Red Dead Redemption
I had never really played a Western video game prior to Red Dead Redemption, partially because of their infrequency and partially because I lacked the interest in a genre that seemed like it wouldn’t hold up as well as the familiar sci-fi and post apocalyptia that dominated the landscape. Compared with the creativity of weapons and enemies afforded by genres spawned exclusively by the artists imagination, more recent American history is far more challenging to make as exotic or compelling with as little effort. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have enormous potential, the Old West is after all the great American mythology, it’s just harder to coax this greatness from the dry fabric of realism and antiquity. However, I’m glad I paid attention to this one because Red Dead Redemption is not only the answer to these challenges, it is the definitive Western experience and one of the most purely enjoyable games I’ve played in a while.
It’s ironic that a setting drenched in blood and heroism in film and fantasy has been largely overlooked in gaming, a medium highly receptive to both, but it’s perhaps it’s seeming disadvantage when compared to other more accommodating genres that have limited it. After all, who wants to ride a creaky old buckboard when they can fly around in a spaceship or tear around in a Warthog, and why would I want to use a six shooter when I can use a gravity gun or a chainsaw bayonet? Any period of history following the sword but preceding the machine gun is in danger of being too mundane or tedious for a conventional shooter. The challenges of creating compelling gameplay aside, Developers face additional obstacles in building the environment since the organic spontaneity of nature is much harder to believably render than the symmetry and steel of sci-fi or the barren wastes of post apocalyptia. In short the unique limitations and challenges of creating a great Western game have always relegated it to near obscurity.
With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar has overcome these hurdles with solutions that include an impressively simulated, thoroughly engrossing environment, and gameplay and story elements that fully realize the unique potential of the Old West. It’s clear that the developers examined the issues at hand and understood what needed to be done. It was crucial that the individual qualities that make the Wild West legendary in our minds and so appropriately suited as fiction, be the foundation of any game that attempted to do it justice. Rockstar accomplishes this neatly and as a result, Redemption is not simply a dull Westernized clone of every other shooter, not simply old ideas transplanted to a different time and place, but a game that captures the spirit and experience of the Wild West. It delivers on the promise of it’s setting and it’s greatest success is how completely it fulfills that promise.
Following the exploits of ex-outlaw John Marston, the game accounts his attempts to end his old life and begin a new one. In order to do so he must hunt down his former brothers in arms in exchange for clemency for himself and his family from Government agents who’s ruthless tactics and callousness come off as more sinister then the relatively simple motives of the men he hunts. The story itself is less dramatically told or cinematic then say Mass Effect 2, but is a lot deeper than it’s candid delivery at first appears. It’s layered in a way few stories are. It’s depth is in many ways informed by the wealth of Western mythos inherent in our cultural subconscious but it’s Rockstar’s talent for satire and social analysis that give the lengthy story and characters genuine integrity. The understated comparisons between the forces of good and evil are one example of this underlying poignancy and the story’s methodical discernment of characters and motivations is deeply philosophical. Nothing is forced which is why the story seems fairly unassuming but there is a quiet nobility to it’s arc as a sensitive elegiac commentary on society and history.
The various personalities you’ll encounter are all very well done. Each is a Western caricature in their own way, brought to life with great writing, superb voice acting and some theatrically impressive mo-cap. Most of them have a charismatic eccentricity that makes them comedic and memorable and the more serious individuals fill their roles with appropriate gravitas. Rockstar continues to assert itself as a master of character design.
Nothing is wasted here and when I spoke of Redemption as the definitive western it wasn’t simply because there are so few to compare it with but rather because it’s a fulfillment of practically any Western fantasy you can imagine. Everything from the host of interesting and eccentric characters to the various missions, mini-games, challenges, side quests and multitude of locations have been designed to showcase the unique variety and range of the Old West as a time and place as well as a legendary realm of adventure and bravado. The missions read like a thrill seeker’s wild west to-do list and players will take part in everything from defending stagecoaches to boarding moving trains, robbing banks, assaulting fortresses, dueling with gunslingers, hunting buffalo, searching for treasure, cheating at poker, lassoing criminals, riding with posses and everything in between. Even agrarian chores such as herding cattle and breaking horses are accounted for and like everything else you’ll do, they’re fun and satisfying.
The ecology of the world is equally varied. The map itself is massive, (it has to be one of the biggest ever in a game) and, as with the activities, the diversity of the Old West is fully realized across it’s impressive acreage. Players can explore the great plains, shadowy forests, snowy mountains, arid canyons, bleached deserts and red mesas. Everything is stunning. The game looks as good and better, in fact, then most linear games, with a host of environmental effects and subtle touches, combined into one of the most impressively lifelike worlds in any game. High end tech like Grass, brush and vegetation that respond to your character’s movements are ubiquitous and more common effects such as footprints, dust and particles are masterfully implemented. Lighting is also top shelf, with dynamic shadows and impressive sunrises and sunsets. I’ve literally stopped on more then one occasion just to watch the last glimmering rays disappear beyond the horizon.
The world is populated by an impressive selection of region specific wildlife all of which can be hunted for valuable meat, feathers and pelts. In addition players will encounter the believable traffic of everyday life as, travelers, townsfolk, and campers all inhabit the landscape attributing a constant flow of activity and further enhancing it’s effectiveness as a real world setting. Everything is impressively rendered and animated thanks to Rockstar’s Euphoria engine, which gives humans and animals, a fluidity of movement often missing from other games.
It’s the fidelity and level of detail that’s unrivaled in this type of game that truly makes this such a unique experience. The world and it’s inhabitants (the day night cycles, weather patterns and ambient effects) seduce you with their realistic majesty and picturesque splendor. The ebb and flow of nature surrounds you as you explore and it’s easy to lose hours to the enchanting embrace of the wilderness. This natural quality also provides moments of almost poetic serendipity, such as the time I pursued a black stallion into the twilight of a misty forest as a gentle snow began to fall. Rarely does a game surprise you with moments that transcend the act of simply playing it. The quality and believability of the environment, it’s ability to captivate the player and function as an entity all it’s own, was an essential component in creating a great Western sandbox and Rockstar absolutely nails it here.
Continue on to page two for the rest of the review.