This review was originally published 06/29/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes.
I was very impressed with Grand Theft Auto IV. Before the game had come out, I worried that the formula would be stale, and that Rockstar would just throw so much content into the game that it would overwhelm the player (San Andreas was a ridiculously complex game, although not in a bad way). The successfulness of Grand Theft Auto IV had me very excited about Red Dead Redemption, even though I hated its predecessor Red Dead Revolver.
The release of this game also made me realize how strangely devoid the gaming world is of Westerns. I guess game developers just didn’t feel the genre would be very popular with the younger audience. But Red Dead Redemption just might change that. The marriage of a Western theme and an open-world sandbox style of gameplay is a combination that seems absolutely genius. Red Dead Redemption, however, does not quite reach the level of "genius."
The not-so-lonesome cowboy
How do you make a game about the wild west, and not include any tortoises or lizards? As my choice of pets
may imply, I was very disappointed by the lack of cute, scaly critters.
The world that RockStar has created is well-conceived for the most part. It is very detailed and lifelike. The scenery is that of a desolate desert, but still does not get boring. Landscapes in the distance that look like old matte painting backdrops for movies actually end up being real places that you can visit and walk around in. The desert is also populated with all kinds of animals: coyotes, dogs, horses, skunks, birds, snakes, deer, cows, buffalo, and so on (but no turtles or lizards apparently). The day/night cycle also seems to fit perfectly with the pace of the game. The only time it gets awkward is when you play a mini-game like poker or horseshoes, and the day goes from high noon to dusk before your eyes. The musical score also fits appropriately with the game’s setting. The animations of characters and dialogue help to add a degree of immersion that can suck you into the game’s world.
However, this world is not perfect. It seems way too dense. Every few steps my character seems to be getting molested by wolves or cougars or bandits robbing caravans. It takes a lot of the atmosphere out of the game, as there is no sense of "desolation" that you would expect to see from the likes of a Clint Eastwood movie. The mission structure also takes a lot out of the game. Just like GTA, you simply go to a location on the map to start a mission. Even ambient "Stranger" tasks are marked on the map even if your character has no reason to know where that "stranger" is.
Some towns have saloons and even sell newspapers, and it would have been very cool if missions could be triggered by overhearing gossip in the saloons or reading articles in the newspaper. But sadly, all the saloon patrons and newspapers only talk about things you’ve already done. It’s an unfortunate oversight by the designers, but not a game-breaking flaw by any stretch of the imagination. The world also suffers from moderate-to-frequent texture and shading pop-up on trees, buildings, and terrain features. Again, it’s not a game-breaker, just a minor irritant if you’re looking closely enough to notice it.
Don't let Red Dead's expansive environment and minimalist soundtrack fool you into thinking that it will have the almost-depressingly-desolate brilliance of Shadow of the Colossus. There's a lot more than just birds and lizards in New Austin, and they'll pop out of the grass to eat you alive sooner than you can spit.
Just be glad you’ll never duel on horseback
Gameplay is also a mixed affair. It gets very close to being great, but some control issues really drag down the experience. On foot, gunplay is incredibly fun. The targeting system might be a bit simplistic for some, as your crosshair will automatically snap to any enemy that you have centered in the camera’s field of vision. You can then move the crosshair to fine tune the shot and go try to disarm an enemy by shooting his arm, or go for the instant-kill headshot. It all works great. And if you think it’s too simple, you can switch the targeting mode to "Expert" where you have to do all the targeting yourself.
The only major complaint I have with on-foot gunplay is that sometimes the snap-to-cover feature doesn’t do quite what I want it to do, and sometimes when I’m trying to reposition my character around a boulder to make a shot, the character will go all the way around the boulder (because its round and doesn’t have a defined "edge"), and of course, he’ll be exposed and get shot at. There are other minor nuisances, like the triggering "Dead Eye" being the same button as the look-behind button (Dead Eye is triggered if you have a weapon drawn, otherwise, tapping R3 turns the camera backwards). And the weapon wheel is sometimes a pain.
Horseback riding is a bit more of a problem. The game uses a control scheme similar, but not quite the same, as Shadow of the Colossus, but after playing Shadow’s very believable and fun horseback riding, I don’t know if I can ever play any other game with horseback riding in it. The horses in Red Dead behave OK, but not great. You speed them up by tapping X and then hold X to maintain a speed. If you are following another character, you can hold X to automatically match their speed, which is a very nice feature. But holding X also leads to a problem when riding. Camera control is still handled by the right stick. And you are still going to have to deal with bad guys when on horseback, which means you are going to have to find a way to continue holding X while also moving the right analog stick to aim your weapon.
Fighting on horseback is necessarily frustrating due to poor camera controls and horse navigation.
It's especially problematic when being chased by bad guys, since your thumb will have to alternate between tapping X to speed up and turning the stick to rotate the camera backwards to look at the badguys, or you'll have to do some finger-gymnastics.
The game tries to make this easier by having the horse maintain speed for a few seconds after releasing X, giving you some time to move the stick. But the fast-paced nature of horseback combat means you’ll usually need more time to line up a shot than it will take for the horse to start slowing down, giving the bad guys a chance to catch up to you and surround you. It doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but it crops up frequently enough that it REALLY drags down gameplay. The horseback controls just aren’t comfortable. It comes very close to being a game-breaking problem.
I also didn’t particularly care for the dueling mechanic. It’s not that the mechanic itself is flawed, it’s just that the game gives you a tutorial the first time you do it (which is fine), but then I went several game sessions (and hours of time playing the game) before being challenged to another duel. As such, I had completely forgotten how dueling was supposed to work, and after the first time, the game stopped showing the tutorial tips. The dueling controls also aren’t in the instruction manual. So I ended up getting killed in numerous duels before I figured out the controls again. It wouldn’t have been so irritating if not for the fact that all the simple mini-games like Poker and Blackjack have all the pop-up tutorial tips reappear every time you play it. But for the one gameplay mechanic that I actually needed a recurring tutorial for, I didn’t get one…
Kafka would be proud
Like Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption is a very heavily narrative-driven title. And like so many of its other features, the story gets very close to being great, but still falls short due to minor problems. The plot is engrossing, the characters are interesting and compelling, and it deals with a lot of issues that are fundamental to the identity of the United States. The major theme of the game is the issue of individual rights versus the power of the federal government. It is an issue that goes back to this country’s inception. It’s an issue that divided America in two and triggered the Civil War. It is an issue that is still unresolved even to this day. It’s a big topic to handle, and the game deals with it very well.
Red Dead's plot feels very much like Kafka's novels: the protagonist is told by ominous government agencies to do some task and get dragged around in circles by bureaucracy and secondary characters that are all experts at deferring promises.
The only major issue I had with the story is that the game is very Kafka-esque. The main character is sent to this place by individuals we don’t know to kill somebody, gets shot in the meantime, and spends the next few weeks doing menial tasks for other people in the hopes that SOMEBODY will return the favor and help him get to the guy he’s after. But they keep dancing around in circles, and it just seems like nothing is getting done, and you’re not making any progress with your quest. It can be very frustrating to put whole nights of time into a game and not feel like the game’s narrative is going anywhere. I like Kafka (his short stories were better than his novels -- but I digress), and I understand how this particular style of story-telling fits well with the aforementioned themes of federal government influence, but this particular style of story-telling doesn’t really fit well with the setting. It makes for a very different kind of Western than most people will probably be used to. John Marston is definitely no Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.
Overall, Red Dead Redemption is still a fine game. If you like games with strong narratives, you’ll probably be more than willing to put up with the few gameplay hiccups that exist, and shoot-outs will reward you with fun, fast action. Unless it’s a horseback gunfight.