The makers of Grand Theft Auto open up the world of the wild west with Red Dead Redemption, the story of reformed outlaw John Marston, farmer, government lackey, career criminal and family man.
The visibly scarred John Marston is charged with hunting down the leaders of his former gang, Bill Williamson and Javier Escuela, and delivering them to federal agents. His motivation to take down his former friends comes in the form of his kidnapped wife and son, held by the government, and the fact that Williamson and crew left him for dead after a botched robbery. Along the way, Marston discovers that he can't take Williamson down alone, forcing him to make compromises, make new friends and make tough choices, resulting in the bloody deaths of dozens of enemies new and old.
Rockstar's journey through the wild west is more beautiful, more grown up and the ideal place for open world escapism, violent and dangerous though it may be.
John, Be Good: My John Marston may have amassed a body count in the hundreds, but for an outlaw, he's hardly the empty, morals-free son of a bitch I expected. He's likable, surly, down to earth and sometimes cracks wise. Marston's a wounded man, honest and faithful, attempting to do right to protect his family, and the player can make positive choices that reinforce those facets of his character. Or they can do the opposite, choosing to murder instead of pardon, gun down a thief instead of hog-tying him. As someone who prefers to play on the side of right, always opting for the paladin and the light side of the Force, playing Marston the good guy isn't always easy, isn't always satisfying. But the option to play as a father and a husband whose actions reflect his attempts at reformation are welcome.
The Land: More likable than John Marston is Red Dead Redemption's vast landscape, which stretches from the dry and dusty settlements of New Austin to red and rustic Mexican border towns. Raging rivers and soft flurries of snow cut through the repetition of desert lands, while hints of technology—railroads, telegraph wires—show a civilization on the verge of change. It's the sky that makes Red Dead Redemption's environments beautiful, as sunsets slice through the trees and starry, moonlit nights make for peaceful rides through the wilderness. There's a lot of traveling to do in Red Dead Redemption, as almost all mission begin with a lengthy ride, but the feeling of experiencing a natural world makes the getting there a treat.
Kill Your Radio: Gone is the distraction of radio, a staple in the open world adventures of Rockstar's Grand Theft Autos and Midnight Clubs. Bill Elm and Woody Jackson's original score adds only occasional reminders of music while you ride, a calming contrast to the din of talk radio, rap and rock we normally ingest while traveling in a Rockstar game. The sparing use of music from artists like Jamie Lidell and William Elliot Whitmore later add emotional resonance to scenes, which when first heard are unexpected, maybe even shocking.
Simpler Times: There are no helicopters, no rocket launchers, no jet packs in Red Dead Redemption. Does that mean there's no fun? Not at all. The game's wild west setting may mean fewer opportunities for traditional sandbox-style hijinks, but it also means less wrestling with complex control schemes and a more intense focus on varied, well designed missions. Townsfolk are more prone to deliver a "howdy" than an insult or non sequitur, one aspect of a world that's more welcoming than obnoxiously abrasive. Players with a thirst for randomized violence will, however, get a chance to ventilate plenty of thugs, thanks to plenty of dangerous roadside encounters with horse thieves, swindlers and the occasional cougar.
Maturity In My Mature Games? Red Dead Redemption gives the impression that Rockstar is growing up. Sure, there are zany, potentially offensive sidekicks set up for comic relief. There are also moments of titillation and excessive violence, some of which feels forcibly inserted, but John Marston's video gaming's latest playable dad and largely behaves as such. Redemption doesn't suffer under the weight of broad humor, dick jokes or too many attempts to inspire controversy. It's later acts reinforce this feeling of growing up, delivering some unexpected conclusions. Better matured is the gunplay, which, thanks to the time-slowing Dead Eye system, helps to correct control quibbles in the third-person. Shooting up soldiers, banditos and gang members is fun as hell.
Multiplayer, Deep & Hard: While the single-player campaign can suck a good 20-plus hours on a straightforward playthrough, the game's multiplayer mode offers dozens more. There's a good mix of game types thrown at you, with an easy entry into games. Standard offerings like Grab The Bag are a blast to play in a group and those matches begin with a bang. Rounds start with a team versus team shootout, with teams lined up for a quick and bloody duel that will get your adrenaline pumping immediately. Unfortunately, some serious connection issues have marred my impression of Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer suite, a problem that will hopefully continue to be addressed.
A Legendary Slayer of Armadillos: Red Dead Redemption's "Challenges" are strangely addictive. Strange because they involve picking flowers and herbs or hunting rabbits and armadillos for fun and profit. The urge to collect and do good (or a lot of bad) is magnified by the Honor and Fame systems, which reward the player for behaving admirably (or despicably) and tackling various challenges. Marston's honor and fame rankings translate to tangible benefits in the form of better deals at shops and more leniency from the law, but it's the feeling of progression that more often inspires one to do the right thing instead of the easy thing.
Sidetrackin': Initially, I cursed the long horseback rides from town to town, seemingly too long sprints that felt like padding. But as I discovered the wildlife and explored the land, seeing the opportunities presented by roadside encounters and random campsites in the distance, I came to appreciate those long hauls. Much of Red Dead Redemption's off-mission tasks can be accomplished in minutes, if not seconds, thanks to the opportunity to do much of it from horseback. Even in towns, you'll find opportunities to stop murders, play games of Texas Hold 'Em poker or track down a missing horse. These asides make Red Dead Redemption's world seem more alive, less about John Marston's existence in the space.
Seams Showing Through: There are plenty of little nits that get in the way of immersing oneself in Red Dead Redemption, from small but noticeable bugs, like items popping in and out and dialogue disappearing, to minor control issues to gameplay elements that feel so familiar from playing Rockstar's other games that missions can become too predictable. Some storytelling elements feel unnatural, as Marston is constantly dicked around by non-player characters who don't believably advance the plot, but simply add more missions to the tally. While the game's voice acting is typically top notch, conversation delivered during rides to destinations sometimes feel awkward or stilted, taking the player out of the element.
As open world games featuring a man on a mission often do, Red Dead Redemption's story has its ups and downs, multiple climaxes and teases that manipulate as much as they sometimes frustrate. But Redemption concludes in a fascinating way, just one of many surprises, not the least of which includes an affection for virtually living in the old west. Progression and technological advancement, a packing in of more and more and more is what video games teach us to appreciate. The whittling down of gameplay due to a technological and temporal back step is what makes Redemption a more believable, more absorbing world to visit.
The game is not without its issues, from the technical to the tedious—cow herding and horse breaking are a chore, Marston can't swim—but its train robbing and chase scene highs impressively outweigh its lows.
Having already immersed myself in dozens of hours of Red Dead Redemption's world, I'm hungry to return, itching to complete my untended quests, adventure through its still mysterious lands and explore the bad side of John Marston. Having barely scratched the surface of its multiplayer—there's so much to unlock and experiment with—I'll be losing myself in its sublime world of hoodlums, peasants and drunkards. I don't think I've engaged in a single bar fight, being a good outlaw and feeling good about it, an oversight that I'll soon correct.
Red Dead Redemption was developed by Rockstar San Diego and published by Rockstar Games for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on May 18. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was purchased by Kotaku for reviewing purposes. Played through single-player campaign and tested multiplayer modes on Xbox 360. Found redemption.
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