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Red Dead Redemption

Score: 100%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1; 2 - 16 (Online)
Genre: Action/ Free-Roaming/ Online


Graphics & Sound:

Red Dead Redemption is, without doubt, the greatest Western-themed video game of all time. There is no contest. This is one of those rare games that forces me to reconsider the differences between opinion and fact. Other games have tried to capitalize on the still-fresh theme, but Rockstar's latest is light years ahead of the curve. Red Dead Redemption does so much right that you may not even notice the few technical problems that exist -- and even if you do, you probably won't care.

The world of Red Dead Redemption is absolutely gorgeous. From the sumptuous lighting to the attention to detail in all the flora and fauna, this game beautifully captures the American West in all of its natural glory. Blackwater and Nuevo Paraiso also look fantastic in their own special ways. The character models look great; the facial animations are near (if not at) the same level as those in Mass Effect 2. Death animations will constantly surprise you; they don't resort to limp ragdoll effects, and they almost always look natural. Textures pop in closer than they should, but this doesn't become too obvious until the game's final act. There are some bugs and glitches, but they don't really hurt the game in any meaningful ways. In fact, I would argue that they make the game more entertaining -- if you thought Grand Theft Auto IV's Swing Set of Death was awesome, check out the YouTube links below. Words cannot do them justice. Glitches and bugs aside, Red Dead Redemption is still a fantastic-looking game.

Red Dead Redemption's sound design is a nail's width from perfection. There's nothing wrong with the content; the voice acting is universally excellent, the guns sound mean, and the world sounds like it looks -- teeming with life. The voice tracks will occasionally overlap one another; thankfully, it's a quirk that doesn't always sound unnatural. The soundtrack is also a delight; Bill Elm and Woody Jackson have created a score that hits every note a Western should. The guitars, fiddles, bells, timpanis, and horns work together to create that essential Western feel, and the music always fits the situation. The score is usually dark and gritty, but it can be funny, poignant, or sad when it needs to be.


Gameplay:

Red Dead Redemption is set in the year 1911, and it begins in a fictional/parallel American state called New Austin. The lawless West is in its death throes; the birth of the Fed, the Industrial Revolution, and several other factors are causing fundamental changes to what was the American way of life. The game begins as a mysterious man with a scarred face is escorted to a train bound for the town of Armadillo. The man's name is John Marston, and he was once an outlaw. Marston is being blackmailed by the government, and the way in which he is being leveraged is initially kept secret. His job is to bring down Bill Williamson, a former colleague-in-arms. The game begins with Marston's first attempt, which gets him a bullet in the side. This brings to light an unlucky truth: if Marston wants to take Williamson down, he will need all the help he can get. Unfortunately for our hero (and in classic Rockstar fashion), most of the people who are likely to offer any meaningful assistance are depraved individuals who demand quid pro quo. The story is lengthy, engaging, and exceptionally well-told. The writing is razor-sharp, the dialogue is extremely smart, and the entire cast is fascinating. It's a Sergio Leone story with a Quentin Tarantino script.

Red Dead Redemption is structured like every other open-world Rockstar game. As Marston, you will travel from city to city and region to region, doing favors for your contacts in the hopes that they will finally get around to helping you on your own quest. The missions are always fresh and full of new ideas. Most importantly, they never betray the setting or the Spaghetti Western theme.

When you're between missions, you can do whatever you want. You can hunt the local wildlife, lasso and break wild horses, help out a number of weird (and in some cases, frightening) strangers in need, go bounty hunting, and gamble.

John Marston is a lone wolf. Unlike GTA IV protagonist Niko Bellic, Marston doesn't have time for friends. However, the activities in Red Dead Redemption are abundant and well-designed. You can sit down for a game of Texas Hold'em, Blackjack, or Liar's Dice. You can also arm wrestle, play Horseshoes, or do your best Lance Henriksen impression at the Five Finger Fillet table. If you want something a bit more relaxing, you can step inside the local theater for a few minutes of propaganda-drenched silent cinema. Armadillo's feature film "The Dangers of Doctors and Patent Medicines" is laugh out loud hilarious. However, the Blackwater movie "Damsels Causing Distress" is not. Still, it's one of those examples of a developer going above and beyond the call of duty to create a living, breathing world.

Rockstar could have packaged up the single player campaign and called it a day. It's a good thing they didn't, because Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer component is Rockstar's strongest to date. It all begins with Free Roam. In this mode, the entire game world is open to you and fifteen other players. You can start a posse with your friends, work together to clean out gang hideouts, complete challenges, or just shoot each other in the face. It gets even better when you roll into a town and start up a gang match. Each game type begins with a Mexican standoff: a fantastic and hilarious way to begin a match. Though the modes aren't remarkably inventive, the gameplay holds up very well online. In addition, the leveling/persistence system ensures that you'll be constantly rewarded with new gear, horses, and character models. More depth to the customization options would have been welcome, and I wish the table games and lasso were available, but this is a gift horse that should not be looked in the mouth.


Difficulty:

Red Dead Redemption is one of Rockstar's easiest games. Several of the gameplay systems borrowed from GTA IV have been cleaned up (and even evolved) quite a bit. One mechanic, explained in the next section, definitely acts as a difficulty buffer. It makes the shooting much easier, but it doesn't quite render the game a pushover.

This game's Wanted system is much more believable than what you see in the Grand Theft Auto games. In Red Dead Redemption, escaping the law is no simple matter. If you drop off the grid after committing a crime, people will still remember what you look like. If you have a hefty bounty on your head and enter a town, someone will take notice of your presence and do something about it. Bribes help keep the heat off you, but if you've dug too deep a hole for yourself, the only option you'll have is to pay off your bounty at a telegraph station. They only take cash or letters of pardon.

Traveling is also easy. You can set up camp anywhere and fast-travel to your own waypoints, or you can take a stagecoach taxi from any town. This allows you to move the game along at your own pace.

The game's economy is easy to work with; you'll always find ways to earn money. Helping out strangers in need almost always gets you a bit of cash, and hunting always rewards you with supplies that you can sell for a pretty penny. In addition, the stores will keep you coming back for new guns, suits, and mounts.

I dare you to complete Red Dead Redemption to 100%. That's the only particularly difficult part of this game: it will be hard to find, see, and do everything. I can see people sinking hundreds of hours here. Regardless of whether you're playing by yourself or with friends, you won't run out of stuff to do for quite a while.


Game Mechanics:

One of Red Dead Redemption's most interesting facets is its morality system. With a few notable exceptions, Rockstar games tend to cast you as rotten human beings. For every Jimmy Hopkins, there's a James Earl Cash, a Tommy Vercetti, and a Huang Lee. John Marston is a bad man who desperately wants to do good. At least, that's what the story tells us. Whether or not he succeeds at that is entirely up to the player. This is where honor and fame come in. Fame is earned automatically by completing missions and challenges. Honor is a bit different. If you choose to be a good guy, your honor level will reflect that. Having a high enough honor level doesn't just earn you the admiration of the people; it earns you tangible benefits, like store discounts and more leniency from Johnny Law. Additionally, bounties you hogtie and deliver alive will earn you more spending cash. If you choose to be a total bastard, the few who aren't afraid of you will try to kill you on sight. I personally found it more rewarding to play as a hero; perhaps that's because the story lacks the neutrality of games like Fallout 3.

If you don't go looking for trouble, it will eventually find you. Outlaw gangs don't make the decision to shoot up a town based on whether or not it's part of a scripted mission. Bad things happen spontaneously in Red Dead Redemption, and how you approach each scenario is entirely up to you. You can walk away from a duel challenge, or you can accept it, shoot the challenger in the hand, and send him running for the hills in terror. A local drunk may fancy the idea of raping, kidnapping, or shanking a local prostitute, and if you don't stop him, he's going to do it. These events feed into the morality system, and they enrich the experience even further.

Red Dead Revolver's Dead Eye Targeting system is back, and it's available for use in both single player and multiplayer. In the single player campaign, it's split into three levels to mark John's improvements as a gunslinger. Level 1 Dead Eye allows you to slow down time. Later in the game, you'll unlock Level 2 Dead Eye. This allows you to paint a number of targets in slow motion by sweeping the reticle across targets. When you're done, Marston will automatically unleash a barrage of bullets. Towards the end of the game, you'll unlock Level 3 Dead Eye, which allows you to manually paint your own targets. In multiplayer, everyone uses Level 2 Dead Eye and time does not slow down.

Red Dead Redemption makes use of a generous auto-aim system. In fact, it's almost the exact same one from GTA IV. However, a few upgrades make the system better than ever. Moving targets may require you to lead them with your shots. After you acquire a target, you can move your reticle slightly ahead of it and not worry about losing your lock-on. It usually works, but it's failed me once or twice.

Weighing all of Red Dead Redemption's triumphs against its incredibly few (and insignificant) problems brings me to only one conclusion. This is one of Rockstar's best games, and by that measure, it's one of the finest and most complete open-world games out there.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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