Red Dead Redemption Reader Review
Red Dead Redemption has been on the gamers' radar for a while now. Rockstar has given GTA a much needed rest and dedicated some time to its Wild West based franchise. Admittedly the initial Red Dead Revolver outing on the original Xbox was one that passed me by so I'm not sure if the two link together in any way.
So is this really just GTA IV with horses? Well read on and find out, friend.
You play John Marston, a former gang member who was abandoned by his posse and left for dead when a robbery went wrong. "Aha!" I hear you cry, "a classic case of revenge!". Refreshingly not so as John went straight. He has a ranch, a wife and a kid and he just wants to make an honest go of it. Unfortunately others have placed him into a predicament where in order to preserve his new life he must eliminate someone from his past. Ok, so it is the same basic revenge plotline except you're being made to do it rather than wanting to.
To delve any deeper could reveal spoilers so I'll leave the back story there - all the above gets established within the first hour of gameplay. About 20 hours into the single player game I can say that the story is still engaging and although some of the script doesn't always make sense (one minute at the neck of a guy you just met then within the same horse ride you're spilling your life-story as if you've known each other for years) it's a pretty enjoyable romp. I wasn't aware the Wild West was so full of modern curse words though, some conversations would make John Wayne blush!
The world is rich with life and has some of the best populace AI I have seen in a game thus far. Animals run and birds fly from gunfire, wolves & coyotes hunt in packs, people will greet you as they walk by, hold conversations with each other and one shopkeeper even abandoned his post after-hours to go throw a stick for his dog. After the rather drab and un-reactive populace from games like Mass Effect 2 and Final Fantasy XIII it really makes you feel like you are part of a living world.
There are four main elements (arguably five if counting exploring) to the game progression.
The main story is advanced in the same way as the GTA games, you will see the initials of the person that has a mission for you appearing on the world map. As has been standard fare since GTAIII, be prepared to trek across half the world to get things done and meet people.
Ambient challenges are a really nice addition to the game. These challenges are for Treasure Hunter, Sharpshooter, Hunter and Survivalist and have 10 ranks each. Gaining the next rank requires completion of a specific challenge or set of tasks. From the very mundane trying to work out where buried treasure is from a map (pretty much everyone will end up you-tubing the solutions I imagine) to the much more exciting gun-toting ones like shooting hats off two enemies. As these rank up you unlock various items, skills or items.
As an almost yawn-worthy pre-requisite nowadays to any storyline based game with exploration those mini-games make a dreaded return. As you progress you will unlock poker, blackjack, horseshoes, arm wrestling, five finger fillet, horse breaking and liars dice. It appears that winning each game once is all you need to get it to add to the completion bonus so any mini-games you don't like can be shelved after your first victory (rather than finish every game available in the world).
I found the poker and liars dice to be fun and addictive where as arm-wrestling and horse shoes bored me to tears. Five finger fillet was amusing for about a minute as I imagined myself as Bishop from Aliens, but that quickly dissipated as John Marston didn't start spewing white liquid and trying to strangle the local populace when I stabbed my fingers by accident...oh well.
These curious things come in two flavours, random populace missions and Strangers. Strangers are much like story missions, complete with cut-scenes, but you decide when to do them once unlocked. From things as simple as picking flowers to gunfights they are varied and help flesh out the main storyline a fair bit.
The second type of sidequests are the populace missions where you can choose to help or not help depending on your current mood. A small blue dot will appear at the quest-giver and you can either ride off or try and help (there is no formal 'accept' like all the others). The situations range from someone challenging you to a duel (one event where you are actually required to accept to continue) to chasing down a thief who's stolen a horse or money to saving a woman from being hung by bandits. There are a decent range of these available nicely break up an exploring session.
All add towards your fame/honour and so unless on a time-critical mission I will usually donate the 30seconds needed to fulfil these.
This is arguably the fifth element. Jump on your trusty steed and ride into the sunset. If you like poking around then you can fill your boots. Take down and skin a few animals, explore ruined houses, find treasure, pick flowers - all options if you so choose.
Aside from the main story is your reputation. As you do deeds you get fame and honour and these bring about additional bonuses such as more leniency from the law, cheaper goods, etc. There are a couple of other things that can happen too, but I won't spoil that. ;)
The control system in Red Dead Redemption hasn't been evolved much, if at all, from GTA. The terrible cover mechanics still persist, riding a horse is fine until you need to turn or get into a confined space (although setting the control setup to camera rather than horse did help a little). The whole thing just feels antiquated. After playing Splinter Cell: Conviction, Bayonetta and even Gears of War 2 recently I just felt underwhelmed by the control system. Thirty hours into the game and I'm much more used to them but I still find myself cursing as I inexplicably come out of cover or can't seem to get my horse to do my bidding. The only saviour is the dead eye meter, which greatly enhances the fun of combat, especially when rank three opens you choose your own painted targets.
If you've read my other reviews you will probably notice I tend to leave out games with a large multi-player requirement. I don't like most pvp multiplayer modes in any game. Sadly Red Dead Redemption has really let me down on the multiplayer front. Initially when looking at the achievements I was quite bullish about the chances of spending a bit of time on multiplayer with my friends and getting the full achievements, but not so much now. Like so many other games I will be turning my back to the online achievements.
So why the disappointment? As usual, the multiplayer is ruined by the players, not just the game. Free roam is the main game mode you instantly go to, from there you can setup a gang match or join the hardcore pvp matches. Fine, the hardcores and the PVPers can go enjoy that aspect but sadly in free roam there is no PVP toggling or safe zones. You are a valid target anywhere you go. Trying to clear out a bandit hideout alone only for a posse of four to show up, shoot you and then complete the objective is not fun. Re-spawning 100 metres from where you died only to get shot again by the same posse is not fun. Sadly that then turns into an infinite loop of you spawning and then getting hunted down. Its petty, stupid, and very, very poor design by Rockstar.
You either have to have the majority of members in your posse or get used to jumping from free-roam to free roam to avoid the constant stream of death dealt to you by players with attitude issues and questionable social ethics. The sad thing is I can understand the odd cruel posse killing innocent lonesome players once or twice, but 8 times before being almost bullied out of the area to a new instance isn't how I hoped the multiplayer would turn out. There are private free roams for you and friends, but typically, no free-roam achievements can be unlocked there, it all has to be done in public mode. Great, just great.
With that rant about shortcomings out of the way let's see what you can actually do in Free Roam. You can kill each other, you can kill one of the six bandit hideouts, you can do the ambient challenges. That is pretty much it. After an hour you've done everything and the will to complete the ambient challenges isn't really there. Go and pick six flowers whilst getting repeatedly harassed by a bunch of twelve year olds? No thanks. I was actually shocked at how little content there is to the free roam mode. I had hoped for missions, PVE environments, currency and items - I at least expected my trusty Indiana Jones lasso! Sadly what had massive potential really falls flat on its face.
Only achievement hunters, death-matchers and groups of children with a vindictive personality will get more than a couple of hours of enjoyment from multiplayer.
But it isn't all bad. The gold rush and free for all multiplayer game modes are fun for the first few times and the addition of the Mexican standoff at the beginning is pure genius. However just two play modes and 6 missions is a poor way to try and expect people to get to rank 50.
Maybe the co-op missions due for release in June will add something extra, but that whole 'riding the wilds with your posse taking down a buffalo' line from the multiplayer trailer was pure bullspit. Well you could do it, but it's not like a mission and you can't skin it either.
The graphics are great, the views are stunning and riding the horse in thunder and lightning were amazing. The world is very detailed and varied and one massive leap for Rockstar when you consider how out-dated the GTA's tended to look.
A few nice touches have been placed into the system to avoid graphical glitches. For instance if a bandit is standing where you need to park your carriage and doesn't move out of the way and said carriage happens to roll onto and kill the bandit then rather than having your head mash into the spokes of the wheel for the looting animation, it will simply just add the loot to your character and skip the sequence.
The frame-rate was pretty smooth too for the most part and so scanning the horizon for that distant town amongst the vistas is not a painful process. In fact I'd recommend you get yourself up high and just take a look around, it's truly beautiful...apart from the deadly wildlife and bandits!
Rockstar have gone for the minimalist approach when it comes to the soundtrack. There is very little in the way of constant music, but instead the various actions and circumstances are often accompanied by a little ditty or some such. It makes sense as there are no MP3 players built into the horse and even Lazlow's ancestors probably hadn't yet felt the urge to fill the airwaves.
Use of surround sound or headphones really adds to the atmosphere and the array of characters, voices and phrases are seemingly unending.
I can't really fault the audio in any way other than to say its a little quiet compared to the rest of the games I play. Having said that, whilst playing I have had all the windows and doors to the back of the house open for cooling as the weather's got rather warm and that probably meant a lot more ambient noise to try and shut out with TV volume.
Despite the terrible implementation of multiplayer and the lack of things to do there the main single player game is an absolute blast. The storyline never seems to pressure you into following it which gives you the freedom to take an hour's poker break or head off to that old town to rain bullets down on the bandits before going back on track. The random populace missions adds life to the old formula and the introduction of the ambient challenges gives you a little more reason to explore the world than some other sandbox games do. It's certainly a much better mechanic than colleting 250 flags, although in some ways they do kind of sneak that in with the flower collecting and wildlife killing - but you don't mind because its small amounts and broken up with other stuff!
Although a little gutted the limited edition I bought was pretty useless in that the bonuses are easily negated by other things in the game I have thoroughly enjoyed every second of my single player adventure, even repeatedly losing duels because I forgot the controls and had to go to YouTube to work out why my targeting wasn't registering (you have to hit the trigger when its white!).
With some updating of the control system, a few simple additions to the multiplayer and allowing free-roam achievements to unlock in private instances this would have almost definitely taken the game of the year crown and really distinguished itself as a leap forward for Rockstar and the sandbox genre. Sadly it just doesn't quite deliver on all counts and on a couple of occasions (melee combat, annoying cover mechanics) you do find yourself thinking 'GTAIV in a new suit'. Having said that the last two GTA's haven't lasted past the 4th hour of game-play before getting binned, so having put over 30 hours in already and many more to come, there is definitely a bit of magic in there somewhere.