I know, okay. I know, I know, I know. Leaving a blog unattended this long is bad. Really bad. Like lobbying for tobacco companies bad. Racial segregation bad. Richard Littlejohn bad.
I’ve been busy, is my only excuse. All these takeaway meals don’t cook themselves, you know. Ahem.
Anyway, moseying into town a month late, eyes hidden under the brim of a dusty hat, throwing pistols at sheep herders’ feet and exuding a devil-may-care insouciance … here is my Red Dead Redemption review. Pick it up. Pick. It. Up.
You can’t argue with the concept. Take the pulsing heart of Grand Theft Auto IV — that masterpiece of reckless abandon writ large upon a virtual playground — strip away the backdrop of neon and glass and concrete and reskin the innards as a picaresque adventure through the American West of cowboys, ranch hands and Mexican banditos. A setting that has always represented freedom from the banalities of modern urban life, recreated using technology designed with the exact same raison d’etre. Rockstar go into the Wild. Welcome to Red Dead Redemption.
Of course, the concept is so good it has been tried before. By Rockstar, in fact, with 2004’s Red Dead Revolver. That game was a more cautious third person shooter in the Max Payne mold, however, and many criticised it’s brevity and lack of originality.
Second Chance Saloon for Rockstar, then. Redemption shares the Western setting and a few key mechanics with its predecessor, but for the most part is a palimpsest wiped clean for another shot at the big time. It is — like its protagonist — new in town, dragging an ugly past behind it, looking for salvation through ragged style, bitter determination and a willingness for some hard grafting.
The result is a solid and more assured game, albeit one that can feel at times unimaginative and uninspired. Rockstar’s running, gunning, open world approach has never been as slick or as polished, Redemption learning from many of the prosaic mistakes made by its GTA forefathers, but the package as a whole lacks some of the sense of wonder evoked by those games, as well. If the GTA series has been defined by great games that were often not good, Red Dead Redemption is a good game that is rarely great — the loopy, ecstatic magic of Liberty City replaced by an exhaustively replicated yet sometimes lifeless Wester frontier.
The fault should not be attributed to presentation. Rarely has a video game world looked so breathtaking. Barren mesas and valleys carved from primordial rock give way to rolling prairies and silent woodlands, and the sky stretches off endlessly — clear blues melting into hues of gold and pink, finally fading into a shimmering, diaphanous blanket of distant stars.
Character animation, texturing and lighting have all seen an improvement since GTA IV, giving the world a richer feel. The game looks better at range — inevitable considering the origins of its engine — although close up detail is the best the studio have produced.
Combat is similarly refined. GTA IV’s lock on assisted gunplay returns, feeling less erratic and providing the capacity for fast and violent shoot outs that make up in visceral thrill what they lack in nuance. The cover mechanic is still clunky, on foot movement can be awkward, and horseback combat is passable at best, but clear strides have been made in the last three years.
For the most part Red Dead Redemption is an evolution of GTA’s template. Checkpoints are more abundant, the penalty for failure usually nothing worse than a shunt back a minute of two to the opening of the current section. Difficulty spikes have been smoothed out, and those old Rockstar staples — the one-off missions that were close to impossible thanks to anachronistic controls (bombing boats from RC planes in Vice City springs to mind) — are close to none existent. The game is brimming with side missions to complete, card games to play, silent movies to watch; in fact Red Dead takes the boldest step towards full-blown RPG Rockstar have yet made — items to buy and sell with store keepers, animals to hunt and skin, multiple quests to undertake and a BioWare-esque morality meter to grapple with.
Yet for all the improvements it is not a great game, and GTA IV was. The first reason for this is fairly pedestrian: the GTA template is beginning to wear thin. Red Dead’s core experience has changed little since GTA 3 a decade ago. It is the Zelda Dilemma — a game formula so instantly successful the developers are loath to alter it for fear of turning off their fans. So instead each iteration tinkers, trims, refines. GTA IV was already stretching the template a little thin, and after another 30 hours travelling from A to B and engaging in shoot-outs here, it is hard to shake the feeling of stagnation.
Not that the whole game suffers from this problem. The opening act is a strong one, seeing your character — a reformed gang member named John Marston — working on the ranch of Bonnie MacFarlane, a woman who saves your life in the game’s introduction video. You repay your debt to her herding cattle, breaking in horses, chasing off wolves and eventually travelling to a nearby town, complete with saloon and gunshop and sheriff’s office. The sun beats down, you ride alone through windswept cactus fields, and you begin to feel like a real Western gunslinger. Bonnie MacFarlane, her father and your other main contact during this period — a US Marshall named Leigh Johnson — are rounded, believable characters, and they help to deepen your sense of belonging to this world.
Likewise, the game’s closing section is — to give nothing away — a bold and subtle move for a mainstream video game. The last few missions prove how character is best built in an interactive medium through doing rather than showing, then the game slams you with an ending more powerful for those moments before it, entirely warranted by the tone of the piece as a whole. It is a risky choice, and not all will appreciate it, but I for one welcome the approach.
So the lull is in the second act then — a failing common to many films, and strangely apt considering how inspired by cinema Red Dead can be. The mid sections are undeniably flabby, and where a 90 minute film can sometimes get away with this, 15 hours of treading water in a game is a long time. It doesn’t help that after Bonnie and Leigh Johnson, most of the characters you meet are shrieking cretins of the type Rockstar create so often, and evidently believe make for arresting personalities. They don’t, and whereas jabbering lunatics have somewhat found their place in the overblown satires of previous GTAs, here they only sully the writing team’s attempts at a storyline filled with pathos and compassion.
The mid game boredom reaches its zenith (or perhaps nadir) with your relocation to Mexico halfway through the story — a move that falls short of the shocked upheaval between islands during GTA IV, following a civil war plotline that put me in mind of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls — and there is a game crying out to be made by the right people — but missing with every beat the tone it aspires to. Characters are dull, missions entirely predictable, and the emotional resonance is destroyed by poor writing. Cut scenes — and this is a fault that runs through the entire game — are so interminably long, so verbose, and yet at the same time so oddly confusing, that many times your patience has evaporated before the mission has even begun. Directed action has always been a difficulty for Rockstar, and all I can say is they have made little progress here.
Another core problem — again linked to Rockstar’s legacy — is the widening rift between character driven fiction on one hand, and the player’s own impetus on the other. The John Marston shown during cut scenes is sometimes at odds with the character that emerges during play. The game presents you with two meters: one labelled “fame”, and the other, “honor”. Fame begins at zero and increases as you progress through the story, people becoming more aware of your exploits. Honor is tied in to morality, decreasing when bad deeds are performed, increasing with noble acts. Rescue a stagecoach under attack from bandits, honor goes up. Murder the stagecoach driver and steal his ride, honor goes down. Sustained immoral actions will attract the attention of the Law, whereby a system lifted wholesale from GTA IV comes into play, a circular zone appearing on your radar, escape requiring evasion of lawmen long enough to move out of the zone until your wanted level disappears.
The system worked in GTA, and it works here, the addition of the honor meter providing lasting consequences for your actions. Elevating free-form mayhem to an art form was what GTA was always about, it was the rush that attracted millions of players to its world, and Red Dead is so tightly built upon these foundations the same should be true of it. The problem is that this chaotic style of play doesn’t fit the character of Marston at all. We are presented with the archetypal bad guy gone good, a once confused man now cleaning up his act, seeking redemption through an exhaustive quest to save the ones he loves. The John Marston of cut scenes is a rough yet kindly soul, unafraid of violence, yet often reflective — even meditative — of the paradoxical world he finds himself in. He simply isn’t someone who would steal horses and shoot prostitutes and cut bloody swathes through towns on paths of destruction.
During my play-through I only intentionally broke the law once, rationing my duty as a reviewer was to explore all opportunities — and even then I was afraid the game would auto save and my transgressions would permanently scar the persona I was building. In its search for deeper emotional resonance Red Dead has hamstrung itself, penalising players for the style of play previous Rockstar games were built upon.
If the tone of this review has been mostly negative, that is a shame. There is much to be celebrated here. Red Dead Redemption is a Tier One video game, made by some of the most talented folk in the industry, and the whole package is infused with quality and confidence. On top of the visuals, which I have already mentioned, the audio is excellent, the lack of a truly evocative Western theme made up for by rich sound effects and top rate voice acting. Side quests and diversions, of which there are many, are often deeply enjoyable, and usually worth exploring. There is enough content here to realistically fill two or three games, and there are reasons to continue playing long after the storyline has reached its affecting conclusion. Multiplayer, which I have not gone into, has myriad modes to experiment with, and a recently released free update providing co-operative missions to undertake is a welcome addition.
Yet the criticisms are warranted. By aiming for maturity in storytelling — sometimes let down by a weakness in the writing — Rockstar have inadvertently closed off many of the avenues of play that would have been most enjoyable. Of course you could ignore the dichotomy between character and action — many won’t even think to care — but, for me at least, this would make all the effort put into the creation of the story completely redundant.
As such, Red Dead Redemption finds itself occupying an uncomfortable no man’s land — taking itself too seriously to warrant GTA’s cartoon like escapades in destruction, but not profound enough for the mature roleplaying it aspires to. Despite strong opening and closing segments, this is a game that most often feels oddly restrained. It is a good effort, but in the end Rockstar’s West turns out not to be so Wild, after all.