Before I was fully-grown, and especially when playing the first of the 3D open-world games (specifically Driver on the PS1), I would spend a lot of time thinking about my ideal games. I had big dreams for open world games, including a game that would feature a fully mapped out version of the UK as a play area (specifically, I wanted to be able to go to my own home in a videogame). Crucially, though, one of my crazy ideas was for a fully open game set in the Wild West.
Red Dead Redemption, as it turns out, is that game I thought up all those years ago. Actually, it’s much better than my younger self could possibly imagine.
Red Dead Redemption is a spiritual successor to Rockstar’s PS2 effort at the western genre, Red Dead Revolver, although the story is certainly not a continuation. I went into Red Dead Redemption with relatively little knowledge of the predecessor and do not feel that I missed anything at all. The story begins with a train ride into the depths of the Wild West, and introduces the character you’ll be playing- John Marston.
Marston’s past is intentionally shaded from view at the beginning, and gradually revealed to the player and cast of characters as the game progresses. Although this means that the story can seem distant at the beginning of the game, the gradual reveal makes the progressing narrative effortlessly engaging; in many ways, the player is set up to feel as much as a friend accompanying Marston as the person controlling him. Of course, this wouldn’t work if Marston fell into the same old Grand Theft Auto protagonist role- a character who is caught up in terrible events and despite seeming generally ‘good’, ends up committing completely heinous acts.
Rockstar have really outdone themselves this time, however; John Marston is clearly a well-meaning character (he notes that even as a bandit, he adopted somewhat of a ‘Robin Hood’ type role), and all of his actions reflect this. His bandit past, he says, is behind him- but he has been caught up in a series of events that are out of his control. He is driven by more than just basic desires, and as a player I felt a lot of sympathy for his plight. I did have a couple of problems with the plot at the end of the game, but at the risk of giving it away, I’ll just say that it was not simply a “let down” at the end- it was more a case of the story working against itself.
I won’t reveal too much about the story, as I found the aforementioned gradual reveal highly enjoyable, but I will say that Marston’s motivations and personality directly affected the way I played the character- for the duration of the narrative, I always did what I thought John Marston would do. Sometimes the game chastised me for it (particularly when I decided to execute a violent ‘pimp’ in full view of the authorities), but I always felt that Marston would approve of my actions.
When I wasn’t being swept away by the (on the whole) excellently-written plot and some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard, I found a lot of time for exploring Red Dead Redemption’s huge game world. I should point out that when I say ‘huge’, I mean that in the best possible way. The world is definitely large enough to explore for a long time to come, but at the same time not so gigantic as to have masses of useless space and re-used environments. The landscape is beautiful, and pleads to be explored, even simply for the experience of being there. I wasn’t around in the Wild West, but if I was, I would hope that it would be as wonderful to be in as this.
Getting around is no hassle, either. One can set up a small camp anywhere in the wilderness to fast travel or save one’s game, or perhaps take the train or a stagecoach to wherever you may wish to go. By far the best method of travel, however, is on horseback. Rockstar made note that they had spent a lot of time on getting the horses right when developing Red Dead Redemption, and it shows. The horses handle beautifully, and once you get the hang of it, riding around becomes immensely satisfying and enjoyable. You’ll never lose your horse, either; he’s just a whistle away.
The best thing about horseback travel, though, is that there is so much to see and do out in the wilderness. Members of the public are seemingly always in need of your help, and are often happy to compensate you for your time (in the form of hard cash, as well as Fame and Honor). Often it will simply be killing a few bandits or returning a stolen cart, but there is a lot of variety to these impromptu missions. For example, a poor old man was stumbling along the side of the road one day as I was heading to town. I stopped to offer him a lift, as I was going the same way. He went to get on my horse with me, but as he did so, gave me a mighty shove and revealed himself as a cunning horse thief. Thinking quickly, I decided swift justice was needed- and luckily John Marston’s pistol draw time is second only to Clint Eastwood.
The shooting system in Red Dead Redemption, while underwhelming for a PC gamer like me, has no real problems to speak of and is in fact rather enjoyable, both on foot and on horseback. There are three states of Auto-aim: full-auto, semi-auto, and off. Hardcore players will be fine with it being off, but for everyone else the semi-automatic system of snap-to-targets auto aim is fine, and certainly does not make things too easy. Supplementing this is the “Dead Eye” system: a button press will send you into a slow-motion target painting mode, during which Martson’s accuracy is perfect and one can select multiple targets to shoot at in a row, much like the system found in Splinter Cell: Conviction. Again, this is a nice feature, and adds a nice spice to a solid shooting system.
There are a handful of multiplayer modes to sink your teeth into, and while none are as engrossing as the single player game, the free roam mode is certainly not just an afterthought. By teaming up with other players and taking on strongholds and completing other challenges one earns XP points, which in turn unlock new player models, mounts, and titles. It’s a good way of keeping you playing, and although you do have to put up with renegade players who only want to shoot you in the face, teaming up to take on a gang of bandits is actually a lot of fun. Possibly the best reason to keep playing, though, is that once you have enough XP, you can select a massive bull as your steed.
I can honestly say that Red Dead Redemption is one of the best games I’ve ever played on a console. Almost everything about it exudes quality, and I’ve never felt more influential and engrossed in a game world than with the Wild West in Red Dead. Some gripes with the story aside, I feel that Rockstar have truly produced their best game to date. That seems a strong statement, given the huge success of Grand Theft Auto IV, but I really am serious. Red Dead Redemption is a standard to which all open world games should strive.