Red Dead Redemption Review

By Jake Gaskill - Posted May 17, 2010

Red Dead Redemption marks Rockstar Games' return to the Western genre. It's full of colorful characters, gorgeous replicas of natural splendor, and bad, bad men who need disposing. In short, it's one of 2010's best games so far.

The Pros
  • The best western game made to date
  • A massive, dynamic and alive world to explore
  • Incredible voice acting
  • Multiplayer offers potential hours of enjoyment
The Cons
  • Controls can sometimes be clunky
  • Occasional glitches
  • Free roam spawning frustrating at times

In the interest of saving some of you time, let me start by saying this: If you’re a fan of Grand Theft Auto IV, or even just the idea of GTA, and you like westerns -- and you wanted so much more from Red Dead Revolver, or you missed it completely like I did -- you can stop right here in your internal debate over whether or not to pick up Red Dead Redemption. I might not need to convince of you much more. For the rest of you cowpokes riding the cattle ranch fence about Rockstar San Diego’s amazingly joyous open-world western game, saddle up and leave that skeptical piece of wood behind. Red Dead Redemption is the real McCoy with a bullet… lots of them.

In classic Rockstar fashion, RDR tells an epic and violent tale that ebbs and flows with emotion, humor and brutality. What makes RDR distinct from its GTA brethren, however, is that it isn’t the story of an up-and-coming criminal. It follows former outlaw John Marston, who is tasked by the federal government to hunt down and kill his former gang mates, in exchange for his and his family’s freedom.

The story is filled to the (ten-gallon hat) brim with all manner of classic western story tropes, settings and characters that are crafted and delivered expertly. The voice-work is among the best I’ve ever heard (the actor who plays the conman Nigel West Dickens is especially brilliant), and the spectacular lip-synching and facial animations are simply stunning. While there aren’t as many twists and turns as a GTA story, the conclusion is one of the boldest and most joyously surprising of any in recent memory.

Red Dead Redemption

Leaving Liberty City Behind

Over the course of the roughly 20-hour story (that time included a bunch of side quests and a good amount of hunting), you’ll travel across the American West and Mexico, encounter all manner of wildlife, mosey through dusty ghost towns, get into saloon brawls and live out your wild west fantasies as you traverse one of the most expansive game worlds ever conceived. Filling the gaps between settlements are a wide variety of terrain ranging from snowy mountain passes, smoldering cactus-laced deserts and sweeping plains rich with grazing buffalo, all of which are gorgeous and packed with detail.

Each area is populated with geographically-specific animals (rabbits, deer, beavers, grizzly bears, etc.), some of which will passively go about their business, and some of which will attack you on sight. You can skin every animal you kill, and even though you don’t actually see it, the blood splattering the screen and John’s skinning motions are sufficiently gory. You might feel a twinge of guilt gunning down an innocent bunny rabbit, but fighting off a pack of wolves or taking down a charging grizzly in self-defense feels appropriately satisfying.

If hunting has you down, you can always pick some wild flowers, which are scattered across the landscape. Like animal pelts/parts, you can sell flowers in town, and they even play into several side quests. It can feel strange laying waste to ten bandits and then stopping to pick some flowers, but it’s mostly optional, so if you find it truly annoying, you can just ignore it.

While the world itself is staggering in scope, the game includes several ways to fast travel between locations. Campfires let you teleport to waypoints or specific towns, as well as save your game at any time. Sadly, you only have three save slots, which means you won’t be able to replay every one of your favorite missions, and this is doubly upsetting because there are so many memorable ones.

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Skin That Smokewagon…

RDR’s combat is basically a more fluid and responsive version of that found in GTA4. The Euphoria engine once again brings characters to life (and death) with brutal and hilarious results. Catching a bandito in the shoulder and watching him twist off his saddle and then get dragged to his death behind his horse never gets old, and is just one of an endless array of death sequences that characterize the game’s combat. Speaking of horses, the amount of detail put into the creation of these gorgeous creatures is remarkable. And the ability to whistle and have your horse run to you, letting you hop on in one fluid motion, is a simple yet delightful treat.

The series’ dead-eye targeting returns, allowing you to target every square inch of enemies from their hats to their pistols. Similar to the mark and execute mechanic recently seen in Splinter Cell: Conviction, the dead-eye targeting can feel a bit too powerful at times, but it also becomes essential when you’re facing off against a seemingly unending flow of enemies. Each weapon also comes with a brutal yet satisfying execution move that can be triggered by running up to an enemy and firing. In short, you’ll never tire of ways to smoke fools.

If you feel like taking a break from blasting greenhorns out of their boots, or galloping along on your trusty stead, you can play a number of mini-games including poker, horseshoes, five-finger fillet and arm wrestling. All of the games are easy to pick up, and could easily tack on more play time should you feel the need to amass a small fortune playing Texas Hold ‘Em. You can also do a number of odd jobs like herding cattle, breaking horses, and hunting down wanted criminals (hogtying outlaws and delivering them to the local jail never ceases to amuse).

Red Dead Redemption

There are a few story-based duels in the game, but you’ll also encounter random ones as you ramble from town to town. The duel controls essentially come down to setting dead-eye targets on your enemy and watching the bullets fly. I actually only died once dueling during all my time playing the game, suggesting that the duels are mainly there to provide a visual treat, and that’s totally fine by me, because they are giddily Peckinpah-ish in nature and vicious as hell.

The game features a morality system that tracks both your honor and fame. Fame is essentially your XP, while honor tracks your good and bad deeds. I only played through the game once as a good character, so I can’t say if the story changes depending on whether you’re good or bad, but given the story structure, I can’t see it having any influence over how it unfolds. Your honor does factor into how the game world reacts to you though, which can mean receiving compliments from strangers or having to fight off bounty hunters out to claim you as their prize.

This Town Isn’t Big Enough For the 16 of Us

RDR’s multiplayer takes its cue from GTA4’s in that the main “lobby” (aka Free Roam) is the entire game world, minus all of the side-quests and mini-games. It definitely has a more Wild West feel than the single player portion only because the first instinct of most human players is to kill anyone and everything that cross their paths. Thankfully, the game lets you set up posses of up to eight players. Not only does this help your survival chances (safety in numbers after all), but it also lets you live out your dream of marauding across the old west as part of a menacing or justice-serving gang.

There are really only two things to do in free roam: get into random shootouts with other players, and take on NPC-controlled hideouts. Storming an outlaw-controlled fort with a band of tin star-wearing lawmen is a thing of beauty. Sadly, there are only a handful of these gang hideouts, but they can be replayed endlessly, which is nice.

Competitive multiplayer includes just a few standard modes, each of which can be played with up to 16 players: deathmatch, team deathmatch and three variations of capture the flag. While there isn’t a lot of variety in the modes, the shootouts are really what it’s all about anyway. And the maps offer plenty of ways to approach every match. Hopefully, some more modes will be added later, in addition to the co-op ones releasing not long after launch, but the current ones will do for now.

Red Dead Redemption

A Little Bad And Ugly

For as top to bottom fantastic as RDR is, there are a few very minor issues worth mentioning. In Free Roam, it can be a bit frustrating when you encounter other human players who just want to kill things, because when you die, you tend to respawn in the general area of where you died, so you’ll oftentimes have to deal with the same douchebag over and over again until you can summon your horse and ride away. I also came across a couple glitches here and there (Marston’s lower coatflap took on a life of its own at times), and there are times when the horse and on foot controls can be a tad clunky, but these moments account for an insignificant amount of time in the grand scheme of the game, and are ultimately dismissible.

Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Ridiculous

Red Dead Redemption sets the bar for all future genre efforts and it gives players the chance to participate in their very own Spaghetti Western that includes a wild cast of characters, epic wild west showdowns, a score that would make Ennio Morricone proud, an absurdly expansive frontier to explore, and a wonderfully enjoyable multiplayer experience that will have players forming posses and battling bandits for some time. It’s going to take a lot to top this one. Even if you’re not a fan of Westerns, there’s still plenty here to enjoy. Red Dead Redemption is one of 2010’s best games.