Ah, the Wild West. A period of time that has been beaten to death in every storytelling medium outside video games. Red Dead Redemption has been labeled by some as similar to Fallout 3; where an established, high-quality game engine is applied to a new environment to create an entirely new experience, in spite of the clear connection between it, and its predecessor. Red Dead Redemption shares the same relationship with Grand Theft Auto 4 that Fallout 3 has with Oblivion. And like Fallout 3 before it, Red Dead is a damn good game.
In the year 1911, the United States government is no longer tolerating the lawlessness of the west. In an effort to finally unify the country, the government begins propping up politicians who are campaigning with a hard line on crime. One of them, in an attempt to back up their promises, tracks down a reformed John Marston. A reformed Robin Hood-type bandit, Marston has settled down and started a small farm and family…who are held hostage in order to encourage him to “donate some time to the campaign.” To get them back, he must systematically kill his former band of not-so-Merry Men.
As stated, Red Dead runs off the same engine as GTA4 and because of that, you will have flashes where you think Niko is riding on a horse. The controls are basically identical, outside of the fact you have to spur horses to get them to speed up. Shooting, basic interactions and all of those things are basically copied directly from the GTA games.
The setting, though, makes it feel like a totally fresh game. Riding your horse across seemingly endless stretches of desert is a stark contrast to stop-and-go traffic in Liberty City. The story missions are all fun and diverse in their own way. The game does great work in terms of both easing you into the action, and offering a high degree of diversity between missions. You will herd cattle. You will raft across rivers. You will get into gunfights. And you will have plenty of quick-draw escapades. Red Dead’s diversity between missions is greater than that in many games, and it is a serious boon to the game’s overall quality.
Perhaps even more impressive than the story missions are the many, many distractions found in the game. GTA4 had things like the taxi missions and such, but Red Dead offers much, much more. Firstly, there are loads of structured side-quests. “Strangers” will give you many varying tasks, some of which are simple “fetch” missions while others are much more involved. You can win plenty of in-game money playing some of the mini-games like Poker, Blackjack and Horseshoes. There are bounties that can be captured and all sorts of random encounters that will tempt you to spend time riding your horse across the barren territory, instead of fast-traveling. It adds a great deal of value to the title and can extend playing hours almost indefinitely.
What keeps Red Dead Redemption from having its maximum amount of staying power is the generally bad online mode. There are a lot of things that would be incredibly fun to tackle with a team, whether it’s racing horses or playing poker or pillaging a city. Instead, though, there are just some framed gameplay modes and a “Free Roam” mode, which lets you trek through the wilderness and kill some AI enemies with some other random players, though it usually devolves into everyone just running head-long at each other with shotguns. While the game is still highly enjoyable, this is just a huge missed opportunity.
The game, aesthetically, is very strong. Graphically, the game is strong, but spotty. John Marston, for example, is one of the most badass characters in recent video games, and has a deceptively elaborate, well-made outfit. Most of the major NPCs are similarly strong, but look closely and you will see some muddy skin textures and other oddities. Sound, though, is absolutely excellent. A quality soundtrack, great sound effects and superb voice acting make this one of the most impressive games ever in that regard.
While people are getting a bit ahead of themselves in declaring Red Dead Redemption the best game ever, it’s still a very, very good game. The single player experience is so deep and well-crafted that you can spend hours on end just appreciating some of the minor nuances of the game. Anybody who enjoyed Grand Theft Auto will be able to jump into Red Dead Redemption and have a good time.