The crack signify 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 calculating 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 both the genre and specific media, that it’s been considered too much of a risk to even try and make decent game. Here, though, we’re dealing with Rockstar Games, the company that made organized crime fun. How bad could it possibly be?
Well, let’s dig into Red Dead Redemption and see just how far the dusty trail goes.
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 progressively 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 always progresses in an interesting manner. This effort is certainly aided by the strong writing befitting of this less-than-politically-correct era, a wide range of complex allies and enemies, and better-than-average (though occasionally strenuous) pacing leading to a climax and finale that is as intriguing as it is resolute.
That effort, of course, would be moot if the gameplay didn’t at least resonate with Western and gaming audiences. Luckily for us, Marston’s adventure gives the player a wide range of activities and tasks to take on, without the shackles of time constraints or linearity to get in the way.
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 is 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 you 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.
In towns, you can go out to bars and get as drunk as you wish (providing us with the funniest use of the Euphoria animation engine yet), or take on bounties from the local police (alive or dead, it’s up to you). There are also theatres for sitting down and watching old cartoons, watch stations for guarding certain settlements after dark, and occasionally Marston will come across an arrogant punk wanting a good ol’ fashioned duel.
Ah, yes, the duels. Some of the game’s most iconic and classically Western moments lie in these 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, you aim for the enemy’s head rather than their chest, the bar will shoot up instantly and you win 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 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 of 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 impact, but they aren’t necessarily categorized as “good” or “evil”.
Another feature of the game that should really be complemented is the distracting side activities. I mentioned movies and watch duty, but there’s more to it than that. Across the three counties, the player can engage in games of poker, liar’s dice, arm wrestling, blackjack, horseshoes, and five finger fillet (hint: don’t miss with the knife). Each can last from five minutes to half an hour, depending on your dedication to the activity, and each has plenty of rules and strategies involved to add depth.
Then we have challenges which progress as you do various things in the wild (i.e. Collect a certain number of specific herbs, kill however many birds/animals, etc.) and Achievements or 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).
Rockstar, why, oh why, do you pack your games with so much…game? This is almost obscene, and yet because there is so much to enjoy here, I can’t hate the massive mountain of content stuffed into Red Dead Redemption.
Now, it’s at this point that the flaws in the gameplay must be pointed out, because Red Dead Redemption does have some minor flaws that prevent it from being “that game that outshines the sh*t out of everything else”. 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 (I’m avoiding pointing fingers, but I did kind of miss this from…that other Rockstar franchise).
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 will 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.
What will immediately capture the audience’s attention, though, is the cinematic scope of the presentation. Never before has the Euphoria engine or motion capture technology been used so masterfully, nor have environments looked as impressive and believable as Red Dead Redemption‘s. Every rolling tumbleweed, every wrinkle on a person’s face, every glowing bit of sunset gives the game that much more immersion and beauty.
From an auditory standpoint, the game is just as masterful but with more 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. Despite some occasional missteps, this is truly the supreme example of Western culture in gaming form and it stands as one of Rockstar’s very finest products. Ride on, Mr. Marston, ride on to glory.