Rockstar's western themed open world game is ripe for GTA with a horse jokes, but after you get your hands on this addictive time-sink of a game you'll be thinking more about GOTY than GTA.
Anytime a counter-culture, niche, or underground favorite breaks the surface of the mainstream to be embraced by the masses with open arms, overrated is the fade-away shot by the once proud detractors. Before you get there, though, you have to be pretty good at whatever it is you’re doing. It's probably time we add Red Dead Redemption to that list because it's better than pretty good, it's Rockstar showing the yield from years of development and dedication to sandbox games.
Anyone familiar with Rockstar games will be right at home playing as John Marston, a man with one hell of a checkered past who is forced to hunt down the former gang leader he used to run with by government agents, or he'll never see his wife and son again. It’s a simple setup made murky by Rockstar thrusting you into the action without telegraphing the events in any overt ways, forcing players to pick up on the story as it goes. This is one of the games few weak areas, but ultimately you can’t help but feel that Rockstar is counting on people knowing the formula at this point.
Grand Theft Horse
It was easy for people to look at RDR and accuse it of being GTA with horses, and that’s exactly what it is, except that it's totally not. I'd make the case that GTA is a western with cars. Each of those games runs the gamut of issues pertaining to loyalty, redemption, despair, hope, survival and above all else – morality. These themes are, and forever will be, tied to the Wild West and for good reason. These theme's are pitch perfect for RDR and better evoked through no better character than John Marston. So it isn’t GTA: Horses, it’s Rockstar finally setting one of their games in the era where the influence has always stemmed.
Marston also happens to be the first really likable main character Rockstar has ever put forward. He's still a little spineless when it comes to standing up to people that don’t do as he says but you believe that he's a man of conviction. The small talk amongst townsfolk and John is endearing in many ways even if it is just the odd tip of the hat and an ‘evening mam’, echoing a lost society that we only get to experience through modern media now days, it's refreshing to see it done with such subtle sincerity. Westerns usually miss the mark with bad stereotypes that make hard to see through the schlock, but Red Dead Redemption implements aspects of the genre with passion and care.
Things to do and People to See
Bounties and draws are but some of RDR’s many great distractions. The latter is something you run into in towns, and is something you'll encounter throughout much of the story. Draws are awkward at first because the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining exactly what you're supposed to do until well after you've done at least a half dozen of them. Luckily the difficulty ramps up accordingly and the earlier ones are forgiving enough that you shouldn't have any problems. With a little practice you'll become precise enough to choose between killing and disarming bad guys at will.
Bounties are contracts you can pick up in many of the towns. You can kill your target, or hogtie them and bring them back to jail for more cash, as long as you make it back alive. Of course you could also ignore draws and bounties and instead sit down to play either blackjack, poker or liars dice. All of these games are so well crafted that most players won’t have a problem doing nothing else for hours. It’s a great way to earn some money but I kind of wish you could play the games online, right now you can't.
And then you have your Challenges, a word so common in gaming you’re probably thinking “so what”. Well these suckers won’t only give you something to do; they’ll eat up a full day of real time if you let them. The challenges are many, everything from picking flowers to hunting and skinning animals to finding hidden gold. They start simple with menial tasks like collecting 5 rabbit pelts or picking 3 prickly pears. Near the end you’ll be trying to sneak up on bears with a knife or waiting for an ancient wolf to appear in the wild.
The challenges award you a rank which unlock things like new clothes, free wagon rides, and cheap weapons. If you sign up to the Rockstar club there’s even more challenges to do, scores of statistics to follow. These things are similar online and off, but leveling offline does not cross over and to compensate you’re given more of the challenges online.
That's a Mighty Fine Yarn
As I said Rockstar hasn’t adapted the GTA formula to fit with the Old West, it is the schema that they impart in each of their games that is already inherently tied to it. As an entire package it might not be the most cohesive narrative around but the positives outweigh the negatives so much that you won’t be bothered by the contrivances. Problems arise in the story if you do missions in strange orders, even though it does force you to do missions in a semi-linear fashion. At points you’ll have as many as three paths to take and you can do them in any order you want. Doing all the missions for a single character might offset the pacing, but it's hard to pick up on it the first time through the game.
The dialogue, on the other hand, is one of the stars and the best of any Rockstar game yet. They haven’t quite gotten away from the problem of real world interaction getting in the way of scripted scenes – like when a NPC screams at you for shooting only to then pick up the cheerful conversation about your wife that you were having before. But the amount of superb voice work here, and the poignant topic matter, goes so far beyond what most games are able to deliver that it's easy to forgive the weird quirks that pop up from time to time.
Thematically this is what you expect; a protagonist looking to put his past behind him and start fresh. But John Marston’s acknowledgment that the bad things he’s done in life aren’t so easy to get away from set him up as someone that we can trust. The weight he carry’s in his voice tells us that he’s a tough soul and the last thing he'd ever want is for his son to grow up like him. The story is mostly consistent and paces itself in subtle ways that peel back layers of the gameplay in the most rewarding of ways.
Bring me my Trusty Steed!
No matter how good a story is or how many challenges there are, it's all for naught if the game isn't fun to play. An issue that often crops up sandbox games is that combat and traveling is tedious and cumbersome. Rockstar has improved upon both of these things and created their most responsive game to date. Horse animations looks fantastic and the animal moves believably and convincingly over the rugged terrain. Push your mount too hard and it may keel over and die. While you can buy a new horse at anytime a much more fun way to approach a new ride is lassoing a wild horse and breaking her in.
Whether riding through the countryside or strolling through a town on foot you'll probably do both while gripping a gun. The game gives you a ton of weapons; rifles, pistols, throwing knives and dynamite. The inventory system doesn't limit what you can carry so you'll always have the weapons you've picked up over time. The shooting is tight and responsive, utilizing a quick-aim assist with a pull of the left trigger similar to the one found in Call of Duty. Though this takes away a lot of the skill you'll be up against such dire odds later in the game that the difficulty is balanced enough to justify wanting to have this option.
Rockstar has put a ton of effort into Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer. Free Roam lets you play anywhere in the world with anyone else who hops online. At anytime you can run into friends or foes traveling the country side and engage them however you choose. Shooting them does bag you XP but you can also team up and take on NPC's at many of the various hideouts. If the broad approach isn't your thing you can jump into match types that range from team deathmatch to bag games and free-for-all. The sheer number of tasks you can do and the promise of free content with a new purchase should help RDR's multiplayer last for months and months. However, at the time of release there are some serious connectivity issues that hamper the experience immensely but when it works it's a boat load of fun.
Rockstar is frequently bestowed this great compliment by gamers who probably don’t see it as such. Step away from the marketing machines and fanboy clamoring and you can see why these games break through to the mainstream. John Marston deals with many problems that, at their core, echo many issues and moral dilemmas each of us experience every day. While you and I aren't riding a horse and firing at bandits we can relate to regret, doubt, hope and to wanting the best for our family.
The game feeds you challenges and rewards at such a rate that you can get lost in hours and hours of enjoyable, superfluous tasks that only help to immerse you in the world and story. It's a more serious game developed by an even more confident team than ever before. Every game that Rockstar has made before this was precursor, practice to get to this point to tell this story. Though you may run into the odd glitch and you'll probably bemoan losing a horse to a prowling bobcat more than once, there is no issue that isn't worth overcoming to play an early candidate for game of the year and Rockstar's best game yet.
FINAL SCORE: 98%
9.5 -- 9.9 (Astonishing) When little hiccups prevent a game from taking on the title of masterpiece but still believe pushes the boundaries of what we have come to expect, we call that astonishing.