Red Dead Redemption Reader Review
It’s now been over a year since the release of Red Dead Redemption. Showered with praise from critics and gamers alike upon its release for its depiction of the old west, a setting criminally ignored in the medium of videogames, it enjoyed massive sales. Several downloadable expansions and a year of hindsight later and, while its status as a classic endures, it has been tempered by criticism from some that was perhaps drowned out during the fanfare from its first weeks on sale - almost entirely subjected at the single-player side of the game, which is what I will be looking at here.
I will admit, straight up, to not really understanding the praise it got after sinking some hours into it myself when my copy landed on my doormat. Indeed, I didn’t finish it – whether tempted away by other releases or other concerns, I can’t quite remember now. But I definitely remember feeling somewhat disappointed by it. Perhaps because, more than anything that Rockstar has ever produced, Red Dead Redemption is a game that takes itself incredibly seriously. A thick vein of black satire has typically existed in Rockstar’s games – from Max Payne to Manhunt and, of course, Grand Theft Auto (which arguably single-handedly created the sandbox genre in the first place) but, some mildly ridiculous and comical characters aside, RDR plays it straight. Grand Theft Auto IV has been heavily criticised by gamers for forgetting what fun is; however it is hard to take that seriously after listening to the chatter on the radio stations. And Niko Bellic was always on hand to offer his own scathing, sarcastic commentary on the actions of the characters around him, particularly when finding himself confronted in larger-than-life situations. John Marston, RDR’s protagonist and the main playable character, however, offers no such wit. Even when characters around him are defiling corpses or begging him to recover their lost equine love, his responses to such over-the-top depravity rarely ascend beyond dry variations “you need help, friend”.
But I digress. At its core, Red Dead Redemption is a homage to the Old West of America. Not just the Old West of film and pulp fiction, but also of history. It is a game that mixes fictional stereotypes of grave robbers and tinky-tonk piano being played in rickety Saloons with philosophical debates on the nature of civilisation and the march of progress. It employs some bold narrative themes and some inspired creative direction to create what is, without doubt, as definitive an interpretation of the setting that the medium has yet seen. That is not to say it gets everything right (which we will get to later and to which I have already alluded), but in terms of atmosphere, setting and environments, Red Dead Redemption [i]nails it[/i].
The graphics are sublime, though have since been surpassed over time. Rendered using the RAGE engine previously seen in GTAIV, Rockstar has eschewed the exaggerated caricatures of its flagship series and employed a far more realistic, nuanced style. Washed-out landscapes blaze under the desert sun whilst buffalo graze in the distance and tumbleweed rolls across the arid ground at your feet. The view distance is impressive, with vistas stretching as far as the eye can see. There are some aliasing issues that are heavily apparent in some parts of the environment (particularly the snowy mountains later on in the game), but thankfully most of the technical bugs that plagued the title at the time of release have since been fixed through extensive updates in the past year. No more will your character ride the plains suspended midair upon an invisible horse like some cowboy incarnation of Wonder Woman. The environment is sparsely populated, with some small settlements peppering the gameworld – little more than a handful of shacks in most cases – and the occasional NPC sprinting past on a horse or calling for help, but for the most part all you can see will be yourself, a dusty road, and the wide open country. It creates a sense of isolation and natural beauty in keeping with the setting. This really is an untamed frontier.
The audio, too, draws you into this atmosphere. Music is sparse during your journeys, punctuating only moments of action or the occasional scripted sequence – the transition over the border to Mexico is a particular audio highlight. Other than that, most of the time the only thing breaking the silence will be the sound of wind in your ears and birds calling overhead. It’s mesmerising.
Sadly though, for all its atmospheric grandeur, it is precisely these issues which can often infringe upon your enjoyment of the game. The sense of isolation and a frontier untouched by man can lead to great lulls in pacing and action. This is not helped by a structure which seems content to rely on endless shootouts or the occasional escort mission. It feels almost as though Rockstar were so determined to create a convincing world to inhabit that they forgot to populate it with interesting things to [i]do[/i]. Of course, criticisms about repetitive missions are common in the genre – GTAIV certainly featured its share of shootouts against waves of goons, and Just Cause 2 could hardly be accused of boundless variety – but those games also offered you the chance to cause chaos in every corner of their worlds and write your own stories through increasingly ludicrous feats of anarchy. Unfortunately, the empty expanses of RDR prevent this. What is fundamental for creating a convincing setting and atmosphere works against the ability to create a consistently engaging sandbox game between pursuing the core missions. There are some brief moments of variety – an early mission involving herding cattle, a stealth mission that sees you attempting to rob a train under heavy guard – but these are brief and once completed, the mechanics are never used or needed ever again.
There are, of course, optional activities to undertake aside from the core story. Hunting, gathering herbs, playing cards in a local saloon and pursuing bounties are all present. But they feel like a wasted opportunity in many cases. Bounty Hunting is merely an endless procession of the shootouts already so prevalent in the main game. Hunting and gathering are, fundamentally, no different from the sorts of grind-intensive missions so often decried in MMOs – travel here, kill/.collect X amount of that. Playing cards is mildly diverting but the AI of your opponents is rarely convincing and regularly makes incredibly stupid – and often statistically impossible –moves (guessing there are 5 die showing a 6 on their face when only 4 on the table?), and the money gained is effectively useless due the game giving you nothing of worth to purchase that you won’t easily obtain throughout the course of normal play. Of all the diversions, the most interesting is Treasure Hunting, which sees you provided with a rough sketch of an environmental feature in the gameworld and sees you, well, hunting treasure.
There are also side missions (here called Stranger encounters), which are often entertainingly written and touch on subjects such as prohibition or the rise of the motion picture but are all too brief, and again simply repeat the same the structural tropes as the main story missions. Last but not least are random encounters. Occasionally, riding across the world, a blue dot may appear on your minimap where you can offer assistance. These brief activities might involve fending off a group of bandits (another shooting gallery exercise), riding someone into town (more often than not a good few minutes in the opposite direction to where you were headed), recovering a stolen horse, etc. While these are mildly diverting the first few times, they quickly become repetitive (particularly due to hearing exactly the same dialogue and models over... and over... and over... again) and the lack of any worthwhile reward or any punitive measure for not engaging in them quickly makes them meaningless. You’ll soon learn to just ride past them.
The story, however, thankfully is largely excellent. Despite some incredibly poor pacing (the previously mentioned epic arrival in Mexico fast loses its impact when you realise you will simply be repeating the same mission types that you have already become bored of, and also loses a great deal of narrative momentum through the introduction of poorly-developed characters), the overall story of Red Redemption is fantastic and the dialogue, though dry, is excellently delivered by an accomplished array of actors. RDR deals with quite heavy themes for a videogame – the struggle of nature versus technological advances, of government power, of self-destruction and, of course, redemption. The poor pacing does its best to destroy any narrative momentum, and just when you think you’ve found your man the game gives you another one to go running after, but take the time to perform a lengthy analysis of the various themes after the credits have rolled (and indeed after that, in a “true” ending that strangely, perhaps deliberately, echoes the opening of spiritual predecessor Red Dead Revolver) and it is hard not to appreciate what Rockstar were doing and the talent of their writers.
So, this might all sound a bit negative then. And it would be, were it not for that incredible atmosphere. This makes the game actually quite hard to evaluate. Do you evaluate it as a work of art, a recreation of what it was like to be in an iconic period of history? Or do you evaluate it as a game, with its repetitive missions and long periods of boredom? Perhaps you can evaluate it as both. It's an [i]incredibly[/i] difficult game to put a score to and given the choice I wouldn't score it at all, instead allowing my views to stand without such a crude measure of quality as a number out of 10.
So then, Red Dead Redemption: As a love letter and homage to the American Old West it is an incredible work of art; but as a game, it frequently forgets one of the most crucial factors of the medium – how to be fun.