Review: Red Dead Redemption (single-player)

Although Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar San Diego's long-awaited open-world game, may look nothing like GTA IV, the two easily invite comparison. Like GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption is an incredibly powerful, polished sandbox game. But, it also carries many of the same flaws as its Liberty City counterpart. While set in drastically different periods, the similarities between these two games cannot be ignored: from gameplay mechanics to mission design to narrative direction. While not cosmetically apparent, even the premises of these two titles are strikingly similar: both are about ex-criminals in new lands attempting to forge new lives for themselves. Both characters are dragged back into murder and vengeance; and both John Marston and Niko Bellic are forced to do odd jobs for odd characters in order to accomplish their goals.

It's these odd jobs that make up the majority of Red Dead Redemption's core gameplay, which is a mixed bag. Most of the missions involve going from Point A to Point B, shooting enemies along the way, and it won't be long before you start to ask yourself the same question Marston asks: "Why am I doing this?" RDR has a number of explosive moments. As John, you'll hijack a moving train, engage in duels and race away in a mine cart. But too much of the game is devoted to herding cows, shopping and shooting hats -- odd jobs indeed for a bloody murderer. To say that RDR sometimes loses its focus is an understatement.
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Still, variety is one of Rockstar's hallmarks, and it's what makes the world of New Austin feel so authentic and alive. There is so much to do in Redemption, that it's hard not to get swept up in it and be tempted off the story path. You could go off in search of the right tools necessary to make a new outfit (which comes with its own set of benefits). You could, instead, play poker, blackjack, dice, horseshoes; or simply sit back and watch an old time movie at the cinema. You could go hunting for rabbits, wolves or bears -- or go hunting for the most dangerous game of all, accepting bounties, and capturing villains, dead or alive. With multiple menus devoted to tracking various stats, RDR is a grinder's paradise.

Of course, being beautiful makes getting lost in the world that much easier. This is a stunning game on both platforms, with some truly amazing vistas to appreciate. Not only does RDR capture the beauty of the desert, it features other environments to explore, as well, including a snowy mountain, a forest and even a burgeoning city or two. Both indoor and outdoor environments are stunningly detailed, and the character models are realistically animated with the assistance of NaturalMotion's Euphoria technology. The thing that impressed me the most, though? Cloth -- seeing a flag wave in the distance, or watching the clothes ripple from the blow of the wind, highlights the meticulous attention to detail Rockstar is famous for.

Should you grow weary of exploring the wilds, the story always awaits. Progressing through Marston's tale will be familiar to anyone that's played an open-world game before. Mission markers will appear on the map, and walking into one will trigger one of Rockstar's signature cutscenes. In typical Rockstar fashion, the writing is heavy-handed, and perhaps even more so than in GTA IV. While it has its fair share of comical characters, RDR definitely takes a more serious approach in its narration, with toned down slapstick and moody, introspective conversations.


The main plot has its highs and lows, but I'd argue that the story of Red Dead Redemption is one of the more sophisticated tales executed in the game medium. Although it has humble beginnings, the game quickly escalates into a story about power and the corruption that comes with it; and like most great Westerns, it's ultimately about the inescapable move towards modernity. John Marston is a product of his times, a relic in a society on the verge of tremendous change. Seeing his "redemption" play out is a fascinating journey. More so than previous Rockstar efforts, RDR is an insightful character piece that kept me riveted from the beginning to its unforgettable and haunting end. Still, with lengthy non-interactive sequences, the story may seem too tiresome, too boring, too preachy, or too sardonic for some. (The story's quick disposal of side characters is also somewhat unsatisfying.)

RDR succeeds in nearly every aspect the GTA franchise has been celebrated for. However, it still manages to have a gunplay system that can only be described as adequate. Taking cover is somewhat cumbersome and unintuitive, with an awkward number of buttons necessary to run and move through cover. Jumping over cover and running to another cover point, for instance, involves pressing three different buttons. However, there are moments when the cover system shines: a hostage situation, for example, has you taking cover next to a door, kicking it open and using slow-mo to precisely shoot around the victim. Still, more often than not, you'll find yourself taking cover behind a rock and stumbling to move around it as you look for somewhere better to position yourself. Once you find a comfortable spot, you'll have no reason to move elsewhere. With cover, you are nearly invincible.

Perhaps the lock-on system, also ripped from GTA IV, is at fault for making gunfights feel more like target practice than actual combat. Essentially, the gunfights boil down to taking cover and waiting for the right moment to lock-on and shoot an enemy. RDR is probably one of the easiest third-person shooters out there. However, the provided alternative is not much better: auto aim can be turned off, but the small reticule and lack of zoom make the game significantly more difficult to play than a typical third-person shooter.


Most other games would be harshly criticized for featuring such mediocre gameplay, but Red Dead Redemption does so much right that the unsatisfying mechanics feel like a small blemish on an otherwise well-executed masterpiece. While Rockstar San Diego hasn't strayed far from the GTA formula, the developer has definitely refined the experience. For example, you're able to quick travel from one point to another: hitting the Select/Back button lets you choose an option to jump directly to a designated waypoint. You're also able to save at nearly any time in the game, whether at a safehouse or out in the wild. Finally, checkpoints are far more intelligently placed in RDR, with nearly zero backtracking necessary should you fail a mission.

Another feature that should be appreciated: the ability to replay any of the story missions -- at any time. For competitive gamers, there's even a scoring system that will award Gold/Silver/Bronze awards based on your performance in each mission. Additionally, the achievements act as a game of their own, with an entirely different set of objectives than those of the core story. (In fact, playing through the story comprises less than 10 percent of the entire achievement collection.)

While the experience is largely derivative of Rockstar's previous efforts -- it's Grand Theft Auto IV with horses -- there are far worse models to follow. Like Grand Theft Auto IV, RDR has its shares of rather significant flaws, but ultimately, it's a game worth experiencing -- a "tour de horse," if you will. Red Dead Redemption is a rare example of a game that commands captivation through polish alone.


This review is based on the PlayStation 3 retail version of Red Dead Redemption purchased by the reviewer.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.