by Robert Zak
reviewed on PS3
A New Frontier in gaming
The Western genre is one that has been rarely traversed in the world of video-games. This seems strange, as surely the dynamics of life in the Wild West are possibly those best suited to a modern-day game. The combination of lawlessness and freedom seems like the perfect formula for the depraved, blood-thirsty gamers of today. The fragile, burgeoning societies of the West are a great place for gamers to feel like they could truly have an impact on their surroundings; be it playing the hero or – more likely – murdering lone travellers, holding up trains, and terrorising local communities. The American frontier c. 1900, with its grizzly characters, swinging saloon doors and spectacular landscapes, has always been a gaming gold mine waiting to be exploited.
I'm pleased to say that Red Dead Redemption lives up to its potential, and has set a high new benchmark for both Western and sandbox games, or any kind of game for that matter. Delivering on Rockstar's promise to offer an 'organic' game world, Redemption does an incredible job of bringing to life the beautiful and hostile landscape of the America/Mexico border territories at the turn of the 20th century.
From simple beginnings...
The plot is one that will be familiar to GTA veterans. You are John Marston, a one-time gang member who's been blackmailed by the Federal Government to go to New Austin and bring his former partner-in-crime Bill Williamson to justice. Naturally, Bill's response is a rifle shot to Marston's stomach, leaving him for dead. After being found and saved by (female, attractive) rancher, Bonnie Macfarlane, you take control of Marston as he begins his quest to track down Williamson.
Although Redemption is surprisingly independent of Western pop references, the character of Marston can be compared to Clint Eastwood from Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns. He's a man of precious few words, but has a dry wit and gentlemanly demeanour that makes him more believable than Niko Belic of GTA IV, or poker-stiff Eastwood for that matter. He also successfully comes across as being of a dying breed of Old West gunslingers. Like the later Western films, Redemption laments the loss of the Old West to 'civilisation' through the arrival of the railroad. For the first time in gaming, I felt like I was experiencing a major turning point in American history.
As expected from Rockstar, the supporting cast is brilliant. A personal favourite of mine is eccentric salesman/conman West Jenkins, whose bumbling mannerisms and pompous humming make him a joy to be around. Another memorable character is the gollum-like Seth; a scrawny madman who exhumes graves for a living. However, these are just two characters from a wholly colourful cast, and everyone who plays Redemption will find their own heroes, rogues and villains to warm to.
A key factor for me in Redemption was always going to be immersion, and from the second I first stepped off the train in the town of Armadillo, the dry, semi-civilised atmosphere of the West stunned me. Like stepping off a plane after arriving in a hot country, the atmosphere hits you and leaves you short of breath. Stray dogs ambling around, drunks stumbling out of the saloon harassing hookers, people dismounting stagecoaches, all accompanied by the weary, off-key tune of a harmonica. The draw distance is such that you can see dusty plains and mountains literally miles away, and it took a lot of self-discipline for me to resist the urge to steal the nearest horse and gallop off into the sunset. My first steps in the border state of New Austin were some of the most immersive I've ever experienced in a video game.
The mission structure in Redemption is a Western variation on the GTA formula. Early missions involve taking people from A to B, herding cattle into a pen, or apprehending thieves, while later ones have you shooting your way through towns and forts, or riding a stagecoach while shooting hordes of pursuing enemies. After completing enough missions for one person, they refer you onto the next person who eventually refers you onto the next person etc. By this process you familiarise yourself with new areas and progress towards the ultimate goal of bringing down your nemesis Williamson. However, what really makes Redemption stand out is all the things you can do between the missions, which fill out the game experience to a whole new level.
As a way of adding more depth to the experience, Redemption wisely adopts certain RPG-style elements into the game. For instance, you can hunt animals in the wilderness, skin them, and sell their hides, hearts, feathers etc. to stores in local towns. Certain animal parts are more valuable than others and money doesn't flow towards you as freely as it did in GTA; so if you see a rare-looking bird or beast don't just admire it; shoot it, skin it, and sell it. If, however, you're a vegetarian and find such an idea morally abhorrent, then you can search for and pick wild flowers and fruits instead. A nice addition is that killing an animal or picking a flower can trigger challenges, which are a fun aside and help boost your reputation.
A living world, realistic atmosphere, a lot to do
Perhaps a tad too easy auto-aim feature