The crack signifies the firing of a revolver. The relentless pounding of hooves on dirt. The piercing brightness of a desert sunrise. Those are just some of the most iconic images associated with Westerns, a genre of films renowned for their intense firefights, their generally period-perfect writing, their quiet-but-deadly lead characters, and their careful storytelling blending raw emotion with calculated exposition.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why many game developers would be afraid to try and make a Western game: there’s so much to take into account, in terms of honouring Spaghetti Westerns in general and specific Westerns in particular, that it’s been considered too much of a risk to even try and make such a game. Here, though, we’re dealing with Rockstar Games, the company that made organized crime fun with Grand Theft Auto. And like with that series, the sheer attention to detail and high-caliber design on display in Red Dead Redemption is as awe-inspiring as it is admirable.
From a storytelling standpoint, Red Dead Redemption is very much a traditional narrative with clear Western influences – gunfights and intense chases on horseback blend into a tale of corruption, duty…and yes, even redemption. That being said, it does both narratives and Westerns justice through a careful balancing act of characters, locations, and plot threads.
The main plot follows John Marston, a former outlaw-turned-farmer who is forcibly contracted by the U.S. government to hunt down (and kill) his former gang. The price of his service is, as the plot slowly reveals, the safety of his captive family.
On his journey, Marston gets embroiled in all sorts of hijinks – from aiding in a Mexican revolution to helping a con-man sell his product, from saving drunken gun-runners to crossing paths with an aged gunslinger. The story never ceases to go in unexpected or unorthodox directions, but it’s almost always treated with such seriousness that players will be hard-pressed not to go along with it.
The narrative’s ability to be taken at face value is aided by strong writing befitting of this less-than-politically-correct era, riding a fine line between showcasing the savage impulses that ruled the era and subverting expectations in clever ways. It even manages to imbue the game’s themes of progress, society versus tradition, and the enduring nature of crimes with even more weight, especially as the story reaches its close.
GAME WORLD & ACTIVITIES
Red Dead Redemption is set in the American Frontier, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Throughout the story, the player will guide John through three distinct counties: New Austin, West Elizabeth, and Nuevo Paraiso. Just taking into consideration that each of these sections contains several towns and dozens of miles of land are impressive in scope.
However, the vast content available is the real treat. While story missions give the player a taste of what they can experience, only by exploring every ounce of dirt can players get the most entertainment out of the game. Across this vast landscape, there are flowers to collect and sell, animals to hunt and skin for profit, random events like runaway criminals or wagons under siege, Strangers with deeply fleshed-out side missions, horses to tame and ride as far as the eye can see…and so it goes on.
Then we have challenges which progress as you do various things in the wild (such as collecting a certain number of specific herbs or killing a handful of animals) and Achievements/Trophies (depending on the console of choice). Some challenges and Achievements/Trophies are easy – just complete story missions and shoot the odd rabbit. Others require determined hunting and focus, from the player, to complete.
On top of all of that other stuff, on top of everything I have just gone over, Rockstar also felt it was necessary to include multiplayer. The popular Free Roam mode, essentially the campaign world taken online, starts off with up to 16 players facing off in a Mexican standoff, leading into a non-stop gunfight and freedom to travel the entire range of the game. There’s also a progressive ranking system from levels 1 to 50, and several competitive and cooperative game modes available – these include 8-on-8 Gang Shootouts, 2 to 4-player Cooperative Missions and a mode called Capture the Bag (which encompasses three smaller modes within it).
Now, it’s at this point that the flaws in the gameplay must be pointed out because Red Dead Redemption does make some minor mistakes that prevent it from being an absolute masterpiece. Although the idea of having horses use up a stamina bar is interesting, it can be frustrating to constantly stop and start riding to regain that stamina, not to mention that riding anything here can be a bit haphazard given the lack of precise steering.
However, the bigger issue is with the glitches. Being an open-world game, it’s expected that RDR‘s world might be imperfect on some level. From time to time, things like Marston’s horse going flying or objects that don’t animate as they should appear, though they rarely interfere with the experience. The game will likely never break on you, but expect to see some unusual sights from time to time.
COMBAT & REPUTATION
Some of the game’s most iconic and classically Western moments lie in its short but tense duels. The camera switches from the opponent to Marston then slides to Marston’s right. It zooms out slightly to capture the raised forms, the determined glares, then…DRAW! The player, in the course of mere seconds, must press and hold the left trigger, aim at points on the opponent’s body, lock them in with the right button, and fire with the right trigger.
This corresponds to a pair of bars on the left side of the screen, measuring each dueler’s preparedness. Each bar increases when certain shots are taken; if for instance, the player aims for the enemy’s head rather than their chest, the bar will shoot up instantly and Marston wins the duel with flying colours. If, however, the opponent’s bar raises faster, Marston goes down without mercy.
Of course, the game needs more combat than just static duels. Most shootouts will occur either on horseback across the Frontier or behind cover in a more modern shooter style. For these encounters, there are far more than simply revolvers to play around with. Rifles, shotguns, explosives and even a knife round out the rest of the available lethal weaponry, and there’s a lasso for the more pacifistic of gamers.
All of these gunfights are dependent on one key function: the Dead Eye mechanic. It allows the player, as Marston, to slow the passage of time in order to select and take more precise shots at adversaries. When a row of targets is lined up, it’s satisfying to see time resume as each man is taken down with brutal efficiency. It would make Clint Eastwood proud.
These various duels and bloody bouts of violence don’t just disappear from the record, oh no. This game sports a “Fame” and “Honour” system which displays the growing impact of Marston’s actions. If the player is inclined to do good, both bars can increase and the general populace is appreciative. For those seeking the road less noble, though, expect visits from bounty hunters and lawmen (and a whole lot of muttering and spitting).
The best part of this system is that it doesn’t force you down either path and it doesn’t leave you without avenues to success. Obviously, being a complete jackass and killing every civilian is inadvisable, but morals are never set in stone by anyone other than the player. Your choices have an impact, but they aren’t necessarily categorized as “good” or “evil”.
What will immediately capture the audience’s attention, though, is the cinematic scope of the presentation. From the snowy mountains of the north to the sun-stained desert of Nuevo Paraiso, every locale that the player can visit in this game has the indescribable beauty of a landscape painting. The lighting and vibrant use of colours help to make Red Dead Redemption absolutely stunning, in my opinion.
From an auditory standpoint, the game is just as masterful but with greater subtlety. The soundtrack comes and goes, with shootouts and chases being intensified by the appropriate beats. There are also more somber and meaningful tracks that make an appearance at key story avenues, highlighting the tragedy of Marston’s separation from his family and his regret over the past.
As I mentioned, the legendary “Man with No Name” would be impressed by what has been turned out here. I felt it hard to step away from the game at times, always drawn back in by the promise of more challenges, more thrills, and more incredible sights to take in. Despite some minor technical issues, this is truly a fine example of Western culture in gaming form and it stands as one of Rockstar’s best works to date.
| + Well-Crafted, Thoughtful Story|| - Minor Glitches|
| + Fittingly Brutal Combat|| - Imprecise Horseback Riding|
| + Plentiful Activities|
| + Nuanced & Varied Soundtrack|
| + Beautiful Environments|