Once Upon a Time in the West
2010 has already been crazy good for games. We’ve already seen the release of some of the best games in their respective genres (Bayonetta and Super Mario Galaxy 2), and now Rockstar has seen fit to grace us lowly gamers with what I consider to be the finest open-world game ever made. With its captivating world, vast array of missions, and huge variety in gameplay, Red Dead Redemption is exactly what all open-world games should strive to be.
Of course, what’s the point of an open-world game without an overarching narrative to frame it, you ask? I suppose that Rockstar was asking themselves the same question while working on this game, as Red Dead Redemption is crammed to the brim with cutscene after cutscene after cutscene. I suppose some gamers will appreciate the sheer amount of dialogue that there is this game, though I felt like it could have used some heavy editing by someone who actually understands storytelling. Only Tarantino films dare have this much extraneous dialogue. Still, it’s not like the story is overtly bad, just mostly uninteresting and unoriginal.
Gamers take on the role of John Marsten, a former outlaw and all-around courteous individual. See, I’m really anal about these things, and just cannot bring myself to play an open-world game from any perspective other than the good guy. Doing that in Red Dead Redemption means that it’s entirely unbelievable that this guy was ever an outlaw. Sure, some rough-and-tumble brigand is going to take time off from his raping and pillaging to help out a crazy old lady who can’t remember that her husband died years ago. Nevertheless, I accept the fact that games require a willful suspension of disbelief, and gleefully applied that to this game because everything other than the story is pure brilliance.
Ride the High Country
Not only does Red Dead Redemption bring the open-world genre to lofty new heights, it does the same for game overworlds in general. I've never felt like Nintendo's decision to underpower the Wii was to the detriment of the games, and though I’ve heard others pine over a “next-gen” Zelda, I never felt this overwhelming desire to see that happen. That is, until I played Red Dead Redemption. The overworld in this game is just so massive and every nook and cranny is filled with new, awesome things to see and do. If a Zelda game came out with an overworld that was as vibrant and rich with details as that in Red Dead Redemption, I’m actually worried that my head might explode from the sheer awesomeness.
Throughout my experience, I’d find myself hopping on my horse, setting a waypoint, and then immediately getting distracted by any slew of chance encounters that lied in my path. Spot a coyote scurrying through the brush? Oops, better slow down my horse, kill that sucker, skin the body, and then piss on the corpse before heading off on my merry way again. Oh wait, now there are some bandits laying siege to a covered wagon. Kill them all, strip them of their belongings, and let the appreciative family shower me with adulations. Great, I’m finally approaching my destination, but wait, now I’ve spotted a stranger, and lord knows I can’t resist me a side quest.
Every aspect of the game world in Red Dead Redemption just screams, “play me!” at the top of its lungs. I never found myself short on things to do, and never found myself tiring of the side quests and randomly activated scripted events. Riding through town at night, sometimes I’d find myself chasing off a band of drunk outlaws. Other times I’d have to save the chickens from assaulting coyotes or chase down someone’s horse that was stolen by some nefarious outlaw. In any of these instances though, it really never felt like the game was repeating itself. Rather, all of these various elements came together to create a game world that felt alive like never before.
How the West Was Won
Not only is Red Dead Redemption’s overworld amazing to play my way through, but it is incredible to look at as well. My friend sitting next to me kept asking me if I was sure that I wasn’t playing a PS3 game, and while the question was a little misinformed, I definitely understood the sentiment. This game looks better than pretty much anything else in my Xbox 360 collection. Say what you will about the textures not being as sharp as they could be or the blocky polygonal spheres that are scattered throughout the game, but Red Dead Redemption is simply stunning.
Every single aspect of the environment seems to fit together perfectly to evoke the feeling of being a rugged cowboy out on the range. Each sunrise and sunset offers new visions of beauty that feel singular to that specific moment in time. This in itself wouldn’t really be enough to wow me, but when there is just so much detail to everything about the environment, I couldn’t help but gaze off into the distance every time I galloped across the plains. This is a game of pure beauty, and though I’m not normally into the whole realistic art style thing they have going here, I can certainly appreciate just how gorgeous of an experience Rockstar provided. Taking into account the scope of the game, I’d wager that this is one of the best looking games to date, and that’s saying something considering the incredible works of visual art that are passing for games these days (God of War III, Final Fantasy XIII).
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
Yeah, so the game looks great, and the world and mission structure are top notch, but how does Red Dead Redemption actually play? Pretty damn well, in my opinion. Aiming and shooting has always been Rockstar’s bane, and their last open-world title, Grand Theft Auto IV, really didn’t seem to fix this problem with the half-assed addition of an uninspired cover system. Luckily, most of the problems that I used to have with the aiming system in Rockstar’s games have been addressed in this title. Rockstar included the cover system again, although it works much better this time around, hardly ever resulting in a frustrating death because it failed to activate properly.
The aiming and shooting have also been tightened up since Grand Theft Auto IV, though they still aren’t exactly perfect. I had to turn my stick sensitivity all the way up in order to aim quickly, and I sometimes had trouble shooting while on my horse. To counter this slightly stiff aiming, Rockstar saw fit to include a hefty amount of auto-aim correction to help Marsten make those difficult shots. Usually, this might bug me in a game, but I really appreciated it this time, as I just found the horse to move too fast for me to always aim around with any accuracy.
In addition to the auto-aim, Rockstar included another nifty feature that made picking off those irksome outlaws while on horseback even easier (and more fun), Dead Eye Mode. Essentially, this is a bullet-time-esque slowdown that can be applied at any time, assuming your requisite meter is full enough. This meter can be refilled by killing enemies while in normal aiming, which actually created a solid amount of balance and forced me to switch between normal aiming and Dead Eye several times in a battle. Not only does time slow down while in Dead Eye Mode, but you can mark several different targets and take them out at once. This mode was actually almost exactly the same as a corresponding ability in the recently released Red Steel 2, although I found it significantly more helpful in Red Dead Redemption purely due to the fact that aiming while flying across the countryside at hundreds of miles an hour is quite a feat.
A Fistful of Dollars
There’s no two ways around it. Red Dead Redemption is glorious and sets the bar so high for open world games that I can hardly imagine when anther open-world game will come around that has any hope of matching it. Rockstar outdid themselves with this game. Whether it’s riding your horse into the sunset, wrangling cattle in a thunderstorm, playing high stakes Texas Hold’Em across the Mexican border, or just simply shooting your way down the Rio Grande, Red Dead Redemption offers the fullest cowboy experience you can get this side of 1900.
In fact, this game does such an incredible job of immersing players in the life of a rugged frontiersman, I’d go so far as to say that it is not only the best open-world game of all time, but one of the best RPGs of all time as well. I know a lot of people will take offense at my using RPG in this context, but having grown up playing pen and paper role-playing games, I can assure you that Red Dead Redemption is much closer to emulating that experience than anything Square-Enix has come up with ever. More RPGs need to take a cue from this game and focus on the role the player is supposedly filling, rather than stat management and character customization like we have seen time and time again.
Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer mode is a completely different beast from the singleplayer portion. On the surface, everything looks rather similar. You're in the same massive overworld, with the same unbelievably beautiful vistas, but somehow everything is different. No longer can you take on a near endless stream of story missions, bounties, randomly generated side quests, or stranger missions. This exclusion makes some sense, even though it immediately diminished my enthusiasm for the multiplayer mode. What doesn't make sense is that you can't even play any of the side games like poker, blackjack, or liar's dice. Though these exclusions aren't game breaking and there is fun to be had online, the multiplayer mode just seems to fall short of its potential at all times.
After jumping online, I noticed that the world (dubbed 'Free Roam') was populated with 15 other players. Ok, that's cool. I like playing games cooperativ--oh wait. Someone just griefed me. Great. Well, it looks like I can customize my character's appearance. All I have to do is head to the outpost and--oh wait. Someone just griefed me. The griefing in this game was so out of hand when I first started playing, that I just assumed it was unplayable. Every time I would respawn, someone would be waiting for me with a gun that was leagues better than anything I had. If I decided to ignore my own misgivings, and just start fighting back, I quickly realized that I wasn't going to be killing anyone else, unless of course, I simply laid down my sidearm and started slicing away with my knife. Griefers didn't stand a chance. But wait a second, wasn't I just doing the same thing that I hated when it was done to me?
Once I got bored of retaliatory griefing, I headed into town to one of the waypoints where you can initiate the game's compettive modes. I tried to invite everyone in the match to play. No one joined. As the timer dwindled down, I thought there must be an explanation. Maybe people just weren't into that particular game type. I created a new game. Nothing. I was left sitting in an empty multiplayer arena running in circles wondering why I wasn't just playing singleplayer.
The Wild Bunch
Now surely, griefing couldn't be the entirety of the experience, and eventually I found a group of several other people gracious enough to help show me that. Players can join posses within a match and head out to tackle gang hideouts with some helpful extra eyes watching their backs. Unfortunately, that's pretty much all you can do with these posses. You can take down gang hideouts, while fighting other posses who are trying to do the same. This earns you experience that unlocks new weapons, mounts, and character customization options. Unforunately, all of these things you can earn are only usable while in 'Free Roam' mode. Once you're playing any of the more directed competitive gametypes, you'll forget you've ever unlocked any of this stuff.
It wasn't until I realized that I could just ignore Free Roam completely that I finally found something to enjoy about Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer offering. Using a Match select menu, I could skip all the posturing and jump straight into the meat of the experience. While it was nice to actually be able to join a match without getting shot in the head twenty times, I couldn't shake the feeling that the overworld never needed to be there in the first place. Still, none of this would matter if the game was fun to play with other players, and it was to a point. I happen to enjoy some mindless shooting action online, and I like it even more when it is team-based. Unfortunately, there just wasn't nearly enough depth or variety present for me to stay intereted for long.
There are only a few different gametypes and they all seem to be taken from the standards of today's popular shooters. The entirety of these modes bioled down to a few different Capture the Flag variants and Death Match. The shooting mechanics in the game are just barely tight enough to work in singleplayer, but they just don't really work for multiplayer. The aim correction means that you never have to lead a target, or even track one at all. Simply tap Left Trigger until the reticule falls on your opponent, and then fire away. The aiming is still just as touchy as singleplayer, so it means that running and gunning was hardly ever a viable strategy. Camping seemed always be the better option thanks to the cover system.
No Room To Die
Honestly, my favorite part of Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer experience was the stretch before each match. Each and every time an all-out brawl would break out and everyone would be fist-fighting their way into the match proper. I found this whole thing pretty hilarious, and wished that 'Free Roam' had more harmless violence like this and less constant respawning. The Mexican standoffs at the start of matches are fun as well, but are not enough to carry the rest of the experience.
While I can't say that I derived absolutely no enjoyment from Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer side of things, I can't say I really liked it all that much. There were some hints of greatness there, and the potential for Rockstar to do so much more, but as things stand now, Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer needs something to redeem it if I'm going to stick around and play more.
Note: This game was reviewed on Xbox 360
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Genre: Shooter, Action-Adventure
Release: May 18, 2010
Available On: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Grand Theft Auto III – Kill it with fire
Grand Theft Auto IV – Meh
Spaghetti Westerns – Love ‘Em