With this latest instalment in Eurogamer's Why I...series of articles, Jeffrey Matulef discusses how he feels about Red Dead Redemption.
I've always been a fan of Westerns. I love the way they're full of spirit, adventure and gritty tales of hard men in hard times. The traditional dichotomy of dull browns punctuated by bright sunsets makes for wonderfully atmospheric settings - and such settings are just perfect for great videogames.
With this in mind I was really looking forward to Red Dead Redemption. I may not have been a Grand Theft Auto IV fan, but RDR's sparse, open landscape appealed to me infinitely more than Liberty City's cramped and bustling metropolis. Plus - horsies!
So what went wrong? How come I spent the majority of my time with RDR cursing its name to the heavens? Why did I take every opportunity I could to hogtie people in a futile attempt to dull the pain?
The game starts out promisingly enough. As you'll know if you've played it, John Marston is on a quest to save his family from corrupt government agents. This involves taking out gang members who have been terrorising the land.
After Marston is shot and left for dead, he's taken in by strong-headed rancher Bonnie MacFarlane. Bonnie, her father and the local town sheriff are all well-realised characters who help ease you into the setting. Marston begins helping out around the ranch as he works out how to accomplish his goal, and the momentum starts to build...
Then you meet Seth.
Seth is a Golum-like caricature, a grave-digging, corpse-looting lunatic who hasn't bathed in six months and is always looking for his precious map. Supposedly he'll be able to assist Marston in taking out his target, but it's clear he's off his rocker.
While any sensible man would consider this a dead end, Marston inexplicably aids Seth in his not-so-subtle requests to kill lots of people he believes have his map. Seth is obviously delusional and for all we know these people are innocent. Yet Marston carries on regardless, completing a further two missions for his new best friend, no questions asked.
Things only get worse as the game progresses. Later on, Marston assists a corrupt Mexican dictator in burning down rebels' houses so he and his men can have their way with their women. You can't continue on unless you make Marston, who's proven himself a proponent of the fairer sex on multiple occasions, assist in these actions without raising a fuss.
Maybe that's the point - Marston is a desperate man who will stop at nothing to save his family. But there's a fine line between desperation and gullibility, and Marston's behaviour suggests he's sitting on the latter side of it.
When the snake-oil salesman, Nigel Wes Dickens, ropes him into playing along with his charade, Marston swears, "This is the last time" - every single time. He's full of empty threats, a pushover willing to do the biggest favour for the smallest reward.
It's not inherently a bad thing that Marston is a morally grey character who takes orders from a bunch of scumbags. However, the lengths the player is made to go to push the boundaries of credulity.
Then there's the dialogue.
At one point, Marston allies himself with a Mexican revolutionary named Abraham Reyes. This guy's only character trait is that he's such a louse he can't remember his fiance's name.
This conceit handled with all the grace and subtlety of an elephant walking a tightrope. It's bad enough Reyes forgets the name once, but this running joke presents itself in practically every scene he's in.
The idea of a guy who's doing good things for his county but is personally a dick is interesting. However, RDR seems unable to present a character as flawed without belabouring the point to its utmost extreme.
Reyes is just one example. Almost every character has one outlandish trait which you're hit over the head with throughout each scene they're in. Irish is always drunk. Prof. MacDougal is a spectacularly and permanently foolish cokehead. Federal agent Edgar Ross repeatedly insists that he can't communicate with his own Native American informant, even though he's told multiple times that the man speaks English.
During the game's second act Marston takes an extended detour to Mexico, which is in the grip of a civil war. Both the military and the rebels are portrayed as ineffective drunken scoundrels - yet Marston aids them both, and neither side seems to care.
There are only two remotely likeable characters in this whole chapter. One is Luisa, Reyes' fiance. However, the fact he can never remember her suggests she is a fool to have any feelings for this creep.
The other is legendary gunslinger Landon Ricketts. He's a cool cat who dishes out vigilante justice to help peasants, because apparently Mexicans are completely helpless unless there's an American around to do their work for them.
Along with the outlandish plot and weak writing, the repeated use of combat is a serious issue. Shooting is fun, initially, with fantastic sound effects and the empowering "dead eye" slow-motion power which allows you to tag where you want your shots to go.
But the novelty wears off fast. The lobotomised enemies are content to stay behind cover, occasionally poking their heads out into enemy fire. They never even attempt to flank you, making the cover-shooting intolerably dull.
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And the West.
Harmonicas at dawn.
But hey, it's got horsies, right? Plus, it's got possibly the best setting I've ever seen in a game. The lush sunsets, bright, open deserts and dusty saloons are absolutely staggering. Eventually, though, even they are ruined by an over-reliance on to-ing and fro-ing all across the land.
I also hold a bit of a grudge against RDR because of how much time I spent on it. After a few hours I found myself bored and irritated, but a bevy of intelligent people whose opinions I respect urged me to go on. "Just a few more hours until you get to the good part," they promised.
A few hours later, they'd tell me the same thing. And then tell me again. And again. After several cycles of this I figured I'd already gone halfway through the desert so I might as well go all the way.
And you know what? They were half-right. [Spoiler alert - you may want to skip the next few paragraphs if you don't want to know the ending of RDR.]
Suddenly and without warning, John Marston reunites with his family and the game gets very, very good. Gone are the cartoonish, one-dimensional psychopaths. Instead we meet John's wife, Abigail, and his son Jack. The relationship between Marston and Jack is particularly remarkable. Their dialogue sizzles and the missions make sense.
When I recahed this point, and found myself no longer distracted by the sheer stupidity of the script or distracting thoughts of "Why am I doing this?", I began to enjoy the scenery again. Finally, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Then, two hours later, the game ended.
That last, brilliant segment is what really makes RDR so infuriating. If it were a complete pile of dreck through-and-through, it would be easy to dismiss. Yet there are moments of true brilliance, notably in terms of the game's setting and the father-son relationship.
These elements serve as a painful reminder of what could have been, and that just makes me all the more angry. If the rest of the game were of the same quality it could have been a masterpiece.
Instead, 90 per cent of Read Dead Redemption is devoted to meandering storytelling, embarrassing dialogue, thinly drawn caricatures and blase shooting. The end result is a game which is impossible to either completely write off or unreservedly recommend.