Red Dead Redemption Xbox 360, PS3 Review

The year is 1911 and a former outlaw is forced to pick up his guns once more to save his family. You are John Marston, welcome to Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar has stepped away from its iconic and controversial Grand Theft Auto series for a moment to create the spiritual successor to the modestly successful Read Dead Revolver, and if nothing else it’s good to find a Rockstar game that the usual suspects aren’t up-in-arms about. Perhaps more pleasing is that fact that it is actually a highly polished game in its own right.

Red Dead Redemption is sandbox action/shooter in much the same way as its clear technical father, GTA IV. For anyone who’s experienced GTA IV it is a very straightforward transition from Liberty City to New Austin and the romantic notion of the Wild West. The familiar mini map is present in the bottom left corner with icons to indicate the position of key plot figures, shops, safe houses etc. Your car is replaced with a horse and your companion’s varying speeds dictated by simple clicks of the right bumper and the A button. Camera angles are largely controlled by moving the right thumbstick and this is largely successful; there are the odd niggles which may result in frustration (or in my experience falling off a cliff), but thankfully nothing like the problems experienced by some third-person titles. Essentially the game starts with a set of solid foundations on which to build upon and achieves this to great effect.

Of course, being the Wild West, you do have quite a lot of shooting to do; perhaps just as much as on the mean streets of Liberty City. Again the GTA IV mechanics reveal themselves here, but why change a system that works? A squeeze of the left trigger locks onto an enemy with the right trigger being the trigger of the gun. One addition to the formula is the use of the now common-place cover system. A tap of the right bumper will glue you behind a nearby fountain, rock or whatever other shelter you can find; pleasingly the AI will generally do this as well to provide a more realistic fire fight.

While I am more than happy to report that this fighting system works very well, it would be wrong of me to say that game’s gunplay is not without its flaws. When on horseback, you will often have to shoot on the move. While the target locking system stays the same, you obviously cannot pull on the reigns of your horse and handle your weapon at the same time. At slower speeds I did not find this a problem, but at greater speeds I would often finish dispatching a clutch of enemies and turn to find myself either heading into bushes, rocks or even dangerously close to a cliff edge. Basically my horse had no common sense. The developers would have you believe that if you are faithful to your horse and cover many miles with him, he will bond with you and his stats will increase as a result. True, stamina does go up. However, I would have certainly liked it if when I started shooting my horse knew to stay on the road unless I told him otherwise.

I am also reluctant to say that another fundamental aspect of the Wild West’s shooting mythology left me disappointed: the duels. Everything is right except that they’re far too easy to win; simply put I did not lose a single one. While I acknowledge that it would be awfully annoying if they were ultra hard, every time I entered a duel I was never under any other impression of the outcome other than that I would win; this is all in spite of famed gunslinger Landon Ricketts’ damning of my abilities when I first met him in Mexico. The problem with duelling for me is all mainly down to the game’s Dead Eye feature – basically Max Payne’s bullet time. To most gamers this feature will not need explaining, but basically if you’ve seen the Matrix films and seen the slow motion effects then you know what I’m talking about. The problem is that anyone with decent reactions can easily outpace the AI in these situations.

At this point I am coming to realise that I’ve been little negative over problems that are not encountered that often; it’s not as if you are duelling every five seconds after all and such problems should not detract from what is a great game. The sandbox style of Red Dead Redemption offers a vast expanse to explore and experience. The characters you meet feel natural to their environment, as do the inhabitants of the towns and settlements that are scattered over the area, especially as fame or notoriety leads them to recognise you as you advance through the game. It is not without irony then when I say that the characters are also my greatest source frustration with the entire game. While this is a sandbox title, there is not that much to do in all that space, bar the odd gunfight with robbers or a small number of challenges. Given the terrain I suppose that this is not all that surprising; there’s a lot of wilderness after all.

What this means though is that you are left to rely on the central plot for your entertainment and to drive you on. The plot is certainly a healthy length and will provide a fair number of hours before you reach its conclusion. However, at no point could I really bring myself to care about any of the character’s fates, including my own. The main premise is that you’re forced to go on a quest to save your family, but the problem was I found that I had no love for my family, nor for any of the people I met along the way. Perhaps my expectations are too high, but in Mass Effect 2 when my crew were kidnapped from the Normandy I wanted them back. My point is not that these are necessarily even inspiring characters in themselves, but the story is written in such a way that I feel a connection and a bond with these individuals that is not present in Red Dead Redemption. In saying this, if you just want to ride around on a horse and be a cowboy then that’s fine and you will have a lot of fun doing so, but even GTA IV, this title’s closest sibling, concocted a greater emotional connection between the player and characters. Accordingly, Red Dead Redemption leaves me a tad disappointed in this regard.

However, even though the plot gave me cause for disappointment, this should not mire from this game’s other fine qualities. The single player mode alone will easily give you at least twenty hours of cowboy related entertainment. With the massive scale of the wilderness it will also take you an age to explore every nook and cranny; each area having its own distinct feel and characteristics. This is not to mention the co-op and standard online multiplayer modes that will provide hours of Xbox Live Wild West action. All of these modes are detailed with a fine graphics engine that provides stunning vista views, excellent weather effects and a very high level of general detail to characters and buildings alike. It is certainly fair to state that the technical achievements, presentation and overall playability of Red Dead Redemption should be recognised as one of the greatest of recent times.

It has been said more than once that Red Dead Redemption is simply Grand Theft Auto IV with horses. There is certainly a strong case to argue there, but this is to miss much of the great success of either game. Red Dead Redemption is a wonderfully envisaged take on the spaghetti western that includes much of what you’d crave and expect of a game based in the Wild West: revenge, treasure, horses, duels and ponchos. Yes there are niggles with the shooting mechanics and reports of the occasional invisible horse, but these are easily forgiveable given the greater extent of the overall achievement.

For me it is a shame that plot did not match the technical qualities exhibited by Rockstar, but for many this may well not be an issue. If you like the idea of a sandbox western then this is money well spent. In what other game can you earn a ‘dastardly’ achievement by saving a damsel in distress, then putting her on the rail road tracks to meet her fate?

8 out of 10