Growing up on both westerns and videogames, I’ve found it almost inexcusable how infrequently the two mesh in a satisfying manner. The “Wild West” has always seemed like a setting ideal for videogames, rife with lawlessness and conflict, yet the few forays I’ve had into this turbulent era of American history have been generally flawed or stricken with mediocrity, entirely unable to capture the zeitgeist of the time. Until now.
Set in the American Old West of 1911, Red Dead Redemption follows, in name alone, its predecessor, Red Dead Revolver – a mildly well received property Rockstar picked up. At its center is John Marston, a reformed outlaw whose bloody past comes back to haunt him as he is forced by government officials to track down and kill his former brothers in arms in exchange for the safe return of his wife and son.
The story spans miles of untamed and uninhabited territory that makes for a dynamic open world, brimming with life and personality. The landscape is diverse, featuring plenty of environments, and nicely captures the beauty of a once untamed west, with wide open vistas, stunning landscapes, and admirable draw distances. The waning frontier has been recreated with a noticeable attention to detail and authenticity. The world is also littered with dynamic events which you can typically choose to partake in or ignore, whether you stop to help a woman stranded out on the old dusty trail or find yourself being robbed at gunpoint with a decision to make.
Towns are brimming with life, offering all of the amenities one might expect out west – various shops and gunsmiths, property to purchase, random (and slyly funny) encounters with “Strangers” offering side missions, jobs breaking horses or doing a night watch, and gambling minigames ranging from Texas Hold ‘Em to Liar’s Dice to Blackjack to arm wrestling to horseshoes to Five Finger Filet. Given the insane amount of hours I spent simply cleaning chumps out in Texas Hold ‘Em and, later, Liar’s Dice, Red Dead Redemption was worth the asking price.
On top of all that, there are four classes of “Ambient Challenges” with increasing levels of difficulty, ranging from herb collecting to treasure hunting to marksmanship and hunting skills when roaming the plains. Hunting the many species of animals in Red Dead Redemption is another remarkably fun way to spend countless hours (and rack up major profit selling skins), too. Larger towns and areas also offer bounty boards, where you can take on the challenge of going after bounty heads for decent payoffs – more if you bring your catch in alive.
In short, there’s a hell of a lot to do, and it all leads toward establishing a strong atmosphere, selling the setting. With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar has managed to create something that isn’t quite as vacuously fun as a typical power fantasy sandbox in which players destroy all the things; I mean, you can literally stop to smell the flowers as you cultivate fauna. Rather, they’ve created a grounded frontier that carries with it the allure of exploration, almost akin to a fantasy game. I constantly found myself climbing peaks just because I could – or at least trying to see if I could – and generally soaking in the unmolested, formidable presence that nature still had in this era, as the last bit of frontier land braced itself against the penetrating throes of industrialization.
The game plays off this contrast, directly and indirectly, to great effect. Discovering some hermit’s lone riverside cabin and watching his rowboat bob in the river’s wake shimmering in the rising sun is invigorating. The small time bustle of formative towns standing stalwart in opposition to the dusty, sepia landscape is almost endearing, yet pathetic in light of the dominant monoliths they’re to become. These stepping stones to society as we know it, despite all their worldly vice, pale in comparison to the majesty of the undeveloped landscape, and feel as stifling as the governmental noose leash directing your surrogate cowboy, equally weighed down – but perhaps empowered, too – by the restrained, domesticated life he has come to love.
While the game features a wide open representation of the Wild West, it’s not without direction. The main story takes on a familiar mission structure, which introduces a full spectrum of interesting characters that we’ve come to expect in Rockstar games. More surprisingly, missions stay rather fresh and avoid becoming a slog, though they can wear on you if you power through the story; you have to do a lot of killing. They also help to establish the world and its inhabitants as real and believable characters. Even when you might feel like going from mission to mission to mission is taxing or that you’re being jerked around like an errand boy, the irritation actually works in context of the story, helping you identify even more with Marston who is contextually an errand boy perpetually paying off the sins of his past life.
The voice work is great, adding another layer of believability and immersion to the game and enhancing what is an impressive, thoughtful, and gripping narrative, while gunshots and other ambient sound effects enhance the world even more. The writing is at standard Rockstar heights, with almost all of the content simultaneously interesting in its own right and a critique not only on the society and culture of the game world and old west, but of today. Rockstar has a penchant for offering a variety of both layered and downright insane, hyperbolic characters to help drive home its points. The narrative is at its best in the game’s closing chapters, which, avoiding spoilers, offer a unique and unexpected game design decision.
Rather standard third-person shooting mechanics constitute hold everything together, with a convenient weapon select wheel for quick access to your diverse, period-accurate arsenal and the Dead Eye – a holdover from Red Dead Revolver — serving as Marston’s own version of time slowing bullet time. Also present are a Fame and Honor system contingent on your actions (are you John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or a sociopath?) and a Grant Theft Auto esque wanted system. The animations and physics give way to some gritty shoot outs and impressive horse controls. The latter lends itself to making on-horse combat a great alternative to close quarter shoot outs and cover.
The multiplayer, though I only delved into it briefly, was also rather cool (and has quite a few expansions since the game’s release). The game features a free roam mode in which cowpoke can posse up and roam the wilds together, accomplishing various goals, spreading debauchery and turning on one another. More traditional competitive fare, like death match, have a rather novel mechanic in which each match starts with an old fashioned duel, with all characters meeting center stage and scrambling in a wild shootout to see which team or individual gets off to the better start.
Red Dead Redemption filled the Western genre void in the medium with considerable aplomb. It’s content heavy, due in great part to its richly rendered open world, while its main narrative follows an interesting progression punctuated by wild characters and biting commentary. While it’s a shame it’s taken so long to deliver a rich Western inspired game, Red Dead Redemption almost makes up for the wait.