Red Dead Redemption is Grand Theft Auto in the Wild West. We told ourselves over and over that opening the review in this way was a cop-out, but it's undeniable - Red Dead Redemption is Grand Theft Auto in the Wild-West. In many ways, however, it's also much more. Red Dead Redemption marries the detail of Grand Theft Auto IV with the criticism that followed it - the American West may lack cars and helicopters, but Red Dead Redemption is more alive than any other Rockstar game you've played before. The world is teeming with one-off, background events that may only occur once, but serve to enhance the belief in its world. This is a sandbox game without the staple that's made the genre so predictable - this is a game without repetition.
Playing as hearty outlaw John Marston, you're in pursuit of some colleagues from your shady past. The intentions are not initially clear, but in typical Rockstar fashion, it's through the introduction of numerous other off-the-cuff characters that you start to learn more about Marston's past. While an excellent protagonist, Marston is, in many ways, a tool for which other caricatures can be brought to the forefront: a crooked trader, a grave-robber, and a kind farm girl are all early encounters in a game stacked with personality.
Red Dead Redemption's typically Rockstar in the sense that some of the game's caricatures are sterotypes. The foolhardy Irish is a drunk, and the presentable trader Mr. West-Dickens is a fraudster. But other characters, like Marston and farm girl Bonnie Macfarlane, are achingly real. They're imperfect people who make mistakes, and are just trying their best in a world that's not often fair. Sensational voice acting across the board really brings the characters to life, and their personalities are emphasised by some decent facial animation. These characters help to prove Rockstar's mastery of story once more. There's a point about three hours from the end where it feels that the game's reached its natural conclusion. It carries on. We can't go into detail without spoiling the game, but the ending is all the stronger for those quiet last couple of hours.
Much has been made of how the Playstation 3 version of Red Dead Redemption stacks up to the Xbox 360 version visually. We don't think it matters. Apparently the PlayStation 3 version runs at a slightly lower resolution, but does it look good? Yes, it looks absolutely stunning. The draw distance is what brings the look of the American West to life here. Vistas stretch for miles and miles, with heat hazes masking their clarity. The American West was a dusty-dirty place, and Red Dead Redemption re-creates that perfectly. It's a gloriously good looking game, and the incredibly subtle soundtrack pours more positivity on the presentation. The odd twang here, the odd bass-strike there is all the game really needs to convey the Western effect. It's minimalist — so much so that you barely notice it's there. That's what makes it so effective.
Perhaps the biggest complaint about Grand Theft Auto IV was that the world lacked interactivity. Sure, Liberty City was an unbelievably detailed, living, breathing environment, but it lacked dynamic content. Red Dead Redemption solves that. The world is no less detailed, with settlements, hide-outs and towns packed with personality, but it's through exploring the world that interactivity finds you, rather than vice versa. Early on in the game we were taking a short trip from a ranch to the local town of Armadillo. Along the road, a man stopped to implore our help. "Sir," he screamed, "Would it be possible to hitch a ride with you?" His politeness was endearing, so we pulled back and let the man get on our horse's back. He climbed aboard, and then, in a moment which seemed to pass in an instant, he threw us off our horse and raced away. Dazed, confused we tried to register what had actually happened. After a moment startled, we took chase, and watched in dismay as the thief took to an incline with our horse. We pulled out our rifle and steadied aim: the shot needed to hit the thief and not our horse. We aimed. We fired. The man collapsed backwards and rolled down the hill. We watched as our horse pulled up, clearly shaken by events, and whistled. Our horse turned and slowly trotted back to us. We carried on our way to the town of Armadillo. This was not a one-off - Red Dead Redemption is literally teeming with events that just happen. They're not tied to missions, objectives, or anything of the kind. They're dynamic moments in the game world, and they bring Rockstar's traditionally believable worlds one step closer to true realism.
When was the last time you stopped playing a game to just stare? Often, there's not a lot going on outside the game's linear path to interest you. Red Dead Redemption is a game where you can do nothing and just watch, because the game's littered with wildlife. There's an entire eco-system. You can stop and watch rabbits dash around a field, only for a coyote to start stalking the rabbit and chase it into the horizon. Heck, there are even flies that flit in and out of the foreground as you walk through the gameworld. The animals aren't just behaviorally believable, they're also phenomenally well animated. You'll see the muscles of your horse's legs flex as you sprint from location to location. Never before has a game paid such attention to wildlife, and Red Dead Redemption is all the more believable for it.
There's nothing inherently broken with Red Dead Redemption's control mechanics, but it really is about time Rockstar ditched their proprietary set-up. You're still tapping X to run here, still hitting R1 to cover and reloading with Circle. This perhaps made sense in the PlayStation 2 era, but now it feels antiquated. Here's hoping Rockstar's next release modernises the control mechanics. It's long overdue.
Perhaps Red Dead Redemption's weakest component is the shooting. The guns feel fine, but it's the enemies that are largely the problem. You always feel underpowered because the opponents are often able to soak up several bullets, even from a fairly powerful rifle. Gun fights can also be frustrating because, apparently bad guys in the Wild West were amazing shots. Even through you're behind cover a good hundred metres away, enemies are still able to take you down.
Red Dead Redemption's a slow game. It takes around 20 hours to play through, with at least 20 hours more gameplay left in exploring the sandbox. The Western genre as a whole is slowly paced, and Rockstar do right to recreate that, but it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. The twitch generation are going to be frustrated by the game's slow pacing and drawn-out campaign. It's a subjective point though, because we personally loved that about Red Dead Redemption.
Red Dead Redemption has a complete multiplayer component which we'll detail further in a future article.
Rockstar's ability to provide a sense of place remains unparalleled. Red Dead Redemption's re-imagining of the American West is so achingly believable even the sternest realists will be drawn into the game's world. Red Dead Redemption's a video game, yet somehow its unpredictability and diversity make it much more than that. It's almost — dare we say — an experience.