Rockstar breathes new life into the gunslingers' ghost town, delivering a Wild West epic that's worth its weight in gold
It is not. While the core dynamics and engine are the same, there have been so many improvements compared to Rockstar's other open world opus that I figured I'd list them first to get the last twitches of GTA out of this review; the camera doesn't automatically recenter around your character when you let go of the right thumbstick - there's a weapon quick-select menu by holding down the L-bumper - your character runs automatically when you have your weapon drawn, and you can sprint infinitely - the horses handle better than the vehicles in GTA IV ever did - there are mid-mission checkpoints - you can save and fast-travel from anywhere in the world - you can ride shotgun to mission locations - much improved cover controls and snappier gameplay in general - extra-curricular activities are fun and worthwhile, partially thanks to a better in-game economy - side characters are all a joy to see and hear - there's subtle music when you are walking around - better mission variety, and it's easy to replay any mission you've completed for a better score.
All of that on top of a game world that is simply more involving than yet another virtual rendition of New York. Now that all of that is out of my system, let's talk Red Dead.
You play as John Marston, an ex-criminal who's elbowed into tracking down his former gang buddies for government officials. Of course, said buddies don't exactly go along willingly and your first little reunion ends rather disastrous. After a bit of revalidation and returning favours, you decide to find some help to coax the thieves from their den.
You know the fare by now, to get that help you need to do some missions for troubled personalities; a tomboyish rancher woman, a sheriff with yokels for deputies, a gravedigger who seems a little too passionate about his job and a swindler trying to promote his next miracle elixir, they're only the first batch of outspoken characters you meet. They also provide a good diversity in missions, from herding cattle and helping with demonstrations to straight-up bandit disposition.
But the diversity in content stretches far beyond the story missions, and not just the characters who get their initials stamped on your minimap will provide you with worthwhile tasks. Random events like saving someone's buddy from being hanged by a group of thugs, returning someone's stolen horse or protecting a stagecoach from bandits (or, alternatively, helping the bandits attack the stagecoach if you're gunning for an ill repute) punctuate your travels. Some of these strangers have more elaborate missions and are tagged with a question mark on your map. They don't appear often, but they do have their own cutscenes.
The way you handle these tasks and sidemissions impacts your honor and fame, which influences the way people talk about you and approach you with their missions. You can be a dick about it, put on a bandana and start robbing everything in sight but a high infamy means more moolah for the law enforcers and vigilante groups that will try to bring you in.
Naturally, you can be the helpful sort too, and earn money in a legit manner. You can work as a horsebreaker to tame wild horses and lead them into the stalls, or as a nightwatch to protect a town or village from robbers at night, or you can grab a Wanted-poster from the nearby sheriff's office or train station to go get a bounty dead or alive. If you're more of a gambling man, you can find plenty of that in the saloons; card- and dice-games reign supreme, but twitch-heavy diversions like five finger fillet and arm wrestling are present as well. All in all, you're looking at about 40 hours of solid content.
Your travels through the dusty and desolate wildlands aren't unhinged from exploration, and you're given ample tools to fight off both man and nature. You can set up camp to restock ammo, save your game or fast-travel to any town or target location pinned on your map. You can also use your camp to slip into another outfit, some of which have their own collection quests where, for example, arresting an outlaw earns you the hat while the coat has to be bought in a store. A lasso allows you to hogtie anyone you want and drag them behind your horse or drop them in jail, in a river or on the train tracks if you're feeling particularly dastardly, and your knife serves more like a tool for flaying valuable pelt from wildlife rather than a weapon. With loot to collect from fallen enemies and money to spend on better equipment, horses, houses, maps and consumables (or a trip to the cinema), you could almost mistake this shooter for an adventure game, and it's all the better for it.
This aspect is further pushed by the game's Challenges. They come in four variants, each with ten increasingly difficult tasks. Sharpshooter, for example, will require you to shoot five birds from a moving train while Master Hunter will ask you to kill five wolves in a row with your knife. Survivalist is the odd one out, being a string of herb gathering quests that simply feel out of character for Marston. The most interesting of these challenges is the last one, Treasure Hunter. You buy a first parchment that shows a sketch of a landmark where the next treasure chest is buried. Once you find the treasure chest based on the drawing, you'll find the sketch of the landmark where the next treasure is buried together with some gold bars for you to sell.
The biggest draw, however, is the game's stunning world. During the course of your adventure, you'll go from dusty plains to snowy peaks with an absurd amount of regional detail in every canvas and crevasse. The vistas are breath-taking in their own right, but coupled with the gorgeous lighting and random weather effects you're truly in for some visual splendour. The addition of realistically behaving wildlife adds a ton to the experience as well. There's something endearing about watching a doe hop alongside your horse, and my first meeting with a cougar ("what the hell was that sound?") is something that will stick with me for a long time.
This goes hand in hand with the sound design which, as with any Rockstar game, is an impressive bundle. I loved every bit of dialogue because of the spot-on writing and commendable performances by every voice actor, no matter how big or small the role. The soundtrack combines the assorted cowboy staples of whistles, banjos, trumpets, fiddles and, as a throwback to Morricone's oeuvre, distorted tremolo-guitars effectively, and manages to set the right tone whether you're out on the prairies by your lonesome self or exchanging gunfire somewhere down in Mexico.
Speaking of guns firing, Rockstar's impressive RAGE-engine ensures that the many rifles and revolvers feel immensely satisfying. With enemies careening off horses and contorting in painful ways depending on where you shoot them, wielding a firearm in Red Dead Redemption has an almost unrivalled sense of empowerment. This is further exacerbated by the damage you do with a single bullet. Enemies usually won't survive more than two shots, but their weaponry is equally damaging: if you're not mindful of your environment, you could be picking up your brain matter within seconds, though regenerating health and a cover system, or a quick sip of hooch, will get you back in fighting spirits soon enough.
There is plenty of opportunity to exercise your triggerfinger too, although peppering your enemies with bullets is rarely the right course of action. If you're in hot water, or just feel like showing off with a few well-placed shots, you can activate your Dead Eye. At its core it's just bullet time that drenches the screen in a whiskey-like colour and allows you to tag specific parts of your enemies so that by the time Dead Eye wears off, Marston will empty his weapon in a flash of an eye, hitting all the targets you painted on the screen. It's a useful ability to, for example, shoot the hat off someone as a warning, or to shoot the pistol out of a duellist's hand in a showdown to earn more respect. Or, for funsies, you can just tag an enemy's face six times to put him down hard. Better safe than sorry, right?
Unfortunately, the game has a sense of auto-placement when it comes to these tags, and it happened multiple times that while moving the reticle to a rope of a hanged man, the game targeted the head automatically, and removing the tag can cost precious time.
There's a couple of other hitches; texture pop-in and framedrops can occasionally happen, and I really don't need to see the skinning animation each and every time I take my knife to a carcass (and the fact that you have your knife equipped after skinning an animal has caused some unpleasant deaths as well.) There're perhaps too many collection quests for its own good and playing on an SDtv cuts off the sides of the screen, to the point where my horse's stamina bar was barely visible. Yet these are all trifles when you're out and about dodging rattlesnakes and picking flowers (see, it does feel out of place, doesn't it?) For a game to look, sound and feel so amazing, a little bit of technical fuss can be ignored.
You can argue the moral ambiguity of Marston and the pace-breaking endgame, and I'll agree that some parts simply feel jarring but as a fan of the Far West-era in terms of modus, music and mannerisms, Red Dead Redemption is the Wild West game I've been waiting for. That it lifted a thing or two straight out of the spaghetti western classics is forgiven by the fact that Red Dead manages to place you in the spurred boots of childhood heroes so authentically. It's a game where everything just clicks, and it's easy to lose yourself in it. If you ever fancied yourself as a free-riding gunslinger, galloping in between the tumbleweeds to a sun rising above a desert, look no further.