Back in their days when they were just getting famous for making Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar released a Western game called Red Dead Revolver. It was utterly forgettable, and quickly overshadowed by Rockstar releasing more GTA games. So I was pretty shocked that they would announce a sequel in Red Dead Redemption. I was even more shocked when playing it, as it’s easily the greatest Western game made, and possibly the best game Rockstar has made in general.
The story stars John Marston, a former outlaw, who’s been forced by the government to find and kill Bill Williamson, a former member of the gang he ran with who’s now holed up in a fort in New Austin. After John fails at this and gets shot, he has to get a group together to kill him, meeting the standard assortment of Rockstar characters and taking a trip across the border to Mexico. I have always loved the way Rockstar does their dialogue, in a way that’s witty and informative, often making the pre-mission cinematics one of the most interesting parts. There’s also a lot of long horse rides from mission start to where the mission actually happens, and they always give you someone to ride with and some dialogue going on. John’s voice work is a bit spotty in parts, though, particularly when he’s shouting out at enemies or playing one of the betting mini-games. It has the requisite Western roughness that you know and expect, but it’s a bit too rough when you hear it all the time.
The game also manages to avoid the problem that hits some Western games: the West is not just a desert. In Gun, a Neversoft-developed open-world Western, the entire environment was just desert. There’s enough variety here, particularly in the third act, to keep you interested as you go through the game, not bored that you’re running across another samey looking desert for the thousandth time. And even within areas, I felt like I knew where I was in relation to the world, with enough detail to make each area feel different. The game’s world is also filled out well, with various side-missions. The nice part is that most of them are long-standing. Meaning that, if you suddenly run into a side-mission while you’re so close to a story mission, you don’t suddenly have to drop everything if you want to do it. Instead, you can get around to it when you’re ready to. The mission will continually be in the menu, and you can get those objectives done whenever. There’s also various random encounters, like bandits attacking people or such. Not only can you take either side you want, but you’re free to ignore it entirely and just keep riding on. It does have a feeling of “Buhwah” when you first drop into the world, so much stuff going on and so many icons on your mini-map that you don’t even know where to begin. Once you get into the groove, though, it works out fine.
The game itself follows Rockstar’s standard formula. You run around, do missions, kill bad guys, go on horseback chases. They’ve always done well in making sure that each mission feels different, though. I never felt that I was doing “yet another of THESE missions”. Whether it was a simple twist or just adding in a new gameplay mechanic, it keeps being entertaining. It plays out with cover and regenerating health. GTAIV did not have regenerating health, and after this and LA Noire, I can say I would much rather play a version of it that had it. It just takes away a lot of pressure from you, instead of those moments where you’re down to almost no health and you really don’t want to start the mission over again. Oh, and also, they put in checkpoints. Freaking finally. Now, I know they added them in on The Lost and the Damned, but having them here shows how much the GTA titles were missing without them. Now they can have longer missions with more pieces to it without it feeling like your death will be a huge pain. Thank you. Thank you so much.
The few problems I have with the game are minor in the long run. First, the fast-travel system is terrible. You can either get a stagecoach ride from one of the towns, or use it from your campsite that you can set up. The former is going to be out of the question early on, since until you start building up a good amount of cash, you simply don’t have the money for it. The latter just has too many restrictions on it. You have to be out of towns or settlements, away from roads and rivers, and on open flat land. I had many times when I really just wanted to set up camp to fast travel, and kept trying to find the magic spot that the game counted as “open flat land” for my camp to come up. There’s no reason it couldn’t have been done like Oblivion or the recent Fallout games, where you just select where you want to go and get sent there. The story also has a few problems. Although it’s a great Western tale, it’s decisively split up into 3 acts. The general goal is there throughout, but there’s a good deal of disconnect from act to act. For instance, in the Mexico portion, there was really no reason to ever go back to the US. The characters I had met in the US portion also barely appeared again for the rest of the game, just disappearing. The endgame is the worst part. While it makes sense in a storytelling standpoint, as a gameplay standpoint, it takes a significant dive. You’re just ready for the game to end, and you’re stuck doing tasks that you haven’t done since the opening missions. The final mission definitely makes up for it, but you really don’t want people getting tired of the game when they’re so close to the end.
Red Dead Redemption is really an excellent game. I don’t know if I should really be praising Rockstar for fixing things they should’ve fixed ages ago, but it’s amazing how much better the game has become once they’re fixed. The story is great, the gameplay is fun, the atmosphere is fantastic. This is the gold standard that all Western games will be compared to years from now.