It is 1911 and the last days of the Wild West are fading at an alarming rate. Civilisation is encroaching deeper into the once lawless deserts and scrublands that have become synonymous with cowboys, bandits and horse rides across the prairies. The protagonist, John Marston, embodies the ways of the Old West, but he is forced to become instrumental in its final defeat, thereby paving the way for all manner of bureaucracy and governmental control. The romanticised life of the cowboy is being extinguished – as it is stated numerously throughout the adventure that is Red Dead Redemption, the lone gunmen are a “dying breed”. As the game begins, Marston is being dispatched by government agents into the western territory of New Austin. His wife and son have been taken hostage by the same agents, and he is now forced to track down the remaining members of a gang if he ever wants to see his family again. The men he is tracking belong to the same gang that Marston was a part of for most of his life, and that’s a chapter he is trying desperately to leave behind. Marston’s manhunt will send him all over the West and across the border into Mexico, a region on the brink of revolution and civil war. So starts Red Dead Redemption, one of the most meticulously detailed and incredible gaming experiences to date.
There is no denying that Rockstar San Diego has created a phenomenal sandbox action game. One would be forgiven for taking a look at Red Dead Redemption and branding it a “Grand Theft Auto with horses”. In doing so, however, a disservice would be done to both the game and the player. The sooner one can separate them self from this mindset, the better the experience will be. Yes, the user interface and control mapping is very similar, and even the way the story missions are activated is identical to more recent Grand Theft Auto titles, but this can be chalked up to the adage of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. While previous Rockstar titles were smothered in humour and glaring satires of present day society, Red Dead Redemption is a far more serious affair. The game is gritty and can be extremely heavy at times. It covers all aspects of social commentary, never shying away from topics like racism, rape, revolution and covert government control. There are moments of deep irony and uncomfortable retrospective assessments of American history to be found throughout the main story.
It isn’t all history and highbrow analysis of civilisation and social affairs; at its heart Red Dead Redemption is a third-person action title. As such there are hundreds of gunfights, raids on hideouts, weapon unlocks and plenty of explosions to satiate one’s need for action. The cover system is functional and the lock-on targeting system ensures that confrontations are accessible and fun. To further create a sense of playing a gun slinging cowboy, the shooting mechanic includes a slow-motion target-painting system called Dead Eye. The system is a treat and works incredibly well; gangs of adversaries can be left lifeless in the blink of an eye, if it is used correctly.
Beside the storyline missions (which in total should take just over twenty hours to complete) there is a plethora of side quests, jobs and environment challenges to complete. Every activity one would expect in a Western is here: breaking wild horses, hunting and skinning wild animals, searching for treasure, duels in the dusty streets of Western towns and even herding cattle. There are also plenty of random encounters that crop up. It is virtually impossible to ride from one town to the next without coming across somebody to help. Whether it is rescuing people from wild animals, recovering a stolen horse, or helping a man rescue his wife before she is hung by bandits, you are free to engage in these instances as you see fit. Help people and you will increase your Honour and Fame; leave them to their fate or exploit their peril for your own gain, and it’ll have the adverse affect on your social standing. Marston’s social standing then affects other elements such as the price of items in stores or whether or not lawmen will turn a blind eye to your commandeering of somebody’s horse.
The scope of Red Dead Redemption is huge. The playable area is massive and covers all types of terrain found in the great American West including: snowy mountains that give way to verdant forests, grassy plains teeming with buffalo, canyon rivers with massive waterfalls, and dusty desert scrub with cactuses and tumbleweeds. The environment is stunning and the areas feel authentic. Couple this with the brilliant soundtrack, and one is left with a game that captures the atmosphere of those famous Western movies. It truly is an amazing experience.
Of course, a title as big as this will not be without technical hiccups. The game froze twice during play, there are occasional texture pop-ins and there were mission-breaking glitches which made it necessary to commit suicide so as to restart at a checkpoint. The horse riding controls take some time to get used to and can be frustrating especially if haste is required before a target escapes and your horse is getting stuck on bits of terrain. In addition, a mission close to the end of the game requires some shooting from a mounted gun. Unfortunately, the cover that the gun is mounted behind had a tendency to stop the bullets from even leaving the barrel. This meant that despite the fact that the crosshair was trained on an enemy’s head, bullets weren’t going anywhere near him. Glitches like this mean that you’re entirely at the mercy of your AI companion’s skill, but worst of all it completely destroys the immersion that this game so carefully constructs around the player.
As if the single player experience wasn’t enough, Rockstar has added a substantial multiplayer component as well. The standard match types are included all with a decidedly Western feel to them. Competitive multiplayer rounds begin with a Mexican standoff: all players face one another in a circle and draw their weapons simultaneously. The last person left standing gets to hightail it to the best position on the map while the others wait to respawn. The best part of multiplayer is by far the Free Roam option, wherein the entire single player map is open to explore with up to sixteen other players. Naturally, the most fun will be had by forming posses with your friends rather than random strangers. Posses are also free to enter more structured multiplayer matches while in Free Roam, thereby turning the world into an interactive player lobby.
Technical glitches aside, the game is a masterpiece. The level of detail and thought that has gone into every aspect is staggeringly huge, and the voice acting and characterisation is, in true Rockstar fashion, completely flawless. Particular mention of the ending must be made: it is perfect. The conclusion is astounding, entirely unexpected and masterfully executed, leaving an overall feeling of having just experienced something incredibly special. This will, in all likelihood, be one of the highest points in entertainment for many people this year.