Woody from Toy Story will somehow never look the same again…
Rockstar and I have a rocky relationship concerning their games. The only series I ever paid attention to was GTA; I found the rest of their stuff largely pointless and childish. The GTA series was always over the top and slapstick satrical up until GTA4, when someone decided to try to inject a bit of maturity into the game. But like most things that Rockstar touch, they failed because they injected too much overt humour into the game. Roman going “BIG AMERICAN TEE TEES!” every 5 lines got old fast and broke the illusion that there was a bit of class in this game. It’s a shame because Liberty City’s look was updated to be more realistic and less satirical than before. Good satire blends in, it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Rockstar insisted on using a sledgehammer where a tiny pick would have been better.
With Rockstar’s history of being almost incapable of getting the balance right, I think I can be excused for approaching Red Dead Redemption with hesitation. For all intents and purposes, it looks like GTA set in the Wild West. Now let’s think about this for a second; who the hell sets a game in the Wild West? It’s like making a WW1 games, every so often you see one but they’re generally few and far between. It’s not really a surprise why; automatic weapons were pretty much fixed emplacements, and the romantic version of the West seen here is more about people hiding behind barrels and taking pot shots at each other, so really you’d expect it to be pretty boring. Of course the reality of the West would be a lot more dull; nothing would happen, guns would be inaccurate, and you’d walk around for a while tending to cattle. Fortunately RDR has found a way to make the Wild West fun and interesting, while also keeping a wide variety of tasks for you to play with.
RDR is set in 1911, towards the time when the Wild West (as it’s seen in your Hollywood movies) was on the verge of becoming more civilised, for lack of a better term. You play as John Marston, a former outlaw who has been forced by government agents into tracking down your former gang… otherwise, you’ll never see your family again. From there you travel the dustbowl of the American West and even dip down into Mexico, all the while becoming either a legend or outlaw of the West. The general gameplay mechanics are pretty much exactly the same as GTA4. I know that people say “This isn’t just GTA in the West” but that’s honestly the best way to explain it. Instead of cars, you have horses. Instead of being in a sprawling city, you’re in a desert. Instead of rubbish bins and lamp posts, you have cacti and rocks. But that’s also an over-simplification of what RDR is about… there’s more to it than that. Yeah, you visit different people, get different mission objectives (which usually involve killing someone) and ride around a lot, but there are other things to do outside of that too.
One of the key points about RDR is that there are lots of things to do on the side to get money or fame. In the GTA games, pretty much all you can do is the missions given to you, or those cookie-cutter courier or hitman missions. RDR takes a different approach. In addition to a few missions like that, you can do other things to get money. You might herd cattle, hunt wildlife and skin them for their furs, collect useful herbs, break horses, or just become an outlaw and rob people at gunpoint. There are also random encounters where people will challenge you to a duel, or will ask for help. A Marshal might ask you to either kill or capture some outlaws. A treasure hunter might ask for your help while they’re being held at gunpoint. Some asshole might ask for a ride then try to steal your horse. Whether you help or not is up to you, but all of these little things provide fun distractions from the main storyline. On top of that, you can also play various card games and other challenges for money. I’m leaving plenty of things out (and I can’t really cover everything or this review will end up being an essay) but that’s a sample of what you can get up to. And you’ll want money too, because missions don’t pay exceptionally well most of the time, and weapons and ammunition for anything apart from your most basic guns aren’t cheap.
Getting around in RDR revolves almost entirely around horses (except for the train, which takes forever to get anywhere and ususally isn’t worth waiting for). You can either steal a horse or find a wild one and break it so that it becomes yours. You can whistle for your horse from anywhere, causing it to appear nearby and run towards you. Your horse, by default, just walks at a very slow place, but by tapping X and holding it, you can cause it to trot or run at a quick speed. Repeatedly tapping X will cause it to sprint, which will drain its stamina bar. Keep doing this too often and you’ll get kicked off. Your other method of transportation are carts and carriages. These work the same way as horses except they tend to be clunky and more difficult to control. Some carts can be used to fast-travel for a price. Failing that the other “method” is to set up a campsite, which will allow you to save your game and also fast travel to any previously discovered location. You cannot set up a camp in a settlement. If you want to save your game in a settlement, you need to buy a property there.
The control scheme for RDR is fairly good with a few problems. The “tap/hold X” mechanic for the horse control seems silly to me; fine control over movement speed is the only time when the relative movement of an analogue stick is useful as opposed to the absolute movement of a mouse or binary movement of keys. So why the game completely ignores this is a bit of a mystery to me. Some of the key combos will prevent you from both holding your current speed and successfully aiming at an enemy or swapping weapons, unless you contort your fingers into a jumbled mess. Targeting is done through a lock-on system which invovles looking somewhere near the enemy and tapping L2, while R2 will fire your gun. By pressing the right stick down you can enable Dead Eye mode, which is just bullet time with a sepia tone. It is incredibly useful though because it gives you more of a chance to keep up your mount’s speed while also aiming at the enemy. Plus, holding the cursor momentarily over an enemy will lock in that position so that you can set up a number of shots that Marston will rapidly execute as soon as you press R2. This is particularly useful in duels where you’ll want to pick your targets carefully (ie shooting their pistol out of their hands) but it’d be nice to be able to disable it when you don’t want it.
The voice acting ranges from outstanding to decent. There are a few accents which are just too stereotypical to really work so well. I mean this is the romantic view of the Wild West so a bit of stereotyping is expected, but sometimes the actors go too far and sound more like drunk racists from Mississippi Burning. Doesn’t work so well. The environments are fantastic but the PS3 suffers from a few porting issues; the resolution it runs at is lower than the 360 and there’s also a few problems with missing objects and pop-in. This isn’t indicative of the PS3’s hardware being sub-standard (which is clearly capable of much more) but of the developers being lazy in the port, probably to get it released at the same time as the 360 version. With any luck it might be patched. That said the game still looks great and apart from a few framerate issues it still works extremely well.
A few issues with the PS3 version hold it back a bit, but this is due to it being a poor port.
Despite a few voice acting problems where people forget this is the West and not the deep south with cornfields and burning crosses, the audio is top notch.
There’s just so much to do. I can’t even begin to describe all of the little tasks you can perform.
There’s a LOT of things to do here, and that’s just in the Single Player game. There are hours and hours of gameplay, and when you tire of that you might want to try playing online. Simply put, this is fantastic.
Red Dead Redemption is a surprisingly good game that manages to avoid the Rockstar stigma of being childish and immature. It’s still satrical and unrealistic, but it avoids the overt humour that completely destroys GTA4. Which is a good thing; RDR comes off as a smarter-than-average game with enough amusing elements to cause you to smile, without being over-the-top slapstick bullshit that you’d get from GTA4. Even the characters are incredibly polite as opposed to the total assholes from the GTA series who swear every 20 seconds. I’m extremely impressed by the environment and the gunplay, as well as the abundance of other tasks to go off and do while you’re waiting around. Simply put, RDR is fantastic. Well done, guys. Well done.