Red Dead Redemption Review: Saddle Up, Partners!

I wanna be a cowboy

Red Dead Redemption poster

Maybe it was my review of FrontierVille (http://www.networkworld.com/community/node/62663) a few weeks ago that got me in the mood for the Old West, but whatever the reason, I’m glad I picked up a copy of “Red Dead Redemption”, the latest game from Rockstar Games, makers of the Grand Theft Auto series of video games.

The comparisons of those games to Red Dead Redemption have been bountiful – I’ve heard this game called “Grand Theft Wagon”, or “Grand Theft Stagecoach”, with good reason – a lot of the gameplay in Red Dead is similar to those earlier games. Mainly, your character operates in a wide open world, and can be good or bad depending on your actions. Just like you can steal cars in GTA, you can hijack horses, wagons and stagecoaches in this game. Just as likely – if you’re spotted by the Marshals in this game, you become a wanted man and have to either shoot your way out of town (or run away really fast on your horse), or pay off your bounty with cash at a local telegraph office. So in a sense, the comparisons are apt.

But if you dismiss the game as “just another GTA clone”, you’re missing out on a visually rich and engaging storyline experience. Red Dead Redemption captures the romance from classic Western movies and TV shows, giving you the chance to play out scenarios seen in hundreds of tales. But also looming is the drive of “civilization”, as new technologies and people come to the western region this game takes place in, and the current citizens all have opinions about the new way of life. The game takes place in 1911, so inventions like motor cars and telephones exist, but are not necessarily commonplace, in this universe.

Red Dead Redemption screen shot
Your character, John Marston, starts the game by arriving in the town of Armadillo, having been sent there by two government agents (you learn why later). Upon entering the town, Marston immediately heads to Fort Mercer to track down Bill Williamson, a former member of your gang (you see, Marston is a former bad guy who is trying to redeem himself – hence the redemption in the game title). The goal in the game is to kill Bill, but before you can do that he shoots Marston. Luckily, Marston gets rescued and you start the real game after you recover.

The game has hundreds of quests, both main and side, which will keep you engaged and entertained for hours. In addition, there are lots of mini-games if you want to get sidetracked, such as playing poker, blackjack or Liar’s Dice in the saloon, or “Five Finger Fillet”, which involves a knife and your fingers (in the video game, it’s more of a button-mash, memory game”. In some locations you can also play Horseshoes (maybe we’ll get a Kinetic update in the fall?). You can earn money by going out into the wilderness and hunting animals, and you can also collect materials (by doing challenges) for different outfits in the game, which can help in different scenarios. Non-lethal quests involve driving cattle and taming wild horses, which made me think this was more like the movie “City Slickers” than an action game. Fortunately, there’s enough gunplay in the game.

At first I was skeptical about the gun battles in the game – western shooting games involve revolvers and rifles that require much more accuracy than I prefer – I’m always afraid that by the time I aim my gun, I will have received about six shots in the chest. That’s somewhat true in this game, but fortunately there are plenty of places where you can hide, making this much more like "Mass Effect 2", which relies on your ability to find hiding places while you wait for a good shot. Also, this game has a “Dead Eye” mode, in which your character can slow down time and rifle off several shots before your opponent does, and you can also shoot in specific areas, like the leg, arm or head. Once you figure out this, you can take on more opponents without having to worry about finding cover.

My favorite part of the game, surprisingly, is the voice acting, the well-written characters, and the storyline. John Marston is a complicated character, having been a bad person who is trying to make things right. The other characters in the game who give quests are equally as complex, such as the female rancher who initially saves Marston, to the marshall in Armadillo who can only do so much against the lawlessness going on around him. There’s dozens of other crazy characters you meet in this game, and some of the most entertaining portions are listening to the conversations between these characters when you’re riding off towards the next mission location.

My only complaint with the game is a very sensitive collision detector between your character and the AI-controlled characters. If you accidentally bump into people in town, they sometimes get hostile and then you have to shoot your way out of the situation. I also accidentally ran over a deputy marshall with my horse in town and became wanted, which can be annoying. Also, you have to go to certain locations to save the game, which is irritating if you’ve just completed a complicated task and you just want to save it right there. (Update: An astute reader pointed out that if you use the Improved Campsite option, you can save anywhere. Thanks!)

Still, those are minor quibbles. The epic scope of this game with its hundreds of quests, tasks and mini-games will keep you entertained and hooked for weeks. Kudos, Rockstar, for making me enjoy a Western video game.

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