Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Red Dead Redemption

Post-Launch Review
Red Dead Redemption (X360)
Released: May 2010

(This review took way too long to get done for a few reasons, but hopefully my schedule will get back on track soon.)


It's the early 1900s in the American West. Former outlaw John Marston is strongarmed by a government agency into hunting down his old gang across the West and into Mexico and bringing them to justice.

At Launch

Red Dead Redemption received high praise, with review scores averaging 95%. The music, sound, and voice acting were universally praised, and the visuals and immersion of the Old West landscapes were considered top-notch. The game received piles of awards.
The multiplayer was the main point of contention, with critics nothing that starting out very weak was frustrating, and the players were left to create their own entertainment without structure.

Post Launch

Several DLC packs were released. A handful of small packs added to multiplayer and added some weapons and outfits. The big pack, Undead Nightmare, added a single-player story of a zombie outbreak in the Old West. All DLC is included in the Game of the Year edition.

Confession time: I've never played a Grand Theft Auto game. I've played a few games that are similar to GTA, but never an actual real one. Red Dead Redemption, which has been described as Grand Theft Horse, didn't exactly leave me excited to try a GTA game. But I'll get to that in a minute.

One of the first things that really impressed me with RDR is the look of the game's West. The wide open sightlines and vegetation and rocks constantly left me thinking "Wait, a game that looks this good is on the 360? What?!". Of course, there are plenty of areas to notice the previous-gen graphics, but the landscapes are fantastic, and character model are great too.

Unfortunately, that excitement faded pretty quickly. I was thrown into this huge open world, so of course I immediately started looking for things to do. Easiest place to start was the challenge journal, so I got working on those. As I did, I started to notice how empty the game actually is. Not empty in the sense that there's nothing to do (though there isn't that much), but in the sense that most of the open-world activities really don't accomplish anything meaningful.

In my review of Assassin's Creed III I said that I enjoyed hunting, but wished there was a little more to it. Red Dead Redemption's hunting has a lot less to it. There's bait instead of tracking, which is okay but low effort. The act of hunting itself is less interesting, since all you have to do is run your prey down with your horse - which is faster than any of the animals - and shoot your target a couple of times. When you skin an animal you get all kinds of loot (such as antlers, meat, and skin from a deer) but you can't craft with it like in ACIII, or do anything with it at all except sell. And again, unlike ACIII, you can't even do anything with the money most of the time - once you've bought the small handful of available guns (and especially if you're playing game of the year and get the best horse at the start) there's nothing useful to spend money on.

That said, my biggest problem with Red Dead Redemption, and probably the reason I didn't end up enjoying it much overall, is that I empathize too much with the protagonist. That's usually exactly what you'd want as a writer, but here it's a problem. Marston wants to get back to his family as soon as he can, but all these fools and incompetents and lowlifes keep getting in his way and asking more from him, so he's frustrated or angry with almost every person he comes across - and that means I am too. I spent much of the game grumbling about always being one step away from my goal, especially given that some of the obstacles or escapes feel especially contrived (seriously, how the hell does Dutch get so far from the bank so fast when federal agents are covering the only exit?).

But I don't want this to sound all bad. One of the best elements of the game is the conversation between characters when you're riding to a mission. Seriously, don't skip to destination, because there's so much great characterization and philosophy and worldbuilding (if you can call it that for a historical setting). Marston often chats with his escort about the morality of the West - just how far can you go before you slip from justified to evil? Is there still a place in the world for the cowboy, or is his time over? And most of all, is it possible for a man who's murdered hundreds to find redemption?

(spoilers ahead, highlight if you want to read them)

Red Dead Redemption doesn't wrap up with a neat happy ending. Instead, it answers those questions: there's no place left for the gunslinger, and the reformed murderer is still a murderer. To my eyes, Marston redeemed himself in his final moments - not by hunting down his old gang, but by sacrificing himself for his family. But in the eyes of the law, he was just another outlaw who had to be brought to justice, finally banishing any remaining idea that the Old West was a fair or noble place, after chipping away at the concept all game.

So in the end, John Marston was such a well-written and well-acted character that he made me see the West with his weary, impatient eyes, which made me weary and impatient with the game. Missions and characters felt like annoyances and roadblocks to force my way through, rather than challenges to overcome or stories to discover. While I can see that it's a good game and understand why a lot of critics liked it, Red Dead Redemption wasn't for me.

Recommendation: probably play it even though I didn't like it.

P.S.: fantastic soundtrack.

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