Just last week, Eurogamerís very own Jeffrey Matulef wrote an eyebrow-raising feature about his qualms with Rockstarís much-heralded, multiple Game of the Year-winning Western sandbox adventure, Red Dead Redemption. The free world, for all its faults and inconsistencies, is based strongly around the human right to express oneís opinions in the public domain, and itís truly a blessing that popular Internet sites have emerged as prominent forums in which to air oneís grievances and concerns. In a nutshell, thatís what I like about the ongoing ďWhy I HateÖĒ series: it offers video games journalists the chance to go against the grain and exercise their inherent iconoclastic tendencies, all whilst providing entertainment for the members of their loyal community of readers.
It was the most recent instalment of the series, the aforementioned exploration into Red Dead Redemption, that sparked in me the most potent sense of reflection yet. Red Dead, being a rare example of a game that had impressed me enough during its pre-release hullabaloo to merit a day one purchase, certainly kept me entertained during the annual mid-year slowdown in the video game release schedule, providing me with many hours of much-needed escapism after a stressful dayís work during those hazy summer evenings.
Red Dead Redemption was great, wasnít it? After all, it brought the gleeful, sociopathic madness of the Grand Theft Auto series to a classic Western setting, in turn delivering a neatly-woven story and a memorable cast of characters that would remain synonymous with outstanding emotion-driven video game storytelling standards for years to come. Surely, then, anyone claiming to display hatred towards it must have been doing so on a purely reactionary basis, much like a fickle music fan voicing his or her disdain for the latest chart-topping act. Not wishing to jump to such abrupt conclusions, though, I decided to put on my hat of retrospective thought and analyse just what it was that made Red Dead the game it is.
From the very start of the game, itís clear that much of Red Deadís allure is in its story-driven nature. Playing as John Marston, an uncouth ex-outlaw desperately trying to escape his dark history of thievery and brutality, youíre left for dead by an ex-comrade-turned-mortal enemy, Bill Williamson. Luckily, however, a kindly rancherís daughter by the name of Bonnie MacFarlane rescues Marston from his ungodly fate, nursing him back to health in exchange for the provision of manual assistance at her fatherís ranch. From then on, Marstonís raison díÍtre becomes increasingly apparent, leading him to venture off into the huge, wonderfully crafted open world in search for the redemption that will persuade the US government to return him to his wife and son.
All in all, then, itís a nice start that serves as an effective means of introducing Red Deadís main arsenal of gameplay mechanics, just as Mr. Matulef states in the article. But what about the rest of the story? Does the action unfold rapidly in a thunderous sandstorm of dynamism and heart-stopping impact, much like many of our beloved Western classics, or does it peter out into a barren sense of ennui normally reserved for caravanning holidays in the West Country?
The answer is a bit of both, and therein lies Red Dead Redemptionís first notable shortcoming. When perused in a casual, straightforward manner, the narrative seems solid and coherent enough to place it alongside some of the finest video game stories of 2010, and certainly above those of any of its GTA counterparts. When looked at under a microscope, however, things donít quite look so rosy. In fact, Iíd go as far as to say that things start looking a little stale and underwatered, and it becomes apparent that this epic montage of triumph, despair, hope and anguish might not be quite as airtight and focused as it once seemed. While one could easily list Red Deadís major incidents and plot twists and come up with something resembling a simple, yet effective classic, itís easy to forget how many hours were seemingly wasted in the interim.
Take the mission variety, for instance. To put it bluntly, one might almost justifiably call it non-existent. Sadly, as Marston gallops over the plains in pursuit of his ultimate goal, most of the errands issued to him by his morally questionable superiors amount to little more than exercises in locating gangs of armed hoodlums, followed by the inevitable shout-outs that ensue. Fairís fair, you might say; such larking about is customary in a Western setting. But the excuse wears thin after the umpteenth bullet-laden treasure hunt, and one might eventually conclude that the gameís filler material is ultimately destined to outweigh its core content, resulting in the loss of some of the punchiness with which it has so often been associated in the gaming press.
Still, though, I found myself willing to overlook this tiniest of drawbacks. Even during the sluggish patches, the game still did an admirable job of keeping me engaged with the going-on in Marstonís troubled existence, and there was never really a point during the main story at which I wasnít compelled to jump in for some more gun-toting action.
But then, the end arrived in all its stony-faced, poignant glory. I havenít really gone back since. Though I never quite appreciated it at the time, it took Matulefís article to drill home the fact that, on dusting off the main single player story, I never had the same urge to return to Marstonís world of barren hardship, finding myself no longer content to roam the wilderness during my precious leisure time. Yes, there were still tasks to be worked towards, mini-games to be mastered and unquestionably crucial achievements to be unlocked, but, to me, once the sun had set on Red Deadís long, winding tale of struggle and deceit, so, too, did it set on the gameís very soul. To me, once it was over, it was over, and no amount of grinding or tying up of minuscule loose ends could convince me that I was still working towards a solidly defined goal.
Then we come to Matulefís suggestion that many of the gameís supporting characters, ranging from Irish, an incoherenet drunkard, to Nigel Wes Dickens, a portly buffoon of a salesman, and Seth, an unashamed necrophiliac, are one-dimensional and lend themselves poorly to the more straight-faced grittiness of Marstonís odyssey. Crazy talk. What does he know? They all made for many a memorable moment of mirth and merriment.
But you know what? Heís right. Even though ďmemorableĒ would be an appropriate adjective with which to describe much of the gameís cast, several characters are built purely on their comical characteristics, and itís this over-reliance on comic relief that robs Red Deadís story of a fairly significant degree of its potential unpredictability.
And then thereís Marston himself, a man clearly in possession of a ruthless killing streak that could so easily make him a prototypical butchering machine, yet one whose reluctance to regress back into old habits renders him all too willing to do the bidding of those clearly residing within the realms of insanity. An unassuming spouter of clichťd one-liners and repeater of simplistic, unrefined sentiments of both love and hatred, Marston is, in hindsight, a rather plain individual in the Western context, and there really isnít an awful lot that makes him truly stand out in a world seemingly bereft of tenderness and warmth.
Maybe thatís the point, though. Perhaps itís Johnís overwhelming, make-no-bones-about-it plainness that helps him rise above and beyond the legions of gibbering nutters that seem to populate the Great Plains of the early twentieth century, and perhaps having so many comedic interludes serves to accentuate the biting forcefulness with which the more serious moments are executed. I wouldnít argue passionately against such a notion, but there still lingers a niggling concern that the overreliance on repeated punchlines and unchanging routines leads to an element of stagnation that Red Dead just canít seem to shake off, and one wonders whether or not it ever even tries to.
In an open-world environment in which murdering, pillaging and railroad-based frolicking are considered rites of passage, it would be amiss of me not to think carefully about how Red Dead Redemptionís gameplay complements its story and overall presentation. Once again, this was an area of concern for Matulef, who describes the cover-based shooting, of which there is undeniably an awful lot, as ďblasťĒ, citing predictable enemy AI and uncompromising repetition as the main reasons for his disappointment. Once more, as depressing as it may seem, heís right again. Heck, you could even add the excessively generous difficult level and much-maligned bugs and glitches into the mix.
Whatís more is that the gameís sandbox, though admittedly visually breathtaking and beautifully realised, can often work to the detriment of the immersion that Rockstar has clearly tried so hard to conjure. Exploring miles and miles of open terrain will always carry at least some form of appeal; indeed, delving into unknown territory offers a fine opportunity to satiate the basic human instinct for the pursuit of exploration. The illusion breaks, however, when the time comes to focus on the highly touted ďrandom eventsĒ mechanic, through which randomly generated NPCs may approach you during your lengthy treks into the sandy North American bowels in order to challenge you to yet more gunslinging showdowns or invite you to engage in the pulsating sport of flower-picking. It looks great on paper, but, then again, so do your first payslips, and even they start losing their impact long before they repeat themselves as often as Red Deadís so-called random incidents.
Basically, itís a bit like this. Youíre trotting through the hazy valleys to your next destination, all the while attempting to remain as surreptitious and inconspicuous as possible. Suddenly, however, youíre greeted by the dayís third or fourth victim of a pugnacious lynch mob, desperately crying out for help as he prepares to expel his final, strangulated breath. What do you do? Do you step into the fray yet again in the name of justice, further solidifying your growing reputation as the saviour of the land, the champion of freedom, the voice of hope for the downtrodden? Either that or you simply ignore him, realising that, no matter what you do, thereíll always been an identical dilemma awaiting you on your next voyage, one that will make no lasting impression on your fate or those of any character vaguely relevant to the plot. And thatís a bit of a shame because, without that feeling of moral responsibility, these random events add less to the gameís attempted sense of urgency and more to its tendency to become a nuisance and a distraction from its own internal smoothness and cohesion.
As with the Grand Theft Auto games, Red Dead is littered with a plethora of side-shows and mini-games and, as in GTA, theyíre almost entirely dispensable, throwaway gimmicks that can be engaged in or ignored according to the playerís whim. Again, just like those found in GTA, none of Red Deadís extra-curricular offerings can be seen as being particularly offensive, and some of them might even be considered sources of short-lived frivolity. Be that as it may, it would seem that their distinct lack of depth or in-game benefits has painted another target on Red Deadís back in the eyes of the critical video games forum-dweller, who might very well dismiss the game as a collection of inconsequential playthings amidst a void of empty space Ė a toy box of sorts, if you like.
One might think, therefore, that Red Dead Redemption genuinely wasnít as good as I, and, indeed, many others, initially thought. It would thus only seem natural to add together all of its flaws and half-baked ideas and label it an overhyped, overpraised heap of pretentious nonsense.
Yet to do so would be to do it a disservice. Yes, Iíve pointed out a great number of weaknesses and, yes, Iíve addressed areas in which the game falls well short of some of the standards weíve come to take for granted in this day and age. But what I perhaps should have made clear was the fact that, for everything is does wrong, Red Dead does so many things right. Think of it as a monument Ė a labour of love put together by a team that, on an individual basis, probably wouldnít have been able to create something anywhere near as impressive had it been more streamlined and smaller in scale. And letís be honest here; Iíve been nitpicking an awful lot, putting myself at risk of falling into the trap of failing to look a game in the eye as the overall product it sets out to be. What Red Dead Redemption sets out to be is a grandiose, touching experience and, for better or worse, thatís exactly what it is.
I realise that Matulefís article was written predominantly for entertainment purposes, and I acknowledge that he mentions his overall fondness for the game, despite his misgivings. But his words resonated so strongly with me because so many of his criticisms were absolutely spot-on, something that genuinely caused me to doubt my own judgement. Once my period of reassessment was over, though, I realised that my opinion of Red Dead Redemption had changed, but not in a bad way. On the contrary, accepting its imperfections whilst acknowledging its many great strengths has given me a new-found respect for what was already one of my favourite games of this console generation.
Love it or loathe it, Red Dead Redemption has sealed its placed at the highest echelon of the gaming elite, and long may it remain there.