Review: Red Dead Dedemption

5

Now, let me put this out there, front and centre: I don’t like Grand Theft Auto. Open world games don’t really appeal to me as I view them as time sinks. As far as games from GTA developer Rockstar go, I have a special place in my heart for Bully: Scholarship Edition, and that’s about it. I was prepared to give Red Dead Redemption a miss after hearing gamer after gamer call it “Grand Theft Auto on a horse!” but in the end found myself slapping on a cowboy hat and polishing my rifle after some close friends couldn’t get enough of it.

Red Dead Redemption is an open world title set in a large area that encompasses California and Mexico, circa 1911. Gamers play as John Marston, a former gang member who has seen the error of his ways and is now on a quest to bring his former comrades to justice. Released in May and available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the title is already the highest-selling game of 2010. Is that because of solid gameplay mechanics, amazing storylines, and likeable characters, or a HUGE marketing campaign by Rockstar that brought the game into mainstream attention? Read on and find out.

It IS fun to hop on a horse, ride around town, and shoot people where the sun don’t shine. That’s the whole point of an open world game; you get to do what you like, when you like. Expanding upon this is the “Free Roam” multiplayer mode. Instead of being forced to participate in a player vs player or team vs team scenario, you can just ride around the countryside, taking out gang hideouts, perhaps with the help of other real gamers who happen to be around. Or, as is frequently the case, you may be riding to a gang hideout and be forced to slow down as another character approaches; will the player ride past quietly, or try to shoot you and your horse? It’s actually quite tense when those scenarios pop up, and they really make you feel a part of the world.

Rockstar games aren’t known for amazing visuals, but that could all change with Red Dead. You’re forced to ride around the countryside a lot (more on that later), and as you do, you can’t help but notice the amount of detail in the world around you, from panoramic sunsets, to abandoned farms dotted around a harsh landscape. The world truly is breathtaking at times.

Finally, the actual single-player arc and its missions are really fun…when you actually get to play them. I was drawn into the story, but found myself wishing I could just play through the arc in a far quicker fashion rather than having to spend hours upon hours riding to the next mission point.

As I’ve mentioned, I liked the story…but even so I was quite frustrated with the pacing of it. I found myself skipping a majority of cutscenes in the end because it was faster and more satisfying figuring it out from my current mission objectives. What you can’t skip frustrated me the most: upon accepting a mission, you’ll find yourself teamed up with a supporting character, and spend five minutes walking/running/riding to a destination beside the non-playable character (NPC) as they spew out exposition. You can’t skip it. You can’t escape it. You can’t ride faster than the NPC to try to speed it up…you just have to take it.

The morality system of the game borrows liberally from Grand Theft Auto, and in doing so confuses me. The Old West to me is a fairly lawless place where a man had to get by on his wits and with a gun always at hand. There could be lawmen about, but justice was in shades of grey rather than the black-and-white, “you can do wrong, but watch out – here come the cops!” setup of GTA. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what you get in Red Dead. This black-and-white mentality gets frustrating, especially if you clip someone with your horse by accident, or try to mount your horse but end up wagon-jacking someone around you instead…a whole town can turn on you in an instant. Prostitutes included.

I’ve heard a brilliant story to summarise this feeling: you can take part in sub-missions involving random Strangers throughout the game; you complete the sub-mission by to helping them out. In one, a gamer came across a Stranger out in the desert, near death, and decided it was far better to kidnap her and take her into a doctor rather than just buying her medicine and carting it back out to her. Because the player deemed the Stranger unable to care for herself and tried to do a better thing, the game punished him by putting a bounty on his head when he got into town. Lame.

First off, I bought one copy so my partner and I could play multiplayer…imagine my surprise when I found out I’d need two Xboxes and two copies of the game to accomplish this (that’s for the save, GetGaming!). I am hating this current trend by titles (Battlefield: Bad Company 2, I’m looking in your direction too!) to remove couch co-op.

The controls of the game are stiff and old-school: NO ONE WANTS TO MASH A BUTTON TO RUN ANYMORE, let alone mash the same button on a horse,wanting it to go faster. Of course, if you mash the button too much, you get bucked off the horse and have to climb back on only to better monitor your button mashing the next time around. What’s more frustrating about that whole scenario is that you have to ride everywhere and your horse-riding escapades easily make up 60% of your entire gameplay experience. There are fast travel points, but even then…get used to long commutes.

The thing I hate the most about this GTA-styled game is that you can be 95% through a mission and die. That means you’ll respawn clear across the game map, and have to find the NPC who’s assisting on that particular mission. Then, with NPC in tow, you’ll ride to the start point of the mission, all the while having to suffer through the same exposition again, to FINALLY start where you left off. Futhermore, if you can’t afford to buy the little save houses (another GTA remnant) around the world, be prepared to have to ride halfway across the map to get back to your starting Ranch, JUST so you can save your game.

Basically, I was being nice on the morality system by putting it in the ‘meh’ column; what I want to stress here is that the environment and the characters actually do make you feel like you’re in the Old West…and when you’re really getting into it, inappropriate gameplay mechanics (hell, that don’t work even in the GTA series) just end up frustrating you.

All in all, I may sound very harsh but I will admit that the game is good with friends. The new (and free) co-op DLC will keep you entertained for hours – just don’t all die at once or you’ll get frustrated with having to replay the mission over…and over…and over. If you’re a GTA fan, you’re probably used to the mechanics and you can ignore the bad and have a great experience. I’ll give this game a rating of Hot on the provision that gamers who hate Grand Theft Auto should downgrade it to a simple Cold.