Red Dead Redemption started out unceremoniously as a few images presented by Sony as Rockstar’s “western game,” and over the years got a name, went multi-platform and garnered an enormous amount of hype. The game is not going to change anyone’s life simply by playing it, but it did promise to give gamers the most immersive and entertaining western video game they’ve ever played, and on that score, it manages to succeed. It’s a sprawling game that manages to amaze and intimidate with the scope of its ambitions.
Set in the fictional region of New Austin, in 1911, the game chronicles the twilight of the Old West through the eyes of John Marston. He is a former outlaw, settled down with a farm, wife and child, until the emerging proto-FBI organization takes his family hostage with their release only on the condition that he eliminate his former comrades in his old gang. There is nothing innovative about the story of John Marston and in many ways, this is exactly as it should be. His story takes place across iconic landscapes and activities of the Old West and trying to inject novelty for its own sake into such a project would have been inappropriate.
The graphics engine of the game is an updated version of the RAGE engine previously seen in Grand Theft Auto IV, but in this case, less is definitely more. The lack of complex buildings and street layouts has allowed the RAGE engine to render immense amount of detailed landscape with classic Western elements such as tumbleweed rolling by and a sea of cacti in the desert. There are still some of the graphic glitches endemic to Rockstar Games, such as the occasional draw-in, pop-up and physics bugs as a result of objects and people incorrectly “spawning” into the environment as you approach, but the atmosphere of the setting has been wonderfully rendered. Light, in particular, is an impressive feat as the environment perfectly captures the feel of sunrises, the harshness of high noon and the rosiness of sunsets, complete with shafts of light that can “halo” characters when the camera is moved to block the sun with them. There’s no comparison between the visuals of Redemption and console exclusives, with the PS3 version being a sub-high definition resolution of 640p (the same as GTA IV), but the massive scale and thoughtful art direction more than make up for a lack of technical prowess.
Rockstar San Diego has also been quite wise in their sound direction. Once again, iconic Western sounds punctuate the music, with harmonicas, whistling, bells and horns to signify Arizona-styled deserts, or Mexican canyons. The music is austere, minimalist and complements the vast, empty spaces perfectly. The voice acting is the best currently seen in a video game, with amazing delivery and performances from all characters and dialog that feels authentic. The sound effects are treat, especially for those with an ear for the Westerns of film and television. Classic effects such as cougar roars, gun ricochets and the infamous Hollywood “Wilhelm Scream” are liberally scattered around to surprise seasoned audiences with their familiar sound, and each weapon has had an appropriate, theatrical boost to their signature sound. No, it’s not realistic, but it feels the way audiences expect it to as a result of the ways the Old West has been treated in the media.
Red Dead Redemption takes place in a massive pastiche landscape that is 1/3 plains of the Midwest, 1/3 arid American deserts and 1/3 Mexican plateaus. It is the biggest Rockstar game yet, surpassing both GTA IV and GTA San Andreas in size. That massive size makes for a fertile playground and Rockstar San Diego has managed to capitalize on it. Mechanically, it’s not inaccurate to say “This is just GTA with a Western coat of paint slapped on it,” but that doesn’t do justice to design streamlining and reverence for the setting that has gone into Redemption.
As with most Rockstar Games, players are free to follow the storyline, or simply wander about the landscape looking for things to do. Despite deserts and plains being huge, seemingly empty areas, there’s a lot to see and do. Rockstar San Diego has created an actual ecosystem of living creatures, so forest are populated with bears and cougars, and in the desert, vultures can be seen flying overhead while armadillo wander through the brush, and all animals can be hunted and skinned for money. There are also random encounters that run the gamut from ambushes to helping strangers to simple contests like shooting the most birds out of the sky.
The real meat of the game is the story mode, spinning a classic Western tale which, as the title hints, is largely about redemption. It’s here that the only real flaw in the game appears, as the narrative clearly wants John Marston to be a heroic figure, but has to reconcile this with the fact that players will occasionally (or in some cases constantly) want to indulge in homicidal rampages. There are honour and fame meters in place to inform players of their notoriety and perception within the world, but even the most bloodthirsty slaughter can be quickly forgotten by either paying a fine or using a pardon letter when a bounty is placed on Marston’s head. There is also the usual open world characteristic of the “star” of the game being essentially an errand boy, taking on tasks offered by everybody with barely any acknowledgement of how unusual this is for a man with an urgent mission.
The multi-player side of things is a definite improvement over GTA IV, but not without technical problems at the time of this writing. Players can team up in a “posse” and roam the entirety of New Austin and Mexico either fighting other posses or co-operating in team based missions, thus fulfilling childhood fantasies of riding into the sunset with friends and actually being able to shoot things. However bugs such as disappearing weapons, characters and even enemies need to be addressed in order to make multi-player truly shine.
Red Dead Redemption is a complete package. A compelling story with well crafted characters has been grafted onto a clearly familiar but evolved open world system. But Redemption’s greatest triumph has to be in its complete respect for its setting. The reason this is the best Western game on the market is because it is the game that most succeeds at making players feel like they ARE in the Old West. The setting is not merely a backdrop, it is the main feature. Small flaws cannot detract from the fact that this one of the most engaging and entertaining Games of the year, and, excepting those that absolutely loathe the West, it’s a must own title.