Review: Red Dead Redemption- Redemption and Freedom Don't Mix
At the core of Red Dead Redemption are three basic components: game play, freedom, and story. They're the three tent-poles that hold up the burlap of entertainment. One of the three is very strong, and one of them is unnecessary.
Basics first: Red Dead Redemption is nominally a descendant of Red Dead Revolver, the 2004 game for PlayStation 2 and Xbox, also developed by Rockstar Games. Redemption features sandbox freedom in the fashion of Grand Theft Auto IV, but with the style of a Western, all grit and gun smoke. It's about a former outlaw, now forced to make up for his past crimes, although chances are you'll wind up committing more than a few additional sins over the course of the game. The setting of New Austin, a Rockstar-style pastiche of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and others, embodies the amoral feel of the Old West. The game's got a good set of ingredients for making a hearty stew, but the real question is if they're mixed right.
Red Dead Redemption: Mmmm, mmmm good? Or pieces of carrion mixed with rotten veggies in some God-knows-what gravy?
The first, and simplest, pillar is game play. The game is a third person shooter at heart, with standard controls that'll be familiar to anyone who's had a tryst with the genre. Shooting, fighting, rolling, and so on. None of the game's weapons are terribly spectacular in and of themselves, though the graphics and sound are visceral enough that I got a little thrill every time I unloaded two rounds from a sawed off shotgun directly into a bandit's face. Movement and camera work fine, with the only exception being sprinting, which still requires the player to mash frantically upon the "A" button.
You can steal and mount horses, so as long as there's a horse around, you're never without some form of transportation. The game also includes a number of other smart decisions for keeping travel quick and easy. For instance, you can always call your horse by pushing up on the D-pad. Because your horse is always the last one that you tied up at one of the hitching posts spread the map, you do develop a certain affection for the beast. Or at least, I did. But then, the priests tell me my feelings towards horses are wrong, so maybe I shouldn't talk about that. Fast travel options abound, as well, from coach and carriage rides that, for a small fee, can take you to any waypoint you set on the map, to instant travel from your campsite in the wild.
Yee haw, my love. Yee. Haw.
The stitching of a number of RPG elements, including item gathering and hunting and skinning animals, onto the skeleton of GTA IV somehow snares my interest in an iron-fisted grip. I found there's little else to compare with the pleasure of collecting wolf hearts to trade for a Mauser pistol. The honor and fame meters are also nice additions. As your honor grows with good deeds, you get certain bonuses, like extra money on jobs, or discounted prices in most towns. Dishonor, which you get by killing, stealing, and otherwise committing crimes, rewards you with decreased costs for bribing witnesses of your crimes. Fame slowly rises over the course of the game as a reward for nearly anything you do. Its perks include greater leeway for when you do break the law, and an increase to the random events of the world.
Single-match multiplayer is something of a sprinter to the single player's marathon runner; it takes the gunplay of the single-player mode, and turns it into a system for quick, chaotic matches. Even with such a burst-like style of play, multiplayer will provide a few hours of fun. The PvP modes are down 'n' dirty mayhem, just like the West should be. The environments for multiplayer are well-made, and there are any number of places in each level that make for epic shootouts. And the way that every match opens with a good ol' fashioned Mexican standoff between all team members? Priceless.
The second, and weakest, pillar of the game is its story. Y'see, the story of Red Dead Redemption is solid. It's a fairly enjoyable Western story, with a well-known, but well-used caste of archetypes. The cut scenes are actually fun to watch, and the voice acting is excellent. All of which brings me to the critical point: I would've rather watched this story than played it.
The story could've been saved with the introduction of the above character, but alas, Vixen McTrixie was cut from Red Dead Redemption after a political disagreement over how much cleavage was too much.
The story focuses on John Marston, your classic Western antihero, hunting down the members of his former gang on behalf of some slimy, evil government types. If this story were told over a tight two hours of film, it would have great pace and power, but as it stands, it's dragged out over that 10 or 20 hour quota of modern games. Redemption pours salt in the wound whenever it starts a story mission somewhere different from the site of the action. When the first five minutes of a mission involve riding to somewhere, so you can get to the interesting part of the mission, you can't help but feel the boredom gnawing away at you. Though you don't have to do any of the story missions, the game keeps portions of the map sectioned off and unavailable until you do, so you have to go through the story to have the full freedom of the game opened up.
The final pillar, and the bastion of strength for the game, is its freedom. By freedom, here, I mean the joy of being able to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. Red Dead Redemption is brilliant at offering the player a menu filled with potential, and then letting him choose to come to an entree of his own volition. For example, you can pop open your journal and find a number of challenges. Collect a certain number of Wild Feverfew flowers. Kill 5 wolves and take their pelts. At the upper levels, challenges give you goals like shooting the hats off of people's heads. You never have to do these things, but once you know what you're looking for, you'll find yourself riding along, and noticing, "Oh hey, that was a Wild Feverfew I just passed!" And you'll turn around to pick the flower. Or you'll hear a wolf bark in the distance, and you'll speed off, because that shithead's skin is yours, dammit.
The game also offers up strangers who give you quests. The wonderful part of the stranger's quests is that they function just like quests in an RPG; they stick around, for you to do at your leisure. And some of them are interesting for the choices they offer, like all those that involve one particular mysterious stranger. In the first of his quests, he sends you to talk to a man who was thinking of being unfaithful to his wife. But the stranger didn't tell you whether you should encourage the man to cheat on his wife, or talk him down. It's a binary choice, yes, and not exactly a complex one but I did appreciate that the game gave me this mission, and didn't push me towards either direction. When I later encountered this stranger again, he commented on the choice I had made, and it thrilled me.
In one of the most engrossing features of the game, Red Dead Redemption presents you with opportunities to participate in random events that periodically crop up. Sometimes, it's a jerk in town who wants to challenge you to a duel. Other times, you'll find a greasy outlaw carrying a woman away on his shoulder. There's a wide variety of these random instances in the game, and they're all good at making you feel like things happen, whether or not you're involved. I love knowing that the game's not forcing me to join in any of these conflicts; it's my choice alone to stick my neck out and chance getting plugged. You are rewarded, of course, with Fame and Honor points, but these feel less like incentives and more like a way to track your choices, and change the game to suit.
The real problems of the game arise when one considers the story pillar and the freedom pillar, side by side. The John Marston of cut scene and story mission is not going to be the John Marston of free roam. It doesn't matter that in free roam, you're a hard bitten murderer who's stolen from every man in town, and killed more 'n his fair share of lawmen. You're still going to help Bonnie MacFarlane round up some cattle in a story mission. Even if you play free roam pretty closely to the morality of the main story's John Marston, you'll still feel an odd disconnect as you realize that you've got no control over the story. All you're doing is acting like a puppeteer, following a script, making sure John Marston gets from cut scene to cut scene by killing whomever the game tells you to kill.
As for the free roam mode in multiplayer, it's a sad attempt to capture the freedom of single player and bring it to multiplayer. It succeeds for a while, as you and your pal run around and shoot up some bandit hideouts, or maybe go after other players to mercilessly murder them. But after a short time, free roam runs out of steam. A lot of the best parts of the single-player freedom simply aren't present in free roam. No strangers, no random events. Without more to do, the multiplayer fails to draw you in and spur you onwards.
The game is a bittersweet mix of success and failure. The parts that work, work very well. The parts that don't work either fall flat next to the parts that do, or they just plain stink. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's worth at least a try, because there is something here that is worth discovering: the joy of a Western sandbox. So saddle up, friend, and enjoy the ride.