Red Dead Redemption Review: GTA in the old west

GTA in the old west

Red and Dead

It is well known throughout the gaming land that Rockstar is a byword for open world adventure. When it ventured into the realm of 3D, the Grand Theft Auto franchise changed gaming forever. The seeds were sewn much earlier of course, but when Dan Houser and the luminaries at Rockstar made GTA III, they instilled a yearning for freedom in the gaming public.

Since then Rockstar has continued to perfect the same open world formula, sticking within the confines of the GTA universe. In 2002, they picked up development of Red Dead Revolver from Capcom and added their own spin on the Street Fighter giant’s work. RDR was a fun but ultimately linear experience which benefited greatly from the developer’s love of the spaghetti western genre.

Now, Rockstar has released Red Dead Redemption, a sequel which has shown as much progression from it’s predecessor as GTA III did from the original Grand Theft Auto. Another masterpiece from Rockstar and a game you absolutely must play.

Story (4 out of 5)

On the horizon

A brilliantly subtle opening introduces us to the taciturn hero of Red Dead Redemption, John Marston. Sandwiched between two old maidens lecturing each other about ‘saving the savages’ and a lecherous priest rambling about the evils of the world, Marston sits and ponders. It’s a beautiful way to open this epic experience and it serves to foreshadow many of the story’s key agendas.

Marston is a former outlaw who has been tasked by government officials to take on his old gang, headed up by his former ‘brother’ Bill Williamson. Needless to say that’s not all that is transpiring in RDR. Marston finds himself embroiled in shady government dealings, vendettas, treasure hunts, cattle rustlin’ and some mild grave robbing.

In true Rockstar tradition, the characters are all outstanding. Marston himself plays like the typical grizzled outlaw anti-hero, while those around him are grotesque, often hilarious variations on western archetypes. Standouts include snake oil salesman Nigel West Dickens, lecherous freedom fighter Reyes, and creepy corpse whisperer Seth.

The story is solid throughout although pacing is an issue, things take a while to get in gear but when they do, Red Dead becomes a classic tale on par with GTA IV’s epic grandeur.

Gameplay (5 out of 5)

Red Or Dead

Much like in Rockstar’s previous output, RDR takes some basic 3rd person gameplay mechanics and adds variation upon variation, quirk upon quirk, until there is so much to see and do on the frontier it’s hard to choose your next action.

Marston controls much like Nico Belliq, with some extra swagger added for that authentic western hero effect. Early missions at the Macfarlane ranch teach the player basic skills and abilities, from shooting coyotes to breaking in freshly lassoed broncos. These opening episodes are instrumental in capturing the wonder of Red Dead Redemption’s vast open world.

When not completing missions, Marston is free to make his way in the old west. Skinning animals (there’s a fun achievement for skinning a certain amount of grizzly bears), rounding up cattle, collecting bounties, hunting for untold riches, cleaning up at the saloon poker tables, chucking some horseshoes, throwing some bones, throwing some dice or just strolling through the wilderness on your favourite steed, saving/punishing the weak and killing/helping the wicked. In RDR, there is always something to occupy the player.

Aside from the main body of missions, which comprise the usual fetch and carry variants, Marston can help folk in need of assistance. This earns fame and recognition. A separate system governs honour, as is the tradition with modern gaming. Nastiness and evil deeds earn negative honour while valiant and chivalrous behaviour garners positive honour. This extra mechanic is not really needed but its presence is welcome and it gels well with the moral ruminations in the story.

It’s hard to get tired of RDR’s world, at its best it captures perfectly the spirit of the western genre and manages to be a solid gaming experience. Rockstar is used to this sort of thing so it doesn’t come as a shock that they have crafted another open ended masterpiece.

Visuals (5 out of 5)

The 'hero' of Red Dead

Red Dead Redemption runs on euphoria, the graphics engine first showcased by Grand Theft Auto IV, and the visual prowess of that game is improved upon here. The most notable aspect of GTA IV’s looks that has been captured wholesale for RDR is its excellent character animation. In-game cut scenes unfold with Hollywood precision, characters are expressive and lifelike yet in keeping with the overall visual continuity.

Aside from the excellent human models, RDR’s equine population are a huge accomplishment. Visually stunning, with intricate full body animation and brilliant mane and tail effects, each breed also has a unique appearance and varying degrees of speed and stamina, I mainly stuck with the mighty War Horse DLC, but there are plenty of nags to peruse.

Environmental design is awe inspiring, cluttered interiors are so meticulous you can almost see the dust on the saloon shelf and the wide open vistas of the Old West are suitably epic. Most travel is done on horse back and it’s always a pleasure to just gallop through the wilderness, leaping across rocky streams, through lush greenery and stark desert flats, taking stock while the beautifully rendered sun sets in the west..

The world of Red Dead Redemption is governed by an omniscient AI that controls the frontier’s ecosystem, Similar to that of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion’s Radiant AI system. This basically means that the player is interacting with a living, breathing world, the inhabitants of Marston’s world go about their daily business with or without his actions and the diverse fauna of the wilderness exist separate from the players interactions.

These kinds of environments have been created before (the aforementioned Elder Scrolls being the prime example), but never so convincingly. This kind of effect is taken for granted until one partakes in one of the many distractions of the wilderness, like random spawning side missions, wild animal attacks or unforgiving storm systems.

Multiplayer (5 out of 5)

Kill 'em all

Grand Theft Auto IV featured an online component that many didn’t expect and, while not fully realised, it showcased how open world multiplayer can be achieved.

Red Dead Redemption takes everything that was good about GTA IV‘s multiplayer and hammers out the kinks, the result is one of the most impressive online modes in a long while.

Players can go down the quick match route thereby eschewing any sort social organisation, but the real meat of RDR online is the free roam mode.

Creating a character using one of many unlockable skins, and mounting a chosen steed (you start with a cute little donkey), the player can roam the full RDR world, the entire map from the single player game is there to explore. The wilderness is populated with NPCs and challenges, completion of which earns points to upgrade and level up your character.


A long journey awaits

It’s hard to evaluate a Rockstar adventure. The fact that the game will be brilliant is a given, it then falls to the reviewer to analyse those little incidental moments, the ones that elevate the experience from great game to unforgettable masterpiece, moments that all Rockstar games are populated with.

That wonderfully minimalist opening and those first few baby steps into RDR’s world as you help Bonnie Macfarlane round up the cattle. Taming your first stallion then riding it into the sunset, ogling the passengers of a nearby locomotive as you go. Skinning your first deer and wondering if you should feel guilty, then saving a hapless cowboy from a pack of cougars and not worrying that you just eviscerated Bambi.

Cranking your dead eye for the first time, taking a deep breath, slowly picking targets then watching the varmints crumple to the floor. Strolling through a town and marvelling at just how many lines of incidental dialogue have been recorded, then riding alongside a companion during a mission and realising how wonderfully nuanced the scripted sequences can be.

Travelling aaaall the way to the Mexican military camp atop a huge waterfall and staring at the gigantic expanse of Red Dead’s world, this breathtaking vista, like the game in which it features, is something that all gamers should experience.

This post is part of the series: Red Dead Redemption Reviews

A collection of reviews and previews of Red Dead Redemption
  1. Preview – Red Dead Redemption
  2. Red Dead Redemption XBOX 360 Preview and Release Date
  3. Red Dead Redemption Review
  4. Red Dead Redemption Undead Nightmare Review