Name: Red Dead Redemption
Genre: 3rd person open-world adventure
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3
Price: £34.99 (Amazon)
The sun bears down on a dusty, scorched town, the only island of habitation for miles in a sea of sand and rock. You ride in and hitch your horse. All is quiet barring the throaty spit of the degenerate waiting at the far end of the main drag. His posse have terrorised the local townsfolk into submission, the pretty price on his head having brought you here. You square up, tense but focused. He reaches for his revolver. You fire off a single round, its crack echoing through the empty streets, scaring crows from the rafters of a nearby saloon. He sighs and crumbles. The streets are returned to silence. You mount your horse and ride out, knowing that whatever place you reach, violence is the only certainty you’ll meet.
Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar San Diego’s latest opus, is full to the brim with events just like this. A true homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone so perfectly sound-tracked by Ennio Morricone, it’s a gritty, blood soaked tale of revenge that is as explosive in its action as it is quietly beautiful in its depiction of the expansive Old West. It’s also quite possibly the finest game Rockstar have ever produced, equalling if not besting the mighty Grand Theft Auto IV.
The spiritual successor to 2004’s Red Dead Revolver, you take the role of John Marston, a reformed outlaw forced into tracking down his old gang for fear of harm befalling his wife and child. It’s a tale which Rockstar masterfully weaves through numerous stunning locales and well written characters, framing its ambitious open-world adventure.
And what a startlingly well realised world it is. From the destitute mobs that saunter through the streets of the dilapidated Thieves Landing to the spirit of the American Dream imbued in the farm hands of McFarlane’s ranch, each town and its AI inhabitants are as memorable as any that have gone before on the silver screen.
Even more incredible however are the wide stretches of untamed land that surround each settlement. Red rock mountains jut out on the horizon, roving trade wagons are attacked by packs of wolves and buzzards circle ominously overhead. It’s a living world with its own eco-system, full of emergent, unscripted encounters that mean no journey is a quiet one. When moments of peace do reveal themselves, you’re left with stunning vistas and a gameworld which completely envelops the player in the lore of its theme.
But what is a beautiful setting without worthy gameplay to fill it? Rockstar’s experience with open-world titles is pushed to the fore here, with a core campaign more deftly paced and varied than anything they’ve attempted before, as well as enough side missions to push the play time way beyond the 30 hour mark.
The main story-driven missions are the biggest draw here, and while taking out gangs and blasting through shootouts makes up the crux of the game, Rockstar allow more leisurely tasks to feature too, as is fitting with the Western setting. Cattle rustling, horse racing and horse breaking all sit alongside enemy hideout raids and the inevitable quick draw shoot-outs. All are different, and all equally fun. It makes for a game that works with the strengths of the setting it depicts, rather than rushing to shoe-horn unnecessary gaming cliches into the mix.
A cleverly managed morality system underpins each of your actions in the game. While every noteworthy deed will see your fame rise throughout the land, your approach, good or evil, will also see your honour or notoriety rise accordingly. Rob a bank, defend a bank, kill a bandit or hogtie and capture him. It’s not just an aesthetic addition, but one Rockstar cleverly use to shape your actions and add a subtle role-playing aspect into the mix. Heroes will see their minor misdeeds forgiven, while outlaws will have whole posses of bounty hunters chasing them down. In a neat touch, donning a bandit’s mask will give Marston a degree of anonymity, meaning angels who fancy getting their hands dirty can do so without being overly punished.
Marston controls like a dream throughout all this too, and will handle with instant familiarity to anyone who has played GTA IV. He snaps to cover with the push of a shoulder button and has enough athleticism to climb any realistically reachable position. The main difference between him and GTA’s Niko is the inclusion of a Dead Eye meter, a power-up that steels his senses and slows his enemies, earned by shooting down his foes. The gun-play, with its liberal lock-on, is fairly easy as it is, and if I have one big criticism of Red Dead Redemption it’s that Marston is all but invincible when Dead Eye is activated.
No such criticism can be levelled at the horses, who are a joy to ride throughout. Fully motion captured, they look convincingly natural when spotted out in the wild, ready to be lassoed and tamed. Hop on board and they move with realistic weight and often veer from a straight path if left to their own devices. They feel like real animals, rather than cars with legs, which Rockstar could easily have settled for.
Breaking-in wild horses is just one of the many side missions open to the player. From playing poker to hunting elusive animals, buying new outfits and searching for treasure, there is enough content in the side missions alone to warrant its own review. Best of all though are the assignments given to you by strangers that randomly appear whilst out on your travels. These mini-quests can be approached at any time you choose, and are as full of personality as any of the main story missions. Rockstar have a knack for inventing memorable characters, and the “Stranger” missions represent the cream of their crop. One memorable encounter early on sees you collecting flowers for an old man’s invalid wife back home. After scouring the landscape for the items in question, you return to his cabin where he insists you come in and meet his wife. His wife, it turns out, isn’t quite what you would have expected to say the least, and Marston declines the invite to Tuesday’s “Bridge night”. For all the violence on show, there is a streak of black humour running through everything here. It may be the Wild West, but it’s still Rockstar through and through.
When the final credits eventually roll, you’ll be left wanting more. And Rockstar again deliver. Red Dead Redemption comes complete with a comprehensive multi-player package that squeezes as much content onto the disc as possible. As well as traditional deathmatch and capture the flag maps, Red Dead Redemption also features a fully fledged Free Roam mode to explore with your pals. Up to 16 players can band together to form their own posse, ready to explore every nook and crannie the single player mode initially offered. With a bit of imagination and the right crowd of cowboys, this mode has all the potential to take up hours of your life, and you’ll be happy to let it do so.
A game that some had derisively branded “Grand Theft Horses”, Red Dead Redemption ran the risk of being overshadowed by its famous stable-mate. Rumours of overworked employees raised eyebrows as Rockstar’s western epic missed release dates, and there were those that suggested that the game play could never match the exquisite screenshots that Rockstar drip-fed the gaming press. But from the ashes of an apparently hellish development, Red Dead Redemption rides out triumphant. A game that perfectly captures not just a historical period but also the spirit of a widely recognised fiction, Red Dead Redemption rightly takes its place not only alongside gaming’s elite, but also with the classic westerns that were its inspiration.
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