It's tempting to say that Red Dead Redemption is ahead of its time, but the reality is that this is a game of and for the times. Rockstar shows an uncanny ability to hold a mirror up to society and remind us that present day hot button issues like racism, immigration, federal government power and personal freedoms are not only nothing new, they are deeply ingrained in American society. They are forces that helped to shape America into what it is, and their inclusion in Red Dead Redemption gives it a sense of authenticity that videogames in general lack.
But rather than preaching politics at you, Red Dead Redemption puts you in the shoes of the relatively neutral John Marston. This former outlaw gone straight has found that history has a way of catching up with you. Those who were once his friends have now become enemies, leaving Marston alone and fighting for his future in a lawless land. It's a setup that is almost cliche, but this is only the beginning of your adventure.
The storyline of Red Dead Redemption will take you all over a vast swath of countryside that straddles the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Along the way you'll meet, assist, and spill blood with a fantastic cast of supporting characters as Marston attempts to set things straight. The characters are wonderful with top notch dialogue and voice acting -- all good enough to make you feel a part of the world.
If there is any criticism I could level at the story, it's that Marston occasionally feels divorced from the action, his motivations muddled as he is all too willing to help anybody that asks for it despite his own pressing matters. A simple, "I'm being made to do this," from Marston is all you'll get out of the protagonist for much of the game while secondary characters drive the tale along, which was a bit of a disappointment for me. This all changes towards the end, however, as Red Dead Redemption builds towards a shattering climax that is amongst the best I've ever seen in a videogame.
Following that main story will take you roughly 20 hours from start to finish, though most will find that there is so much to do that it is difficult to focus on one thing. This is made by Rockstar, after all, and their heritage as masters of the open world sandbox game is not lost.
Herding cattle and breaking mustangs? Check. Tracking down outlaws for bounty? You can take them dead or alive. Treasure hunting and sharpshooting challenges? There are dozens of them. The side missions and quests range from the little things like playing horse shoes or poker to big shootouts at bandit hideouts. There are even some that are fleshed out enough to be a part of the main storyline. You could spend hours just riding around trying to track down all of the components of a new outfit for Marston, or hunting wild game and picking herbs and desert flowers. The Rockstar Social Club, a free online community that connects to the game, offers additional challenges and leaderboards to encourage even more replay. If you're looking for one game to occupy you for months, this is it.
As you begin to make a name for yourself, the world of Red Dead Redemption adapts to your fame. The question of ethics and morality is left up to the player. If you want to be a salty drunk that assaults women and robs stagecoaches, that's your prerogative. Others might prefer to help the needy and be more honorable. Though there is a legal system in Red Dead Redemption that will keep the most villainous in check, you're free to take the high or low road in most any situation. A little morality meter, alongside a separate fame bar tracks your actions and the citizens you come across will begin to react to your renown. It's a system that allows for a huge amount of freedom and then rewards you for exploring it.
Like many Rockstar games, that freedom may ruffle a few feathers. Several of the actions you're able to perform will surely be considered indecent by some.
But all of that is left up to the player, and as it turns out there isn't just a lot to do -- there's a lot to see. The world feels alive with something happening everywhere you turn. Birds come screaming out of the bushes as your horse thunders by. Trains whistle while storms come blowing in to fill low-lying areas with fresh puddles. Around the next bend might be a carriage being robbed by bandits, its poor inhabitants crying out for help, or there might be a cougar or bear ready to tear down your horse and bring Marston to his knees.
Walk through town and you might see a drunk assaulting a prostitute, a lynch mob dragging a poor soul through the main drag, or a person who caught wind of your fame and has come looking for a duel. The simulation -- though its aggressive nature occasionally creates a goofy backdrop to Marston's conversations -- is always presenting something new and exciting.
What is most impressive about this sandbox is how fun it is to simply hop on a horse and take off across the prairie. Red Dead Redemption is a gorgeous game with an incredible attention to detail. The art direction, particularly the careful consideration paid to the color palette and geology of the land, is superb. Exactly the right amount of red is used to make the dusty hills and plateaus come to life, the sunsets look breathtaking, and the purple mountains call out with the majesty they're known for. The area you can explore is immense and dotted with towns, ruins, and different environments that all feel hand crafted and unique. Just ride out towards the sunset and listen to the exceptional soundtrack and you'll feel teleported to a whole new world.
The setting of Red Dead Redemption, leaving out the interactive elements, is an achievement in itself. Add in the smooth way the world reacts and moves and you have a game that is stunning. Horses gallop realistically. Bodies dangling from those horses -- be it from a rope or from a foot caught in a stirrup -- animate near perfectly. Shoot a bandit in the hat and it will fly off, or aim for the legs and he'll stumble to the ground while you prepare to hogtie him. None of the animations are canned, which means every time you go out into the desert to play you'll have a slightly different and awesome outcome.
The only slight detractor from this wonderful world is that Red Dead Redemption doesn't have quite the same level of polish as we've come to expect out of a Rockstar game. While playing I noticed the occasional bug (once during a cutscene the game rendered two of the same character doing different animations, creating a weird ghosting effect) and the game did freeze during loading a couple of times. The game's graphics engine can't always keep up with the action, either, resulting in some visual hiccups here or there. Given the scope of what has been accomplished here, Red Dead Redemption is actually a relatively smooth experience, but it isn't perfect.
The developer's pedigree must also be mentioned when talking about the game itself. Some will describe Red Dead Redemption as Grand Theft Auto in the Wild West and in some ways that description is accurate. Many of the same presentational elements created in the GTA universe are used here, included extended conversations during rides to the next mission and the layout of the mini-map. In that regard, GTA veterans will feel right at home, though they will find little improvements to the formula in things like better checkpoint and mission replay systems.
This isn't just a redo of Grand Theft Auto with a different backdrop, however. Rockstar did a remarkable job of taking only the elements of its past games that work while adapting the flow and the controls to the Western setting. The Dead Eye slow motion effect makes you feel like a classic gunslinger. The confluence of a wide-open setting and turn of the century technology offer the perfect mix of civilization and wilderness. And the greater emphasis on ambient missions and random encounters makes the West feel as wild and untamed as your childhood daydreams imagined it.
Red Dead Redemption handles well, too, outside of touchy horse controls that make the mounts seem a little too eager to jump over a fence or into a river. The target assist makes attacking enemies while riding a horse a breeze, but it also makes the combat a little too easy at times. The cover system works similarly to GTA IV, but there just didn't seem much need for it when I could simply walk ahead slowly ripping off shots with perfect accuracy. I died here or there, but rarely did Red Dead Redemption feel particularly challenging.
Even after you've beaten Red Dead Redemption and completed 100% of the side challenges, there's still much more to do. The game continues online with cooperative and competitive modes for up to 16 players simultaneously. The competitive action includes team and free-for-all game types including standard shootouts and a capture the flag style of game. These are a decent distraction and can be quite fun -- especially at the start when each game begins with every player standing in a circle ready to draw pistols. Any hardcore player might end up a bit annoyed by the respawn system, however, which has a tendency to start you right next to an opponent. Without the other trimmings that I'll get to in a second, it isn't the kind of multiplayer experience I'd make a steady part of my gaming rotation.
The reason to keep coming back to Red Dead Redemption for months and months is called Free Roam. This is the multiplayer lobby of sorts, but the concept has been cranked up a notch to be an entire game in itself. Free Roam lets up to 16 players join into one world and then explore the entirety of the single-player map. You can form posses and take part in little skirmishes, simply shoot each other in the face, assault bandit hideouts and forts as a team, or just ride across the countryside together while taking part in hunting and gathering challenges.
A large number of the side distractions from the single-player game are here, as well as a whole extra set of little objectives. By completing the missions, killing each other, or playing in competitive games, you can gain experience and begin leveling up to unlock new character models, modes, and better mounts to ride. Free Roam by itself is meaty enough to be an entirely separate game and it would still be awesome.
Several special cooperative missions are being made for download as well, but they were not available at the time of this review and so they weren't considered. The first pack has been announced as free, though, so keep an eye out for it.
Red Dead Redemption is a must-play game. Rockstar has taken the Western to new heights and created one of the deepest, most fun, and most gorgeous games around. You can expect the occasional bug or visual hiccup, but you can also expect a fantastic game that offers the Western experience we've all been waiting for. Red Dead Redemption is a complete game in every sense -- both the single player and multiplayer modes are excellent -- and still manages to offer an attention to detail you rarely see from a game of this scope.