Six years ago, my brother bought home a little game called Red Dead Redemption for the Xbox 360. After watching him play it a little bit, I decided to give it a go and boy did I love the game back then. Motivated by the announcement of the sequel, I decided to give it a replay. Now, even though every man and his dog (and perhaps horse too) has played this game, this review will probably remind you why you should play it again.
The graphics still impress six years after release. The dusty trails and dense short vegetation, the rocky mesas and the starry night skies of the border region in which the game takes place all evoke a beautiful and classic western aesthetic which is accentuated wonderfully with Billy Elm and Woody Jackson’s original soundtrack. Modernity is also creeping in on this frontier land with the hooting of the steam train, the telegraph pole and the automobile in these dying days of the Wild West. Much of the game is spent travelling through rough wilderness, but also through Mexican villages and small American towns that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a western film or two. The lighting and weather effects, as well as audio quality in general are top notch. The lightning is naturalistic but at the same time greatly expressive and no matter what time of day one does a mission in, it is always beautiful and dramatic.
On a technical level, it has a couple problems with some very low res textures that look clearly tiled and the framerate sometimes goes to absolute shit in certain areas, as well as there being quite a bit of aliasing, it’s still a marvel to look at in spite of all this, even now. And when you consider that its designed to run on hardware from 2005, it’s even more impressive.
In terms of actual mechanics, the game is often described as GTA with horses and that is true to some extent. However, there are a lot of notable differences in mostly little details. The way missions work should be familiar to anyone who has played Grand Theft Auto and so should the interface, more or less. You can do things like straight up rob people in the street, shoot up saloons, get in duels, play horseshoes, play poker, hogtie people, go bounty hunting, break horses and so on. The shooting is a combination of cover shooting and run and gun with a fairly diverse arsenal that rangers from revolvers and repeaters to bolt action rifles, lassos and Mausers. The physics are quite good too. When you should someone off their sprinting steed, they will be dragged by their legs in the stirrups or collapse off. If you shoot someone in the legs, they will collapse and eventually get up and try limping away. This is good for capturing bounties alive. You can also throw hogtied individuals into water and they will drown. There are also side quests, some which are interesting and others which are fetch quests, which are pretty inconsistent. The story missions have plenty of variety within it’s Grand Theft Auto framework and are mostly very fun, except for the few cattle herding missions, which can be pretty annoying. Another good thing about the missions is that when all are taken into account, almost all of the open world is utilised in a story mission, which is something not all open world games do well.
What makes this game so memorable, however, is the narrative and characters. You play as John Marston, a former outlaw who is coerced by the United States government to hunt down and capture or kill his former gang members so that his family can be returned to him. It’s a beautiful and tragic story that has you meet drunken Irishmen, eccentric drug addicted academics, good and honest sheriffs, a forgetful mexican revolutionary, an old gunslinger, lecherous Generals and the wonderful Bonnie McFarlane and much more. It’s a cast of diverse and interesting characters that play well off of Marston’s sarcastic,cynical and angry attitude. Voice performances are excellent and John Marston is a protagonist players grow to like very much throughout his adventures and escapades in the dying west. It is a story and world that unlike most of the Grand Theft Auto games, is not steeped in parody, but a very serious drama with regular moments of comic relief.
Currently, the best way to play this game is through the Xbox One (i played on a 360 slim) as it smooths out the framerate issues.
In the interests of brevity, I will cut straight to the verdict. Not only is Red Dead Redemption one of the best games of the last console generation or one of the best games ever made in general taken holistically, but I would go so far as to say it is one of the best Westerns ever made.