Outlaws to the End: A Review of Red Dead Redemption

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The Old West made new again.

I rarely buy games until I’ve heard plenty of good buzz about them (namely from Chris Pranger). Not only did I buy Red Dead Redemption blindly, I picked it up on opening day. The word “juggernaut” is appropriate, as apparently 550,000 other folks put their cash down that same day. But this game has a high level of detractors; the first game in the series was mediocre, the mechanics of this one look a lot like Grand Theft Auto IV, and certainly nothing could drag game fanatics away from Modern Warfare 2, right?

You guessed wrong, friend. This here is a dandy game, and I’ll bet my spurs that 9 out of 10 adult gamers would agree.

Story- 9 out of 10

I must separate my standards for a good plot and good characters. There’s a mighty big difference between a fantastic plot (period) and a fantastic plot for a game. Red Dead Redemption’s plot and characters are quite garden variety for any Western adventure, and essentially it boils down to this: badass goes looking for jerk-wads, finds lots of odd jobs along the way.

Sounds like the usual Rockstar sandbox game, correct? Well, yeah. It pretty much is. But the praise I have for this game is less about the events depicted…and more about the mind-blowing story structure. Usually in a game, you start with easy jobs, learning the controls and features through ham-fisted tutorials (some annoying sidekick character can always be found screeching irate advice at you). Then you get the usual, medium-difficulty stuff that makes up the bulk of the game. Then you get the big, multi-tiered battle royale finale that sees you mowing down an impossible amount of baddies, expertly wielding the controls and collecting every item available.

And hey look at that, you have gun duels. Good on ya for that.

Red Dead Redemption tells this structure to go hang itself. I won’t ruin anything, but I’ll say this: You feel like a Western hero immediately, and there isn’t really a “work-your-way-up” structure. This is absolute gold for the experienced gamer, who is undoubtedly sick of being told what to do by some pixilated yahoo. Oh, and the last act of the game is genius storytelling, but DO NOT LET ANYONE RUIN IT FOR YOU.

The characters are pretty paper-thin Western tripe, including John Marston, who you play as. Marston is an ex-outlaw who wants a peaceful farming life with his family, but first he has to tie up some loose ends from his sordid past. Sound familiar? Along the way, he meets the quintessential strong female rancher, the maniac treasure hunters, drunken thieves, and burnt-out old heroes with no one left to save. They have plenty of good stories and quips to share, but we’ve heard most of it before.

The dialogue is predictable throughout most of the game, but it never gets cartoonish with the Old West vibe. You may tire of Marston calling everyone (including dead animals) “friend” or “mister.” The real gold in writing comes from reactions. Many times during play, I growled something at the screen, annoyed by my rotten luck. Then, Marston agreed with me by grunting, “To hell with this.” When Marston gets double-crossed (a frequent occurrence), he reacts the same way that the frustrated gamer would: He’s incredibly cheesed off, and ready to shoot something. Such double-crosses and traps are so painfully predictable that they belong on the Schrodinger’s Cat list of video game moments. Also, when Marston discovers something horrifying out on the lone prairie, he becomes unnerved, and a little suspicious of his surroundings. You do feel for this protagonist more than most video game characters, because he (like you) hates certain characters and likes others.

Gameplay- 9 out of 10

Here’s some hyperbole for you: in this game, you can do anything. Play the main storyline missions, those are engaging. But do everything and anything else; you can help strangers with their small tasks, attack gang hideouts singlehandedly, break wild horses, go hunting for any species, and gamble on card/dice/knife games. You can even herd cattle or hunt bounties. The possibilities seem endless.

While the options are stunning and fun, there are mechanical problems with some things. For instance, the cover system during gunfights is a little jumpy. One wrong twitch of the left stick and you get stuck (with your head exposed, for added frustration). On top of that, the horse controls are slightly inconsistent or hard to control, depending on the class of horse.

But hey, horses are tough to control in the real world, too, so consider that.

As far as the minigames, some are beyond addictive. If there was a portable version of the poker minigame, I’d buy it for thirty bucks…especially after finding the Elegant Suit, which allows you to cheat (don’t worry, boyscouts, I’m pretty sure those lily-livered punks are cheating too). Liar’s Dice is fun and easy, horseshoes takes some getting used to, and arm-wrestling is flawed. The game tells you to pay attention to your opponent’s face to see when you should strike. This is useless. The real frustration comes with Five Finger Fillet. Anyone who has seen the movie “Aliens” knows this one. You stab a combat knife in between your fingers to a specified pattern, like a bloody DDR between greasy cowboys.

A real delight for me comes with collectables. I squealed like a little girl every time I got a new, cool outfit like the Mexican Poncho, Brown Leather Duster Coat, or the U.S. Army Uniform. Collecting animal pelts, exotic flowers, and buried treasure is enough for a full-length game in itself.

Graphics/Sound- 10 out of 10

The landscape is jaw-dropping. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in a game. An HDTV really makes a difference. The characters are about on-par with any other modern game in terms of voice-acting and modeling. So far, there have been many visual bugs in Red Dead, including ghosting of character models in cut-scenes. Boy, it does ruin the mood when a character is implored to escape on horseback (and they obey) and at the same time they stand in the background repeating a minute movement.

A beautiful, if gruesome touch, is that you can shoot animals and people, and they fall in logical, anatomically correct ways. Then they crawl or limp away. This is the fabled Euphoria engine that was created for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, but here it actually makes a difference.

Just take it all in for a moment or two. Then get back to outlawin'.

As for sound effects, every firearm discharge sounded powerful and accurate, which was welcome. The animals each make different noises, most of which are appropriate for the species (some exceptions do apply here). Nothing is more unnerving than a long gunfight, followed by the tell-tale hiss of a hidden rattlesnake. The sound is a huge aspect of the game, and without a good ear for danger, you’re a dead man.

Some Frequently Muttered Judgments

Is it Grand Theft Auto in the Old West? Meh, not exactly. That’s an over-simplified view of this game. It borrows from GTA IV heavily, including the Havoc engine’s brand of third-person shooting. While I had trouble with GTA IV’s aiming system, Rockstar found a decent fix with Dead Eye. The cover system from GTA IV was very underdeveloped, and unfortunately the same problems found their way to RDR. And as far as the choices you can make as the protagonist, in both games it seems like a moot feature, as your choices do not affect much.

The great step forward from GTA IV is that RDR demonstrates a truly unforgiving landscape that you can play in. GTA IV, despite being so alive with activity, seems claustrophobic and unnaturally safe for a crime-rampant city of psychos. The renderings of the American Southwest and Mexican border towns in RDR contain hundreds of characters and thousands of animals, and they don’t value your life. You do have to rely on your wits and your tools to survive some encounters, but like any frontiersman, you learn from your pitfalls.

Conclusion

All in all, I had so much fun with this game, and it goes down as my favorite of the year so far. I give it 9.5 out of 10, because it isn’t perfect but it is raising the bar. It is rated M for Mature, so don’t buy this for kids. Buy it for yourself. Instead of following me on Twitter, find me on Xbox Live in a Free Roam session. Gamertag: KR Martinak. I’ll be the idiot riding a donkey, asking politely that you not kill me.

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