Western-themed shooters are not a particularly well-explored video game genre. When the first details of Red Dead Redemption began leaking out, there was skepticism that an open world in such a setting could rival the depth of the Grand Theft Auto series. One of Rockstar San Diego's biggest challenges was building a world that looked and felt like the cultural and historical image we have of the Wild West. It's a task with more constraints than in many similar games — futuristic sci-fi settings, stylized interpretations of modern places, or Tolkien-esque fantasy all allow nearly unbounded creativity — yet no less in scope. In Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar achieved this, building a world that is huge and unknown, yet still deeply familiar. Read on for the rest of my thoughts.
- Title: Red Dead Redemption
- Developer: Rockstar San Diego
- Publisher: Rockstar Games
- System: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
- Reviewer: Soulskill
- Score: 7/10
The look and feel of this game is by far its biggest strength. From the start, you're dropped into a setting that looks like a cross between an archetypal Western movie and what you would expect to see if you stepped into the wilderness of Texas. It's not that the graphics are perfect; they're good, but probably not the best you've seen on your console of choice. It's that the art direction was so consistent and detail-oriented that almost everything just looks right. What was also surprising to me was the variety of climates — everything from the dusty desert with tall, eroded rocks and scattered boulders, to the sparsely treed plains, to the snow-covered forest at the base of a mountain — each inhabited by an internally consistent set of fauna.
The towns, too, are very detailed and unique. Most are what you'd expect a frontier town to look like; shoddy construction, worn down signs, broken walls, horse hitches everywhere. Again, there's quite a variety; in the east you have the largest, richest town, with brick buildings and streets. Further west you've got heavily worn, grubby wooden buildings with built-up fronts. Across the border in Mexico, you have dirt roads winding through white stone walls and sculpted walkways. There are also quite a few scattered, smaller outputs, and the occasional isolated farm. Comparing the tiny bastions of civilization to the vast wilderness encompassing them lends a fascinating sense of how isolated this era's settlers really were.
That immersion is broken a bit by how many people you end up running into. The towns and farms have an appropriate number of NPCs wandering about, but the number of bad guys you run into during your travels must outnumber the normal folks 10:1. As you ride around the wilderness on your horse, you frequently come across other travelers, or NPCs that need help (or want to kill you), and it makes the game world seem much more populated than it could ever be in reality. It's a gameplay conceit, and I can't really fault them for it; a game world with a truly appropriate number of people would either be infeasibly huge (think Daggerfall) or so barren that you have almost nothing to do.
The game starts slowly, easing you into the various control schemes while introducing you to your character, John Marston, and the mission he's on. He's a former outlaw, trying to leave a life of crime behind, but forced to fight again by government men who want him to track down other criminals. But there's more to him than just gun-slinging, as the first set of missions clearly demonstrate. Red Dead Redemption is comprised partly of a variety of sub-games, and they're used both for furthering the plot and for providing an entertaining way to take a break from the story. You do things like driving cattle, catching and breaking new horses, and racing.
There are also more obvious games; you can find hands of poker and blackjack in most towns, as well as arm wrestling, horseshoes, and "Five Finger Fillet," a game where you tap buttons in a certain order and rhythm while Marston correspondingly drives a knife into the table around his splayed fingers. The sub-games are hit-and-miss as far as fun goes; if you enjoy the card games in real life, you'll probably enjoy a few hands in-game. You can even try to cheat at poker. The controls for horseshoes are annoying, and Five Finger Fillet is awfully easy. But the broad selection is what provides depth, here — everybody can probably find something they enjoy, at least for a little while.
One of the major skills the first missions try to teach you is how to control your horse, which you'll be riding for a big portion of the game. They did reasonably well with the button setup and the riding part of the engine — maneuvering the horse is a bit clumsy, but not much more than you'd expect it to be. As with most third-person shooters, you move with one analog stick and rotate your camera with the other. This works fine except when you want to maintain speed with your horse, which requires you to hold down another button. If you want to pan your camera around, you have to let go of the button, which makes your horse slow and stop. The horse can also be tough to move through tight spaces, or anywhere with lots of small obstacles — a little bit of pathing AI would have gone a long way here.
The next big thing to learn is how your weaponry works. You don't have a targeting crosshair while moving around normally. Instead, you hold down a button to aim your gun, which pops up a little dot showing where your bullets will go. There are three settings for aiming behavior: on Expert, your aim is entirely manual; on Normal, the dot will lock onto an enemy near the center of your screen, and track it for a few seconds; on Casual, it will lock onto whichever enemy is closest to the center of your screen, track them for a much longer time, and turn red when you've got a shot lined up. If you're on Normal or Casual, you'll be able to kill things very, very easily.
Combat in Red Dead Redemption is fairly simple. There is a basic cover system, and between that and the auto-aim, it's pretty hard to lose a fight. The enemy AI isn't very isn't very smart; they rarely move, they don't try to surround you or work around your cover, and they often fire round after round at you while you're safely behind a boulder. Most of the times I died were when I got into a fight I wasn't expecting. For example, as you ride around the game world, you occasionally come across random situations that need your attention. Sometimes it'll be a guy who wants help picking flowers, sometimes a stranded citizen will need a ride back to town, and sometimes a group of bandits will be hijacking a horse and carriage. Since you often can't tell what's going on until you ride up to them, you'll have times where three guys suddenly turn and start shooting you in the face, which is hard to recover from.
Mounted combat is a little less predictable. In addition to riding your horse, you'll have missions where you're driving a cart or a carriage, or riding on a train, and have to defend against hijackers. Since you don't have cover, it's a bit more hectic trying to shoot down everybody before you take lethal damage, and thus a bit more fun. Health and damage isn't tracked explicitly by the UI; instead, as you get shot, your screen starts to turn increasingly red and bloody. If you can avoid fire for a few seconds, the red will recede, and you'll heal back up. (Another gameplay conceit, since it's unlikely outlaws in the old west could shake off a few bullet wounds by hiding behind a rock for a few heartbeats.)
The guns themselves are mostly unremarkable. You get the standard pistols, rifles, and shotguns, which behave similarly with slight variations. You can punch people, which gets old very quickly, and use a knife. More interesting is the lasso, which you can use to subdue wild animals and people alike. Once you've caught a person, you can hogtie them and carry them around, or throw them on your horse. Subduing somebody without killing them is usually rewarded. Or, if you're feeling like a jerk, you can drag the person behind you on your horse. Or toss them on the train tracks like a true olde tyme villain. Lawmen tend to frown on that, though.
Infrequently, you'll get other toys to play with, but once the novelty wears off, they aren't much use. You can't use the dynamite to collapse walls or knock a train off the tracks. The throwing knives don't let you turn into the dude from Thief. The regular guns, on the other hand, have some fun uses. If you're squaring off with somebody, you can shoot the gun out of their hand. Pulling this off in duels impresses the spectators and boosts your fame. You also have an ability called Dead Eye, which you can activate to slow time to a crawl and paint a red X on multiple targets. When you pull the trigger, you shoot each X extremely quickly. It's an odd ability for a historical shooter. I can only suppose it's intended to give a quick-draw feel, but you can literally kill half a dozen targets in the time it takes them to draw their weapons. It seems excessive, especially when combat is already stacked in your favor.
The main story is divided up into missions you go on with particular NPCs. The individual missions themselves are fairly short, perhaps 15 minutes on average, part of which is travel time. When the Marshall wants your help taking down a gang, you actually get on your horse and ride to their hideout. It's a few minutes where you aren't doing anything, but the characters keep up a running dialogue during that time. You get details about the mission, information about Marston's past, and background about the other characters all while watching the pretty scenery, so it's not as boring as it may sound.
The main characters are well-written, and the voice acting is excellent. Marston's character is built as much from the tone of his voice as by his actions, and some of the supporting cast is extremely good at investing a great deal of emotion into a few short lines. Listening to the Marshall express skepticism over the government's motives, or hearing the snake-oil salesman work himself up to a new pitch almost makes you forget it's a video game. The animation work on the cut scenes is absolutely top-notch as well. The way shots are framed, the way the characters move, and in particular the way background characters and animals move seem incredibly natural and realistic — some of the best I've seen in any game.
By contrast, most of the other NPCs in the world might as well be fenceposts for all the conversation options they offer. They'll nod a greeting at you, swear at you if you shoot at them, and pick randomly from a selection of common phrases, but you can't meaningfully interact with the vast majority of them. Unless you want to kill them. The roads are flush with travelers, saloons are packed, and even the churches have a few visitors, but they're essentially just scenery. Add to that the uniformity of the parts of towns you interact with (i.e. every town has a general store, and they're all pretty much the same; ditto poker game, gunsmith, train station), and the immersion brought on by the fantastic visuals starts to fade.
Red Dead Redemption has a lot going for it. In addition to the story, there is great breadth of gameplay — there are a lot of different things you can go and do to pass the time, even if none of them are particularly deep in themselves. The gameplay elements also come together in strange and satisfying ways — you can scare somebody into starting a bar fight and then watch them get taken down by a deputy, or pull somebody off their horse, then ride over and knock off a poker game to get money to pay your bounty.
The story and characters are engaging, and if you're looking for a game where the fighting and strategy don't get in the way of a great old west adventure, then this is right up your alley. If you want complex combat mechanics, gameplay that's balanced and challenging, or more shooting and less storytelling, then you'll probably want to pass. All in all, Rockstar should be extremely proud of the world they created. With this game they've nicely demonstrated the viability of a western setting for this type of game.