Red Dead Redemption
It’s a sad state of affairs when, with a blank page and a head full of Wild West memoirs, you’re suddenly affronted by the notion that nothing you can write can do justice to that which you’re attempting to describe. Not because we ourselves lack the prosaic cock and balls to meet the graphical poetry of Red Dead Redemption head on with like-for-like lyrical smugness. More that, while Red Dead carries it off effortlessly, we, mere humble game hacks, come off sounding like we’re trying too hard.
We could talk about sunsets; ‘Aaaah’, we say ‘those sunsets … as sweet and orange as an orange … sky as endless as an endless sky’. We could talk about the mountains and rivers as well if you like; ‘Rivers’, we say, ‘ah… those rivers, set betwixt the hills and yunder bridge they snake … and the mountains, the almighty mountains … stoic as a stubborn pensioner and tall as four hundred pensioners stacked one on top of the another like a giant stack of pensioners’. Okay, we’re talking piss, but genuinely, this is exactly the kind of floral crud that wants desperately to burst from your face after every session with Red Dead Redemption.
Putting a stopper in that for the time being, we’re still left with the problem of actually attempting to describe it for you, so to that end, we’re going to take the easy way out. Up until recently many have referred to Red Dead Redemption as ‘GTA IV with horses’; it’s a fair description if you’re on your death bed and that last lungful can only belt out four words. Outside of that, though, such simple taxonomy fails entirely to adequately describe the plethora of rich detail which saturates the game world, in a similar way, perhaps, to those who described GTA IV as ‘GTA with better graphics’. Truly, if graphical sheen is the only difference you noticed, we feel just a little sorry for you. The devil is in the detail, so rather than roughly breaking down our review into a two-parter of good and bad, instead we’re going to paint a picture of the game for you in broader strokes, then once you have a rough outline, fill in the specifics. A bit like painting by numbers.
You are John Marston, an outlaw with a heart. A man who used to believe himself as a kind of Robin Hood; giving to the poor, killing the rich and so on. Until one day, fellow gang member Bill Williamson shot him and left him for dead. But Marston is tough, and ruthless. And now, for reasons we won’t go into, he’s back in New Austen, tracking down his former crew, starting with Williamson. Williamson is rough, and toothless.
The game opens with Marston shot and left for dead once again, only to be rescued by enigmatic ranch girl Bonnie MacFarlane, who takes a romantic shine to him, albeit an unrequited one. Unusually, for Rockstar at least, whoring, flirting and philandering are strictly off the cards. Nope, Marston is a moral man. A moral man who doesn’t mind killing hundreds and hundreds of people … so long as they’re bad people, you understand. Or if they look at him funny.
Red Dead can – never to its detriment – at times feel like a collection of every activity, theme, character stereotype, archetype and typeface you’ve ever seen in a western movie. Cynically speaking, you could almost check them off down a list some thirty miles long beginning with A for Ace Of Spades and Z for the zephyrs which nudge tumbleweed across the plains. There’s everything in there from train robberies – both attacking and defending – breaking in horses, lassoing, gallons of bourbon whisky, those funny little doors they have on the front of saloons, snake oil salesmen, Mexican banditos, outrageous moustaches, it just goes on and on. And in among this rich world is every character you’ve ever seen or heard of before in a western movie; the crazy miner guy with no teeth and an obsession with treasure, the drunken Irish sot, the respectable father, the revolutionary leader, the monstrous military sociopath, they’re all there in one form or another.
And they’re all stars to some extent. Rockstar’s seeming refusal to put budgetary concerns ahead of quality has given us some of the finest voiceover work ever to appear in a videogame, with truly laudable spaghetti western panache.
But it’s not the characters, but the world that is the game’s greatest star. Rockstar’s open-world current-gen engine has always been impressive ever since it first saw the light of day in GTA IV. It seems, however, that far from content to simply let the technology lie, it has come along in leaps and bounds. One thing we had not expected to see was no texture pop-in whatsoever, either faded slowly so as not to jolt our perception of three dimensional space, or otherwise. Add to this the way it handles animation, especially horses, and the combined effect of the sum is overwhelmingly impressive.
The world also offers a level of persistence previously unseen. Just one example is the way weather changes. You don’t just get a sudden moody sky, followed by a torrential downpour. Instead you’ll see those cumulonimbus’ dark thunder head rolling slowly in from the distant horizon. Stop and watch it for twenty minutes or so; lightning rattling through its centre, misty rain hitting the distant hills, before it finally looms overhead and soaks Marston, his horse and convincingly spatters the camera. Equally, once it’s past, you might take a few moments to watch the giant storm cell roll away, off into the distance to ruffle someone else’s feathers. Red Dead Redemption is an unparalleled technical achievement. The PS3 version has to remain the same as that on graphically inferior hardware (360). Put that right out of your mind, though. Because even though the 360 version is perhaps more impressive for having overcome greater limitations, the two are identical, and you can rest assured, that even by the higher graphical standards of a PS3 owner, this game is still going to melt your face off.
But what is Red Dead? Because sandbox is just a general term which only covers so much ground. Is it a shooter? An RPG? A narrative continuum? The point is that it’s all these things and many more besides. It’s a hunting game, a gathering game, a drinking game, a card game, a driving game, a riding game, a dossing about game and many, many more.
There’s not many types of game where you can propose a best way to play it, but there’s definitely a knack to getting the very best out of Red Dead Redemption. For starters, life in the old West is a slow and plodding affair. Too much haste and at least some of what the game has to offer you will simply pass you by. The stranger side-quests are a great example of this. Dotted around the game world at various places and times are opportunities to help a stranger, or not. These are entirely optional, but taking on these mini-quests will eventually reap great rewards. What rewards? We can’t say. We know. But we’re not telling.
The weaponry in the game steadily increases in blam-factor as you progress. Marston has one slot for each weapon type, each type (pistol, rifle, lasso, dynamite and so on) can then be scrolled through manually for a specific weapon in that category. We have to say, we found this tremendously fiddly, not so much because it was too much of a handful, but that, firstly, circumnavigating the weapon wheel feels as if it’s on the wrong stick (although we’re prepared to admit this may be because of overuse of a similar system in Mass Effect 2), and secondly, that the action fails to pause when the weapon selection wheel is active. A bizarre decision, we feel, when it’s only during scenes of high action you’re going to be switching through your weapons, leading to panicked twiddling and sometimes even death. We got used to it eventually, but by eventually, we’re talking a lot of hours and with it, a lot of weapon-wheel-related cock-ups.
The game also has the ability to be unsettling. We mean this in a good way; despite its cunning side-stepping of jingoistic media bleating on the subject of non-contextual whore-beating (as occurred on the periphery of previous Rockstar titles) the game is surprisingly more adult in flavour than anything the developer and publisher has previously brought to the fore. Morality is a fickle mistress to Marston. On the one hand, he’s always on hand to protect the ones he loves, but on the other, he’s quite happy to bow-wow with the Mexican military while they shoot women in cold blood and tumble a never-ending pile of their corpses off of the nearest cliff.
It’s the dichotomy of Marston’s character that brings the game perhaps its greatest strength. His unpredictable ability to either do the right thing, or not, lends a page-turning quality to the narrative that you won’t find in either your typical whiter-than-white hero, or your devilish and playful antihero. Marston is both, and for that reason, even though the game offers very little in terms of the ability to control the story’s overall outcome, every twist and turn becomes an unpredictable delight, and what you get up to in the periphery is still very much all your own doing.
Two main factors determine how the world around you perceives Marston; Fame and Honour (or honor, as the Americans like to misspell it). You can get famous for being good or bad and doing so will have a knock-on affect on the way you’re treated by the plebeian plains-walkers and rootin’ tootin’ drunkards who stumble out of the town saloon. Honour on the other hand will see you either loved or feared. Honour can be earned by capturing your mark in the wanted side-quests, for example, and lost of you decide to take the easier route and simply kill him, as well as in a myriad of other activity-related scruples.
Take your time, enjoy it, soak it all in, and Red Dead Redemption is an experience unlike any other; easily the most ambitious and accomplished open world game to date.