in Review

Grand Theft Horse

Red Dead Redemption

I like Westerns. There are very few video games that have capitalized on that. Perhaps that is because historically accurate depictions of that era in U.S. history don’t exactly sound fun – lots of racism, hard work, and shitty weapons that are more likely to blow your hand off than your enemy away. But that reality didn’t stop the cowboys of cinema, so why couldn’t a game take the same liberties? There have been attempts, Call of Juarez, Neversoft’s Gun and Rockstar’s Red Dead Revolver tried to deliver quality Western experiences and had mild success, but the genre never had a truly great game. Until now.

Red Dead Redemption is not a linear action game like its spiritual predecessor. It is very much a Grand Theft Auto game set in 1911. Just like the GTA series, Redemption is all about the sprawling sandbox that you are free to explore. But the GTA games were all about wreaking havoc, filling a bustling metropolis with as much destruction as you could before ultimately succumbing to an onslaught of police gunfire. This is a game about enjoying a vast landscape and the strangers that occupy it. The game gives you a huge piece of land, from the U.S. to Mexico, from deserts to forests, mountains to plains. You will spend a lot of time riding around this land on horseback, and while it eventually does get boring, you never fail to appreciate the beauty of this digital world.

And there is a lot to do. You can visit various towns, engaging in games of horseshoes, blackjack and liar’s dice. You can hunt down bounties or actual game. Strangers will ask you for help and take advantage of you. You can search for a new horse to tame. If you stumble upon a gang hideout, it will be up to you to get rid of those criminals. There are even flowers to gather. Everything has a purpose and propels you toward some sort of reward. The developers did a wonderful job of filling this world with life. When someone waves you down, you never know if they actually need help or are about to open fire. And the cougars. Oh those damned cougars.

There is a main story at the center of the game, starring what has to be one of the most compelling main characters I’ve played, John Marsten. When the story begins, Marsten is being pressured into hunting down a member of his old gang by some government agents. The poor guy just wants to leave his old life behind, as the whole gunslinger lifestyle is dissolving around him. In traditional Rockstar fashion, the story is offered to you in tiny chunks, asking you to explore the world at the end of each chapter. Also just like other Rockstar games, you find yourself doing some kind of messed up stuff for really messed up people a lot of the time. But if you make it to the end, I believe you will agree that Marsten’s lengthy story was a pleasure to see unfold.

The game plays a lot like GTAIV, with mostly identical controls. They’ve added a radial menu on the left bumper to change buttons, which is nice but still a little clunky. There are three aiming modes with different amounts of aim assist, I preferred the middle option which lets you aim Modern Warfare-style, automatically aiming at the chest of the enemy you’re looking out when you pull the left trigger. You can also do a mark-and-execute style maneuver by tapping the right analogue stick, which is neat. Most important are the equestrian controls, which take a little getting used to before you understand how they work. But when mastered, it becomes a lot of fun to ride around, which is important since most of the game is spent on horseback.

On top of all this great single player content is an interesting multiplayer mode. The whole world is available for you and your buddies to posse up in, and there is plenty to do there too. There are also competitive multiplayer modes to play, which offer interesting takes on the traditional game types you’d expect from a shooter. Honestly, it all sounds great, but I haven’t really spent much time with it.

Red Dead Redemption is the first Rockstar game I have actually been able to finish. For all that I enjoyed GTA IV‘s story, I did stall out towards the end. I could have probably completed that game in a sitting, but I was done. I was sick of driving around a depressing city, running errands for jerks and constantly appeasing my ever-calling buddies. Redemption was different. The story was so good I couldn’t wait to find out what crazy character I would meet next. The world is vast and beautiful. There is always something fun to do. This is certainly a game worth owning. If you like the west, cowboys or sandbox games, I implore you check it out. Despite a few bugs, this is one of the best games I’ve played.