I got spurs, that jingle jangle jingle…
Red Dead Redemption released in May of 2010 to moderate fanfare alongside Alan Wake and Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands. Rockstar – which has been well known for it’s Grand Theft Auto series – had already shown that they figured out the perfect formula for lightning in a bottle, and once again showed that they know what they are doing.
RDR still is one of the most revered video games in recent history and has been clamored for by fans to be included in the Xbox One backwards compatibility lineup, and Rockstar has finally obliged. And let me tell you, it’s worth playing all over again on Xbox One.
Now this review is pretty pointless, for a few reasons. First off, everybody already knows that RDR is excellent. Second is that anybody that would want to play it, probably already has. Thirdly, I’m not going to try to convince anybody that they shouldn’t play it because the game is absolutely fantastic.
Instead I’m going to write a little love-letter about the game in the traditional format that you wonderful readers are now used to seeing on here. If you don’t feel like reading the review, just go play the game already.
Gameplay in RDR is rather similar to the gameplay of GTA IV. Cover is available in combat and there is very little you can’t do. Missions attempt to draw you in to the side activities, which are actually pretty fun for a change. Interestingly, there’s a bullet time mechanic that seems to be ripped straight from Max Payne, called Dead Eye (which seems to have been borrowed for Michael DeSanta’s skill in GTA V).
Well crap, I just breezed through that all… Let’s roll that back a bit.
RDR is a open world game set in the United States’ western reaches and a portion of northern Mexico in the year 1911. The area is entirely fictional, but it is based on the real world locations in places like Texas, Kansas, and Mexico. The setting also shows the end times of the Wild West, just before it was tamed. It makes for a widely flexible setting that allowed the developers to not only have the Wild West feel, but also have some neat state-of-the-art technology (for the time) in the game as well.
You’re treated to the usual arsenal of cowboy toys like revolvers, lever-action rifles, and lassos; but you’ll eventually gain the use of other more modern weapons like bolt-action rifles (both scoped and iron sighted), pump-action shotguns, and semi-automatic pistols and shotguns.
Players are given dozens of ways to afford this arsenal as well. There are many activities that pay some money for completing tasks like nighttime patrols on the ranch, bounty hunts, and clearing gang hideouts as well as hunting wildlife and selling the hides or simply saving a damsel in distress, gambling, or robbing people.
Something that deserves mention is that like in GTA IV with Niko Bellic, being an outlaw in Red Dead Redemption flies in the face of John Marston’s actions in the story. Marston’s tales in one of… well, redemption. Being a dastardly asshole doesn’t mix with his assertions that he’s trying to change his ways. Of course that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a bandit. It just means that it makes Marston a hypocrite.
Fighting is carried out much in the same way as the GTA series as well. You can stick to cover and fight from horseback, though the easiest way to play the game is to use Dead Eye as much as possible. After getting far enough into the story you unlock the ability to mark shots in Dead Eye mode, which upon firing or using up all available shots in your weapon, you execute the move and gun down your opponents. All in all, the combat functions almost exactly like I mentioned earlier; like you’re playing Michael in GTA V.
Controlling a horse or buggy can be disorienting at first, but once you get used to it, it’s much less confusing. Horses have stamina so you can’t just ride them hard all day or they’ll buck you off. This makes chases and races much more entertaining than the same sections in GTA games because it requires a little more thought and care… Your horse can die after all.
I will just say this little bit. RDR holds up extremely well to the test of time. It doesn’t look like a modern title, but it also doesn’t look six years old. This is further aided by the performance increase of the game on Xbox One where it seems to have a much more steady framerate.
It just looks and sounds good, still.
Red Dead Redemption certainly isn’t the first “cowboy” game, nor will it be the last (especially if the rumors of RDR 2 are true). What it does do is it does the setting justice. The dying Wild West feels wild and you’re afforded the ability to sow chaos or mete out justice as you see fit.
What makes RDR such a breath of fresh air is how well the open world works with the setting, and how refreshing the story is.
Speaking of story…
Red Dead Redemption starts you off with the mission to eliminate John Marston’s former associates. The government stooges that are keeping him on a leash are doing so by holding his family as hostages until he carries out his task. Marston is not just on the quest to free his family though, he’s on the quest to redeem his soul. He’ll have to work with all manners of people who are on both the right and wrong side of the law, as well as enterprising individuals that represent why some laws exist today. Marston spends a great deal of his time trying to track down the former members of his gang by enlisting the help of anyone that seems to have similar motivations.
What I can’t adequately describe though is just how good the writing is. To this day, I haven’t played a game that made me like the protagonist as much as I like John Marston. Rockstar did an amazing job creating the main character… He’s a man that clearly has very little time for other people’s bullshit, as evidenced by just how many times he threatens to kill others for standing in his way. Now that may make him sounds like a brute, but they manner in which he says it makes him come off less like a psychopath and more like he just doesn’t have time for anyone else’s shit.
Over the course of the story, players gain a little insight into the way things are for Marston and just how far he’ll go to be with his family (Bethesda can take some notes for how to make a player give a damn about the main character’s family here). RDR also shows some of the nastier and less romantic elements of the Wild West, shown through Rockstar’s well-honed satirical lens. There are some parts of the story where things fall a little flat, like parts of your journey into Mexico, but overall the story is strong.
Even when it breaks your heart.
WILDCARD: THE WILD WILD WEST
While RDR takes place in the decline of the Wild West, it does well to not only capture that feel of the period, but also some of the ways that life was changing as well. The settlements and towns feel like the frontier, with the exception of Blackwater. The wilderness is barren and can be hostile at times. You’ll often see people that have run afoul of bandits or the wildlife and you’re usually only about three steps from getting bitten by a damn rattlesnake most of the time.
Rockstar did an amazing job of capturing the feel of the west and putting the open world formula to work simulating it. It’s not only a commendable effort, but it makes it well worth jumping in again and again.
The truth is that there is little to reveal here. Red Dead Redemption is incredible and needs to be played by anyone that enjoys the sandbox style of games. What’s more is that it’s a title that I originally wasn’t interested in at all. I remember buying it on a whim because I was bored and had months to wait before Mass Effect 3 came out.
Boy was I not only surprised, but delighted.
Red Dead Redemption is delightful, even funny at times (though without the usual low-brow comedy style of GTA). If for some reason you haven’t played it, you should do so as soon as possible.
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