Review: Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360)

Red Dead Redemption
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Genre: Action/Adventure
Release Date: 05/18/2010

I’m going to start out by saying that, unlike the rest of the world, Rockstar titles have never intrigued me all that much. Still reading? Okay, good. Perhaps it is because both hype and controversy tend to mask what really should be important in a game in the first place, and that is the gameplay. I’m not a fan of Grand Theft Auto, Smuggler’s Run was a bland experience for me, and I’ve never had the interest to try Bully or Manhunt. There is one exception to my apathy for Rockstar’s lineup, and that is the Max Payne games. Their use of film noir storytelling combined with bullet time gameplay created one of the most enjoyable, albeit short, experiences I’ve had on a console during the last generation, and I look forward to the next one.

So now, along comes Red Dead Redemption. This is a game that takes the open world sandbox environment from the GTA games and combines it with a Spaghetti Western theme. Will this new Rockstar title renew my faith in the publisher, or is it a game better drug from the back of a horse?

Let’s Review

Story/Modes
You take on the role of former outlaw John Marston as he rides a train out west in order to track down his former partner, and fellow gang member, Bill Williamson. You encounter Bill within the first few minutes of the game, offering him a chance at redemption before he guns you down outside of a fort. John is then recovered by a local rancher, Bonnie Macfarlane, who happened to be passing by in a wagon at that moment, and after being nursed back to health, Marston’s quest for revenge continues.

On the surface, this story seems like it is merely a tale of vengeance. As the game presses on, more is revealed about the enigmatic Marston and his true reasoning for wanting to bring his former friend Williamson to justice. It’s an interesting tale from start to finish, and just when you think you’re about to reach your goal, RDR throws you a plot curve ball that will have you chasing around the desert even longer.

It’s important to note that if you’ve never played Red Dead Revolver on the PS2 or Xbox (like me), it shares similarities in name only. Rockstar calls it a “spiritual successor”, so there are no plot elements carried over from the original and the game engine has been completely overhauled. Veterans and newbies alike will have no problem jumping right in.

Aside from your single player story mode, players have access to a myriad of multiplayer modes. When you decide you want to go online, you can adjust your character’s appearance based on a limited number of in-game character models, and then you are dropped into an emptier version of the map used in single player. This world, called “free roam,” acts as a hub and virtual playground where friends and strangers alike can meet up in order to join objective based games, raid bandit camps, or just shoot each other in the face.

I found the competitive modes to be a bit shallow, with the game types consisting mostly of your typical death match and capture the flag modes that are common in most online games. However, I did feel that having all of the players participating in a draw at the beginning of each game was an innovative and unique game mechanic to implement into its matches. Beyond that though, I grew bored with the various game types as a whole and opted to return to the far more interesting Free Roam.

Raiding bandit camps with your buddies is a fun time if you know some friends that own this game. It’s also a great way to gain XP, as your level is shared in both Free Roam and the competitive multiplayer which can determine your appearance, the kind of horse you can have, and your weapons. Since the co-op lacks any real focus, you may grow tired of your escapades after repeating the same bandit camp after the umpteenth time. Rockstar has promised a co-op mission pack for this game in the near future, but it’d have been nice to have a little something more from the get go, especially given the amount of hype surrounding this game.

Story/Modes Rating: Great

Graphics
When you first fire up Red Dead Redemption, I guarantee that this will be one of the first things you notice. This is one damn good looking game. Everything from the cutscenes to the gameplay are rendered using the game’s engine, though someone in passing might think you were watching an actual western. Characters animate with very lifelike expressions, utilizing both their eyes and mouth movements to convey emotion. They also have a very unique look about them and were designed well enough to fit inside the environment that they were placed in, which also comes to life around you. As you gallop across the desert, you can see everything that’s in the distance, which is an impressive feat in and of itself. In most games, you have buildings or trees obstructing your view of the horizon, but since RDR‘s environment is mostly flat, you truly feel like you are in a continuous world and not a virtual sandbox.

Even more impressive than the visuals themselves is the fact that they don’t come at the cost of a sputtering game engine. Everything animates smoothly, even while there is a ton of action going on, and I never encountered any drops in frame rate. There were a few instances where the game’s graphics got glitchy on me, such as odd flashing lights or screwy character animations. I even had it freeze on me a couple times (which hasn’t happened with any of my other games). But this was all very rare and doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the game, aside from having to restart the game to fix the problem.

Graphics Rating: Amazing

Sound
The voice acting in this game is superb, and further does its job of immersing you into the western theme. None of the accents, be they southern or Mexican, feel forced, and the banter that occurs between some of the main characters sounds as natural as your typical conversation. I was impressed by the amount of voicework as well. You don’t have to read any text or subtitles, and even the non-essential side missions have a good amount of conversation to them.

The musical score is typical Western fare, and although it’s very subtle to the point where you don’t notice most of it, it’s still very good. I even noticed a vocal track that played during one of my rides across the desert and I got the sensation that the game was actively setting the mood according to my actions at the time, not just by how the plot dictated it.

It’s very typical to wander around the countryside or in towns and hear dogs barking, people shouting at each other, and animals preying upon one another. The game has atmosphere and even small details such as the background noise help provide that in spades. Even if you just close your eyes and listen to the audio, you already feel like you’re in another place.

Sound Rating: Classic

Control/Gameplay
Oh, where to begin? This title has so much to do, and a seemingly limitless amount of gameplay variations, that someone playing it for the first time may be a tad overwhelmed by everything they learn throughout the game. RDR does provide tutorials for you in the upper left hand corner, but it does so in the middle of all the action, and often times, the information you really need to know doesn’t come until after you would have needed that piece of information in the first place. Why would you tell me how to operate a machine gun or stop a horse after I would have wanted to do those actions already? Despite this, Red Dead Redemption introduces new gameplay elements at a reasonable pace, and before you know it, you’ll be taming horses and hogtying outlaws in no time.

John Marston is controlled from a third person viewpoint, although holding the left trigger zooms in the camera a little so you can aim. Holding the left bumper brings up a quick select menu, so you can choose between a gun, a rope, or even your knife if you so choose. The reticule that you use to aim the guns is a lot smaller than what you may be used to in similar style games, but it’s serviceable and you’ll get used to it after awhile. When you get close to enemies and pull the right trigger, you may initiate a short scene where you pull the trigger of your gun right into the enemy’s head, killing them instantly. If that’s not enough, you can also temporarily slow down time (similar to Max Payne) to mark targets and instantly shoot all of the marks you’ve indicated, and you have a meter that tracks how frequently you may use this ability.

While melee combat is rather atrocious in this game, the capability is there should you want to take advantage of it. Slugging it out with your fists or even your knife feels clumsy to the point where you would much rather just pull a gun on your assailant and dispose of them that way. I understand that this isn’t a fighting game, but a mild combo system like in Uncharted would’ve been nice, or even something as satisfying as the sledgehammer in Red Faction: Guerilla. What’s really annoying is that when you encounter the local wildlife, Marston will swing at them with his gun if they are too close. It would’ve been easier if they would’ve just mapped a melee attack to a different button. I mean, I’m too tall to smack the panther, I want to shoot him. The same problem is present in multiplayer, where if your teammates are too close to you while you’re shooting, your character has the tendency to take swings at them.

Riding horses in RDR reminded me a little of The Legend of Zelda in that you aim with the thumbstick which direction you are going while using the A button to spur the horse forward. There is a stamina bar located on the left hand side of the screen and if you spur them too much, not only will you suffer a loss in speed, but the horse may buck you off completely. One cool feature that I have to give Rockstar props for is that by holding down the A button while traveling with NPC’s, you will gallop at the same pace as them at no cost to your stamina. This allows you to focus more on the scenery and the conversation rather than trying to keep pace with your comrades.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Great

Replayability
As I mentioned above, there is so much to see and do in this game, it’s ridiculous. In addition to the main story, there are a ton of side missions and diversions, including video game versions of Poker, Liar’s Dice, Blackjack, Five Fingered Fillet (the game where you stab the knife in between all of your fingers without hitting them), arm wrestling, and more. Most of them don’t have an incredible amount of depth to them, but they are nice diversions and welcome ways to try to earn more money.

Just doing the main missions will run you approximately twenty hours or so, assuming you skip all the extras. Just that by itself makes for a decently lengthy game, but when you factor in all of the optional content as well as the multiplayer component, a person is definitely getting a lot of mileage for their gaming dollar. Hopefully the forthcoming DLC will help to extend this game’s shelf life even more.

Replayability Rating: Great

Balance
There is a bit of a learning curve with the controls in this game, since performing even basic actions requires you to press and hold multiple buttons at once (try galloping a horse while aiming your lasso and then actually getting someone with it). But after a little hands on time with RDR you’ll eventually grow used to all of the little quirks of the game’s mechanics.

Although you can only save at beds and camping sites, the game still autosaves for you frequently, so you don’t have to worry yourself too much about losing a ton of progress. In fact, even if you do die, you are just sent back to your last savepoint and you don’t have to start any missions that you may have completed over since the last time you may have saved. Also, some missions have checkpoints in them so you can restart from the checkpoint rather than having to do the whole mission all over again. Red Dead Redemption succeeds at being challenging without being frustrating, which is a plus.

The computer A.I. is fairly smart and very adept at using cover of their own. They’re also not afraid to use sniper rifles to take you out with one well placed headshot. Sometimes the enemies will glitch out and get stuck in the scenery where they make for sitting ducks for your gunfire, but this is rare, and as a whole, the game provides a reasonable difficulty for the player.

Balance Rating: Great

Originality
Despite being a very well made game, open world action games are a dime a dozen these days, and the Grand Theft Auto influence is very obvious here. Wild West themed games in general are growing in number, with Gun and Call of Juarez coming to mind immediately. Even the multiplayer modes feel like a rehash of what has already been done in other games, and done better.

Certain aspects of Red Dead Redemption feel very fresh to me, such as the quick draws and the lasso mechanic, but the rest of the title is a hodge-podge of borrowed features. It’s a good thing that those features are all good ones, making for a title far greater than the sum of its parts.

Originality Rating: Mediocre

Addictiveness
Everything about this game should make me hate it from the get go. As I said earlier, I don’t like Grand Theft Auto and I don’t watch westerns. Not only that, but a title with a ridiculous amount of hype behind it is usually met with disappointment when it doesn’t deliver upon the promises of the developers. I had low expectations going into Red Dead Redemption and yet I walked away from the game being glad for the experience. Actually, I had a hard time walking away from it at all.

The story is what drew me in the most and even though it feels like the script was built around the gameplay, since all the cutscenes are mainly window dressing for all of the lapdog missions you get sent out on, it all still plays out very convincingly. This is truly impressive, since a number of the missions do not have to be done in any particular order, though some of the later ones require a set of prerequisite missions before they will unlock.

If you don’t want to do the story and just want to screw around in the game’s world, you are welcome to do that as well. Stealing horses and killing civilians nets you a bounty on the top right corner of your screen, and the higher that gets, the more fiercly you will be chased by deputies and bounty hunters. You can pay off your bounty or use a pardon letter to get the law off your back, but it may just be easier (and less expensive) to revert to a previous save when you are ready to forward the plot.

Addictiveness Rating: Classic

Appeal Factor
Ultimately, there are two camps of people that will show interest in Red Dead Redemption: those who like Grand Theft Auto, and those who hate it. Both groups of people will like this game, though the western theme may limit the appeal slightly for those that prefer a more modern setting. Even those naysayers will be swayed once they pick up the controller, however. Aside from the blood and the violence, there’s a bit of sexual content in this game as well, so the kiddies may want to steer clear.

Appeal Rating: Good

Miscellaneous
After you kill an animal in this game, you can approach its corpse and skin it if you wish. In doing so, you are treated to an unnecessarily long animation where the screen gets splattered with blood and you hear little snipping sounds. For a game so polished, this seems like a bit of an oversight to include something like this when it would’ve been far more convenient for the player to just not have an animation at all. Even a World of Warcraft animation where your character makes circles with their hands would’ve been far more appropriate.

One of the little touches that I really liked about this game is the illusion of choice. Deciding whether to kill my target on the spot or tie him up and carry him back for questioning may not have made a huge impact on the overall plot, but I enjoyed being able to at least choose how I dealt with the situation. Even the optional bounty missions give you a choice between killing the bounty or bringing him back alive for more money. You haven’t lived until you’ve dragged said bounty off the back of your horse.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story/Modes: Great
Graphics: Amazing
Sounds: Classic
Controls/Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Great
Balance: Great
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Good

Final Score: Great Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Calling Red Dead Redemption a Grand Theft Auto clone does the game a huge injustice. It’s far more than that. It’s an incredibly well polished title that manages to hold its head above water in an increasingly flooded market of open world action games. The western setting may not appeal to everyone at first, but give it a chance and it hook you and never let go. This is a game oozing with production value, and the single player story is damn fun. Even though the multiplayer isn’t as fleshed out as it could be, it still offers an enjoyable time if only for a little while and the promise of additional DLC makes the total package all the more appealing. Any way you slice it, Red Dead Redemption will make a great addition to any Xbox 360 library.

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