Red Dead Redemption Review «

Grand Theft Stagecoach. Red Dead Auto. The derisive cracks started soon after Rockstar Games announced that Red Dead Redemption — the western-themed action game that is more of a spiritual successor to Red Dead Revolver than a proper sequel — would be an open-world game in the same vein as the publisher’s hugely popular Grand Theft Auto series. While some comparisons are certainly fitting, RDR stands in stark contrast to GTA in other ways. This stellar example of the sandbox genre is one of the year’s finest titles, offering a unique experience in one of the most impressive, realistic game worlds ever created.

As you might glean from the title, RDR is a good old-fashioned tale of Old West redemption — the kind that can only be taken from behind the barrel of a gun. Gunslinger John Marston made some poor choices in his past, yet yearns for a simple life, away from the dogged shadow of violence. And that’s easier said than done, especially since Marston can only earn his peace by acting as a shadowy government agency’s errand boy, and hunting down his former gangmates. Although RDR’s story and writing aren’t quite as sharp as the GTA games, it’s got some great moments, and a unique love-it-or-hate-it ending.

RDR’s sprawling environment is its most impressive element. Pardon the “living, breathing world” cliche, but that actually feels like the case here. RDR’s vision of the Old West is a surprising example of minimalist game-making on a big budget, and you’ll likely find yourself (as I did) spending ample time just soaking in the environment. I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I spent real-life hours just watching the sun rise over the red rock mesas of Nuevo Paraiso, hunting bear in the hills of Tall Trees, and searching for buried treasure… well, everywhere.

You’ll encounter a motley crew of Western archetypes during your travels — from the five-dollar-word-using snake oil salesman to the cocaine-addicted professor who’s trying to understand the noble savages that populate the plains. None of RDR’s characters are as over-the-top (and, therefore, memorable) as GTA fan-favorites Brucie or Mike Toreno, but a few certainly stand out. My personal favorite: the grizzled old gunslinger that apparently graduated from the Sam Elliot School of Awesome Facial Hair, as well as the tough rancher’s daughter who’s caught between wanting to be one of the guys and wanting to be someone’s sweetheart. The lack of insane characters is largely due to the fact that, by and large, RDR is much more subdued (some might even say subtle) than its GTA cousins.

Indeed, RDR features more “quiet moments” than Rockstar’s usual efforts, as well as a number of conversations in which the writers obviously wanted to teach us a little something about the way the world used to be. Sometimes it comes off a bit too preachy, but it’s generally more nuanced and thought-provoking than you might expect. Rockstar’s biggest strength is its ability to hold a funhouse mirror up to popular culture, simultaneously paying tribute to it and openly mocking it. I went in worried about this aspect of the game, but the writers found some striking parallels between the issues of our time and Marston’s. The rise of technology (and the fears that come with it), immigration, the government’s role in peoples’ everyday lives, and environmentalism are just a few of the topics that RDR deftly touches upon.

And while Marston certainly runs into some colorful people and situations, I often yearned to spend more time alone, exploring the massive world. Part of the reason for this is RDR’s groundbreaking ecology system, which features dozens of different animals — from rabbits and foxes to bears and bison. Contrary to the average game, these critters aren’t just window-dressing; they behave much like real-world wildlife, even going so far as to attack and kill each other. At times, I was caught quite off-guard by the rampant Darwinism on display here. I recall letting out an audible “Whoa!” when an eagle swooped in to grab the rabbit I was about to shoot (don’t worry, folks — I shot the eagle instead!), something that happened rarely enough to make it feel special.

Special is actually a great way to describe RDR, as it’s one of those rare games that’s just as much fun to watch as it is to play. As I played through it for this review, my coworkers constantly stopped by to watch and ask questions of the “Wait, can you do this or that?” variety. More than anything, people noticed the same thing I did: that the game’s just as good (if not better) when you’re not really doing anything. Something’s strangely relaxing about just riding around aimlessly and soaking in the world. The minimalist score helps to make the proceedings more authentic; at times, all you’ll hear is the clip-clop of your horse’s hooves and ambient environmental sounds, punctuated by a solitary harmonica note or an Ennio Morricone-esque twang.

The fact of the matter is, this is a game that you really need to play (hell, just watching someone play might be enough) to appreciate. With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar succeeds in creating one of the most impressive open worlds I’ve ever seen in a game, and it’s telling that — even after playing for over 30 hours — all I want to do is get back on my horse and gallop back into the wilderness. Hey, those endangered species aren’t just going to kill themselves, right?


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