Whenever something new is released in the Western genre there are inevitably people that praise the company for attempting to revive a ‘dead' genre. They optimistically suggest that it looks good but warn that it may be irrelevant to a modern audience. These people are wrong. If it's good enough it will receive appropriate critical praise and be gratefully received by an eagerly awaiting fan base. This isn't the 1960's, every other release isn't a Western but there have been many outstanding contributions to the genre in recent years. It never died, it simply became more refined.
A lot was made of Rockstar embracing the Western for a video game. Questions were asked whether the studio of Grand Theft Auto fame was taking a risk using the final years of the old west as a setting. Really it was a no brainer. Gamers like guns. They enjoy exploring interesting places. They want to meet engaging characters. They want to escape into fantasies that impossible in reality. The Western is a goldmine of possibilities, familiar to all but still relatively fresh in video games. This sandbox adventure is a welcome change of pace from the usual military fantasy or sci-fi shooter. Red Dead Redemption isn't a gamble for Rockstar but the result of intelligent market analysis. It is a combination of everything gamers want and enjoy in a setting aesthetically different from what is being created by other developers.
Rockstar has been setting the bar for sandbox games since 2001's GTA 3. Red Dead Redemption is a sandbox adventure that is similar to GTA in its core mechanics. Although there have been a few improvements, the engine and gameplay design are essentially the same. You control a gruff morally ambiguous protagonist from a third person perspective. You can walk, run, jump and sneak. You have a variety of weapons to collect and a variety of transport to find, buy or steal. The difference in Red Dead Redemption is you ride horses instead of drive cars and traverse deserts and cliffs rather than roads and alleys. As you explore the old American West the story is moved along through interactions with colourful and intriguing NPCs that are handily indicated on your mini map. The lovingly created open world is huge and fun to explore. On your way there is a vast array of side quests and mini games to keep you distracted.
The game opens with you in the boots of John Marston, a onetime career criminal turned rancher. Marston is being blackmailed into hunting down his former partners in crime. It's a smart set-up that allows for an unaffiliated player character without falling back on that familiar amnesia cliché. Marston is well realized and memorable. His scarred face, rugged appearance and no nonsense attitude make him just the part for a player controlled character. He never divulges any information that would suggest he is inherently good or bad. He seems pretty simple, daft even, as evidenced when he finds himself bleeding to death before the opening credits have even finished. Fortunately John is saved by a kindly farmer and his daughter and the game starts in earnest.
The early missions introduce many of the games mechanics without being too transparent as tutorial levels. The story flows nicely as Marston goes about showing gratitude to his saviours by helping out around the ranch. This isn't a Halo or COD where intense action envelops you from the start, it's a slow burn. Like the difference between a sloppy beef burger and delicate salmon dish, both are satisfying but while the burger makes an instant impact the salmon is a dish worthy of praise for its finesse and will probably leave the greater impression. For about the first hour of gameplay you will be protecting livestock from coyotes, racing horses, herding cattle, escorting the farmer's daughter across the wilderness and catching and breaking steeds.
As you play further you realise how important the mechanics you pick up at the beginning are. Take breaking in horses. The variety of wild horses for you to catch is impressive and an addicting side activity. To catch a horse first find a pack of them in the wild, ride up on whatever nag you happen to be sat on, lasso them and mount them. Once mounted the wild horse will whinny and buck as it tries to throw you and a simple minigame of adjusting your position with the analogue stick ensues. Eventually the horse will concede to becoming your new mount, providing you haven't been thrown and the horse hasn't galloped off into the sunset. It's worth looking out for rarer breeds because of their noticeably better speed, stamina and appearance. Once you have broken a horse you will be able to buy the deed for that horse in any shop so no matter how many horses you get killed on your adventure (and you will get plenty of horses killed) you can always use your deed to get a shiny new version of your favourite mount.
Wild horses are just one example of how Rockstar have created a living breathing world. As you travel from place to place you may be jumped by bandits or see an NPC running from a pack of rabid wolves. How you choose to react is up to you. Perhaps you'll save the distressed NPC. Perhaps you'll gun them down and loot their body. Maybe you'll ignore the spectacle all together and carry on with your business. It's to your discretion. Despite landscapes being beautifully rendered and occasionally awe inspiring, heading back and forth on horseback could have been pretty boring but the many animals and various random encounters keep things interesting, it's a welcome addition. Ambient sounds are impressive too. They play an important role in your exploration, as you become more accustomed to the noises that echo across the dusty plains you learn to react accordingly. Repeated gun shots may be the sound of a hunter shooting birds ready to challenge you to a wager, but could also be a stagecoach that has been rolled over by bandits leading to a shootout. Either way your best course of action is to take your horse towards the commotion. Through bitter experience you will instantly unsheathe your gun and check every angle at the dreaded shriek of a cougar or run away like a scared kitten at a snakes rattle.
The soundtrack does a nice job of punctuating the game in all the right places. It never seems out of place and does a good job of raising the excitement or setting a mournful tone. A standout example is when you first enter Mexico. After some difficulty with crossing the border you don't find yourself tearing forward and bouncing from set piece to set piece but riding alone on a dusty path while Jose Gonzalez's melon collie tones ease you toward the Mexican sunset. The punchy rolling beats that spice up shootouts and the twanging banjos that accompany your death add similar depth to the soundtrack.
Red Dead Redemption isn't just high concept story telling though, there's plenty of action heavy gameplay thrown into the mix. Combat is a familiar cover and shoot mechanic, popularised by games like Mass Effect 2 and Grand Theft Auto. Where Red Dead Redemption differs is in its use of ‘Dead Eye'. At the press of a button the world goes into a sepia-coloured slow motion that allows plenty of time to pick the perfect headshot. After unlocking it you have the ability to specify certain areas of an opponent to aim for. Yes, I know what you're thinking. Yes, that will probably be one of your first shots upon unlocking the ability. Handy and stylish though it is, Dead Eye isn't infinite. To the side of your mini map is your Dead Eye meter, a slowly replenishing bar that forces limited use in combat situations. In some battles it is useful to spam it straight away and take down as many targets as possible from the get go. In others it is a better idea to preserve your Dead Eye until you need it to get out of a tight spot and keep from being gunned down. You don't always have to kill your enemies. Should you choose to you can use the lasso to render them harmless and hog-tie them. When collecting bounties for a local sheriff bringing in targets alive will result in increased rewards for your efforts. At some moments in the story letting an enemy live will grant you increased fame and honour.
Fame is an interesting dynamic in Red Dead Redemption. How NPC's react to you in the single player campaign changes depending on your actions. Initially John Marston is of no interest to the townsfolk but as you play your fame increases. Depending on your actions they may be frightened enough to run away screaming or so impressed they applaud you as you ride into town. Another consequence of increased fame is that gunslingers call out to you and challenge you to a duel. The objective of a duel is to place your shots as precisely as possible in the short amount of time between the draw and the trigger being pulled. The easiest shot to go for is the head which will kill your opponent. The more honourable gunslinger may prefer to shoot the gun from an opponent's hand. Shooting an enemy's weapon is a difficult skill to master but one that will result in increased fame and honour.
Like all Rockstar games Read Dead Redemption has a fair share of humour shoehorned in. Sometimes it is player created such as shooting bottles from people's hands or placing a hog tied woman on the train tracks. Other times its part of the story like the colourful and slightly disturbing characters you'll meet such as Seth, a grave robber with an unhealthy attachment to corpses. Later, an academic opium fiend you meet reliably informs you that hunting buffalo will make them stronger, because that's how evolution works. Regardless if it's scripted or not Rockstar successfully blend humour into the world they have created and it never detracts from the integrity or emotional tug of the story. It's a difficult line to walk but one that Rockstar seem able to pull off time and time again, delivering chuckles, anticipation and tears in equal measure.
Red Dead Redemption is a great game but not completely without flaws. Occasional bugs can result in some amusing consequences such as the bizarre ‘skin swap', whereby townsfolk take to the air and soar like eagles or bite at your heels like cougars. Also, whilst the combat is satisfying a few early set pieces, such as a shootout while riding a mining cart, suggest potential for Uncharted style cinematic gameplay that is never realised to its full potential. I would strongly recommended Red Dead Redemption. It's a well realised, action packed and enjoyable adventure with plenty to explore, solid and engaging mechanics and a story that will live long in the memory after you stop playing.