Red Dead Redemption

An Actually Fun Western! You’re Darn Tootin’ It Is

overall score 95 / Buy Now
Jul 15, 16  | reviewed by Joel Castro (1242)

GTA meets Westerns, With a lot of heart to go with it

gameplay 90 / story 97 / graphics 93 / sound 98

Here’s something that might come across as a shock: I’m not that into western stories. If you hear crickets or voices muttering in agreement, then you know I’m not the only one. They always seemed either too slow or too serious for me to get into. It’s not that I think it’s a bad film genre in general. It’s just not my thing. Well, imagine my utter shock when, in the final story moments of Red Dead Redemption, I set down my controller— tears in my eyes after what happened, mind you—and said to myself “well…I think I love this game.” And I couldn’t pin down why for the longest time! Was it the tight controls? No, not really, since it was basic Grand Theft Auto controls, and those aren’t exactly groundbreaking or exceptional. Was it the story and writing? I guess, but it does fall into typical open-world narrative traps more often than not. The more and more I thought about it, the more the scenery, the characters, and the general atmosphere took me back to my favorite moments in the game, and that’s when I realized why I loved this game: it is vibrant, alive, and has one of the greatest journeys a character could ever go through. I cared more about John Marston than I did about anything else, and that definitely helped.

Westerns have a lot of things: gun-slinging cowboys who think themselves above the law, outlaw gangs taking what they can against sluggish but honorable cops, duels that challenge your reflexes, massive shootouts, epic rides into the sunset, and lots of crazy characters in between. They’re set back during the Midwest in a time when desert seemed to be the theme of everyone’s lifestyle. Forests and snow-capped mountains were there too, but for the most part the settings were dry. They’re usually tales of fallen heroes looking to regain their former glory. To redeem themselves, if you will. And this story is no different, when you look at it on a surface level.

You play as John Marston, a farmer who fell in with a sort of Robin Hood like gang of thieves during the era of the Wild West. After their leader decided to abandon his noble beliefs for a more greedy undertaking and left Marston for dead for disagreeing, he gets detained by federal authorities, who also take his wife and son. The only way they can all be liberated is if John Marston hunts down his former gang and erases them from the world. While this sounds like a great plan in theory, trusting government officials back in those days was a lot like trusting that a pile of fecal matter covered in frosting would taste exactly like chocolate. Nevertheless, he has little choice and agrees to this plan. He sets out for New Austin to search for his former gang while encountering more obstacles than a game of Mousetrap.

So you eventually get to play John Marston within this massive Western sandbox. He’s your typical cowboy hero on the surface. He’s tough, handy with various guns, can ride a horse like a boss, and has that tough-guy sneer that Clint Eastwood himself would grunt in approval towards. At first he seems like a giant tool, willing to do work for anybody who agrees to help him out in his bounty hunt, no matter how credible they appear to be. However, as soon as he finds one flaw in their behavior or their method of assistance, and he decides to abandon them and get the information on his own, whether it’s from the barrel of a gun or politely talking to the person while they’re hogtied. He doesn’t take crap from anybody, but is a good-natured man in general. He doesn’t want to live the life of a rugged outlaw anymore, but he feels he has no choice but to regress to that time in his life due to the nature of his environment. You come to like him more and more as the story progresses. He feels like a human being instead of a walking talking robot who has deadly accuracy and a mumbling problem—that’s right, I’m looking at you, Sam Elliot. He doesn’t brood over his situation like typical cowboys. He understands what he has to do, but he doesn’t necessarily have to like it either, like going with your girlfriend to see that cheesy, dumb romantic comedy if you want her to feel happy. I’m going to go on record and say that John Marston is my favorite video game hero. Ever. Nobody even comes close for me.

But it’s not just John Marston that gets the spotlight. Several characters come in and out of his quest, and not one of this is by any means unmemorable. A crack-addicted eugenics professor, an over-the-top well-spoken snake oil salesman, a spindly treasure hunter with questionable morals on how to “handle” the dead, an Irish stereotype (drinking and all), and many more populate the vast expanse of the Wild West. How they help John Marston on his quest varies wildly, and a few of them are connected to each other in some way throughout your adventure. I love when a cast can feel like an extended family, and this one can be considered such. One screwed up, lying, morally gray family.

And it’s more than just humans at the forefront here. The entire world can be classified as a giant, sprawling character just waiting to grant you opportunities for riches and fame, and then send a pack of wolves and bandits at you to rip it all away. If you’re not staring into the open desert scenery to admire its striking and surprising beauty, you’re trying to gun down those who stand in your way of just getting to the next little bit of the map, which is always unlocked whenever you look at it in the menu screen. And while wolves, bears, and pumas will give you a hard time, bandits and lawmen are also looking for you—but only if you piss either group off.

The little moments inside the world seem to be the best, however, when you’re just admiring everything from afar or learning more and more about the environment you’re in, as well as taking in the breathtaking atmosphere this game seems to get perfect right from the start. Riding horseback through the Mexican landscape watching the sky slowly change color as the sun sets while listening to a simple, yet beautiful and fitting acoustic song is a gameplay experience that I hadn’t experienced in a long time since getting my mind rocked by the plot twist in BioShock. The game is rife with moments such as these, and what you do during those moments will define how you see this game. Right down to the emotional and very satisfying ending that choked me up, but never left a tear. I had to be a man about it, right? That’s what John Marston would do, anyways, so it would seem.

Oh right, this is still a game and not just a well-written film. Well, for the most part, it controls very much like a certain other open sandbox adventure series Rockstar is famous for, but you’ll soon notice there is a general lack of cars, pedestrians to run over, and an insane amount of content that blocks your view or interest in everything plot-related—oh yeah, I went there. That said, there are some noticeable differences. For one, when you mount a horse, it doesn’t feel like controlling a speeding, easy to manage vehicle. It feels like an animal that only obeys you when you give it a good tug on the mouth piece and a kick with your spurs to direct the beast where to go. It feels like riding a horse is what I’m trying to say, even down to it tossing you off its back if you kick it more often than a random lonely can on the streets.

But aside from being bucked off an animal like a really rough first date with that crazy-eyed hot chick you met at downtown’s seediest bar, you get to partake in things cowboys in that era would’ve done. If it’s not playing poker till you end up in a duel to the death showdown style because you were caught cheating, you’ll likely be play liar’s dice, blackjack, arm-wrestling, and five finger fillet to pass your time. These games get you cash (you can also obtain money by looting dead bodies and chests, mind you), which you can use to buy items like medicine for health, horse pills and apples for the stamina of your horse, guns, ammo for your guns, and various other items that you’ll use eventually. I almost never used the bait that I was given because the things you’re able to hunt in this game always seem to seek me out in packs and try to give Marston a few more scars on his face before scratching the entire thing off. But hey, it also means that as soon as I kill them, I get their pelts as a reward with an off-screen victory skinning that’s only satisfying if they attacked first, but a bit gristly if you’re the one hunting them instead, like with Bambi’s mom or Thumper or whatever cast member of Bambi decided to pop in front of my gun unannounced while I was shooting at that wolf. Oh well, more cash for me.

While roaming the vast desert expanse, you’re likely being chased down by bandits and forced into using your “Dead Eye” bullet-time ability to mow down unsuspecting idiots by picking which body part to attack and either crippling them or getting that one perfect shot between their lazy eyes, because the AI has an annoying habit of actually being a threat. Their aim is pretty much pointed at your face, and your only means of living is by getting behind cover. Now cover systems have been getting a bad reputation as being unrealistic and clunky, and in this game the latter seems to be the most prevalent complaint I can think of. Pressing the cover button usually doesn’t make Marston duck fast enough, and even so, most cover points aren’t exactly low enough to cover the top part of your head that enemies always seem to find and take a shot at. And this can happen when helping a stagecoach that’s actually a trap set by the people who overturned it in the first place, discovering lost towns now densely populated by death gangs, and people chasing after wild animals only to have both them and the animals face you down. I’m beginning to think my luck with this game is about as bad as a stroll through a broken mirror shop on Friday the 13th.

I never actually had much time to learn about the Wanted system, since I was trying to play the straight arrow, redemptive hero type throughout the game. From what I understand, it’s a much more intuitive system than the one found in the Grand Theft Auto games. If you’re an upstanding citizen, cops will turn a blind eye to most of your minor crimes until you flat out murder somebody, everyone will exalt your praises while giving you discounts at the local shops, and criminals see you as a giant moving target waiting to be hogtied, robbed, or hanged—likely not in that order. However, if you’re a criminal yourself, cops will always try to hunt you down, and most businesses will close their shop down on you as though you’ve stabbed their favorite childhood stuffed bunny into little cotton pieces. As I’ve said though, my only experience is stealing a horse one time and having the cops chase after you like you’ve eaten the last donut from Fred’s retirement party. Never been one to play the criminal unless given a viable reason to, and in this game there doesn’t seem to be one, since the way Marston talks and behaves always tries to paint him into a fallen but redeemable badass. To deviate from that just feels wrong somehow, even though the subtext doesn’t really go for one path or the other.

People around this world also need help, and the best part about this is that you find them completely at random most of the time. Riding your horse across the desert, and you’ll come across a man trying to build a flying machine using bird feathers and homemade glue. In town, there’s an aspiring filmmaker in need of some funds. Come across a woman picking plants near a gravestone, and discover that more than her memory has been slowly withering in time. It’s for this reason that I claim the world is alive, because everything that happens is in relation to the hostile environment these people were either born into or decided to join for the opportunity. And every one of these side activities clues you into the different kinds of personalities that can get caught in an environment as hostile as the American West, and even finding the humanity amidst the cruelty without resorting to satirize everything.

In some open-world games, there sometimes seems to be a form of disconnect between you and the people, as their either just people in the background or have no personalities other than being a walking poster of background information. This happens quite often in the world of the Grand Theft Auto series, even though there are a slew of characters helping you to make money or commit vicious felonies because the legit methods of moneymaking are boring and tedious. However, Red Dead Redemption seems to make sense of everything, and the way people make a living is reminiscent of the times. It could almost be considered a period piece, something almost never touched upon in games with the level of maturity and comprehension this game brings. While principally a game about a man seeking redemption from his past and seeking to restore what was lost, it eventually becomes a more moral tale about what happens during the decline of a civilization due to the changing landscape. Who becomes outcast? What new things come from these changes that will decide the fate of the future? Do older ways of thinking even have relevance anymore in the face of idealogical shifts in society? These answers you’ll have to find out on your own, but at least a game like this can help you think about such things while doing so.

It’s easy to call this game a clone of the Grand Theft Auto games, only with a Western template. To some extent, you would be correct, especially given how similar the mechanics are for each game, give or take a few tweaks. The controls have never been perfect, focusing more on realism than fluidity, but for what this game is, they work wonderfully and I wouldn’t have it any other way. In the Grand Theft Auto series, often you forget about the story in favor of the insane amount of content, largely due to a forgettable protagonist and a dissonance between their plight and the player’s wanton need for destruction in the games. However, where this game differs is in the characters. John Marston, his friends, enemies, and all others are all instantly memorable, and his plight is believable and sympathetic. These aren’t parodies; they’re real people. Human beings making do with whatever hand they’ve been dealt. And traveling their home, discovering its former wonder, losing yourself within its canyons and mountains, that’s where you discover why they stayed and how they continue to do so. This well-crafted game is a wonderful tale of perseverance, change, and discovery of a world as well as the self, and the ability to play through it makes it all the better.


(Note: this is all based on the single player mode of the game, and not the multiplayer. I’ve barely touched that mode since it came out, and I don’t really plan on changing that in the future. I’ve heard good things, but overall it’s just not what roped me into loving this game.)

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Action Adventure



release date

May 18, 2010