Grand Theft Auto IV was an interesting game in 2008. It took the loose and crazy dynamic of the GTA series and toned it down into a grittier and more grounded experience. Boasting an interesting narrative, an impressive game world and some great gameplay ideas, it went on to be a blockbuster hit. Fast forward to 2010 and you now have Red Dead Redemption; a sandbox game with a western aesthetic from Rockstar San Diego (a sister company of Rockstar North). Redemption uses that formula to create a strong base and improves upon it in every way imaginable and makes Red Dead Redemption an impressive experience overall.
The story takes place in the year 1911 in Texas. You take on the role of John Marston, a former outlaw trying to escape his past life of crimes and trying to live a more civilized life. Sadly it's not a life he's able to escape so easily as Federal agents have kidnapped his family and have forced him to hunt down and kill members of his old gang. The extensive intro sequence to the narrative provides a nice glimpse of the state of the world you will be playing in. You quickly learn about some of the politics, the culture, beliefs, values and so on while listening to the conversations of the other characters on the train.
This opening sets the tone and framework for what the overall narrative experience will be like. For the most part, it sticks to the standard design of the old "Spaghetti Western" films but has enough surprises to keep you invested. John Marston is a highly likeable protagonist who fits the Rockstar mold of the likeable protagonist with flawed characteristics. The supporting cast of characters is interesting and at times funny enough to make you care for the overall plot even when certain aspects of the narrative feel forced. Overall, it's a pretty solid tale of a man trying to escape his past and change.
The game world is large, vast, and filled with plenty of activities, missions, and surprises to keep the player interested for hours on end. There is plenty of wild life in the game that provide interesting hunting exercises while also posing a serious threat to your existence. Local bandits, gangs, and prisoners are as much a part of this untamed world as they can always show up with a surprise ambush. Traveling strangers will send you on other missions such as finding flowers for a lovely lady, saving one person's marriage, or discovering the horrible truth for a woman waiting for her loved one. It's an easy world to get side tracked in, but it's the main story missions where the game shines brightest.
The general mission structure is similar to the linear mission structure found in GTA 4. You aren't restricted to do them in any specific order, but the overall progression is on one cohesive path. Early missions get you invested into the mechanics of the game, but luckily enough the game quickly throws enough action oriented missions to you engaged. You'll fight in intense shoot outs in towns, mines, canyons, forts to chasing and protecting trains. Running away from your enemies on horseback or wagon's coach all the while shooting them off one by one as they come near. The missions are nice and varied for the majority of the experience, and while some of the missions around the end can feel repetitive and even dull. The overall experience is one that is intense and gripping from beginning to end.
This is due in large part to some greatly improved mechanics from those found in GTA 4. The gunplay is now tighter than it ever was. With great force feedback to give you a nice sense of satisfaction for every hit especially when covered with the great death animations due to the Euphoria physics engine. Not to mention the great variety in powerful weapons such as a sawed off shotgun, a Winchester repeater, and of course the pride and joy of the west, the revolver. During some of the more memorable missions in the game you even get to use mounted weaponry like a gatling gun and a cannon. To kill your foes effectively all you have to do is aim near a target and auto locks onto that target for you giving you an intuitive and productive way to shoot your foes. You can use the auto lock to great use by just slightly nudging the analog stick up and getting quick and easy headshots.
For the moments where you are greatly outnumbered you can always rely on your Dead Eye system. The Dead Eye slows the action down, and will eventually let you mark your targets allowing you to quickly take out multiple foes in one thrilling blaze of gunfire. The Dead Eye is limited to a meter that slowly regenerates so you are limited to how much you can use it. This tight shooting translates well to the horse back, and wagons as well. Although shooting on horseback is a bit counterintuitive due to some awkward design choices. Maintaining control of the camera, the speed of the horse and shooting your foes is clunky compared to the on foot action of the game. There is also the enemy AI in Red Dead Redemption. They don't offer enough of a challenge or resistance against the player. They don't really do anything impressive like flank you or try to flush you out of your spot. Most of the games shootouts are scripted set pieces, and in those sequences the AI just doesn't boast enough of a real challenge outside of large numbers and strong weapons.
Another area that, while improved, could still use some work is the cover system in Redemption. With the press of a button John Marston will quickly get behind nearby cover which can range from a rock, to a nearby wall, to just about anything you can imagine a person would use to get behind as safety. It's not really as smooth as some of the cover based shooters on the market. It feels awkward and sticky, and there are plenty of times where using the cover system can honestly get you killed because the cover system isn't tight enough to maneuver from cover to cover efficiently. It also can get you killed by just getting stuck to a spot that isn't useful at all for cover.
These mechanical issues aside Red Dead Redemption provides an engaging and thoroughly satisfying single player campaign. It's easy to invest 20-40 hours in the single player due to the addictive activities and side missions that all provide some kind of instant reward. It can range from anything such as money which you can use to buy top of the line weaponry and horses to building your fame and honor. The fame and honor represent how the NPCs will react to John Marston. Your honor dictates whether they will be afraid of you or praise you and look at you as a hero. If you are a hero the crowd will cheer, great you, and in some cases challenge you to a duel to build their own fame. If you are cast as an Outlaw the people will be afraid, run away, and there will be bounty hunters after you. Local sheriffs will also give you trouble in every town. Fame is what dictates how much they know about you. The higher your fame the more noticeable you are to the crowd.
Again you can't say enough about how impressive the game world is in Red Dead Redemption. It is very beautiful to look at. Environments range from bustling towns, to local ranches, to abandoned haunted towns, dark mines, rich forests, and even snow-capped mountains, all incredibly detailed and wondrous to look at. It's a game world filled with life due to the great visuals, and great overall animations. Characters show off actual emotion in cut scenes and while conversing with each other randomly. The game also happens to have some glitches here and there but it's also a game world with very little hits to the frame rate or texture pop ins and the like.
The audio work can honestly be some of Rockstar's best. The soundtrack is really well done. Providing the right tunes to match the cavalier spirit and bravado of John Marston to capturing the eerie sense of dread you get in Tumbleweed to providing the right tune for the most significant moments in the game. It's a highly memorable soundtrack that is backed up by good voice work as well. Some uneasy writing here and there doesn't detract from the work of the voice actors especially that of John Marston.
Red Dead Redemption also boasts a pretty interesting but ultimately serviceable at best multiplayer mode. Up to 16 players can take part in the multiplayer lobby the impressive free roam mode. In this mode the lobby is the game world map found in single player. 8 players can posse up and attack gang hideouts, hunt wild life, or attack other posses and players found in the game world. For something more serious you have traditional game modes a player can take part in. You have free for all death match mode, death match, and even a capture the flag variant. Gold Rush mode is one of the most fun modes in the multiplayer. It's a free-for-all mode where you have to grab bags of gold on the map and take them to a specific point. The bags, however, slow you down and can make running away a difficult task, thus making it a chaotic and intense game mode. Everything in multiplayer gets you experience points which builds your level. As you level up you unlock new mounts, stronger weapons, and other characters. The level of customization is limited, but it provides enough to unlock to keep you going.
Unfortunately the multiplayer just isn't up to the quality of some of the other multiplayer games on the market, mostly because the gameplay mechanics just aren't strong enough for a multiplayer environment. The awkward cover system is even more infuriating in a multiplayer realm, and while the targeting system works in single player it just isn't good for a multiplayer environment. Auto targeting makes shooting players too easy and simplistic, and turning the auto targeting off leaves you with a counter-intuitive and clunky mess of a targeting system. Not to mention, while the game world has enough variety in single player, it really doesn't offer enough activities in Free Roam to be all that interesting in multiplayer.
Multiplayer complaints aside, Red Dead Redemption is a fun experience overall and will provide enough satisfaction after the credits have rolled with just the superb single player. Beautiful scenery, an impressive game world, a loveable protagonist and great audio work are more than enough reasons to purchase this game. Red Dead Redemption is a memorable experience that offers a game world that is both gripping and engaging from beginning to end.