The Western is a genre as transcendental as romance, and as quintessentially American as apple pie and hand guns. It is also the rock against which many a game has broken itself. Why then, from a genre as seemingly simplistic and intrinsically rooted in the struggle of good versus evil (the stuffing of many a good game), has it historically been so seemingly difficult to construct a great game?
Red Dead Redemption succeeds where so many others have failed; by focusing on what makes Western movies so unique: setting and character. As with a good Western film, there is much more to it than that, but those are the important bits. The gunplay, the gambling and the jingle-jangle-jingling of your spurs are all there, and certainly add their spice to the pie, but there are plenty of games in which you can shoot things and gamble – and some do it better. Where Red Dead Redemption shines is in creating a uniquely-Western sandbox (literally) for you to trot around in and giving you plenty of genre-true (if not realistic) experiences.
Redemption is set in the fictional state (territory?) of New Austin, some time in the previous century (for those of you who are vague on your American history, this was some time after the invention of the horseless carriage, but prior to the invention of the internet). You are John Marston, and your character begins the game by literally riding into town on the train from “back east” to seek revenge for wrongs done against your family, although your true intentions are as mysterious as your past. Both will unfold in due course and I will not spoil them here.
As a player, you begin the game by setting the controller on the table and watching John Marston watch the scenery roll by out the window of the train car while his fellow passengers rattle off a litany of exposition. This opening cinematic is well-produced by every standard, and yet, for a game that’s so much fun to play, it serves as a frustrating introduction. One can’t help but feel, as Marston himself must feel, that the true adventure is just outside the glass, if only the train would get to where it’s going and let us off …
Once you’re let loose, however, you’ll quickly forget the initial moments of tedium. There is so much to see and do in Red Dead Redemption, you’ll quickly become absorbed in poking at the edges, looking for where the lines are drawn. In fact, as excellently written and voiced as the game’s main story cinematics may be, and as engrossing as the main story missions generally are, you’ll probably spend as much time avoiding them in favor of the sandbox experience, as you will seeking them out in order to progress the story.
It’s well-understood that no game can accurately present the realities of even the most basic real-life situation, and it would be catastrophically insensitive to suggest that Red Dead Redemption is in even the most generous use of the term an “Old West Simulator,” but the game captures the look and feel of the Old West so completely that it’s hard to escape the comparison. Even if all that is presented within can be safely accused of being truer to the stereotypical Old West, as portrayed in countless films, than the “actual” Old West, as settled by many who gave their lives in the attempt, it is nevertheless such a joy to inhabit these spaces and partake in the cementing of the stereotype that it hardly matters.
Here’s a short list of all that you can do in Red Dead Redemption:
- Ride a horse
Shoot period-specific guns
Ride a horse while shooting period-specific guns
Visit a saloon
Mount a horse
Mount a horse by jumping from the balcony of a saloon
Visit a brothel
Drink so many shots of whiskey at either a brothel or saloon that you comically and realistically have trouble walking out the swinging doors
Become a bounty-hunter
Break the law and be hunted by bounty hunters
Go to jail
Hunt cougars and other wild animals and skin them for their hides
Sell animal hides for a profit
Lose all of your money playing Poker, Black Jack or “Five Finger Fillet”
Win your money back playing dice or throwing horseshoes
Hijack a stagecoach
Steal a horse
Jump from a stolen horse to a moving train
Get run over by a moving train
Shoot eagles out of the sky, standing on a moving train
Crash a stagecoach into a train
Red Dead Redemption is, in other words, Grand Theft Horse, and that is more good than bad. In all my years of wondering when someone would come along and blow the doors off the Western genre in game form, it never occurred to me to look for that King Kong of Western games in the open-world genre. And yet, here it is. In retrospect, it only makes sense.
The Old West of Red Dead Redemption is a huge open world spanning multiple areas that roughly correlate to the geographically-diverse regions of the American West. There’s the big cactus desert area. The little cactus desert area. The grass and trees area. The trees and grass area. The grass area. The trees area. The swamp area, etc. There are also towns, villages, farmhouses and ranches scattered around, each offering something unique in the way of things to do.
Missions proper can be found by hunting down the main characters, accepting bounty missions or encountering random strangers who need your assistance. Most missions generally require you kill or capture someone, and whether you take them up and how you complete them will impact your standing as either a good or bad guy, and how famous you are. You can also accrue fame by completing challenges of various types.
What’s perhaps most compelling is how easy it is to be a bad guy in Red Dead Redemption. Whether this says more about the proclivities of gamers or the moral ambiguity of the Wild West is open for interpretation. You can cross the law by poking through someone else’s property or committing more grievous crimes, like stealing a horse or shooting someone. If there are witnesses about, you’ll become a wanted man, with all that implies. Or, if you can shoot the witnesses and remain on the good side of the law – if not your own conscience. If your wanted level becomes high enough, a posse will be sent for you (which you can also shoot).
The main story, when you feel like following it, is well scripted and acted, and damn interesting, to be fair. But really, there’s so much to do that’s “off script” in Red Dead Redemption, the main story missions seem to get in the way. Some main story missions will unlock abilities and options though, so it’s best to check in every once in a while, but most of the fun is in simply riding around and discovering what’s to be had on the frontier. And there is a great deal. Red Dead Redemption ably captures the romance of the Wild West in game form, a rare feat which alone is worth the price of admission.
Bottom Line: The Western genre has been won. Fans of the Western genre will feel as if they’ve died and gone to heaven and open-world gamers will be treated to an experience unlike any they’ve had before.
Recommendation: This is a must-buy for any number of reasons, least of all being you’ll want to tell people you own this game, as it is sure to become a classic.[rating=5]
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Russ Pitts is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist, and the author of a play called Showdown at Busted Butte, which styled itself as a “Western parody,” but was in actuality a thinly-veiled excuse for the playwright to demand free beer for the audience and frilly bustiers for his actresses.