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Review: Red Dead Redemption

I could sum up my thoughts in a single sentence about this game:  Red Dead Redemption is my Game of the Year right now, and I honestly cant see anything surpassing it.  The attempts to bring a Western to the gaming world have been relatively rare.  Rockstar tried it once with Red Dead Revolver, but that title wasnt even really their game as they had bought the rights from Capcom to publish it.  Gun was a marginal success and even saw PSP and Xbox 360 re-releases, and the Call of Juarez games did all right too.  But the Western genre has never seen its the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  There have been quality attempts, but nothing blockbuster.  Red Dead Redemption changes that, and sets a nigh unreachable bar for any future attempts at gunslinging.

Central to the game is ex-bandit John Marston.  His intentions in the beginning arent entirely clear.  Players learn that hes hunting a man named Bill Williamson, and thats really about it.  In fact, the story always remains a slowly unraveling yarn, and it works wonderfully that way.  In typical Rockstar fashion, once players gain control, its a game that allows almost total freedom from the get-go.  As soon as I fell into the Old West I remembered just who pioneered this open-world genre of games, and why theyre so much better at it than anyone else.  I can admit that I enjoyed wheeling around the various cities featured in the Grand Theft Auto games.  They were well-constructed mazes that felt like real places.  Unfortunately, real cities are not very hard to come by.  Half the worlds population probably live in one.  The Old West is a different story.  Much of what we see in Red Dead Redemption is land now cultivated or populated or veined with roads.  Its a land lost to time, and Rockstars attempt to bring it back into playable form is almost perfect.  Walking around in this world feels exactly like what I would envision walking around inside a Western movie would feel like.  The tumbleweeds are right around each corner, scrub and cacti dominate the landscape, and everything is wild.  Even the towns feel like feeble encroachments into this harsh land where death waits at the end of a barrel or on the claw of an angry cougar.

Like other Rockstar games, Red Dead Redemption is based around an open-world mission structure.  Story missions are marked on the map with letters denoting the person who Marston will be interacting with.  But no mission is forced until the time comes to move on from one land to another.  There are three lands total, and each offers a different Western experience.  New Austin is what could be considered a typical Western setting, obviously derived from Texan history. One town is dirt-lined, small, and has the perfect main thoroughfare for a duel at high noon.  Its the town youd see in movies like Unforgiven, and in fact much of the first area reminds me of that classic film.  The second area is dubbed Nuevo Paradiso, though why they label it that instead of just Mexico is beyond me (particularly as all the characters in that area call it Mexico).  Its the typical mesa-lined desert on one side, and scrub-filled plateau on the other.  The third area is called West Elizabeth and represents a slightly more cultured area mainly because of a town on its eastern side called Blackwater.  Aside from Blackwater, the area is a mix of plains (replete with buffalo roaming) and snowy mountains full of angry grizzlies.  Each of these lands offer a distinct setting, and to return to the movie theme, deftly span the range of Western films.

Visually, the game is nothing if not impressive.  To date, Rockstar has never been particularly well-known for their graphical prowess.  Red Dead Redemption, while not the single greatest looking game made, holds up to just about anything out right now.  The landscapes in particular are possibly on the top of the list.  The characters all look real enough and their mannerisms are fully believable.  They even motion-captured horses for this game, just to give an idea of the level of dedication they climbed to.  On the audio front, the game is even more impressive, with every spur rustle and horse whinney sounding just as it should.  The music is at times so enthralling that I wanted to stop playing and just listen.  There are a couple key moments in the game where the lyrical music, a rarity in the game, almost brought me to tears simply because it was so well-placed.  One of my worst moments in the game actually was when one such moment started and I made the mistake of getting off my horse to pluck a flower, which apparently cues the music to stop and I missed out on the full song.

Gameplay is similar to other Rockstar games, but more refined.  Combat, in particular, is leaps ahead of anything weve seen from the developer in the past.  Marstons ability to take cover and slow-motion bullseye his foes is as good as anything third-person out there.  Central to his gunslinging repertoire is an ability called Dead Eye, which is basically cowboy slang for bullet time.  Marston has a meter near his minimap that fills up over time, and fills up faster while hes killing people outside of Dead Eye mode.  When he has enough juice in the meter, players can press down on the R3 button while aiming and enter a yellow-tinged molasses view that slows every enemy to a crawl and allows Marston to mark them up for swift death.  Its similar to Splinter Cells recent mark and execute feature, only better because it is meter-based and isnt limited to five shots.  Marston can literally mark up however many targets his gun has bullets for.  Much like with the mark and execute that Sam Fisher had access to, some players might find Dead Eye makes the game too easy.  I didnt feel that it did simply because third-person shooting isnt perfect, the reticule is literally just a dot on screen, and the only way I could even think to make players feel like a true steel-slinger would be to add something like this to the game.  Its immensely satisfying, moreso than any bullet-time effect Ive ever used, and towards the end of the game when I could basically refill my Dead Eye meter at will, I felt as powerful as a legend of the West should feel.

The story of Red Dead Redemption, while not as captivating in some areas (Im looking at you, Mexico), is completely engrossing for probably 80% of its telling.  Marston might be one of the best characters Ive had the pleasure of playing as.  He has a bandits warped code of ethics that he never strays from, and he is believable as a man because he has obvious flaws, but also sticks to his guns, so to speak.  Just as an example, Marston is married.  Because of this fact, he, unlike every Grand Theft Auto protagonist, refuses to visit a brothel for that expected good time.  It seems a simple thing, but really sets a tone for what kind of man he is.  Players can either increase or decrease his honor level through various means, but John Marston remains the same.  In fact, it is the honor/dishonor scale that most exemplifies his personality.  I could have been dishonorable.  Many times shooting someone dead is a far easier path to take, but the character is so strong, as is his place in the world, that I never wanted to.  Where many games give you the option to be honorable or dishonorable, or good or evil, this one gives you the freedom to keep the storys integrity intact.  Even aside from who he is, many of his dialogue lines are dead-on perfect, and the voice acting behind them delivers, again, better than any Ive heard in one of Rockstars games.

And it certainly would not be an open-world game without something to divert a players attention from the main task, and Red Dead Redemption delivers here as well.  Ive always had issue with the side mission type things in Grand Theft Auto games.   I dont want to have to scour a city for hundreds of hidden packages that have no story relevance or are even interesting.  Red Dead Redemption does away with such trivialities and offers more immersive side quests.  The herb picking can feel boring and annoying, but even it pays off big time if seen to completion.  There are also hunting quests, which I found completely enjoyable and often very challenging (killing a grizzly bear with a knife is a fantastic moment in my gaming history).  The stranger missions Marston will find around the world are also often a blast, and despite their status as completely optional, I found myself searching them out with a grin on my face as to what slightly insane person Id meet next.

I could literally write thousands more words on this game, but I wont.  There are too many things to discover on ones own for me to run through it all.  Ill simply say a few more things about Red Dead Redemption that I hope will give you some insight into whether or not youll enjoy it.  Red Dead Redemption is a Western.  If youve ever watched the movies Unforgiven, Tombstone or 3:10 to Yuma and thought to yourself, Im in the wrong period of history, then you must play this game, without question.  If you like the other Rockstar efforts, like the open-world format and stories of a darker or seedier nature, chances are good youll want to pick this up.  And really, if you just want to play one of the finest games of our, or any, generation, this is your chance.  As I mentioned before, this is my Game of the Year right now, and I reckon itll stand as such despite this years later releases.  Its flawed, charmingly glitched in spots, and certainly has room for improvement, but this is a game I will return to probably every year until something better comes out in the genre, and its hard to imagine that even happening right now as I bask in the afterglow of my journey through the Old West.