With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar Games has nailed the Western genre so perfectly in videogame format that no-one else should even bother to try.
It’s a work of staggering ambition that takes in Sergio Leone’s epic sweep, Sam Peckinpah’s brutality, Deadwood’s grim humour and John Ford’s iconic Western landscapes, and all with apparent ease.
Developed by Rockstar’s San Diego studio, Red Dead Redemption is an open-world game that brings Grand Theft Auto’s (GTA’s) sandbox gameplay to the Wild West. Though there are elements of the game that will feel immediately familiar to anyone who played the publisher’s GTA IV and the GTA Liberty City episodes, Red Dead Redemption is far more than Grand Theft Equine. It’s the best open-world game of the current generation.
Red Dead Redemption is set in the dying days of the West, a time when mass transport and mass communications are shrinking the wildernesses that separate American towns and cities from each other. It’s a world where grizzled, laconic ranchers are under siege from rustlers, bandits, the elements and wild animals.
Cars, movie houses and automatic weapons are just starting to make their appearance and the federal government is trying to assert its authority over the frontier states. On the other side of the border, a Mexico ruled by corrupt army officials is on the brink of civil war.
John Marston, the lead character of the game, is caught up in the centre of the turmoil. He is a former outlaw trying to leave his past behind. Before he can escape his criminal history, he must help the government to round up the former members of his gang. It’s a classic Rockstar story template, with some obvious hat tips towards Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
If you’ve seen someone do it in a Western, you can probably do it in Red Dead Redemption. With high-noon shootouts, gambling, hunting, bounty hunting, arm-wrestling, bucking broncos, and countless other distractions, Red Dead Redemption’s game world offers plenty to do when you’re not busy advancing the story.
Many of these side missions and distractions have a surprising amount of depth to them. There’s also a set of entertaining multiplayer modes to stretch the life of the game beyond the dozens of hours you could spend exploring the world and story in single-player mode.
But it’s the missions, the ones that tell the game’s main story, that impressed me most — with their well-written dialogue, convincing voice acting, sympathetic lead character and cast of memorable scoundrels and outlaws. Red Dead Redemption is Rockstar’s best attempt at cinematic storytelling yet.
Basic game mechanics in the main story missions feel far more refined than they did in any of the GTA games. The game has none of the obnoxious difficulty spikes that you’ll encounter in any GTA game and there are plenty of checkpoints scattered throughout the missions.
The game nails its shooting and horse-riding mechanics perfectly, as well. There’s an intuitive cover system as well as a “Dead Eye” aiming system that allows you to slow time down and pull off precision shots. And these mechanics are put to work in varied missions based on classic Western set-ups such as an assault on a fortress and defending a train from marauders.
Red Dead Redemption is based on the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (Rage) that powers the current-generation GTA and Midnight Club games. The engine proves as adept at rendering the vast plains, dusty red canyons, and parched deserts of the American wilderness as it is at conjuring up GTA’s urban jungles.
Over every mountain ridge and at the end of every trail, the game offers up yet another scenic vista: storm clouds rolling in over the prairie, a full moon hanging over the bone-white sand and cacti of the desert, the crimson sunset bloodying the sky over a frontier town.
But it’s through small details that Red Dead Redemption evokes a strong sense of the hard frontier life in the West. Existence goes on around John Marston, whether he decides to intervene or not. There is routine and randomness in Red Dead Redemption’s world, just as there is in the real world.
Carnivores hunt rabbit and deer, human predators prey on solitary travellers in the wilds, soldiers line up innocents for execution, vultures wheel the skies above scenes of carnage, and wild animals raid animal pens at ranches. In the towns, people get on with their jobs, drink and play cards.
The score by alternative rockers Bill Elm and Woody Jackson is also praiseworthy. Their instrumental Americana soundtrack summons up the great, quiet expanses of the West, punctured by gunshots; the sound of horse hooves thundering across the plains; and wagon wheels creaking as they navigate treacherous mountain trails.
Red Dead Redemption video trailer:
Red Dead Redemption isn’t without its flaws — there are a number of visual and gameplay glitches, the occasional piece of wooden voice acting and some of the nasty object pop-in found in most Rage-based games.
But those minor problems are not worth dwelling on in a game that gets everything else right. It’s the game that fans of tough, gritty Westerns have been waiting for, even if they didn’t know it. — Lance Harris, TechCentral
- Game reviewed on Xbox 360; also available on PlayStation 3