Rockstar San Diego’s physical locale might be in the right ball park, geographically, but the present day California is nothing like America at the turn of the twentieth century. Set in 1911, Red Dead Redemption is the United States in turmoil, in change, in denial, and Rockstar’s latest open world adventure knows this, riffing off the trepidation and fears of a country undergoing a massive structural, economic and civil overhaul. A wry opening, with protagonist John Marston seated between fellow passengers of a very different social class, sets the scene nicely, with just a passing glimpse at what lies ahead as the train ride reaches its natural conclusion.
When the carriages pull up, and the game beings its epic tale, instant familiarity kicks in: Red Read Redemption might be set a hundred years ago, but it’s clear inhabitants of the Wild West control, aim and fire in a manner their cousins might do a century later at the other side of the States. Even Marston’s angled gait and heavy swagger brings to mind other Rockstar open world titles, and it’s clear the developers are keen to push the fact that Red Dead is essentially another notch for the Grand Theft Auto series, even if it’s obviously not canon. Movement is still a slightly awkward mix of turning and aiming (rather than just strafing) but a few minutes in and it’s like we never play anything else.
A few minutes later, and Red Dead takes its first twisty turn; Marston suddenly finding himself wounded and at the mercy of the game’s first (rather delicately paced) mission set. Indeed, your character’s structure then plays out like that of Claude, Tommy or Nico, with the on-screen map highlighting your current story arcs providing an open, mainly non-linear variety as the plot develops. At first, Marston’s focus is revenge, but as with all Rockstar titles there’s much more at stake here, and although most of what develops isn’t particular surprising (especially to fans of the genre) several original diversions (treasure hunting and some Zelda-esque subtask chains) break up the flow nicely.
Indeed, Red Dead is nothing if not diversive. The wide open plains of the Wild West (and, ultimately, Mexico) might appear to mimic the empty spaces that spoiled San Andreas but, as if taking cues from the likes of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, there’s pockets of interest throughout and eager gamers will get much more out of the traveling sections, populating their journal with a myriad of side-quests as they go, and completists will no doubt find things hidden amongst the cacti and deserts that a gamer rushing through will never even hear about. Your in-game map, then, will prove invaluable, and the printed one included with the game is just begging to be dotted with crosses with a black marker.
So far, so Liberty City, but Redemption’s setting is as distinct as anyone could have wished. Dusty towns pepper the landscape, rich with community and character (and individuality) but the natural earth provides just as much departure as anything man-made, with caverns, cliffs and chasms the home of secrets and missions alike. And because the world of Rockstar’s latest is already historic, documented, filmed, it appears just as we’ve come to expect the Wild West to appear: dusty sand dunes, dry tumbleweeds, cheaply built wooden buildings, moustached sherifs, cheap prostitutes – it’s Stagecoach, Tombstone, For a Few Dollars More, in style and substance.
It’s also visually breathtaking. Characters might portray that traditional Rockstar animation jerk in cut-scenes, always seeming to miss a few frames here and there, but in-game everything flows wonderfully smoothly, Marston and his horse a spectacular (albeit expected) highlight. And the scenery, which switches from seedy bar to blood soaked street, from desert plains to smuggler’s camp, is as solid, epic as we could have wished for; dynamic weather and a clever day-night cycle just setting everything off in rays of brilliant light effects. The music, sound effects and voice acting (with the main characters especially) are all at the top of their league too, and work perfectly.
If all this just sounds too good, the best is yet to come. Gunplay, rarely anything more than a literal bulletpoint for previous sandbox games, is sublime. Rifles pack a punch equal to a hundred submachine gun rounds and the game’s single gimmick (and carry-over from Revolver) – the Dead Eye slow-motion targeting system – comes alive now that Redemption is packing Euphoria. Want to target your fleeing opponent’s leg and bring him back alive? Zoom in, take aim and fire – the game’s astonishing display of on-the-fly AI and physics means anything (and everything) is possible, breathing new life into something that should already feel tired. Cover dynamics and smart enemy intelligent feature, so expect lots of pitched battles.
And all this is bundled with a sixteen player online multiplayer mode, including a generous free-roam option for you and your eight man posse. Mexican standoff aside, the multiplayer mode might resemble elements of other similar games but the fresh setting and the scope for ramping up your character’s skins, weaponry and horses available means that it’s well worth experiencing. Modes include traditional shoot-outs, capture the flag, attack and defend and a collect-em-up, but it’s the posse option, in which you and your mates can take on the computer co-operatively, that really highlights the game’s scale. Far more extensive that anything we’ve seen from Rockstar before, Redemption’s multiplayer has stacks of potential.
Potential that doesn’t need to be unearthed in the game’s main single player mode, though, because that’s there in spades and, over the course of a twisting, sprawling storyline delivers continously, always rewarding and always consistent. Red Dead Redemption might be set in the past, but manages to show everybody else how open world third person adventures should be done. Whilst not perfect, it’s certainly without any major flaw, and manages to be both without compromise and utterly compelling from start to finish. Marston’s story is one well worth telling, and this weekend you’ll have the chance to play it through for yourself. We’ll see you in the saloon, mine’s a tequila.
- Massive expansive adventure
- Gripping storyline
- Stunning production values
- Lovely setting, great visuals
- Some areas are a little barren
Rockstar San Diego’s latest title is an unmissable game for any fan of the genre or great action adventures in general. We don’t often get masterpieces around here, but this is certainly one of those moments in time when gamers will look back more fondly on a dusty old six shooter than anything that involves jacking cars. The Wild West, then, is the new New York, and Rockstar have got their work cut out for them if they want Grand Theft Auto V to come anywhere near close to the majesty of Red Dead Redemption. A job we don’t envy.
Disclaimer: this review was written based on the Xbox 360 version.