When analyzing a game that has been in development for 5 years and is rumored to have cost Rockstar San Diego around $100 million to produce, it’s difficult to know where to begin. I suppose we should realize that a large amount of hype and anticipation has been building for quite some time now, and if the game failed to impress, it likely would’ve been one of the biggest bombs of the generation. In truth, it was a tenuous situation for the developer and publisher; either deliver the greatest Western-themed video game in history, or take a flak bath from annoyed and disappointed gamers the world over. Thankfully, there’s no need to let the oaths and hostilities fly; in fact, quite the opposite: there’s little doubt that Red Dead Redemption will be the game by which all future Westerns will be judged in the interactive entertainment world, and although it has a few small problems, fans of Grand Theft Auto IV and Clint Eastwood films will be happy…blissfully happy.
The graphics have been a point of some concern for PlayStation 3 owners, primarily because the game doesn’t natively render in high-definition resolution, but the Xbox 360 version can upscale to 720p. Now, although I couldn’t see the two versions side by side, I did see both in motion; there’s very little difference and unless you’re incredibly anal and know exactly what to look for, you likely won’t notice. In general, Rockstar paid very close attention to every last ounce of detail and as a result, this is a Western in every sense of the word. The character design is excellent and the effects are both semi-realistic and very effective. What is most impressive is the overall scope of the production: when you walk outside, you see what one should see; various townspeople going about their business, a hawk winging high above, the gorgeous big sky that is so common out west, and acre upon acre of intricately depicted cacti, tumbleweeds, trees, and wildlife. There’s some anti-aliasing going on but besides that, it really is a satisfying, even breathtaking experience. The animations are slick, too, so mount up cowboy…the Old West has never been so immersive and convincing.
The sound shines thanks to an outstanding cast of professional voice acting, and expert music composition by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson concerning the appropriate soundtrack. The latter can be intimidating or mystically chilling, depending on the situation, and it never intrudes; only enhances. At first, I wasn’t the biggest fan of John Marsten’s voice – handled by Rob Wiethoff – but after a while, I realized it was damn near perfect. He has an offhand yet still gruff tone and it really works. The surrounding cast is fantastic as well (special nod goes to Anthony De Longis as the Marshal) and much like the graphics, the sound works to provide us with a truly believable setting. It’s surprisingly difficult to get great visuals, music, voiceovers and effects to blend together so well, but Rockstar has definitely pulled it off. The ambient effects, like the howl of a coyote, the surrounding conversation of citizens, and the crystal clear crack of a rifle round out a superb sound presentation. So not only does it look almost exactly as you would hope, it sounds unbelievable, too. …tough to find negatives when faced with this.
They’ve often promoted the wide open world and inherent freedom involved in Red Dead Redemption , and as soon as you complete your first few missions, you’ll understand why. Although I’ve heard that Rockstar doesn’t like their new title to be called “ Grand Theft Auto in the Old West,” that’s really exactly what it is, with a few extra layers of polish and some unique gameplay tweaks and features that serves to streamline the entire experience. It’s a third-person shooter that controls extremely well; you move as you might expect, jump with the Square button, run faster with the X button, aim with L2 and fire with R2, bring up a quick radial menu to change weapons (and select your fists or lasso) with the L1 button, and toggle the very necessary Dead Eye system by clicking the R3 button. You can also use a big ol’ map to assist in your exploring, sift through your inventory and keep an eye on your Journal, and do everything from tame wild horses, herd cattle, hogtie bad guys, duel, and pick off moving targets while flying down the dusty road in a stagecoach.
You can take cover behind a solid object (like a rock) simply by pressing the R1 button, and the system will be familiar to anyone who is used to playing third-person shooters like GTAIV and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves . It works just as it should, and although I normally despise auto-aim of any kind, I’m actually going to recommend using it, here. Thing is, all you have as an aiming reticle is a little white dot and many times, your foes are a good distance away and always on the move. The Dead Eye option works very well but it takes a while to refill so you can’t always rely on it. And besides, this is a very subtle auto-centering mechanic; when you first aim your weapon, the dot will be centered over the closest opponent, provided he’s visible. But it’s not a “sticky lock-on;” i.e., you can move the aiming position easily with the left analog to target an arm, leg or head. And by the way, nailing an enemy in the arm or leg will have exactly the result you would expect.
The Dead Eye system slows time to a crawl and allows you to target multiple targets with whatever weapon you have equipped. It’s a great system and is absolutely crucial if you wish to survive; this is because you can really only withstand about four hits when out in the open, and that’s it. This adds a great flavor of realism to the game (even though it contrasts sharply with the very unrealistic Dead Eye) and amplifies the heavy dose of authenticity offered by the overall presentation. I have almost no problem at all with the control you have over your main character, but I have a small issue with how you control your horse: the physics seem about right, in that a horse at top speed takes a while to turn, but I’m not the biggest fan of how you select your speed. By pressing the X button repeatedly, you can spur your horse to go faster and faster until the animal’s stamina starts to drain. Once completely drained, he’ll buck you right off, so don’t let that happen. This is fine, but you have to hold the X button down to keep a certain pace and this tends to conflict with the multiple presses to go faster.
I also found fighting while astride a horse to be a little awkward but I’m positive that’s more of a personal thing because there really isn’t anything mechanically wrong. Well, at least it’s not blatant. Now, the other problem I had came at the start during the missions where you’re still learning things: the tutorials pop up in the upper left-hand corner but it was often difficult for me to read it, process it, and immediately implement the directions into the gameplay. Again, a small thing but it should be mentioned. Beyond that…drawbacks and negatives are few and far between. Initially, you think Rockstar made a design mistake in creating such a massive world while forgetting that our fastest mode of transportation is the horse. But they clearly recognized that; you can take stagecoaches from town to town for a small fee and when out in the middle of nowhere, you can simply pitch a basic campsite, take a rest, save, and automatically travel to towns and settlements. Furthermore, because you can purchase or rent rooms and property across the map, you don’t ever have to be too far from your next mission.
But here is where we come to the meat and potatoes of the game; the two best reasons to own, play, and adore. The first is the aforementioned presentation. It’s just so…so… Western . It’s difficult to describe it any other way, but let’s just say that everything from the scattered ranches and homesteads to what I assume are true-to-life towns to how we view the entire world, is absolutely, positively, and without a shadow of a doubt, phenomenal. As is typically the case with things like this, it’s the little, seemingly minute details that elevate everything to the nth degree. If you’re out at night and you stray off the road, don’t be surprised to be under attack by coyotes; they’ll even get beneath your horse and take it down. And you know, they act like coyotes. They won’t attack stagecoaches and stay away from the road, and if you shoot a few, the rest will likely take off. Then, when I’m wandering around looking for buried treasure, the instant I realized I was in the wrong spot (“hey, there’s no cacti here”), I said to myself, “damn, what am I doing here?” Two seconds later, Marsten said, “what am I doing out here?” …creepy, Rockstar. Creepy.
But oh so very cool. And the other reason why this is a can’t-miss gem? Why, the sheer amount of stuff to do, of course! You can play poker, try your hand at horseshoes, have the guts to give Five-Finger Fillet a go, help out Strangers and citizens (Strangers will give you side missions and are denoted with a “?”), go on patrol for a night, take on a variety of ranch-hand-type jobs, accept Bounties, and purchase everything from weapons and ammo to a broad range of items and even new horses. In this way, it’s set up almost exactly like GTAIV; sorry Rockstar, but it’s the truth…and it’s hardly a bad thing. There are treasure maps, Survivalist Challenges (eg, find 6 of this particular flower), and a host of opportunities to increase (or decrease) your Fame and Honor. If you’re trigger-happy and you start shooting up saloons, or you don’t feel like going to the extra effort to take outlaws alive, you’ll soon get a reputation. And you know, everyone will start to react to you very differently, citizens, authorities, and outlaws included. The best way to take an opponent alive is to shoot him in the leg, switch to your lasso, reel him in, and hogtie his sorry ass. Sure, it’s tougher than just shooting him in the head, but do you want that Honor, or not?
I really believe this is a beautiful blend of GTAIV and Assassin’s Creed II . The latter really excelled due to the ambiance and dynamic style; the city folk and authorities would react to you exactly as you would expect, which is included in RDR. There’s also a semblance of stealth and patience; certainly more prominent in ACII than GTAIV. The game’s structure is GTAIV; no doubt about it, but they really do go above and beyond thanks to the Dead Eye system that never gets boring, a technical picture that is most pleasant to the ear, realism and authenticity we require (and love), top-notch control, almost endless freedom, and yes, even a pretty damn good storyline. I think they could’ve refined the horse control just a bit, some of the world really seems extra empty (even though I know that time period was “wild” for a reason), and a few of the missions seemed rather repetitive (“oh crap, I’m herding again ?), but such complaints are minor and indeed, they didn’t really hinder my enjoyment. Should I repeat that I went into this really hating Western movies?
So what does the above score say taking that into consideration? Even the online multiplayer is great; the various host of modes makes everything feel fresh, you really have to take your time and be precise, and there were only a few technical hang-ups during my matches. Never did find a Rockstar employee, though… Anyway, Red Dead Redemption is a triumph and although not entirely devoid of an assortment of little flaws and annoyances, it’s still one of the best of the generation. Saddle up and ride!
Personal note: We need to go back to when women wore hats. We just do. It’s such a becoming and classy look, IMO…the only place you ever see that anymore is at the Kentucky Derby, and that has gotten way too gaudy. Pretty hats on pretty ladies…the late 19th century had it right, damnit.