After 7 days, 10 hours and 22 minutes the core story of Red Dead Redemption is finally complete, I have a bunch of Stranger missions, bounties and challenges left unfinished and I feel that the game has been well worth the investment of time it took to play it. Yes it has problems, there are some glitches and bugs here and there but none of them are truly game-breaking. This is a keeper and deserves to be on anyone's game shelf, played more than once and thoroughly enjoyed. I can play on even after the story is over and there's the multiplayer too. The bottom line is this game is the best open world/sandbox game yet and certainly Rockstar's finest achievement to-date.
I'm sure anyone who has followed the game and seen the videos put out by Rockstar over the last year or so, will know by now the story of John Marston, outlaw and now indentured to the US Government's more shady types. John has to capture/kill his former brother in arms Bill Williamson or terrible harm will befall those he loves, his wife and son. Travelling back to the past that he so desperately wanted to leave behind, John embarks on a twisted story that has more kinks than an Armadillo cat-house. The story is told with finesse and superb direction, a truly epic tale with heart and soul, a story of the West's last and final days when the old ways are encroached by the new, new weapons, the first motor cars and the death of the frontier gun-slinging cowboys.
The action takes place on foot and horseback in third person across three massive sprawling territories, New Austin, Mexico and West Elizabeth. The comparisons to GTA IV are there but the game is so-much more than just a re-skin, whilst GTA IV was a fairly decent title and garnered fairly high scores, Red Dead Redemption truly deserves the scores and praise it gets. It is a highly engaging game and it pulls you in and immerses you into the Old West in 1911 and doesn't let go until you watch the credits roll, and even then there's still things to do to keep you occupied even in single player.
At the heart of the game are Rockstar's very tightly crafted story missions that are definitely a lot of fun, there's a good mid-mission checkpoint system implemented here and frustration levels are rarely way too high. They challenge the player's skill in a variety of ways and always keep the action at an adrenaline charged high, from epic shootouts to sweeping chases. The formula is similar to GTA IV but it has been polished, you will go from person to person working their story arc until you progress further along the path, that part is linear but it's the way you can tackle the missions that leaves room for invention. However there are other tricks that Rockstar uses to keep the player firmly immersed and focussed on the game world. Many of these impact your Honour and Fame respectively.
1. Random emergent events: a catch-all category for ambient events that happen regardless of story, based on Honour and Fame. These might take the form of a hooker being beaten by a client, a bunch of wolves/predators chasing down a poor guy/girl in the wilderness, robbers, opportunists, horse thieves and many more. There are quite a few and they all trigger now and then just when you think you're going to have an easy night or day of it.
2. Various side missions: There are bounties to collect, horses to wrangle and break, nightwatch jobs to take on, duels to fight and so on.
3. Stranger Missions: Just like in GTA IV there are Strangers that pop up through the course of the story, signified by question mark upon the map. Their missions can be started then completed at any point but some of them are multi-stage and trigger only after a certain amount of game time has passed or story has been completed. There's a wide variety to these missions and some of them are truly excellent.
4. Challenges: Hunting, Sharpshooting, Survivalist and Treasure Hunting are all possible in Red Dead Redemption. There are 10 levels of each and there's a reward for mid-point and completion for each one. Complete all levels of every challenge and there's the Legend of the West accolade for you to gain.
5. Games and diversions: From Texas Hold'Em Poker to Blackjack, Liars Dice and more there are plenty of things to do once you have them unlocked. None of these have been implemented in a throw-away manner; they are real versions of the games with their own rules and game mechanics.
6. Outlaw things: Rob banks, safes, other people, steal horses and shoot people you don't like (prepare to have a dip in Honour and a Bounty on your head though, unless you sneak a bandanna on beforehand)
7. Collect costumes: some of these are multi-stage challenges with specific goals listed in your journal; these will be unlocked once the criteria are met. Some of these outfits give in-game bonuses.
8. Outlaw camps: these are special challenges that often unlock after you've completed a story mission at a specific location marked on the game world map.
We talked about Honour and Fame; these are the two statistics that govern your life in the world of Red Dead. Honour is gained and lost for the deeds that you do, whilst you can never lose Fame you can certainly take a dip in honour. Red Dead allows you to play how you want, you can be a noble heroic ex-outlaw determined to leave the life he once knew behind and play it straight, a mix of both good and evil or downright evil. As you do things in the world your Honour and Fame will grow and more jobs will be available for you, the seedier side of things will make you much richer but you may end up doing jail time or being gunned down by the law as your Honour drops. Some shops may close their doors to you; others might welcome you with open arms. Bounties placed on your head will not go away and the world won't just forget your Wanted level this time, you'll need to pay fines, bribe witnesses or shoot them (when no one else can see).
There are houses to buy, properties to rent and each one of these allows you to change costume, save the game and replenish your stocks of ammo for the various weapons in the game. There's a thriving economy in Red Dead, one that actually takes into account rare and interesting items such as animal parts gained from hunting and skinning. There are over 35 species of animals in Red Dead and all of these can be killed/hunted and skinned, take the skins/parts to another area where the animal is less common and you'll get more money for the pelt and so on. Shops buy/sell goods and there are gunsmiths, general stores, doctors and tailors to visit in the world and the various locations throughout the huge landscape. There's a train to ride and coach travel to get to further locations in the world.
The gameplay is very addictive and you can lose days just hunting, skinning, finding the right flowers and making a tidy profit off the land to allow you to buy the equipment you want. The world feels huge, alive and yet beautifully wild at the same time. People ride between towns, go about their daily business and Marston can even greet them with a tip of his hat, it's a little thing, but it's a superb addition. If you want to be evil you can even lasso a woman, tie her up and then put her on the train tracks for that dastardly villain moment. Or do it to a man just to be gender equal.
Fortunately Marston can set up a camp in the wilderness, a camp that can be upgraded; there you can save the game, change outfits, and even fast travel to a previously explored location, or a waypoint set on the map. Rockstar have made sure that there's very little to impede your progress in the game and to make sure Red Dead is as fun as it possibly can be since it's a massive title both in terms of scope and design. John can also join other camps out there and listen to gossip and stories by the fire.
Saving advances the game world by 6 hours. It has a full day/night cycle that alters both the population of the towns/cities as well as the wilderness, come the dusk you'll start to see various nocturnal animals on your travels and can be accosted by night time predators. Some events will only happen at night as well, this all adds to the immersion that Rockstar have invested in their world design and makes the game a true joy to play.
The controls are tighter than GTA IV with the gun battles as the highlight of the game, they are truly fantastic and with cover on the right bumper, blind fire and close combat moves at your disposal you can dig in and take part in some excellent action. Key to the fun is the Dead Eye system first seen in Red Dead Revolver and making a welcome return in Redemption. There are 3 levels to Dead Eye and the first slows down time a little allowing you to make accurate shots, level 2 auto-paints targets for quick kills and level 3 allows you to control the target markers with the right bumper. Once you hit the right trigger or your Dead Eye bar depletes all the shots find their mark as time returns to normal.
The on foot combat is sharp and with a game that involves horse riding, there's a lot of mounted combat too. Fortunately this is just as fun with the horse AI taking control on horse paths when you're aiming and preventing untimely accidents with cliffs and so on. Riding down a bad guy, popping him in the knee with free aim and then lassoing him behind your horse takes some getting used to, but you can do it and do it well. There are various kinds of revolvers, shotguns, explosives, sniper rifles and the arsenal in the game is well balanced and well rounded.
Rockstar has made sure anyone can enjoy Red Dead as well, with 3 levels of difficulty that impact the controls for aiming. Casual provides a sticky, snap-to lock on system similar to that from GTA IV. Level 2 is a lock on with free aim (Normal) and Expert is a full free aim system that allows you to place your shots where you want, working excellently with level 3 Dead Eye.
Marston can whistle for his horse at any time and there is a bond you can forge between you and the animal, when fully realised through trust you'll gain the benefit of increased stamina and a longer/extended top speed. It is possible to spur your horse too much and annoy it enough so that it will actually throw you off. Keep an eye on the blue bar to the side of the mini-map.
Your pause menu is packed with information, a beautiful map, and a great journal that keeps track of everything and adds a touch of RPG to the mix in that respect.
There are the occasional glitches that show up when something doesn't seem to trigger correctly and this is often solved by returning to a previous save or saving and reloading in the same area.
As if having all of that immersive gameplay wasn't enough, Rockstar have pushed RAGE to the next level with the graphics of Red Dead, sure there is some pop up and the occasional texture glitch, but it's very few and far between and with vistas this good you can't really grumble, I doubt we'll ever see an open world game that truly has no pop up to be honest. The level of detail in Red Dead is simply stunning with beautiful backdrops and the Old West realised to stunning fidelity. Watching the sun rise, or set, or a massive thunderstorm sweep across the plains where the ground slowly turns muddy and the water pools, is simply breathtaking. When the sun finally breaks through, the landscape slowly dries up and a heat haze forms...it's hard to explain in words.
Night is a truly beautiful thing with moon phases and various eyecandy effects; tumbleweed rolling on by under the light of a full moon takes you into another world. There are snow capped mountains to the north of West Elizabeth, where the snow drifts down and the ground crunches beneath your feet or horse hooves. You can even see what animals have been around by looking at the snow for the various paw prints or hooves. Each territory has a distinct feel and there are some truly epic moments when you're out riding across the range, I haven't seen a ghost herd in the sky yet, which would have made an awesome hidden Easter egg.
The character models have a massive degree of detail and their facial expressions, clothes, weapons; everything is done with a huge attention that borders almost on the obsessive. Drop dead gorgeous is a statement that I feel can be applied to the graphics of this game.
Rockstar used Euphoria before and they've done so again, motion captured, skeletal animated and tuned to a better degree than in GTA IV, this is the animation system that powers the glorious gun battles and physical interaction with the game. It models everything from drunkenness, fist fights, gunshots and so forth. This allows you to derive a great delight in shooting a bad guy in the knee and watching him hobble off before you lasso and hog-tie him up to bring him in alive. Every death animation is generated on the fly as the skeletal animation system brings the visceral nature of combat alive in a adrenaline soaked fury of flying lead.
Men tumble down stairs, clutch at their chests, crawl away to die if they've been gut shot and so much more. Basically, it's a five star animation system that needs to be in more games and Rockstar having proven that they know their way around it has used it to a great degree in Red Dead. This is why the gun fights are so ridiculously fun. Every person and animal in the game has Euphoria powering their movements, horses react like horses, wolves hunt like wolves and cougars are simply put, ambush predators and they do just that, striking you down and running off before you can get a shot in their hides.
Combined with Euphoria is the AI, the AI has some path finding problems now and then but for the most part it works great. When riding with a person or a posse Marston's horse can be put into a kind-of cruise control that will auto-navigate the animal within reason, you will still need to make the odd course correction with the stick just to make sure you stay on the right path. The horse AI will attempt to warn you if you're heading into danger, it'll buck and push away from a cliff, try and avoid carts and wagons and generally work to keep itself and you alive.
The rest of the AI has different routines, NPC'S do their own things, wild animals hunt you or each other and the eco-system is excellently implemented with the food chain being prevalent if you watch it in action. In gun fights the AI takes cover, uses the environment and provides a good deal of challenge, often finding plumb sniping spots and using them to keep your head down.
All in all with this AI there are no real grumbles and a hell of a lot of fun to be had in the gunfights because of it.
There have been some odd physics moments in the game, some suspension issues with certain wagons that occasionally send them and their mounts skyward. I haven't experienced this myself but I've seen the various videos and the results. The physics system models accurate bullet impacts, surface impacts and explosions from cannons or dynamite and other sources very well, bodies fly and combined with Euphoria it's all extremely satisfying and no two explosions are alike.
There are very few things that are nigh on perfect in a game, however, the sound design for Red Dead is spot on. There are no audio hitches or glitches that happened in the game when I played it for review and the whole thing is a fantastic immersive experience. The ricochets as the bullets ping off stones and other objects are fantastic, the night sounds when you're in the wilderness and the other sound design is beautiful, it marries perfectly into the game's animation and graphics. Everything alters when you're in a thunderstorm, and when you're inside a building you can hear the rain pattering on the rooftops, muffled rumbles and cracks outside. In Blackwater your horse's hooves clatter on the cobbles that line the streets, it's perfect.
Whilst Sergio Leone would be proud of the game itself and the feel of the Spaghetti Western, Ennio Morricone couldn't grumble at the soundtrack to the game. It has a fantastic feel to it and captures the dying Wild West perfectly with harmonica moments, dramatic sweeping scores during the game's gun battles/chases and an almost sleepy-serene tempo when exploring the game world in various beautiful locations. Mexico, New Austin and West Elizabeth have their own themes and sub-themes, both during the day and night. It's again, perfect and superbly implemented.
Voice and Dialogue
The cast of characters in Red Dead are some of the best voice actors I've heard in a long time, their performances and delivery are excellent and from the lowliest NPC to the most important story character they have done a fantastic job with their parts. John Marston's voice actor is one of the many stars of the show and along with Armadillo's Marshall there's some wonderful delivery during many of the game's key moments. The dialogue is wonderful and it captures the spirit of the Sergio Leone western perfectly, top marks here and no complaints at all.
2-16 people can play online in Red Dead's multiplayer suite and there's a lot to take it, firstly there's no game lobby, not in the traditional sense. There's the free roam, the whole of the game world is open and packed with wildlife, travelling NPC'S, players, the law and 7 Outlaw gang hideouts for the players to attack/complete. You can form posses of up to 8 players and the posse leader can seamlessly bring his posse from one game type to the next when they're tired of free roam. There are 50 levels to gain and XP is gained from shooting each other, NPC's, the law, Outlaw hideouts and so on. New levels unlock new mounts, titles and characters along with weapons and rewards.
There are versions of the challenges from single player as well as multiplayer specific challenges, there are no mini-games to play though and whilst getting drunk or playing poker with your friends isn't possible there's still a lot more to do such as getting a big bounty on your head and battling waves of law enforcement, hunting animals, taking on big hunting challenges and so on.
Those that tire of free roam can compete in structured game challenges, such as gang shootouts and so forth.
Each game type begins with a Mexican Standoff, where you're ordered to put down the other gang or a specific player (in a free for all) until there's a last man standing, who then has a short time to run before the others respawn. There is a lot of character to the structured game types in Red Dead, there are little moments such as prior to the game starting, each area has their own ambient character animation set, and characters will be doing something unless the player stops them with an action or button press. I've seen players playing the violin, getting drunk, dancing and so on.
There's also typical Sergio Leone camera focus, player characters have a short vignette where the camera focuses on them, their eyes and their expressions. When you win a match you're treated to the same level of care and detail that makes it more rewarding than just another stat screen.
There are numerous match types and each takes place in a specific area upon the free roam world map.
Shootout: Free for all and team based, this is a simple deathmatch with the goal of being the highest scoring player, or team at the end.
Gold Rush puts chests and bags on the map, the players have to steal the gold and as much as they can carry, the more they steal the more they are slowed down too. The winner is the player with the most loot.
Hold Your Own: Each team has a single bag which they need to protect against the other team, kind of like CTF.
Grab the Bag: There's bags and you gotta get them, it's a team based game and you can carry up to 2 bags (but you'll move really slowly), bags that are dropped can be picked up again, the winner is the team or player that reaches the score limit or who has the highest score when the time runs out.
The gameplay is like the single player and there's a lot of fun to be had, in dying and losing as well as winning, since the game is just a pure adrenaline rush in multiplayer. The various modes are fairly well balanced and there's a lot of room for horse combat too on some of the map locations, especially in a Hold Your Own game type where you have to go from one base to the next. Dead Eye plays a part but does not slow down time; it simply allows you to paint targets for quick kills and headshots.
All the weapons are there on the map and in the many game modes you have to pick them up from crates, rather than having them stored on your person in Free Roam.
At launch there were some issues, there was frequent lag, disconnects, invisible characters and a bug that prevented System Link from working with other players. Rockstar rolled out a day of release patch, and some behind the scenes patches and the game is getting better each time. These bugs aside there's just too much fun to be had now to lower the score, don't be put off since the bugs have been mostly squashed and Rockstar are working hard on fixing any issues that crop up.
All-in-all the multiplayer is the icing on the cake, the cake is the single player and this is a bonus atop of that. I've had a lot of fun with multiplayer but have not put the same amount of time that I did into the single player. This is a game that should be enjoyed on all levels and not just bought because of the multiplayer element.
Rockstar should be proud of what they have done here, they have managed to make the best and finest open world/sandbox game available and create a game so deep and engaging that it rivals an MMO in its design and addictive quality. This is a game that needs to be supported with DLC such as the Lost and the Damned, Ballad of Gay Tony and not just multiplayer DLC, this game needs a sequel and it needs more stories to bridge that gap. It has a quality to it both in terms of polish and design that's lacking in many titles, this is why I became a gamer in the first place, games like Red Dead Redemption and the story it tells - a story for me that's now over, and I'm quite sad it is...
So hurry up Rockstar and make more content for the single player!
I've still got loads to do though, but I can't wait to see where this one goes.
Top marks all round.