When Rockstar - the creators of the famous Grand Theft Auto - announces a GTA-style game, you can imagine it is as hotly anticipated as such household titles like "Halo" or "Call of Duty." Red Dead Redemption
is no exception. Borrowing the familiar sandbox style so aptly put on display in the GTA series, Rockstar opted to shift time periods rather than just metropolises. This is Rockstar's Wild West and, to cut to the chase: it's good.
Players inhabit the role of John Marston, an ex-criminal compelled by the Federal Government to hunt down his previous cohorts in order to protect his family. In a way, the concept isn't entirely new. The character of Marston, a career criminal thrust into perilous situations and displaying admirable adaptability and murderous skills, is not unlike, say, Vice City's Tommy Vercetti or San Andreas' CJ Johnson. But despite all the familiarities of a Rockstar sandbox game, this is a completely different monster. Rockstar has created an encompassing world that is so immersive as to make you wonder: how are other game developers getting it so wrong when these guys are getting it so right?
It might have a little to do with the estimated $80 million to $100 million spent developing the game, but the money was well spent. Stepping out into the world of the Wild West, every detail the player encounters, ranging from an anti-semitic General Store operator, the old style movie theaters, newspapers on sale, etc. is steeped in that peculiar character of the era. A simpler way to say this: you feel like you're really in the Wild West.
If you've ever heard that unofficial anthem of the American West (and official state song of Kansas), "Home on the Range", you get the idea that the Wild West was expansive, at times peaceful, at times perilous, and almost always lonely. It is this feeling that Rockstar has created with a shocking skill, raising the bar for what "immersive" really means in a video game. Many of the characters in the game deride the meddlesome federal authorities - those who have set you upon your task - and the Northern cities they dwell in, preferring the simpler, honest life of the west. The comparison can be extended to what Rockstar has done here.
Unlike the bustling and relatively chaotic Vice City, Red Dead Redemption's New Austin is quiet, natural and beautiful. You will frequently find yourself observing the environment around you. Riding your horse - a tricky skill that is immensely satisfying once you get a hang of it - through the open, dusty range comes with a feeling of solitude coupled with a connection to the natural world around you. The day somehow feels hot, the night is empty and cold.
Not that riding around and enjoying the sights are all you'll do in Red Dead Redemption. The cities you'll encounter have general stores, gunsmiths, poker games, five finger fillet games, train stations and everything else you might expect. You'll also find the quirky inhabitants that provide the missions that drive Marston's quest for, well, redemption. Interactions with these characters puts Rockstar's fantastic writing and gift for retaining great voice actors on full display. Rather than wanting to skip dialogue sequences or cut scenes, you'll find yourself listening to every word.The missions are largely Western quid pro quo; Marston helps the characters out in exchange for their assistance in hunting down his previous comrades. We learn a lot about these unique characters, archetypes of the Wild West, along the way. These mainstays of the era (a snake oil salesman peddling elixirs, a mad treasure hunter, a Western legend, and so on) are more than just cliches. Rockstar has done an admirable job of giving them personalities you feel you know by the game's conclusion.
Much of the action of Red Dead Redemption, however, comes in the player's ambling around New Austin and the surround areas. Sounds of screams and gunfire draw your attention to a mix of repeating and unique world events, which might have Marston catching a horse thief or shooting the rope to save a hapless victim about to be hanged. There is plenty of wild game, and hunting the various animals of Red Dead Redemption is no easy task. You might be stalking a deer, hoping to kill and skin it, only to be attacked by predators like wolves or cougars (which turn out to be one of the more terrifying elements of the game). Or maybe you'll just be challenged to a duel by the sort of insolent sod you make sure to shoot a few times in the face.
The action in Red Dead Redemption is enhanced by the Dead Eye feature, Rockstar's version of bullet time, slowing time to allow more precise shots. As your comfort in the world of Red Dead Redemption increases, as does your fame. The player decides whether Marston becomes famous or infamous, but regardless of your honor, the denizens of Red Dead Redemption will come to know you by name. The feeling is satisfying, offering enough variation to keep the game interesting and rewarding you for your efforts and sure shot.
Red Dead Redemption is, quite simply, a must-play if there ever was one. Not because it's flawless. Far from it, the game is infuriatingly buggy at times: wagons remain in place when they should be moving, whistling for your horse somehow makes it run away from you half of the time, characters can be rendered invisible, the console will just flat out freeze, etc.
Treading lightly with such sensitive game rules as this one becomes mandatory. If your horse is walking within 25 feet of someone, they'll dramatically leap to the floor (maybe in hopes of cashing in on the burgeoning personal injury lawsuits?). It's akin to the over-sensitivity of the AI in a sneak-heavy game like Hitman, where the slightest nudge of shoulders will have enemies whipping out their handguns to shoot you down. Certain world event scenarios are obscure and inevitably lead to shooting the wrong target, or scaring people off by brandishing your weapon. Loss of honor, in that situation, becomes commonplace. Certain actions, however unintentional, will be registered by the AI as an error and penalize you for it.
The list goes on and on, but suffice it to say there is definitely room for improvement. But somehow, this will all barely detract from the finished product which, for all of its flaws, is close to perfect.