the spirit of the times is so omnipresent that New Austin essentially becomes its own character.
Technically, RDR is built on the same engine as GTA IV, but it’s obvious that Rockstar has learned to squeeze a higher level of performance out of it since the last outing. The game had me setting down the controller on many occasions simply to take in the scenery. The rolling landscapes and wide open vistas are meticulously detailed and sublime.
Draw distance is impressive, as is the lack of texture pop-in. There is no loading time when entering any of the buildings in the game, and the framerate ran smoothly throughout the entire game, even in the most heated battles on horseback. It really seems that removing the need to render so many buildings and objects freed up a huge amount of resources that were put to great use in enhancing the world.
I was impressed with the lighting and environmental effects for day/night cycles, and specifically for weather. The first time I got caught out in a thunderstorm in RDR was an exciting moment. The impressive visual effects combined with excellent sound design gave me a real sense of urgency to complete the task at hand, which enhanced my enjoyment of the gameplay immensely.
This is not to say that Red Dead was immune from the technical glitches that are the unfortunate side effects of all such expansive open world games; it has them in spades. However, at least in the single player, they tend not to interrupt the gameplay and are extremely entertaining at times.
In one cutscene, an NPC’s horse began clipping through a horse I had hitched, and I got a great deal of amusement at seeing this bandit make threats from the back of a two headed stallion. There are already a great many hilarious videos available showing all kinds of happy accidents from the game.
While combat isn’t substantively different than GTA IV, in RDR it just feels better. In a much more realistic fashion, enemies die after 1 or 2 shots in most cases. When you land a shot, you really get to see the effects of the impact on different parts of the body; the physics engine, visual effects, and stellar sound effects all contribute to an extremely satisfying experience when skinning your smokewagon.
Cover mechanics return with a few tweaks, as does the nifty auto lock on feature. The Deadeye mechanic allows you to enter a bullet-timey mode which improves throughout the game to give an extra bit of precision or to bail you out when you make an ill-advised charge into a group of enemies you weren’t prepared for. Only a few missions force you to use this function, but overall it was a handy feature to have, especially for horseback combat.
Speaking of horses, the realistic physics for driving that many gamers complained about in GTA IV create just the right experience for riding off into the sunset. A horse doesn’t feel right if it responds in an arcade-like fashion like a car might in some games, so the occasional frustrations of steering are more easily forgiven; a horse isn’t always going to do exactly what we want it to.
There is a initial learning curve for riding, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find yourself really enjoying the simple act of traversing the environment. An auto-follow function when riding with NPCs, allowing to match their speed by holding a button, was an extremely welcome addition to the game’s functionality.
Although the game’s visuals and the fun of riding will keep you galloping across the landscape, there are times when you just want to get to the next mission. RDR includes the ability to make camp outside of towns, which will allow you to change outfits, save your game, or fast travel to locations you have previously visited. Setting a mission icon as your waypoint will allow you to insta-gallop right up to the starting point for the next part of the story.
The story itself is one of the strongest narratives I’ve encountered in recent gaming. The heavier storytelling tone that Rockstar attempted to adopt in GTA IV simply didn’t play the way they intended it to; I personally feel that it was less successful because they were fighting the tradition of silliness and caricature that represented the lion’s share of the GTA franchise’s narrative DNA.
The upshot is that what didn’t work for Niko, works extremely well for John Marston. The protagonist is believable and likable, as are many of the other characters in the world. They have genuine problems and conflicted emotions, and they’re hardened without being melodramatic or overplayed.
Some of the characters and plot points in the middle part of the story are noticeably weaker than in the beginning and end. The old Rockstar proclivity for comic ethnic stereotypes rears its head, and it just seems out of place next to the excellently crafted segments that bookend it. Most of the characters in Mexico seemed painted with a broad, unsympathetic brush.
RDR falls understandably short of carrying the same dramatic weight of the old spaghetti westerns it draws inspiration from, but it still represents a strong step forward for storytelling in videogames. Thankfully, there’s so much good going on with the narrative that the few anachronisms left over from previous Rockstar games don’t overly impede the enjoyment. It’s more than strong enough to overcome the occasionally uninspired mission design that has marred Rockstar games in the past.
Dialogue and writing are top rate, as is the voice acting. With one of my pet peeves being the lack of attention to the ends of games in most modern titles, I was blown away with the resolution of the story in this one. Sparing you a foray into spoiler territory, I’ll just say in regards to the last segment (8-10 missions) of the game: I haven’t been as emotionally impacted by a game at that level since confronting Andrew Ryan in Bioshock.
Multiplayer provides another way to explore the world of Red Dead Redemption, with mixed results. Competitive matches are available, offering the standard deathmatch style modes, as well as capture-the-flag variants, and a mode that tasks each player with grabbing bags of gold and depositing them before your enemies.
Some nice additions, such as a Mexican standoff start to some matches, and a posse system for keeping your friends together are welcome. However, the strength of Rockstar’s open world games isn’t the combat, and when it becomes the sole focus its weaknesses become more apparent. Combine this with a multitude of glitches that do negatively impact gameplay and your enjoyment of the competitive matches may be compromised. Much more entertaining and successful is the free roam mode, which allows you and your posse to ride the land as you see fit.
There aren’t as many things to do in free roam as in the single player offering, but there are gang hideouts to raid which are scattered throughout the environment. Posses and individual players can also attack one another ad hoc without entering into a match. Experience can be earned in free roam mode and in competitve matches, and players are able to unlock appearance options as well as weapons and mounts. I’ll be honest, the ability to unlock a buffalo as a mount alone is enticing me to go back and level up. Tatanka.
The biggest opportunity that Rockstar left on the table with the free roam mode, and my one true disappointment with the game, is that you can’t play poker with your friends. Rockstar, give me the ability to go raid a gang hideout with my friends, then go to a cantina and get drunk and play cards with my buddies in DLC and I’ll be playing your game for years to come.
All of my quibbles with this game don’t really amount to a hill of beans when weighed against the positives at play here. Red Dead Redemption is by far the strongest open world offering to come from Rockstar to date.
It offers a superlative presentation, a surprisingly compelling story, varied and emergent gameplay, and (between single and multi-player) an impressive amount of value for the purchase price. There’s still plenty of bad and ugly to go along with the good, but all the glitches and tiny flaws do absolutely nothing to dampen the fun. The western game is back in the saddle and better than ever. Highly recommended.
Rockstar pushes the RAGE engine to new heights in crafting the most beautiful open-world environment in its scale. A mature and compelling narrative, along with excellent dialogue and voice acting make the game come alive.
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From story missions, to side quests, to challenges, to games like poker and horseshoes, there's a wealth of activities to take part in that are satisfying and fun.
Gunfire, hoofbeats, wildlife, and ambient sound are all executed perfectly, and a fabulous soundtrack is just icing on the cake.
With a roughly 20 hr. single-player campaign, and both free roam and competitive multiplayer offerings, this game has more than enough content to keep you returning for yet another High Noon.
With some glaring glitches and some so-so mission design, I can't in good conscience give the game a 10; but make no mistake, this game is the cat's pajamas. Get it.