Red Dead Redemption Review: The Closest You’ll Get to Being Clint
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Sandiego & Rockstar North
Genre: Free-Roam Action/Adventure (Western)
Players: 1 Singleplayer/16 per session Multiplayer
Release Date: May 18th 2010 (NA), May 21st 2010 (EU/AUS), October 7th 2010 (JP)/ Game of the Year Edition – October 11th 2011 (NA), October 14th (Internationally)
Rated: M – Mature (ESRB)
Redemption puts us in the shoes of the bandit turned family man John Marston as he sets out on the hunt for one of his former partners in crime: Bill Williamson. John though isn’t simply looking for revenge or acting on his own behalf but rather has been forced into the service of the American government via the kidnapping and imprisonment of his wife and son. The rules are simple: find and kill Bill Williamson and his gang or Marston will never see his family again. With nothing but a horse and his pistol John sets out on a journey that takes him all over the West and down into Mexico, meeting a giant host of friends and enemies and getting himself entangled in more than enough action and adventure.
The game world, comparatively speaking, is about the same size as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas‘ if not a little bit larger and is divided into three separate regions (each further divided into counties). The environments of all three regions are very different from one another and even vary from county to county – ensuring that no two places feel or look the same. These varied environments are richly detailed: for instance Cholla Springs in New Austin looks like something out of Pale Rider – a flat plain speckled by cacti, rocks, and low shrubs while Diez Coronas in Nuevo Paraiso (Mexico) is a desert-like area surrounded by red painted mountains and cliff-sides. All of these environments, and the whole game for that matter, is created with a graphics system that while not the best by current standards is certainly praise worthy when considering how much can be on the screen at a given time at different distances ranging from five feet in front of you to the nearby town a couple of in-game miles away. The game is not without its visual flaws though, clipping and delayed textures can sometimes be an annoyance but depending on how much that personally bothers you it can be a big deal or not. Overall the positives outweigh the negatives when it comes to Redemption‘s visuals as I find myself more charmed by the brilliant artistic and visual design of the game rather than its technical prowess.
As an free-roam game Redemption is certainly raising the bar for future titles hoping to call themselves such. The one sin which many other free-roam games (even Rockstar ones) have committed is that they give the player a world but with little to do outside of completing story missions and the occasional side mission. Redemption not only features 57 story missions – each nearly twice the length of a GTA IV mission – but also features 19 “Stranger” missions, 6 different mini games, 2 different jobs, an unlimited number of bounty hunter missions, 7 gang hideouts which can be completed numerous times, up to 15 different outfits to collect, and more. There is also the spotlight feature of the game which are the random events. Essentially, these are situations that the player will come across as they travel around the game world. In each situation the player will have the choice to either help, hinder, or simply ignore people as they go about their own business whether it be lawmen chasing down fugitives, a woman stranded out in the middle of nowhere, or some unlucky bandit about to meet his maker thanks to a noose and a short fall. These events are a constant element in the game and you’ll encounter quite a few of them. All that being said, game length is no issue. After earning 100% completion in the game I had sunk a good 76 hours into my first playthrough. The best part about all this content though is that the player finds themselves wanting to do all of it. If a game can make its players enjoy almost every detail it has to offer than you know it has the makings of a great game and players will want to enjoy the experience over and over again.
On the subject of gameplay there is one element to the title that more or less failed to deliver: the very lite RPG-inspired mechanics. During the months leading up to Redemption‘s release gamers were informed about an Honor system and a Fame system. The Honor system decided whether or not your character would be treated like a good guy or a bad guy depending on your actions within the game world. This mechanic ultimately failed though simply because the game caters to being a good guy on account of the story and the character of John Marston. A good number of gamers expressed discomfort with the fact that they could play the game killing innocents and robbing banks one minute and then jump into a story mission where their character’s actions, objectives, and personality really did not fit the “bad guy” persona. The Fame system was nothing more than a joke. Fame was simply earned over the course of the game or by completing side missions and bounties. As your fame grew the only consequence was that an NPC would occasionally challenge you to a duel – that’s it. Then there were things, rumors really, which never came to fruition that actually disappointed many gamers including myself. Things like customizable clothing and being able to alter the physical appearance of Marston himself. Perhaps in future titles Rockstar will better implement these RPG elements to a point where they actually affect the game.
Very little do I get to praise a game for its soundtrack, but Redemption has driven me to do so. Bill Elm and Woody Jackson should really be given some sort of award for their work on this game – the music is so fitting and well used that it’ll seem like a crime if they don’t receive some sort of acknowledgment. The use of material from other artists was also very well implemented making for some strong scenes in-game. The first of these sequences will be when the player is crossing over into Mexico for the first time as Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away” plays in the background…a truly beautiful moment as Martson rides even further south as the sunsets.
If the soundtrack is worth giving my unwavering praise to than so is the story and the characters which make up this tale. Plot substance and depth is an area which Rockstar seems to be improving on as we saw with Grand Theft Auto IV. However; unlike Niko and his adventure I found myself actually emotionally invested in the character of John Marston and his plight to reunite with his family. I won’t spoil anything but I have no doubt that on more than one occasion the game will touch a nerve with a majority of players. Yet, a story is not solely reliant on its writing, the characters need to be vibrant and more than just a set of pixels. Thanks to exceptional performances by nearly all the cast, the player encounters characters that feel real, that actually jump off the screen and make you feel sympathy, hate, love, and respect for them. Very few games actually can pull such a thing off but Redemption has passed this test with flying colors.
Finally we’ve come to the multiplayer. Much like Grand Theft Auto IV, there is a public free-roam mode which the player will first have to jump into when they log on. In this public free-roam mode the player will have access to the entire game world found in the singleplayer portion of the game but with a few differences. While towns, gang hideouts, and such are still present there are no mini-games, no missions, no stores, and there has been a severe drop in both animal and NPC population. In the end this leads to the free-roam world feeling a little empty unless the server happens to be hosting a full game world. Even then though there is little to do in free-roam: each of the gang hideouts can be attacked for XP and some challenge requirements and that’s mainly it. Beyond that players can attack each other freely (leading to some cross words and frustration I assure you), form posses and have gang scuffles or attack hideouts, or you can complete a vast series of challenges ranging from shooting X amount of Cougars to maintaining a Public Enemy status for 10 minutes.
Where the Multiplayer shines though is in its organized matches. There are either team or free-for-all games and the two major game types are Shootout and Gold Rush. In Shootout it’s either one team versus another or everyone for themselves in a deathmatch style game. Gold Rush on the other hand has either teams or individual players fighting each other to be the first to collect ten bags of gold. I found this part of the multiplayer to be the most fun, the balancing can be a little off when someone has a better weapon than you but that can be easily solved by picking up one of the many other weapons lying around the map.
In the end, Redemption is an experience that really should not be missed. Fans of Westerns, free-roam games, Rockstar, or games which tell epic and emotional stories will be more than pleased with this title. This game has earned a special place in my collection and I hope to see more out of this Red Dead franchise. If you have yet to experience the game I highly recommend purchasing the Game of the Year Edition which includes the base game along with every single bit of downloadable content that’s been released including the Undead Nightmare expansion.
I originally penned this article a week after RDR was released in 2010. Taking that into account there have been numerous DLC releases since then that have further expanded and improved the multiplayer by adding additional PVP game modes, gang hideouts, challenges, achievements, weapons, characters skins, and even two mini games. There was also the Undead Nightmare expansion which I have yet to play (it’s on the list) but look for either an entirely new review on that or an update to this review.