John Marston is the Clint Eastwood of gaming. Between the spaghetti-western shootouts, cattle rustlin’, family values marred by a troubled past, and the expected frontier cowboy charm, Marston brings to video game consoles what Dirty Harry brought to the silver screen. While this is great for Clint Eastwood fans, Red Dead Redemption takes this one step further by offering a prairie full of GTA-style fun.
The basic storyline follows ex-outlaw John Marston in 1911 as he shoots his way through American and Mexican prairies, deserts, and dust-up towns. His goal is to hunt down his former gang members while also saving his family from the government that is forcing his hand. Phew. The story is one of redemption – a man trying to distance himself from his past but getting more caught up in it – while also showcasing the dying days of frontier life in the American West. Every step of the journey feels authentic, and the sense of hardship and loss are permanent motivating staples throughout. Marston even gets mixed up in the Mexican Civil War for awhile, giving some political framework to the missions, but the ultimate goal is always clear: kill the gang, save the family, live happily ever after. Without spoiling anything, the end is surprising in both its gameplay direction and conclusion. Of course, once you’re done completing the 20 hours of story missions, you can continue adventuring to conquer the myriad of side quests.
The world that Red Dead Redemption inhabits, New Austin, is one of the star features of the title. The landscapes are lonely and dramatic, and often stretch far into the horizon. That’s not to say that the game world is empty, however. Between the number of busy towns and cities, random appearances of travelers, bandits, and damsels in distress, and the ever abundant quantity of wildlife, it’s hard to go fifteen seconds on the plains without seeing or doing something different. The inclusion of these elements–especially the very aggressive wolves, cougars, and bears–makes the whole experience feel dangerous. That is to say, there are only a few times during the course of the game where the player can nod off or not pay attention. The world is constantly moving and alive, and credibly so given the time period and place.
Mechanically, Red Dead Redemption feels very similar to GTA 4 in its targeting and motion systems. While those looking for a challenge can turn off the lock-on aiming, most will welcome its assistance as they attempt to shoot hundreds of outlaws and banditos off of moving horses, trains, and stagecoaches. The biggest improvement on the old system is the incredible punch that shooting offers, not only from Marston’s perspective, but also on his victims’ end. A shotgun blast to the leg will blow opponents off of their feet, and cripple them for the rest of the encounter. A shoulder shot reels enemies into a backwards spin. The gunplay comes across as extremely powerful, although a regenerative health system allows for some leeway on the receiving end.
Players will likely spend at least half of the game riding a variety of horses (and maybe even a donkey), which all look and feel incredibly life-like. However, when Marston decides to step down from the saddle, towns offer tons of mini-game options like poker, blackjack, five finger filet, and liar’s dice. There are so many randomly spotted side quests, in fact, that some players could even find them too draining to be worth the time, unless attempting to unlock different outfits, sharpshooter and hunter challenges, or that 100% completion achievement.
Also akin to GTA titles, Red Dead Redemption boasts a colorful cast of dirty characters, ranging from the leader of the Mexican revolution to a bumbling snake oil salesman. There’s even a pseudo-love interest with a female rancher, but as John Marston is a married man, he doesn’t mess around with other women (including the scores of prostitutes hanging around saloons). Even characters outside the main story are lively and rustic, including a surprise appearance by a ghost (I’ll let you figure out which one that is).
Multiplayer in New Austin sees players taking on the vast reaches of the prairies and deserts in online Free Roam posses, complete with a rewarding level-up system and plenty of game-types to please a wide variety of players. If you choose not to wander the mesas with friends, team deathmatches and team objective matches are only a menu away, and feature some of the more cleverly designed environments in the game. Each match starts off with a shootout between the two teams, and the last man standing starts with a bonus. Leveling up will provide players with better mounts, weapons, and skins, but the starting equipment is sufficient enough to be comparable to higher levels. Most players will likely find that the Free Roam mode, however, is more frustrating than anything else, as higher leveled players will just ride by lower level players and gun them down, forcing them to respawn every minute or so. Despite this unfortunate imbalance, multiplayer rustles up a boatload of engaging play options and ups the replay value of the game considerably.
One of the few flaws of this game actually derives from its strength, in that the massive scope of New Austin and all its inhabitants makes for a world of glitches. From a few dipping frame rates here and there to full blown doubled-up character models, glitching will be apparent in any play-through. The good news, however, is two-fold: few of these glitches ever get in the way of actual gameplay, and Rockstar is already working on a patch.
In Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar San Diego took a daunting task – transporting open world Grand Theft Auto gameplay into an American Western motif – and artfully, creatively, and (most important) effectively accomplishes it. Multiplayer adds hours of gun-slinging good times, though the single player adventure in New Austin boasts enough danger and variety to keep players lassoed in.