It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve finally got round to playing Red Dead Redemption, about 10 months after it came out. At the time I was studying for my final exams at university and I made a conscious decision not to buy any new games for a couple of months, so I wouldn’t be too distracted from revising. I was, of course, still distracted by the games I already had, and also by some of my DVD box sets; I think I managed to watch all the episodes of Arrested Development and all bar the last three or four episodes of The Wire. I got a first though, so I must have been doing something right, but I doubt that something was watching the entirety of two of the greatest TV shows of the last decade. Had I bought Red Dead Redemption back when it first came out I doubt I’d have done quite so well, because I’ve spent the last week or so playing it as much as I can. In fact I’ve managed to clock up about 40 hours playtime and 100% complete it. It’s hard to explain its appeal, other than the fact that it’s just an incredibly well made game.
One thing the game has in its favour is a good story. I’ll now attempt to give a brief overview of it, there are major spoilers in what follows, but I don’t spoil the ending. Well, perhaps I hint at it. Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know. The story can be split into thirds. The prelude to all this, which you’re not immediately told, is that your character used to be in a gang of outlaws, and he’s trying to go straight, but government agents have kidnapped your wife and son and in order to get them back you have to track down and kill the other members of your gang. In the first part you have to do several missions, for several different characters, in order to form an attack plan on a fort controlled by a former gang-mate. At the end of this section you successfully attack the fort, but the man you’re after escapes to Mexico and meets up with another member of the gang you were in. So you follow him across the border to go after them. In the second part you do missions for both the Mexican government and the rebel forces they are brutally trying to suppress, for the most part concurrently. During this section I was surprised at how long each side apparently turns a blind eye to the fact that you’re working with their bitter enemies. It doesn’t seem to make any sense that one moment you’re talking to the commander of the government forces then the next you’re rescuing the rebel leader from jail, which is the main reason why I thought this part of the story was the weakest. At the end of this section you successfully kill or capture both your former gang-mates, but are then informed that government agents have found the leader of your former gang, so now you have to kill him too. The third section is undoubtedly the strongest, not least because the story seems to move at a much faster pace. After much less messing around than previously, you find and kill your former gang leader, and then are reunited with your family. You then do a series of missions on your ranch, such as scaring off crows, transporting grain, and buying some cows. You also teach your son to hunt, with the aid of your dog “Rufus”. (I’m not sure whether the dog’s name is in any way a reference to the comedian Rufus Hound, but I chose to take it as one.) And after that you live happily ever after. Perhaps.
While I thought the writing, in general, was good, I felt the pacing of the story in the first two thirds was too slow and drawn out. After the first third you’ve essentially accomplished nothing, and the second third suffers from poor writing. I think the game would have been better if these two sections were streamlined and combined into something more cohesive. During the Mexico sections it would have been better if you had the choice of which side you were working for, with different missions for each, which would have avoided the slight absurdity of you working for both sides so nonchalantly. I do realise that the Mexico section, more than any other, serves to amplify the moral ambiguity of your character, that he’ll do anything for anyone as long as it gets him closer to achieving his goal of returning to his family. But does it really make sense for you to be fighting alongside the same people you were killing only moments before, and then go back to killing soon after that? I think RDR exemplifies the fact that a longer game is not always automatically better than a shorter game, by which I mean that a great game should always leave you wanting more, not less. I definitely think it would be a better game if it were a bit shorter, if some of the weaker and more generic missions were removed, and if the story were paced better.
The story takes you across a huge in-game world which depicts a part of a fictional US state and the bordering parts of Mexico. A lot of it is desert with a few small settlements, except the last part you unlock which has a wooded area, but it looks good and it feels “alive”, because at any one time there’s always a wild animal or a computer controlled character passing by as you travel across it. The missions you do are quite varied, though many are of the “go here, kill some people and/or pick something up, then come back” type which is the staple of GTA. In a few missions you get to herd cattle, like a proper cowboy, which I quite liked, the way the game handles it is quite well done. In other missions, and also as an extra “job” you can do to earn money outside of the main missions, you break horses, which I didn’t like anywhere near as much. Basically, you lasso a wild horse, jump on its back, then have to keep yourself centred as it bucks for 30 seconds or so, until it gives up and is then tamed. The way the camera spins round as you’re doing this made me feel a little bit dizzy, and it didn’t feel very rewarding. Outside of the main story there are extra missions given to you by “Strangers” who are located all over the world. Some are really short, such as bringing some medicine to somebody, but some are much longer and have multiple parts, you often have to wait several in-game days before you can do the next bit, which I suppose adds an element of realism. They are the only real side missions in the game, and I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more of them, there are only 19, and of those less than half are really substantial. The game also lets you hunt the various animals that roam the world, once you kill something you can then butcher it to gain some meat and its hide or fur which you can then sell. It’s fun at first, but there’s not really much point to it, there are easier ways to make money and I got the feeling that it was a bit of a missed opportunity, it could have been fleshed out to become a much bigger part of the game. You can also play a few mini-games like Poker or Blackjack, which are a good distraction, though I found the AI in the Poker to be a bit weak and predictable, the computer often plays each hand exactly the same regardless of what cards they have.
While the game definitely drew me in, one thing that struck me about both the main story, and of the predicaments of the Strangers you meet, is how dark the overall tone is. Without wanting to spoil too much, if that’s really possible now the game has been out so long, nothing really has a happy ending. Having just looked through a list of the Stranger missions, I can confidently say that the closest thing to a happy ending any of them has is when you reunite a man with what he tells you is his “lost love”. It turns out to be his horse, which was stolen. Most of the rest of them end up with somebody dying. In a couple of cases it actually turns out that they were dead to start with. If nobody dies then there will at least be a very downbeat conclusion, such as when you blackmail a potential rival of a politician. There is a lot of black humour too, as with GTA, but I didn’t really find anything laugh out loud funny, at times the game is a bit guilty of trying too hard in this department, things feel a bit forced, and hence not funny. The humour that is in the game doesn’t come close to overcoming the general sadness of the whole thing, though perhaps that was intentional. But, even though the story depressed me a bit, I stuck with it till the end, though it struck me that many players would probably never make it that far, especially if they weren’t drawn in by the story. Simply put, there is too much repetition in the missions, too much riding for five or ten minutes to get to the action, and, as I mentioned earlier, the pacing of the story is too slow in the first two-thirds.
The game isn’t perfect, and yet I couldn’t get enough of it as I played through it, it has that quality that all great games have where you don’t really want it to end. I found myself doing a lot of the side missions and other things you can do so I’d avoid advancing the story and getting closer to finishing it. I think RDR may be the best game Rockstar have ever made, there’s something about it which raises it above all the GTA games. Perhaps that’s because those games evolved and built upon one another, to the point where you knew exactly what to expect from a new one, but, while RDR is essentially GTA:Wild West, the setting is different enough that it makes the game feel completely new and different. The game’s strong story also contributes to this. There are things that hold the game back though, such as the cover mechanics, and a few problems with the controls at times, and loads of other little things which perhaps only got on my nerves because I was playing the game for long periods at once. Things like the little unskippable animation that gets played when you search a dead body for ammo and money, it’s all right the first few times, but after a few hundred you just wish you could turn it off, the same goes for the animation when you butcher an animal or pick some herbs. These small flaws are many and all come together to hold the game back from being a true classic. It’s a great game regardless, but when I finished it I couldn’t help but feel it could have been even greater.
For a review of the Undead Nightmare DLC, click here.