Red Dead Redemption

Posted on June 9th, 2010 in Uncategorized

The western is a genre somewhat neglected by the computer games industry.  There have been a few reasonable efforts over the years, enjoyable romps with which to six-shoot away a few cactus-themed hours, but nothing particularly memorable.  Until now, that is.

Red Dead Redemption is in theory a “spiritual successor” (whatever that means) to Red Dead Revolver, a Playstation 2 game which I think you’d probably have to lump along with the aforementioned reasonable yet unmemorable western efforts, but in fact Redemption has a lot more in common with developer Rockstar’s mega-franchise Grand Theft Auto.  That’s no bad thing.  When GTA III came out in 2001, the first of the series in 3d, the combination of huge game world, open-ended play and edgy ultra-violence was revolutionary, and its two sequels (or perhaps spiritual successors) Vice City and San Andreas further expanded and refined the concept of non-linear, crime-based gaming in huge and beautifully realised sandbox worlds. 

I’d been a little disappointed with the most recent outing, Grand Theft Auto IV, which undoubtedly created an amazing world, but I felt the game within it was a bit bare, a bit empty, a bit lacking in the wealth of side-tasks and detail which had always made the series so compelling.  So were Rockstar able to refresh the concept and add something new through the western setting?  Resoundingly yes.  In fact they’ve taken the whole thing to new heights.  It’s bigger, bolder and more beautiful with better gameplay and pacing, but it’s also subtler, wittier, with better character work, even more atmosphere, and a level of thematic and emotional involvement which is all too rare in computer games.  To put it simply, Red Dead Redemption is fucking stupendous. 

So, John Marston is an ex-outlaw who has been blackmailed by an unscrupulous government into hunting down his one-time partners in crime, and his bloody quest will take him across beautifully realised analogues of 1910 Texas, Mexico, the Great Plains and Chicago.  The decision to set the game in 1910, as the west is dying, rather than, say, 1880, is a masterstroke.  Civilisation is coming, the government is tightening its grip on the wildnerness, the buffalo are facing extinction, the motor car is replacing the horse and the machine gun the revolver.  Marston is no eager kid wanting to make a name for himself, he’s used up and worn down, the last of his breed, a fish out of water in the encroaching modern world.  Rockstar’s satirical streak also seems to work better in this context.  It’s more restrained than GTA, less lurid, less juvenile.  Red Dead Redemption is an adult game in every sense.

As one would expect in the wild west, there are a lot of shootouts, especially in the missions that make up the central plot of the game, and while they can be great fun they’re generally pretty easy, thanks to Marston’s superb auto-aiming and dead-eye capabilities (you can slow down time for brief periods in order to paint targets on various part of your enemy, then unleash a hail of lead that sends banditos spinning like tops or, if you’re really good, shoots the guns from their disbelieving hands).  But it’s actually the quieter, often unscripted moments that really soar.  Breaking wild horses in the desert as the sunset leaks out over the mesas.  Squatting in the snowy trees, buffalo rifle levelled, waiting for that perfect shot as a grizzly bear snuffles past.  Hunting for confederate gold among the mountain peaks in a lashing lightning storm.  An impromptu gunfight in a saloon after a few too many whiskies after I blew the piano player’s brains out because I just didn’t like what he was playing.  Alright, that last one wasn’t a quiet moment, but you see what I’m saying.  The game world is so detailed, so filled with wildlife, personality, and random occurrences, that a gentle ride between two towns can turn out to be more memorable than the most painstakingly scripted sequence in other games.

They’ve really hit the sweet spot in terms of pacing as well, and the way in which the game rewards exploration and draws you into participating in its many, many side-tasks.  I loved San Andreas but I can remember getting a little bored of it by the end.  I never tired of Red Dead Redemption.  Indeed if it had required me to herd cattle around the map for another thirty hours without a shot fired I’d probably have happily put my chaps on and got those beefs on the road.  There are hunting challenges like killing cougars with a knife, sharpshooting tasks like shooting birds from a moving train, bandit hideouts to be cleared, gambling games to master, even a pretty decent simulation of poker which more than once ended up in bloodshed in the street after I was accused (correctly, I will admit) of cheating.

To begin with I wasn’t sure about character and plotting but here, as with so much else, the designers have made some bold moves that pay off big in the long run.  Rather than laying out the whole plot and history of the central character with heavy-handed exposition at the start, they let it drip through in conversations and offhand remarks as you go.  You end up with a rich sense of history, almost as if the game is a direct sequel, but it never gets in the way.  Facial animation is perhaps one weak spot.  They’re a touch wooden even for steely frontiersmen, especially when you compare them to recent games particularly strong in this area like Uncharted 2 or Heavy Rain.  But it’s made up for by some great voice acting, motion capture and a truly excellent score.

There are quite a lot of lengthy cut scenes, and here you’re watching rather than playing.  Marston is always Marston, gruff and laconic but basically decent and honourable, which works well enough if you’ve been playing in a gruff but honourable way the rest of the time but is rather jarring if you’ve been acting like a psycopathic desperado (what, me?)  But I guess there’ll always be a tradeoff in computer games between making the central character a kind of blank slate, offering dialogue and behaviour options to the player and a bit more roleplaying, as it were (Mass Effect being a good example) and those giving the central character a vivid personality of their own, allowing perhaps for sparkier if more limited dialogue (as in Uncharted 2).  Either way, the recipe worked here, and I came to love Marston and his oddball crew of employers, sidekicks and adversaries.  The ending, in particular, is absolute genius, bold and fitting, and it left me raw, forlorn, and hollowed out in the way a really great book does.  You can’t say fairer than that, now, can you?

I’m not a man prone to hyperbole (except, of course, when applied to myself or my own work) but Red Dead Redemption stands head and shoulders above the rest in a year that seems to have had a lot of very good games.  I’ll see how it settles on me, but at the moment, I’d say it’s on a short list of contenders for my best game ever…

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  1. If you wrote a western fantasy novel with the same level of grittiness, character development and amazing action scenes that The First Law had, my chest would grow a forest of hair from the sheer manliness of reading it. Just sayin’.

  2. I quite enjoyed the game as well, and for many of the same reasons you cited. It is mature, fully formed and the narrative that drives it is excellent. The John as metaphor for the Wild West as it was in 1911 was a slick move that I didn’t catch until several hours in. That said, having just finished Alan Wake I find it to be preferable to my tastes. It is a very atmospheric, moody story that is a tribute to writers, particularly of the modern horror variety, everywhere. It is rife with meta-textual references that are fun for anyone who gets them. It is not as fully formed as a game, nor as pretty, but allowing yourself to enter the story wholeheartedly will reward you handsomely.

  3. Fuck, I was trying to save my money but looks like that’s gone to the wind now. Already bought fallout 3, mass effect 2, and prince of Persia this month

    The new prince of Persia is pretty stupendous as well. The platforming is slick and wholly enjoyable, and the scenery was breathtaking. Might just be because I’m a sucker for anything with that “Arabian nights” theme, but I thoroughly enjoyed it

  4. I’ve read I think 3 reviews of this game now, that all just floated past my radar for various reasons. It sort of makes me want to play it (and I am no kind of gamer) so that makes me wonder WTF is wrong with me that for all my fantasy nerdery what makes me twitch to pick up the ole xbox is a fucking western game.

    Speaking of westerns and hollowed-out men getting sent by a gov’t official to hunt down old partners…have you seen the Proposition yet? I know you hadn’t 2 years ago when I first asked, but it re-set the bar for movies for me. And if you like this premise…virtually the same. Just in Australia, so there are more flies than there are in the western US. :)

  5. I literally bought this about an hour ago and have yet to crack it open.

    To be honest, I was never a great fan of the GTA series, I think mainly because the setting never really interested me. But to put that gameplay mechanic onto a western setting and I’m there, son!

  6. As you enter Mexico, right after Irish takes off, riding alone into the rising sun and Far Away starts playing… I swear, I’ve never been that close to tears from a videogame. I was so awestruck by the solemn beauty.

  7. I’ve been waiting on your review for this, I knew it would come eventually.

    Personally speaking, I love a western. I don’t think I can express the joy I felt while playing this game in words so I’m not going to.

    The only comment i’m going to make is, in terms of storyline, surely he could have gotten the information he wanted a lot quicker by holding a gun to peoples head? Instead of doing things for people and whistling Dixie..

  8. Matthias,
    My next book is going to be a mix of fantasy and western with EVEN MORE grittiness, character development and amazing action scenes that The First Law had. Best get your chest comb out, buddy.

    Liam,
    Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2 are also excellent.

    Elena,
    I have indeed seen the Proposition, partly on your recommendation. It was good – perhaps a tad too metaphysical for my own tastes, though.

    Johnny,
    I hear you.

    Harvey,
    Herein likes the tension and perhaps the game’s biggest weakness (though it ain’t all that big) – within the sandbox open world you can do whatever you please, be whoever you please, but the central missions require you to act in a fairly honourable, even a gentlemanly manner. The main plot is really very constricted. I was expecting the opportunity in mexico, say, to side with one faction or the other, but you end up, rather unconvincingly, having to play both sides against the middle for no obvious reason. On the upside, that means you tend to get a bigger, more detailed game, but there’s less feeling of choice and replay potential.

  9. Is it Adam Baldwin in the lead role? Sounded like him in the trailer. I would find out on IMDB but the people there really depress me. And I’m having a pedicure so, too lazy!

  10. Ha, well, bless you for finally seeing it. not enough people in this world have. also, i can totally see some of the dialogue fitting in with your characters:

    “Are we misanthropes, Mozza?”
    “No, Shivers, we’re FAMILY.” lol

  11. I’m, at best, a casual gamer. But this game struck as something worth checking out. Your resounding review only encourages me to purchase.

    A bit off topic. What is English/European view of the American west? It’s an era, that in our short years of nationhood, that is uniquely American, and in many ways defines our self-perceptions. Is it similar in Europe? Are Americans all cowboys and bandits? Does the idea of riding off into the sunset strike the same romantic chord?

  12. Chris,
    Not Adam Baldwin. Not sure who it is, but he’s a bloody good voice.

    JenMo,
    I doubt it has quite the resonance here it does in the US, but I’m sure most folks are more than familiar with the themes. I grew up watching a lot of classic westerns like My Darling Clementine, Gunfight at the OK Corral, High Noon, the Far Country, and etc. etc. Then took in the grittier spaghetti westerns and Clint Eastwood’s revisionist takes (Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven are two of my all time favourites). So I’ve always loved westerns, both old and new. Of course westerns have tended to fade as a form for some time, so perhaps there’s a younger generation here for whom they wouldn’t quite strike the same chord.

  13. Ditto on the Proposition, but if you haven’t seen the Assasination of Jesses James by the coward Robert Ford, you need to fix that soon.

  14. Talking smack during a game of horseshoes = shotgun to face.

  15. Ok,need some help here. Haven’t played a PC game since Half-Life, which I loved and finished. Many years ago I played the Lucas Arts games, Monkey Island, Indiana Jones, Tentacle etc.
    This game looks amazing – I’m a groupie for all Western related stuff, and Joe’s is a voice I’d trust more than most. So I’m itching to play. Trouble is it seems that it’s not available on PC, and the whole XBox, Playstation thing has passed me by. But if I need to buy one of these in order to be able to play this game I will.
    So my question is, what console should I buy? Does it make any difference. I presume I can hook these consoles up to a PC monitor rather than a TV? Or do these games get ported to a PC platform at some point?
    Thanks for any help and thanks Joe for the report on this. Can’t wait for “Heroes” BTW.

  16. If any of you bastards spoil anything I’ll track you down and kill you, Monza-style… Okay?

  17. Davieboy,
    The GTAs have come out on PC, so I imagine RDR will, but I don’t know when. I have a Playstation 3, which seems better engineered, has free internet involvement and doubles as a bluray player, but is more expensive than XBox. They’re pretty much equivalent in all honesty – some difference in what exclusive titles are available but these days most things come out on both. The rivalry between the two sets of fans seems to me a close contender for the lamest thing of all time. As far as connecting to a monitor my PS3 has an HDMI out which works with my monitor, but you need a 1920×1080 display to get the best out of it.

  18. Cheers Joe, will go for PS3 then. After all, if it’s good enough for you, it’s surely good enough for me!

    I’m really excited about this – the posters on the underground intrigued me and your review has sealed the deal. As a 53 year-old I’m kinda gettin’ plumb tuckered out, but I’ll have me a shot of Redemption afore I’m done…

  19. In totally unrelated news. Pat at Pat’s fantasy hotlist said this, “‘The Fool Jobs’ by Joe Abercrombie is the anthology’s pièce de résistance. It’s a story about Craw and a group of Northmen screwing up an assignment and kicking some serious butt. Likely the best short story of the lot.”

  20. Joe,

    I completely agree with you on the fact that you can run around with a 20,000 dollar bounty (I highly recommend it. Lots of fun. Even the pardon guy runs away from you), tieing up 10 policemen in the center of town and throwing two molotov’s on ‘em to set an example, but if you start a mission you’re a nice fellow. It makes it extremely hard to be a baddie. I mean there are certain cutscenes, particularly during the last few missions, where if you capped every person you met you’d feel like the biggest jackass and hypocrite in the world. However, that just goes to show how much of an emotional impact this game can have on you.

    Which makes it absolutely amazing.

  21. Joe, were you serious about your next book being western/fantasy? Or was that tongue in cheek? Please say serious!!

  22. I just spent three straight days playing this game and it’s magnificent. And some of the dialogue is like it has come straight out of one of Joe’s books. Like when you’re on the raft with Irish and he says “Do you know what the word for ‘cunt’ is in Spanish?” And you reply “You tell me. I’m sure you’ve been called it a number of times…”

  23. It’s good, but it’s pretty plagued with the same sandbox problems that haunt most of them: lots of stuff to do, little reason to do it.

    I actually approve of the rather stringent morality displayed in the central missions. There’s no real way to do moral choices in a game properly, since it usually translates to extremes (IE: Save an Orphanage or Burn an Orphanage Down) and is usually done with a long-term plan in mind. It feels sticky and unnatural, since most morality seems to occur as a result of doing whatever feels right at the moment.

    Still, good game.

  24. Red Dead Redemption is fucking stupendous.
    =======================================
    Says it all really.

    I’m off to play Liars dice. See you all next Sunday.

  25. It is a fantastic game.

    Although, I liked the facial animations here more than in Heavy Rain, actually. The faces in the latter are pretty well-rooted in the uncanny valley, to my eyes.

    It might just be because of the games’ differing art styles… Red Dead Redemption goes more for the not-quite-cartoony, but a-little-too-stylized-to-be-photorealistic look of GTA IV. Except I think RDR pulls it off even better.

  26. Great feckin game but it felt a bit short. Am looking forward to the DLC so you can play an off the reservation redskin soaked in firewater and scalping folk left right and center. And I hear there will be lynchings and a bit of the auld tar and feathers to boot. Also cant wait to see Rockstar apply themselves to the Fantasy and Zombie scene…

    The Proposition had one of the best movie spearings in can remember ….

  27. And Jesus Joe if ye thought The Proposition was too metaphysical don’t watch Valhalla Rising.

  28. Or the last episode of Firefly.

  29. I’m still only about three quarters of the way through the main campaign, but already I can’t wait for the DLC. In fact it’d be the first time I’ve decided to buy ALL the DLC for a game since ELDER SCROLLS OBLIVION.

  30. Joe, here’s one reader hoping you will write a western based fantasy series. Just please PLEASE, don’t insert yourself as a character in the story! ;-)

  31. You bloodthirsty savage!

  32. I agree with everything Joe said.
    Well you guys have already said everything that needed saying but I just wanted to contribute.
    I was heart sore when the game ended but then I discovered freeroam!
    I just love the anticipation of meeting another player wondering if he’s going to help me clear the hideout or take a pop-shot. Just like in the real west (I imagine) you have to be optimistic but ready. Never fails to surprise me how many more people take pop-shots when I change my title back from “Head Hollower” to “Greenhorn”
    I’ll never forget my first outing in freeroam; by best mate was sort of holding my hand and suggested we try out Fort Mercer. So he put his fingers to his lips and beckoned his trusty steed. I followed suit only to be greeted by a braying donkey. Story of my life but did make me chuckle.

  33. I’m almost loathe to do story missions in RDR because I don’t want the game to end. I do like Joe’s idea about shooting the piano player, though. I think he’s puttin’ on some airs lately that some hot lead might help to rectifyin’.

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