I have been playing Red Dead Redemption for four months straight. I just completed the game’s story just last night. Red Dead Redemption is a game so incredible in scope, so mammoth in its ambition, so subtly flawed and so engaging in its narrative that it will leave an immutable mark upon its players and go down in gaming history as one of the most beautiful and detailed open world games of the decade.
Red Dead Redemption is powered primarily by an imaginatively conceived world filled with symbolic (but not realistic) characters and very well written and often funny dialogue. John Marston, the game’s protagonist, will come across a parade of interesting people, each with their own detailed background, motives and philosophical position. Set in an unspecified region of the Southern Border in 1911 during the last days of the Wild West, Red Dead Redemption deals thematically with industrialization and the loss of cultural identity that consumerism brings.
This theme of imperialism is communicated through John Marston’s struggle. A former gang member, government officials from the East kidnap his wife and son and will return them to him only if he were to hunt down the members of his former gang. Red Dead Redemption is a tale of a man attempting to escape from his bloody past while forces out of his control keep on dragging him back. To hunt down his targets, John embarks on an epic journey that will take him across the wilderness, through both geographic, cultural and moral boundaries.
Nonetheless, the methods through which the story is communicated are sometimes flawed. While the conversations that John has while riding with others are charming, funny and interesting, cutscenes are frequent and sometimes longer than necessary. Ludonarrative dissonance (where the player’s actions inbetween missions contradicts the behavior of the protagonist during missions and cutscenes) remains highly problematic, sometimes threatening to compromise the realism of John’s character as a whole. For example, it does not contribute to a believable character to have committed a mass murder spree in Armadillo and return to peacefully herd cattle at the MacFarlane ranch.
Red Dead Redemption, like Rockstar’s previous games, has of stuff available to do. Minigames and side-quests make up a wealth of content, making it very easy to become sidetracked from the game’s storyline missions. Gambling, hunting, collecting and questing opportunities are ubiquitous throughout the world. By simply wandering around, the player will come across strangers to help, hideouts to raid, animals to hunt, games to play and bounties to hunt. Succeeding where Grand Theft Auto had failed, all these activities are often very fun. The only dull activity available is herding, which is as frustrating as it would be in real life, which thankfully only occurs three times during the game’s missions.
All these activities would be undermined if the core gameplay were not fun, and thankfully, solid shooting and riding mechanics make Red Dead Redemption very satisfying and rewarding. Horses control perfectly, making the traversal of the vast world a breeze. Shooting however, takes a bit getting used to. On higher targeting levels, the crosshair is oftentimes too small to be useful and indistinguishable from the environment. Lower targeting levels solve this problem by practically putting the fighting on autopilot, targeting and tracking moving enemies even behind cover. Thankfully, the fantastic mission design and cover system make combat fun in spite of these limitations.
A new feature in Red Dead Redemption is “deadeye mode”. By pressing R3 with a weapon drawn, the player can temporarily slow time down to precisely target specific spots of the body and make extremely stylish shots. Deadeye is not as essential as it otherwise is on higher targeting modes, but nonetheless it remains integral to Red Dead Redemption’s appeal.
Red Dead Redemption is not perfect, its initial hours are tedious, exposition-heavy and gameplay light. The first few missions have Marston attempting rather menial tasks around the MacFarlane farm. Oftentimes, these tasks are frustrating (AKA: herding) and punctuated by frequent and lengthy cutscenes. Only when the player unlocks new areas and abilities does the game become much more involving.
Graphically, Red Dead Redemption is both artistically and technically years ahead of other games. Running on Rockstar's RAGE engine, the game features advanced lighting effects, incredible character animation, detailed textures and dynamic weather effects. These engine features are used to realize an incredibly atmospheric art style featuring an incredible variety of living ecosystems and environments. Practically every kind of conceivable Western environment is present in Red Dead Redemption, forests, plains, chaparrals, deserts, canyons and mountains are all depicted in incredible detail and color. Rockstar’s art team has utilized the technical prowess of its engine to create some of the most jaw-droppingly breathtaking vistas ever seen in a video game. In a time where more and more developers create dark urban and postapocalyptic worlds, seeing a setting inspired by nature is both refreshing and pleasant.
Need more persuasion? consider the screenies below.
The game’s animation is also beyond superb and features the incredible attention to detail that permeates throughout its every part. Characters are affected dynamically by physics and move realistically, seeing the muscle ripple underneath a horse’s skin is unlike any thing seen before. Hair, long a problem in realistic games, is a non-issue here. Shots and falls look painful and will make the player wince in their mo-capped brilliance.
Finally, Red Dead Redemption is an auditory treat. Voice acting is some of the finest I have heard in years; the game is spearheaded by strong, funny and emotionally involving writing and the nuanced performance of Rob Wiethoff as Marston. Powerful sound effects lend combat special intensity and natural environments a lively placidity. Music frames narrative moments nicely and gives a strong emotional backdrop for the story to take place.
I am really just nitpicking Red Dead Redemption’s few flaws, those of which are a perpetual element of any open-world action-adventure game. Although ludonarrative dissonance and an overly slow start detract from the game’s impact, Red Dead Redemption is still one of the richest, most inspired and involving virtual worlds that Rockstar has conceived in the past decade. Highly recommended. 4.75/5