Those who read this blog with some frequency know that I have a soft spot for westerns, particularly of the Italian variety. It should come as no surprise, then, that I had a great deal of fun playing the game, Red Dead Revolver on my old Xbox. A castoff from Capcom, Red Dead Revolver was completely made over by Rockstar, the company behind the Grand Theft Auto series, into an homage to the Italo-Western. The music was pulled directly from classic (and not so classic) Italo-Westerns, the game was layered over with film grain and scratches and the action, while not what I’d call smooth, was fast and furious. I played through it several times. The last quick-draw showdown was a real bear.
Rumors of a follow-up floated around for a number of years before Rockstar confirmed that, yes, they were doing another western game. Called Red Dead Redemption, it would take everything that the previous game had in it and expand the palette substantially. Eventually the game would be released, with some calling it Grand Theft Horse, but that’s selling an excellent game short. Red Dead Redemption is an experience, not just a delivery system for action, and it is arguably deeper than what we got in even the excellent Grand Theft Auto IV. I will tell you more.
The hero of Red Dead Revolver is nowhere to be found in Red Dead Redemption. In fact, the Old West as depicted in that game is pretty much expired. Red Dead Redemption takes place in 1911, when there were still harsh places to live in the west, but not without the encroaching touch of technology and civilization. A horse might be your best friend out there, but automobiles are not far behind.
Into this world in transition comes John Marston, a rough-hewn fellow who, despite his scarred face, is surprisingly thoughtful, smart and good-natured. For reasons that are not immediately made clear, he is put on a train and sent out west to capture or kill a man Marston rode with some years before. What looks to be a fairly straightforward endeavor becomes very complicated indeed.
To deal with the Grand Theft Auto comparisons right away: yes, Red Dead Redemption is an open-world game just like those other, wildly popular games. Yes, there is a main storyline that one must follow by picking and choosing among various plot threads as the game progresses. Yes, the potential for mayhem exists. The thing is, there have been a number of other games that have tried to till this particular soil and none of them have succeeded in the way Red Dead Redemption does. I can safely say I enjoyed myself probably more thoroughly than I ever did Grand Theft Auto IV, and the latter game consumed my life for a few weeks.
Marston has a mission and the game will not come to an end until he’s carried it out. That said, there’s a reason to take your time with Red Dead Redemption and it’s the world itself. It may be largely empty of people, though there are plenty of those to be found if you look in the right places, but it is teeming with plant and animal life, as well as environments to explore. It’s possible, and I can attest to this because I did it, to spend countless hours out in the wilderness just riding around, hunting and skinning animals and collecting wild herbs, making camp once in a while and then riding around some more. Red Dead Redemption does a tremendous job of feeling real, or at least as real as any video game can be. It must be something like what virtual reality will be once that technology becomes available.
This is not to say that the game is only good when you’re exploring and helping (or killing) people you find along your path. The writing in Red Dead Redemption is top notch and Marston’s journey is engrossing. Probably the only two exceptions I’ll make to the “great storytelling” label occur in the middle of the game and at the end. In the case of the former, Marston must go to Mexico for reasons I will not relay here. During his time there, he becomes embroiled in the Mexican Revolution and ends up doing tasks for both the government and the rebels. It is here that the “plot on rails” structure of the game becomes problematic, as I personally felt uncomfortable doing the government missions and didn’t feel they were in keeping with the character as I played him.
As I played him? Well, as with Grand Theft Auto, you are free to behave — outside the confines of the story missions, of course — any way you like. Want to shoot dogs and townsfolk? Go right ahead. Tie up a woman and put her on the railroad tracks to be killed? Feel free. You can become the most hated man in the territory, with a huge bounty on your head, if you like. Personally, I prefer to play my heroes as heroic and when confronted with some of the monstrous deeds of the Mexican government, I balked.
The end is also troublesome in that there are actually three endings to the game. Just when you think it’s all over, a whole new set of missions opens up and you have a few more hours of play to complete. And just when you think that’s over, the game makes a right turn onto new ground and you have still another task to finish in order for the credits to roll. It’s stop-start storytelling and it squanders some of the goodwill the game builds up over the many, many hours you’ll play it.
But these are truly minor quibbles compared to all the good things I can say about this game. You will engage with this game, and if you don’t… well, I don’t know how you could engage with any game. I suspect even people who don’t much care for westerns will be sucked in. As should be clear by now, I was completely.
Buy this game. Play the hell out of it. You won’t be disappointed.