With Grand Theft Auto having done for car theft and petty crime what the Tomb Raider series did for archeology, Rockstar Games – the little studio that could – launches a new chapter in it’s stratospheric rise to prominence as the kings of all the sandbox, with this bloody, brutal, free-roaming western. Built off of GTA’s go-anywhere-do-anything engine, Red Dead Redemption presents a pulsating, bullet-ridden horse opera telling of one reformed outlaw’s dusty road from gunhand to, well, redemption.
Cooked up from a wide range of influences – the blackly comic irony of the Spaghettis, the violent man searching for a better way that was a staple of John Ford – from people who clearly have a great love of genre, Red Dead’s most obvious reference point is Peckinpah. A journey littered with men out of their time, John Marston’s mission to bring to justice his former gang buddies and reclaim his life from the newly empowered federal government – holding his wife and son hostage – is a last, futile stand against the oncoming hurricane of ‘progress.’ The wild prairie scarred with the ugliness of the railroad and the booming oil industry, and the idyllic serenity of the plains regularly interrupted by the sound of gatling-gun fire, Red Dead sounds a death rattle for a way of life being steadily pressed into extinction.
As with GTA, gameplay is mission based and picked up from a steadily expanding map of locations along both sides of the Rio Bravo. A richly textured, highly engrossing storyline encompasses all aspect of old west life, from ranch-handing to bounty hunting, as the locals of border town Texas are only too happy to furnish you with information, with a hard but rewarding task – herding cattle, breaking horses, shooing (read blowing holes in) thieves and rustlers – their only price. Fame, which can influence the price of goods and weapons available to you, encourages you to undertake the optional missions of protecting townsfolk and travelers, while the honor meter let’s you play the way you want to. Be the kind of cowboy John Wayne would be proud, or see if that guy who looked at you funny in the street can breath through his forehead, it’s your choice, and your choices are reflected in how much attention the law and bounty hunters will pay you.
At first the controls can see a little bit fiddly, with the new dead-eye system requiring a second thumb, but you quickly get the hang of it and will be knee-capping would-be horse thieves for their trouble in no time. Controlling movement, particularly on horseback requires a little getting used to and those used to the cars in GTA might find themselves momentarily disoriented, but then again a horse isn’t the same as a car is it? That’s the real genius of Red Dead Redemption. It doesn’t look, feel, or play like anything else you might have come across. Gorgeously detailed, the landscape, with it’s many critters, really is a character in it’s own right and simply taking off over the hills at a gallop is it’s own adventure. Tire of the missions? No problem, as there are enough mini-games (poker, blackjack and dice will entertain you for literally hours), challenges (hunting, skinning, shooting), and random people to pistol-whip that a leisured pace is often the most rewarding.
It’s not altogether perfect, with the last act in West Elizabeth territory something of an anti-climax, with each mission seemingly a subtle variation on the last. The script, while pointed occasionally has the tendency to advance the story by having our otherwise stoic hero break into long monologues of over personal information like a freaky stranger at a subway. Some of the side missions are better designed than others – occasionally you fail before you even figure out what you were meant to do – and some will plow you head first into locations that trigger yet more optional content that you may or may not wish to do at that time, and, in some cases, have completed already. But these are very minor quibbles in what is as solid a free-roaming adventure game as you will ever play. Kids out there who think that westerns are some old crap that their dad’s sometimes watch are in for a surprise, and a real treat.
Genre: Third Person Action-Adventure
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360
Rating: M for Mature