In 1911 New Austin, the fictional amalgam of the Southwestern American states, former outlaw John Marsten is drafted back into a life of bloody frontier violence. Set to track, capture and/or kill his former gang mates by government agents Marsten must give the daily dose of Vitamin Lead to rustlers, bandits and outlaws in Red Dead Redemption, a third-person sandbox-style Western that has made me hate bears more than any other creature on earth.
Redemption immediately succeeds at the flashing weak spot of video games by virtue of its moderately well-acted and thoroughly pulpy and engrossing plot. To save his wife and son from the abuses of callous lawmen, Marsten must splatter a trail of revenge across the American West and into Mexico. The set-up is a bit hackneyed, and, like machine gun fire, the game quickly riddles the player with tropes, set pieces and sometimes direct lifts from nearly every notable Western in cinema history. But through all the pastiche and homage we never lose the kernel of character that makes Marsten wonderful. He is a man who does not want to return to this life but the pull of revenge and the push of blackmail force him in. As the player we have the rare and masterfully constructed opportunity to hold the reins on Marsten’s nature. You can tear a gruesome swath across two countries or steel your eyes and grit your teeth and honor Marsten’s intention to reform as you soldier toward his goals.
Red Dead Redemption is at its best when you are cresting a hill and see the massive horizon of its Southwestern setting. From Mexican buttes and meandering rios to the snowy pines north of Blackwater, Red Dead’s settling frontier is a marvel. You can spur your horse for hours across the sandy barrens from ghost towns to villas and never see the same terrain twice. The landscape is beautifully cast in golds and browns and when a dawn burns over the hills or a massive plains thunderstorm breaks, it is truly a sight to behold. The land is full of twisting trails, hiking paths, train tracks and, most of all, wildlife.
Red Dead plays nearly identical to Rock Star’s former sandbox shooter Grand Theft Auto 4. Players wield a growing arsenal of Western weaponry to blast, snipe and quickdraw down ‘them what needs a shootin.’ Besides guns, rifles and shotguns Marsten is an able hand with a knife, a stick of dynamite and the quintessential cowboy aid, the lasso. With the lasso you often have the option of bringing back the periodic bounties that are offered alive, for greater reward. But, and this is sadistically fun, you can also drag your bounty behind your horse, or if you must embody your inner Snidely Whiplash, tie up a lady and put her in front of an oncoming train.
While you have the freedom of the wild Southwest to rampage across the badlands mostly unimpeded (occasionally your antisocial behaviors will see you chased by lawmen), you quickly gain both fame and a reputation. Good behavior is rewarded with high regard and bad behavior with the fear of the citizenry. While the thematic impact of this balance is tangible, for the most part it doesn’t change the trunk of the plot and its sprawling collection of missions. Marsten is most often step-and-fetching for various Western archetypes in barter for help or information pertaining to his outlaw comrades. You’ll finagle the stagecoach of a snake oil salesmen and ride in a marshal’s posse to root out raiders. Train heists, dynamiting bridges and plain old breaking in horses Cormac McCarthy style all take their bows in the checklist of Western set peices. Marsten is wrapped in both sides of a Mexican revolution, American political machinations and native relations. While the vast majority of these missions are satisfying, there comes a point where I question Marsten’s gullibility and patience for these quest-givers, and their purported help is seemingly always one more favor away. That said, when the three massive chapters of Red Dead’s core plot climax they are universally satisfying affairs.
While the span of story is a great motivator, Red Dead also employs a leveling mechanic not unlike bread-and-butter RPGs. As you shoot down bad hombres and gain experience, you unlock new weaponry, clothing and transportation. Exploring the West and completing the survival, marksmanship, hunting and treasure-hunting challenges boosts your abilities and eventually unlocks costume options and moderate ability tweaks like improved riding ability. But most important as you level is the growth of your Dead Eye meter, a time- slowing ability that allows you to accurately place shots and blast the sombreros, pistols and frontal lobes off his enemies.
Like GTA 4, Red Dead Redemption has an enjoyably chaotic online freeplay mode that enables players to drop in and out of multiplayer. There they can complete challenges, run their posse against gang strongholds and compete in a variety of traditional shooter multiplayer games. There are some variant playstyles like Mexican standoffs, but for the most part it is your standard array of capture the flag and deathmatch.
Red Dead Redemption has its drawbacks. There are times when the twisting trails seem almost too full of passersby, many of whom pester you for assistance in mini quests that don’t add much to the story experience. Some environment pop-in can be seen and the occasional hilarious pogo-jumping horse or teleporting bandito will flick across the desert. The worst offenders to Red Dead’s otherwise great name are the unskippable corpse-looting animations that quickly add up to an hour plus of watching Marsten kneel, skin a deer or rifle through a dead man’s coat and the damn stupid bears. BEARS?!? Red Dead Redemption has taught me a few things about the Grizzly Bears of the wild frontier. First, they are impossibly silent hunters who pounce from the tops of trees or can magically appear behind you and tear you off your horse while it is running full gallop. Also, bears travel in small gangs that maul you about like you are some Grizzly Bear World Cup soccer ball. Thanks, bears! Remind me to throw something at you next time I am at the zoo.
If it weren’t for the horrible, horrible bears, the occasional droning hick monologue and the minor technical snafus, Red Dead Redemption would be perfection; in this state, though, it is merely amazing. A
— Glenn Given