The western genre has never established itself in video games. The last good western game I can remember is “The Lone Ranger” on the NES. Well, it took 20 years or so, but we?ve finally got another great one, Rockstar?s “Red Dead Redemption” (“RDR”). RDR is brought to you by Rockstar Games, most famous for its outstanding “Grand Theft Auto” (“GTA”) series. Rockstar Games is also behind such outstanding titles as “Manhunt” (PS2) and “The Warriors” (PS2/XBox). RDR could easily have been titled “Grand Theft Horse,” since Rockstar lifted its GTA 4 formula from the present day and placed it in the Wild West during the turn of the 21st Century.
RDR?s story is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood?s epic “Unforgiven.” John Marston is a retired outlaw, trying to start a new life as a rancher with his wife, Abigail, and their son, Jack. Like Eastwood?s William Munny, Marston?s past comes back to haunt him. The U.S. government has strongarmed Marston into hunting down his former partners in by holding his family hostage. In the beginning of the game, Marston finds his quarry holed up in Fort Mercer but they quickly gun him down, leaving him for dead.
From there, RDR delves into the tried-and-true GTA formula. Once he recuperates, Marston must embark on a series of “fetch quests” for several characters, indicated by icons on the map, to advance the story. There are your typical colorful Rockstar characters, from the snake oil huckster to the grave robber to the corrupt Mexican general.
Aside from the story missions, there are side missions and distractions to enjoy. Play a game of Texas Hold? Em, liar?s dice, blackjack or horseshoes, pick up a wanted poster to bring an outlaw to justice (dead or alive, though alive nets you a larger bounty), or watch a movie warning about the dangers of suffrage. As with GTA, there?s a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor. Side missions appear as a purple “?” on your map and are worth checking out. Some are quite short and are an easy way to earn money to buy weapons, ammo, horses and provisions; some provide interesting subplots, such as the mysterious “I Know You.” Marston can also hunt and skin animals and sell the spoils of the hunt for money. There?s a wide range of game, from rabbits and snakes to boars and bears.
The most obvious distinction from GTA is the fact that in the early 20th century, people didn?t drive around in cars with radios. There?s no VROCK, just you and your trusty steed. The controls are quite similar, however. This means the clunky shooting-whiledriving, er, riding mechanic returns. It?s not so bad in RDR, however, especially since Marston can auto-lock onto targets and most enemies go down with a couple of shots or a well-placed head shot.
Marston also has “Red Eye.” Pressing down on the right analog stick (PS3 version) triggers “Red Eye Mode,” in which everything moves in slow motion and Marston can mark and shoot his targets while the meter drains. While this feature is a neat concept, there usually isn?t much need for it because you can simply keep auto-aiming at enemies. I would be shocked if I used it more than 10 or 15 times the entire game. It is helpful when you?re facing off against groups of five or more enemies, however.
The game tends to bog down a bit in the second act, where Marston goes to Mexico and gets caught up in a revolution between rebels and the Mexican government. It starts out promising enough, with Marston learning new tricks from a retired gunslinger (which should have been a larger part of the story). After a couple of missions, it?s clear that much of the second act should have been omitted from the game because it has little to do with Marston?s quest. When Marston gets back to the U.S., I forgot why he went to Mexico in the first place and what was going on in the U.S. when I left. From there, things pick up and the game builds to a great climax pitting Marston against his former mates. Just when you think it?s all over, though, Rockstar has more surprises. I won?t give it away, but remember – when you think the game seems over and you find yourself asking, “Was that it? Is that how it ends?” head on down to Blackwater.
The gameplay is good but doesn?t offer anything that GTA vets will find novel. Horses control very much like cars in GTA games. There are a lot of horses to be had, though they don?t vary in quality other than being slow, normal and fast. Once you get the fast horse fairly early on, you won?t use any other horses for the remainder of the game. Using the left bumper (PS3 version) will bring up your weapon wheel, which gives you instant access to your entire arsenal. It?s nice to switch weapons on the fly, though it can be a little distracting in the middle of a gunfight since opening the wheel doesn?t stop gameplay. Speaking of weapons, Marston can acquire a number of weapons, from revolvers and shotguns to automatic pistols and sniper rifles. Many of the weapons don?t come in handy, though. Again, the auto-aim feature and the fact that most enemies go down with one or two shots negate the need to have an expensive, powerful gun.
The graphics are impressive. The character models are par for the course but it?s the scenery that?s the star. The environment is awesome. There are snow-covered mountains, a gigantic river, great plains, frontier towns, Mexican villages, ranches, everything you would expect to find in the Wild West. Everything looks great and the developers obviously paid a lot of attention to detail. It?s hard not to lose yourself in the environment while riding from mission to mission. The only downside is that you frequently find yourself traveling the same trails. It would have been nice to have missions that take you all over the map.
The music is decent but forgettable. I enjoyed the occasional country interludes, though they were few and far between. I especially enjoyed the song that plays through the closing credits and found myself wishing there had been more classic country/western music in the game, even if it would be out of place.The voice acting is top-notch, despite the lack of Hollywood talent. I didn?t recognize any of the voice actors, but they all did a great job.
In sum, RDR is a great game but it suffers a bit from being so similar to GTA that it doesn?t feel fresh and original. I still can?t decide if it was sheer genius or pure laziness on Rockstar?s part but given their track record of outstanding titles, I?ll lean to the former. I also have to knock RDR down a bit for the Mexican missions. Nonetheless, I recommend giving RDR a try but maybe waiting until you can get a used copy for $30 to$40. RDR is a good start for a series but Rockstar needs to distinguish future entries from GTA. — Pedro Moreno
Score: 4 Little Goombas out of 5