Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Red Dead Redemption begins with a shot of a Ford Model T being transported onto the docks of a portside town in America at the turn of the 20th Century. The days of the Wild West are numbered and the industrialized era is taking over. This initial shot reflects a recurring theme in the game of how the times change how we people must adapt or get left behind.
For John Marsden, the change is forced upon him. Once part of a gang of notorious bandits, his wife and son have been kidnapped by men from the FBI who order him to take out his former comrades in exchange for seeing his family again. Throughout his travels in the dying days of the Wild West, Marsden continually comes across different characters who themselves are having to handle the rapidly changing world they live in. Some thrive, while others flounder.
Red Dead Redemption is Rock Star’s latest openworld epic and in fitting with the game’s themes, it appears that many lessons have been learnt from the criticisms of Grand Theft Auto IV‘s shortcomings.
In a case of ‘less is more’, Red Dead‘s landscape is of course not nearly as dense as the bustling Liberty City in GTA IV but while it lacks the population density, it is a more evocative and atmospheric enviroment. Red Dead‘s frontier takes the player from a dusty farmyard to vast desert expanses to the Mexican border and then finally to a mountainous terrain and Blackwater town, a fledging settlement that shows early signs of developing into a modern city. This landscape not only offers plentiful variety but effectively shows the transformation that early 20th Century America was undergoing right before the players eyes.
The player is given plenty to do to immerse themselves in the world. Even before taking on the tasks that drive the main narrative, you can also perform farmyard chores, play cards and dice rolling games at the saloon, track down wanted bandits, search for buried treasure, hunt wild animals and so on. In fact there is so much to do and these opportunities are made so readily available to the player that it can be a little overwhelming at first. I found this to be my own initial experience. Too much to do and see. Where to begin?
Marsden’s journey is also supplemented by a plentiful supply of sidequests which introduce a vast swath of additional characters each with their own problems and agendas. These sidequests are almost universally bleak and dark in their nature. You will interact with drug addicts, lovelorn farmers who have lost their sanity, deranged farmers who love their animals a little too much and so on. These tales continually drive home the narrative that life in the Wild West was particularly harsh and it took a certain mental fortitude and moral ambiguity to survive it.
This pessimistic and bleak tone is also prevalent in Marsden’s story. The FBI agents who force Marsden to hunt down his former gang are unlikable bureaucrats. The criminals that he tracks down are no angels either. When Marsden’s journey takes him through Mexico, he finds the ruling regime to be cruel and calculating. However the leader of the revolution is equally bankrupt of morality. You start to wonder if there is any good in this world that Rock Star have created.
It comes as no small irony that perhaps one of the few shining lights of sincerity and optimism in the game comes in the form of Marsden’s wife who is a former prostitute. Considering the treatment of working girls as fodder for the player to use and abuse in every previous Grand Theft Auto game, I’m sure this was quite a conscious decision by Rock Star to turn player expectation on its head.
I felt that one of Red Dead‘s biggest strengths is the quality of the story and acting. I think they have learnt a lot from GTA IV which suffered from a major disconnect between how the cutscenes portrayed Nico and how the gameplay forced you to act. Red Dead allows for much greater cohesion and I definitely felt that the character I played in the game and the one portrayed in the cutscenes were one and the same. The game also uses its soundtrack to great effect, with sparing use of tracks with vocals at key points in the game.
Best of all, the game has a fantastically well thought out ending which is a video game rarity. It certainly didn’t end in the way I thought it would and instead of going for a cheap twist, it actually opts to provide greater detail and context to Marsden’s life after he stopped living as a criminal. The ending provides a satisfying closure to Marsden’s journey and fits with the core themes that occur throughout the game.
There is very little I can fault with Red Dead Redemption. It’s a game that offers an interactive experience of the Western genre but provides a quality story and a cast of well rounded characters that are the equal of the best cinematic equivalents. This is one of the best games of this current generation and I am genuinely excited to see what Rock Star can accomplish next when they tackle a hardboiled detective story in LA Noire.