Thereís no debating that making an open-world, sandbox game like Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption is a huge design challenge. Of course, the central story and characters have to be engaging and draw the player in; at the same time, the world has to be immersive, appear historically accurate and offer a huge variety of optional side missions and tasks. Too much linear story and the world loses its open feel; too little direction and the game's pacing stutters.
Red Dead Redemption, a sequel to Red Dead Revolver, might just be the most successful marriage of story and sandbox that Rockstar has fashioned to date. It is without a doubt the most tightly crafted and engaging Western-themed game ever created. With a film-worthy story, characters, and acting to a setting that feels authentic and completely realized, Red Dead Redemption is a masterpiece.
Although I admire their scope and ambition, I have always been ambivalent about Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series of games. The last installment had a interesting narrative and some memorable characters but I grew bored with running amok through the city, and while the main story had a cinematic arc, it went on far too long and the game's side missions grew repetitious. Perhaps it's the slower pace and historical settingóa very refreshing shift from the urban grit of GTAóbut Red Dead Redemption grows progressively more interesting with each hour of playtime. The scope of the story widens and new characters, weapons and abilities are introduced, and soon John Marstenís turn-of-the-century West feels like home.
Setting Red Dead Redemption in the early years of the twentieth century was a masterstroke, as it allows the story to toy with the cultural and historical shifts that new technologies (motorized transportation, electricity, telephones) were creating, not just in the cities, but in the rural West as well. This game is about the death of an old way of American life, told through dialogue that is ripe with pointed satire, philosophical musings, characters that are wary of the new inventions, and visual symbols such as the telephone poles and wires that have begun to intrude on the timeless landscapes. For all its subtext, thought, RDR is no dusty treatise on American history. It is an exciting third-person shooter rooted in a bygone reality and saturated both by violence and the promise of a better life.
Lead character John Marsten inhabits a world that is utterly believable. It is obvious that a great deal of painstaking research went into the game; this is not the Western landscape of spaghetti Westerns or fantasy Ninja Cowboys, but a West reborn from photos, books, newspapers, and first-hand accounts. While there is no doubt some liberties were taken, everything feels right and looks great, from the changing shadows moving across the landscape to the weathered wood on the ramshackle buildings. The seemingly barren vistas are teeming with wildlife and the town are populated by folk on the edge of lawlessness. There is something interesting to look at or do at every moment of this game.
From the opening cinematic and beyond, the main story unfolds at a leisurely tempo over three long chapters, portraying a man haunted and held prisoner by his past, desperate to wipe the slate clean and move on. At every turn, it seems, there are opportunities to make interesting moral and ethical choices that have a real impact (thanks to the game's morality system) on how characters react to the player. As the story points out on more than one occasion, America has always been a country in which the politically or economically advantageous action often trumps the ethical course.
In addition to the main story, there are dozens of mini-games and hundreds of side quests, from chasing down bandits to roping horses to patrolling ranches. There's poker, horseshoes, horse racing, and even a movie playing in town. Or, just strike out and explore the landscape and wildlife. While not every mini-game, main mission or side quest hits the bull's eye, the vast majority of one's time is spent doing something rewarding, interesting, and fun.
Westerns are all about landscape, and Red Dead Redemption gets this absolutely right, from the bright, light-saturated Mexican desert to the snow-covered mountains and everything in between. As mentioned, the attention to detail and art direction is astounding: this is a high water mark for visuals in this generation. The voice acting is never less than good, and most often is equal to the outstanding visuals and story. The music is comparatively minimal but still effective in evoking not only the lonely, empty countryside but echoing some of the classic Ennio Morricone scores as well.
Although gunplay is more satisfying than in the GTA games, and horses control much more precisely than automobiles, there are occasional small issues with movement and weapon switching, though these rarely intrude in a significant way. There are maybe a handful too many escort missions and a few characters who outlast their welcome, but in general, RDR's blemishes are insignificant in comparison to its achievements.
The multiplayer component of Red Dead Redemption is nearly as remarkable as the single player game. Although co-op is coming soon via DLC, players can team up into posses and fight other groups as well as AI enemies; there are objective-based missions, deathmatches, and enough content to extend the life of the game dozens of hours past the single player campaign.
One of the most expensive games ever made, it is clear from the attention to detail, lavish visuals, outstanding acting, and rich story that the money was well spent. Red Dead Redemption is the best Western game ever made, and certainly one of the top games of this year. It is Rockstar's most successful iteration of the open-world concept it helped to define with GTA. Its marriage of history, story, art direction, and wry social and cultural commentary make playing Red Dead Redemption a very rich and rewarding gaming experience.
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