- Red Dead Redemption
- CLR [rating:3.5]
Release Date: May 18, 2010
Platforms: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 (version reviewed)
Developers: Rockstar San Diego, Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Genre: Grand Theft Auto Clone
RED DEAD REDEMPTION IS FULL OF REDEEMING QUALITIES.
IT’S JUST A SHAME THAT THE GAME HAD TO BE REDEEMED IN THE FIRST PLACE
Red Dead Revolver was a remarkable videogame from the previous console generation. So remarkable in fact that it made my Top Ten Videogames of the Decade List. The combat wasn’t perfect but the characters were delightful exaggerations of Western clichés, the plot was crazy in all the right ways and the eccentric music was lifted directly from such underdog Spaghetti Westerns as the Django series. Although there was a hub of sorts, Red Dead Revolver wasn’t much of a sandbox game despite the abundance of actual (read: virtual) sand. It was like the Grand Theft Auto series, also by Rockstar, but without all the aimless wandering around between missions. It also didn’t sell very well, but nevertheless after seven years, this week marked the release of the highly-anticipated sequel Red Dead Redemption: a sprawling epic action-adventure game that officially puts all that sand back in a box and turns the Red Dead franchise into yet another familiar, albeit excellent, GTA-clone.
You star as John Marston, a former outlaw who in 1911 was coerced by the government into apprehending or killing a group of outlaws whom he used to call family. Alas, now John’s actual family – a wife and son – are kidnapped and will only be set free once his job is completed. So begins an epic tale of redemption set in the wilds of the not-quite-so-old west, where players find themselves herding cattle, hunting bounties and even fighting on both sides of yet another Mexican Revolution as you seek out the men standing in the way of your goals.
It’s a strong setup for a Western in any medium, and Red Dead Redemption plays its cards well. The action set pieces are frequently epic, and the controls – lifted liberally from Grand Theft Auto – are dreamy: responsive and intuitive, except for a wonky weapon select menu that probably caused more tragic deaths in the Old West than cholera. You have to hold down one of the shoulder buttons and then use one of the analog sticks to circle around to the type of weapon you want, then use the directional pad to select between weapons of that type, and bringing up the menu doesn’t pause the game, so if you find yourself in the middle of a sudden fray (as often happens) with the wrong weapon selected you should probably get ready to just die and respawn over a dozen scale miles away from your objective in a few seconds. Considering how little the directional pad is used throughout the game, it’s odd that Rockstar elected to forgo the usual intuitive “D-Pad as Weapon Select” feature and reassign the one function the D-Pad actually serves – whistling for your horse – to the shoulder button that’s causing all the problems, and then call it a day.
Speaking of your horse, you can whistle for it at any time throughout the game, no matter where you are, and it suddenly comes trotting up to you Ocarina-style. While this might seem convenient (and it is), it’s also one of the many aspects of Red Dead Redemption that conflicts with the Grand Theft Auto gameplay design. In GTA stealing cars was a necessity to get around San Andreas, Liberty City or wherever else you ended up in the series. In Red Dead Redemption there is literally no need to steal a horse at any time since yours is always available, and usually better than the other options at hand. As a result, the moral choice meter provided almost never goes into the red unless you just get bloodthirsty and start blowing people away.
But Red Dead Redemption doesn’t want you to do that either. No, Red Dead Redemption might offer you the opportunity to play John Marston as a bloodthirsty psychopath, but all of the cinematics present a man on the road to, you guessed it, “redemption.” John Marston might once have been a cold-blooded killer but now he tries to solve his problems, at least at first, by talking, and is constantly guilt-tripped by NPC’s into performing good deeds for them. You spend the first few hours of gameplay getting to know nice people and helping them out with their errands, and the rest of the game just trying to get back to your family. So whenever you take the “low road” it always feels like you’re doing something wrong (and not in a cathartic way).
Unfortunately there just aren’t that many options given to us from a moral perspective. One mission sent John Marston to get the deed to some valuable property away from a persnickety old man, and I was given the option to either pay the guy or kill him to get finish the job. “Screw that,” I thought, and going the Chaotic Neutral route I just hogtied the guy, stole the deed, and set him free. Afterwards I delivered the deed into the right hands and was told that I killed the man, and shouldn’t have done that. I didn’t, of course, but apparently there are no grey areas in this game. You’re given the options of being “bad” or being “good,” but the actual story only supports the “good” option. At one point a particularly likable supporting character is killed, but low and behold they’re the one character you can’t loot after they’re dead. What’s the point of a “Moral Choice System” when so many moral choices are made for you?
So the story is more linear than you’re led to imagine, as the dramatic, intriguingly paced and wholly satisfying ending of the game will show you, but the beginning isn’t quite so remarkable. The first rule of writing for a visual medium is “Show, Don’t Tell,” but almost all of the plot points in Red Dead Redemption are those we have to take on faith. John Marston says his family has been kidnapped, for example, but we don’t see it happen. The result is that the player has no connection to this event that’s driving the whole story, and no particular desire to get back to them even though it’s all that the protagonist is supposed to be thinking about. Perhaps it was removed intentionally, since if the player really felt like Marston’s family was in danger then they wouldn’t take the time to explore the world and take on mini-missions because they’d imagine themselves in a race against time. But then with a plot like that they probably should have just made a straightforward action-adventure game instead of one that encourages the player to waste hours of their time by just wandering around picking flowers or hunting beavers.
The villains of the piece are likewise left off-screen for most of the game, leaving the story feeling lopsided. John Marston first approaches Bill Williamson in the opening cinematic, at the gates of a large impenetrable fortress where Williamson and apparently about three guys are hiding out (we’re later told that there’s an army in there, but again, we have to take it on faith for a while). John then spends days if not weeks just trying to find a way to get to Williamson, but during this entire time (many hours of gameplay, no matter how much you wander around) Williamson is nowhere to be seen. He’s an idea, not a character, and until the very last member of Marston’s old posse shows up and starts hogging screen time this continues as a storytelling motif. Every aspect of the “A-Story” is left to the audience’s imagination, which the game then tries valiantly to distract them from with random encounters, mini-games and side quests, doing neither aspect of gameplay any favors.
And yet Red Dead Redemption is still a fantastic gaming experience, beautiful to look at and entertaining to play. All the little moments are full of excitement, from the way Marston slides dramatically into cover to the elegant Deadeye mechanics used for precision targeting or multiple opponents. And the cast of characters give unusually strong performances, each worthy of praise. But it just seems like this game was forced into the wrong genre: a superb linear action-adventure experience that’s simply too small for such a big sandbox. Luckily, there are so many redeeming qualities that the game overcomes these flaws. Red Dead Redemption might not be what fans of Red Dead Revolver were hoping for, but it was well worth the wait anyway.