Red Dead Redemption Review
I think I'm one of the few who still carry a torch for Red Dead Revolver, Rockstar's action/shooter for the PS2 and original Xbox. I played and replayed that game for months, mostly because it found freshness in the western genre, one not seen too often in video games. The game wasn't overly complex, visually stunning or even an interesting narrative, but it was the Old West, complete with enough horses, cowpokes and six-shooters to satisfy the part of me that still insists that "The Wild Bunch" is one of the greatest films ever made. In making Red Dead Redemption, a semi-sequel in name only, Rockstar chose to scrap the original game design and go with a more "Grand Theft Auto" meets "The Outlaw Josie Wales" approach. Much to my surprise, the move worked and Red Dead Redemption is one of the best games I've played this year.
When you start playing, everything feels about as much like the GTA as possible, minus the obnoxious licensed soundtrack and overarching, racist stereotypes. James Marston, the game's lead, was once as bad as the old West made 'em. He ran with the worst of the outlaws, murderin', robbin', you name it. For reasons unknown (at first), he has been sent back out to the frontier by the government to round up the members of the gang he apparently traded in for a quiet family life. Things don't exactly go his way, and soon he finds himself on the McFarlane ranch, run by Bonnie McFarlane and her father. Your first missions in the game center on helping out around the farm, and eventually branch out to other towns and areas where you'll do everything from breaking horses and herding cattle to bounty hunting criminals and, finally, wrapping up what you were sent to do in the first place. The "baby steps" approach to beginning the game is very similar to how the GTA games slowly taught players what they were doing, and the slow discovery of the in-game world and its inhabitants – and the jobs they give you – will also feel very familiar if you spent any time with Niko Bellic, Carl "C.J." Johnson or Tommy Vercetti.
Thankfully, most of the problems I had with the GTA series are nowhere to be found in Red Dead Redemption. The targeting system, a huge issue in nearly every GTA title, is mercifully accurate and easy to get accustomed to. The missions, which, in the GTA series, could too often be won or lost based on dumb luck alone, are both entertaining and challenging, with none of the objectives dangling on the placement of NPCs or the inconsistent AI of your enemies that plagued past Rockstar efforts. Rockstar was long ago crowned king of the open world sandbox game, but I can't help but feel this is the first time they've hit the nail on the head.
Let's leave the GTA comparisons in the past, as there really is no comparison to what the developers managed to do with Red Dead Redemption. James Marston's Old West is comparable to BioShock's Rapture or The Legend of Zelda's Hyrule as one of the most interesting, multifaceted and undeniably "real" video game worlds in existence. Just because you are hunting a bounty or on a mission doesn't matter too much to the in-game world, as it seems to take on a life of its own. Rowdy patrons assault bar girls as you pass through town. Want to help out? You can, but you don't have to. The same goes for stagecoach robberies, vigilantes dragging criminals from the backs of their horses, lost citizens pleading for help… you'll see all these things and more as you work your way through the game, and the choice to act or ignore will begin to shape the world around you. Two systems, honor and fame, will change the world based on your decisions. If you choose to be a nice cowboy and help people out, news of your heroism will spread and NPCs will act accordingly. Shop prices go down and local law enforcement may look the other way should you decide to, say, steal someone's horse. Conversely, acting like a total jerk will make NPCs less likely to help out and bounties may even be placed on your head, causing the dumb and bold alike to begin gunning for you. In the very same way Mass Effect 2 made you feel as though you WERE Commander Shepard, Red Dead Redemption builds based on how you choose to play, making coming back to the game over and over almost a necessity.