REVIEW: Red Dead Redemption

To say that Red Dead Redemption has been on my radar for quite some time would be failing to illustrate exactly how much I have been anticipating this game. Perhaps it is closer to the truth to say that Red Dead Redemption has stood out like an Imperial Star Destroyer amidst a cloud of conventional aircraft on my radar. If I had sonar, I’m sure it would have shown up on that too, nevermind my seismic and infrared sensors. In short, once I heard that Rockstar Games was making an open-world western title, you couldn’t have kept me away from it.

Red Dead Redemption is a sort of spiritual successor to Rockstar San Diego’s 2004 game Red Dead Revolver. Though the similarities are few. The name is obviously a shared factor, as is the publisher, developer, and general setting. But apart from that, Redemption is a very different game. While Revolver focused on somewhat more linear environments, and functioned more or less as a simple third-person shooter, Redemption is an open-world game in the style of Rockstar’s flagship Grand Theft Auto franchise. While this has prompted many people to label the game as simply “GTA with horses”, this simply isn’t so. Obviously there are going to be common factors, but Redemption goes beyond a re-skinned version of Liberty City and becomes truly special its own right.

In Redempion, you play as John Marston: an outlaw turned family man who’s been enlisted by the US Government to hunt down and kill the members of his former gang. Marston is an interesting character, simply because he’s so different from Rockstar’s usual protagonist archetype. He’s not a crude, hyper-violent, self-serving street drifter like you usually see in the GTA games. He is simultaneously more complicated and simpler than that. Marston is perhaps the first character I’ve seen from Rockstar that can be classified as truly likeable. Marston is tough when he needs to be and violent when the situation calls for it, but on the whole he has one thing that almost no other character from Rockstar does: he has manners. Marston is not a “city man” of the upper class, but he has significantly more class and style than those who are. He has personal honor, respect for those who warrant it, and love for his family. He’s just a cool sort of guy, and you’ll find yourself liking his character within the first few minutes. Plus he looks like Clint Eastwood.

While an in-game crossover with The Outlaw Josey Wales might have been
fun, it also would have been very confusing. 

The gameplay is more or less what you would expect from Rockstar. Most of the controls are the same as what we saw in GTA IV in terms of movement, interaction, etc. The differences are in the details. Riding a horse is nothing like driving a car. You can’t just hold down a button and let the thing plow through streets and civilians without a second thought. Instead, these horses actually feel like living animals. You want it to go faster? You’ve gotta spur it a little to pick up the pace. Want to go flying across the terrain at breakneck speeds? You can, but push it too far and you’ll wind up either being bucked off by your aggravated steed or you’ll find the poor beast dead from over-taxing its physical abilities. You’ve got to keep in mind that what you’re riding is an animal, not a machine. You’ll spend a good portion of the game riding from place to place, so it’s best not to be too mean to your mount.

Gunplay obviously plays a major part in the game, so you’ll be happy to hear that shooting feels solid and rewarding all the way through. Revolvers, lever-action rifles, shotguns, and even throwing knives all feel satisfying to fire, and you’ll fire them a lot. A snap-to-target style of auto aim is implemented by holding the left trigger, which can make a marksman out of anybody, but you can still free-aim at whatever you’d like (which is handy for taking out the legs of fleeing bad guys). The bullet-time-esque feature of “Deadeye targeting” returns from the first game, which allows you to slow down time to a crawl while you paint multiple targets, allowing you to string together a series of kills in the blink of an eye once you pull the trigger. Nothing makes you feel like more of a hard-boiled cowboy than fanning the hammer on your Peacemaker, blasting a crowd of outlaws before they have time to reach for their guns. Bliss.

I used that gun all the way up until the ending. Why?
Because Jayne Cobb. That’s why.

Now, I’m not usually one to go on about sound design, simply because I don’t know too much about it. So when I say something about the sound in a game it’s either going to be really bad, or really, really good. I’m happy to say that in this particular instance, it’s the latter. For starters, the voice acting is top-notch. John Marston sounds thoroughly grizzled enough to match his frontier-man exterior, and the supporting cast is just as fitting. Every character’s voice matches their apparent personality, be they a world-weary but competent lawman, a sleazy snake-oil vendor, a crazed treasure hunter, or a self-righteous revolutionary. All the voice work is wonderful, and it stands out above some of the other example of sub-par acting seen in many games.

But it doesn’t stop there. Along with the superb voice acting comes a whole plethora of outstanding sound effects. Everything just *sounds* right in this game. Rifles shots echo off canyon walls with a sharp crack, horses hooves beat a rhythmic pattern into the dirt as they gallop, piano encompasses the interior of saloons, and the calls of wild elk drift over the pine trees of forests. This is impressive stuff. And then of course there’s the soundtrack. The music in this game fits perfectly with the setting. You’ll hear plenty of great tunes as you explore this game world, and all of it is appropriate for the time and place. Fight sequences are set at a somewhat faster pace and make good use of electric guitar in a way that still manages to jive with the western locales. But most of the time you’ll be listening to the sounds of an idly plucked acoustic guitar, or the lonely sounds of a harmonica. Then when you get your first taste of a mournful, tired-sounding vocal track as you make your way into Mexico for the first time, you’ll probably have your appreciation for the sound of this game firmly solidified in your mind. I know that was the defining moment for me, at any rate, and made me glad that my pre-order copy came with a free version of the soundtrack.

It’s dull, barren, uninhabited desert… and it’s beautiful.

But as great as all of the above mentioned features are, the single biggest factor that I enjoyed about the game was this: atmosphere. Red Dead Redemption is probably one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played. Every last bit of it is dedicated in its entirety to making you feel like you’re in the Wild West. Go ride your horse out to the middle of the desert and stand on a nearby hill. Now look off into the distance and watch as a thunderstorm builds on the horizon. Then watch it wash over you and continue on into the distance. Get back on your horse and ride into the nearest town. Walk into a Saloon. Get a drink. Wander into a back room and join in a poker game. Lose. Get another drink. Go back and try to cheat in the poker game. Get caught. Duel the guy who saw you and blast the gun out of his hand. Then head back to the ranch and herd some cattle. Don’t like cattle? Go hunt a Grizzly Bear in the mountains then sell its fur at the nearest trading post for enough money to get that shiny new Winchester rifle you’ve had your eye on.

I think you get my point.

There is so much to do in Red Dead Redemption that it’s doubtful you’ll get tired of it even after you’ve finished the game and the credits roll. And even then you’ll probably want to go back and play through the story again just because it’s so darn fun. Redemption is unequivocally western, and the tale it tells as you progress through the game is engaging enough to stand on its own as if it were one of the famed Spaghetti Westerns of old, which makes sense as the game is essentially one massive love letter to Sergio Leone and others like him. In short, Red Dead Redemption is a great game, and its greatness is amplified if you’re a fan of westerns like myself. Its well worth checking out… per un pugno di dollari.

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