Red Dead Redemption
PlayStation 3 | Xbox 360
Red Dead Redemption Review
Review By Steve Farrelly @ 05:12pm 18/05/10
I've been dreaming about horses. It's not something I've ever been known to do, but ever since Red Dead Redemption, I can't get them out of my head. In saying that though, they haven't always been dreams. Unfortunately I've been plagued by nightmares ever since the first horse I broke in the game - the steed I came to know and love - broke its neck falling from a cliff. You just can't get that kind of camaraderie buying a three-star stallion from the General Store.
I've been jumping at my own shadow lately. Again, this isn't something I've ever been known to do, and again, it's all Red Dead Redemption's influence. But you can't really blame me, there's nothing quite as jarring to your senses as feeling somewhat confident you're successfully getting the stealth drop on an unsuspecting gang-member, bounty or animal, only to be knocked from your perch by a powerful mountain lion who either puts you to the ground leaving you scrambling to get to your feet and jump into Dead Eye mode to take him out, or plain doesn't let up, smashing you about with his giant paws like some kitten batting a ball of wool, until you're dead.
I've found myself glaring off into the distance lately, even with no sun. Red Dead Redemption's unbelievably realistic day/night and weather system has left me longing for red dawn in the real-world, and so many sheer cliff faces to sit atop my horse on to watch as the sun rises, or sets, depending on my mood. I've also found myself coughing at the imaginary dust I'd be kicking up during a scuffle with a low-life in town attacking a woman, or just the dust trail my horse and I would be leaving behind us as we sped along the Mexican desert in pursuit of the bad-guys, or good guys, depending on which side of the revolutionary fence you're sitting.
I'm beginning to think I might need some help.
If you're a regular AusGamers reader, chances are you're aware of our excitement for this game, and may have even checked out our extensive extended hands-on preview we posted not so long ago, but since then we've been dabbling with the actual review build of the game, and even in the short time between preview and review codes, the game has come along in leaps and bounds.
But before we get too far into the mechanics of the game, let's actually have a quick look at the reasons you're stepping into the spurred boots of one John Marston (don't worry this is actually spoiler-free).
Having rode with a gang some years before, Marston's life was left in turmoil when during a bank robbery he was shot and left for dead by his so-called 'brothers'. He left the gang the day they left him, and instead of taking it personally, he instead tried to put his life behind him by starting a family and retiring his gun in favour of a simple farm life. Unfortunately his past has caught up with him, and he's been rather persuasively asked to help bring an old friend, Bill Williamson, to justice. Thus, reluctantly, Marston has been pulled from his attempt at a normal life and sent to the state of New Austin to find Bill and bring him in.
Most of this is revealed early in the game, but it's an important foundation for the events and gameplay ahead. Marston immediately comes across as the sort of Western hero we've come to know and love from film and literature. He's an amalgam of a number of heroes and anti-heroes throughout history, and his past and present give recourse for players to utilise him in the way they want. You can essentially embrace his violent history, shaping the world around you to fear your very presence, or you can help him cleanse said past with good deeds and a stronger sense of morality. Or, like me, you can maintain a fine balance between the two, truly embodying the anti-hero figure of the West.
As this is a Rockstar game, taking many of its cues from the GTA foundation, a lot of how Red Dead Redemption is both presented and played will be familiar. The same narrative structure is in place; players jumping between minor and major events replete with cut-scenes, voice-acting and driving story moments and arcs, along with options (often forced upon the player) to abandon story-chasing in favour of exploring all the game-world has to offer.
Missions can last anywhere between five minutes and a full 30, depending on their scale, and the further into the game you get, the more complex and time-consuming they become. The missions themselves are quite varied, ranging between roving the land as a farm-hand, saving herds of cattle from a Lemmings-esque end, to winning at a game of liar's dice - taking all of someone's belongings in the process, furthering the questionable machinations of some undesirable you've had the misfortune of meeting.
But in saying all of that, and clinically I might add, it's not nearly as cut and dry. You might very well recognise the above while playing Red Dead Redemption, but the game's organic structure of driving gameplay, and its delivery of narrative both in the backbone story and that of the overall game-world are so subtle, you're bound to be lost in its apparent boundlessness.
It's an important factor, and something I feel is more in-line with the likes of Fallout 3 than anything in the GTA system. Given the foundation for the game's setting, you could be forgiven for thinking it might be a little boring, but believe me, you're going to stop more than once in your travels to your next story or narrative destination - the game-world simply demands it.
This is not to be taken as a bad thing though. If anything, a game-world this rich in life and emergent gameplay as a result needs to become a sandbox/open-world game benchmark. And when I say 'demand', it's not always specifically the game telling you to look over there, or save that guy's mate from being lynched, or help those lawmen bring down the criminal they're chasing (but can't seem to catch), or give that poor lost lass a lift to town because her horse and cart were attacked by Road Agents, it could be part of your own agenda; something that will further Marston as the sort of character you want him to be, or maybe you just desperately want to collect some BlueBird feathers or Red Sage.
This is the ebb and flow of the game - it's organic because there are tools in place to constantly keep you preoccupied, but you're never tied to them. The decision to engage anything in Red Dead Redemption is yours and yours alone. But the tools in place are just so engaging and tantalising, you won't be able to resist, even if some of them repeat (there are a few game-world 'missions' you can do multiple times), and this is the beauty of what's at-hand.
I talked in great detail about the game-world ecology and eco-system in my extended preview, and in the final build it's as solid as ever. Hunting Challenges and Survivalist Challenges can actually be challenging, not just distractions, and they also creep up as a partial mechanic to other missions, forcing you to double up on your collections, but generating even more engagement with the game-world around you. This is also important, because you're going to become intimate with every part of the vast land available to you (there are three main areas), so much so, that the brave even have the option of turning off the mini-map for true visual navigation and that perfect cinematic experience, and I find t hard to believe any true gunslinger of the West would ever get lost.
And it is cinematic. The scripting here is second-to-none, dwarfing anything the leads at Rockstar have ever written. Red Dead Redemption is brutal, gritty and wearing. The West was not a nice place or time to live in, but they've done a stellar job of making you feel like you need to make the most of it, and the characters you meet throughout your journey are all memorable and in place with the world around you. I found myself not wanting to finish the game's narrative for fear of finality, it's that engaging.
Finally, as mentioned a little earlier, the review build I've been playing (on PS3), just looks amazing. There has never been a game-world that looks this good before, and there's so much diversity in the available space, it's hard not to get caught up in the scenery. The dynamic weather patterns, lighting and real-world bumps and bruises throughout give the game a unique colour and texture pallet that is ever-changing, meaning you're not only never really seeing the same thing twice, but also experiencing missions and story-sequences differently to anyone else (it's all real-time, unless the game requires a mission to be conducted at a certain time, and even then you're forced to wait the time out).
But it's not all perfect. There are a few issues that ended up creeping into my periphery while playing. For one, there was a lack of serious dynamism. Sometimes, dramatic game-world events just had very little affect on the overall game-world, and while some of these can be broached to re-complete with better times etc for Leaderboards, they detract and somewhat negate the ideal behind the organic flow at-hand (these would have been better served in the robust multiplayer portion). Moreover, the sheer idea that Marston dies as soon as he hits water more than knee deep is really stupid. I get that the idea is to stop anyone attempting to move to any of the other areas in the game ahead of time, but the term 'open-world' carries weight. This could have been better handled with the player dying in rapids after some attempts at swimming against the current or the like. It just seems very poorly bridged in the wake of all the awesome going on here.
By and large though, none of this is game-breaking. The full extent of Rockstar San Diego's vision is so fully realised here, that it's difficult to think they've been sitting on this gold mine for so long. I've actually avoided so much of what makes the game tick because I know that, for me, the true engagement came directly from the actual experience, and so much of all this being thrown at you unawares makes that up. From a reviewer's perspective, this is a blockbuster waiting to happen, but from a gamer's perspective, this is an experience waiting to happen; an engaging and rich experience rarely found in the multi-billion dollar world of videogaming.