Red Dead Redemption retrospective: one man and his horse

1696977-red_dead_redemption__lake_ While I wait for GTAV to arrive (I’ll be picking it up tomorrow morning), I thought I’d do a bit of a retrospective on Red Dead Redemption, a game that I think is one of the best of this console generation and I’m currently replaying.  

If my ageing memory serves me correctly, there’s a moment in Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption that, for me, empahsises why it’s one of finest video games of this generation.

It’s the moment when the game’s hero (or is he an anti-hero?) John Marston crests a hill, crossing from the United States to Mexico. As Marston starts ascending the hill towards Mexico, Jose Gonzalez’s haunting song Far Away starts playing and continues as Marston trots through Mexico, the bright orange sun setting in the distance.  It’s a powerful, poignant moment that illustrates just how great this game is.

It’s moments like this that make Red Dead Redemption a tour de force of story telling and characterisation. It’s a game that deserves a second play through. And perhaps a third and a fourth.

I finished RDR a while ago – a long while ago, actually – but while I wait for GTAV to land this week (I pre-ordered it over the weekend) I decided to pull on the boots of grizzled cowboy John Marston again and see if the game was as great as I remember. It is.

RDR came out in 2010, a couple of years after GTAIV, and is the sequel to Red Dead Revolver. It tells the tale of John Marston, a former outlaw who is forced to turn bounty hunter after his wife and son are kidnapped by the US government and he has to bring his former outlaw colleagues to justice. It spans  two fictitious United States counties – New Austin and West Elizabeth –  and a fictitious Mexican state – Nuevo Paraiso, and it seems that to secure his family’s future, Marston must return to the life he desperately tried to escape.

The game opens with Marston in the company of two US Marshalls: It’s 1911 and the decline of the American frontier. After walking through the streets of Blackwater, he boards a train bound for the region of New Austin, where he will start his quest to track down his adversaries. As he sits on the train travelling to Armadillo, Marston listens to the conversations of other passengers. It’s the dawn of a new age, it seems.

In terms of visuals, RDR and GTAIV are a world apart, with the former a breathtakingly beautiful game. At times the sunsets resemble water-colour paintings, with burnt orange and yellow smeared across the sky.  The attention to detail is amazing as well, and if RDR shows the advances Rockstar made since GTAIV, then it just blows my mind as to think just how much more advanced the visuals are between RDR and GTAV. Remember, we’re at the end of a console generation but it seems, as happened with the previous one, developers are eking every last drop of processing power to produce graphically stunning games.


RDR isn’t just an improvement visually on GTAIV, though, its game play is much better, especially in terms of how the combat is handled (although I still struggled at times when I had to drive a horse and buggy, maintain speed and shoot at the same time).

Marston has a Dead Eye system which means when activated he can slow down time and paint individual targets, taking out several bad guys in a single sequence. The cover system, too, is much improved,  with Marston often sliding into the protection he is heading towards if he’s hot footing it.  RDR just feels so much easier to play than GTAIV, too, despite featuring a similar mission structure. I revisited GTAIV a week or so ago: It just feels outdated and boring compared to RDR.

In terms of open-world games, RDR is insanely large, with tracts of tracts of land stretching out as far as the eye can see, but perhaps one of the best things I like about RDR is that the  world feels alive: bars are populated with boozed patrons and working girls, dogs wander around dusty towns sniffing for scraps of food, poker games take place behind closed doors, horses roam the prairies, but perhaps the most impressive element is the random events Marston comes across. These events can happen anywhere, anytime and can range from public hangings to having to chase down escaped prisoners for an ageing lawman, to Marston having to save abducted women from strange men and attacks by wild animals.

Example? At one point, as I guided Marston to a deer he had just shot, two wild coyotes suddenly attacked his horse just as I guided him over to where the animal’s body lay. In an instant, Marston was stranded in the middle of nowhere, his horse run off, with  two coyotes to take care of. These events make the world feel alive. I also stuck with that horse through most of the game. He was faithful and loyal.

The game has a morality system that affects how NPCs react to Marston: if he stops some drunken guy harassing a woman, he receives a bit more honour and some fame, which means he gets more respect from people, but if Marston shoots an old man to get the deed for a parcel of land wanted by a greedy prospector (as he does in a mission early in the game) his honour ranking will take a hit. The higher the fame ranking the more respect people will show towards Marston.

red-dead-redemption-vga2010Flashy visuals aside, I think it’s the writing and dialogue in RDR that resonates with me, and surely it’s no coincidence that Marston has a sort of Clint Eastwood feel about him. Writers Dan Houser and Michael Unsworth do a fantastic job in creating a believable character in Marston, even if the dialogue sometimes devolves into the clichéd and clunky. Marston’s interactions with key characters is crucial to the success of RDR, and I wish I’d written down the conversation Marston has with ranch owner Bonnie Macfarlane as they ride to Armadillo because it was just so engaging.

Sure, RDR is visually amazing but it’s the story telling that lifts it a notch – or ten – above other open-world games.

GTAV may well come and eclipse Red Dead Redemption in terms of grandeur and storytelling but it’ll have to try damn hard to do it. But even if it GTAV does prove to be the best Rockstar game ever, Red Dead Redemption will always hold a place in my heart as one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever encountered. And the ride into Mexico just re-enforces how great the game is.

Your move, GTAV.

2 thoughts on “Red Dead Redemption retrospective: one man and his horse

  1. It’s a magnificent game world to be sure but I’m not at all convinced that Rockstar’s open-world design is the best fit for these cinematic narratives. The game is simply far too long for the story it’s trying to tell and consequentially the characterisation suffers. The opening few hours are superb, with Marston, Bonnie and her father drawn with uncommon nuance but the demands of the game kick in and all of that intriguing drama if forgone for Rockstar’s usually assortment of wild and wacky, one-note characters, who get their 3-4 hours of fame before never being heard from again. Marston himself all but disappears until the last 8-10, which makes sections like the over-long excursion into Mexico rather uninvolving. Those last 8-10 hours do their damnedest to shovel in a whole bunch of character building before the inevitable return of the baddies and while there is some emotional payoff, it was mostly too little, too late. (As an aside, I really loved doing the ‘farm missions’ and would have greatly preferred a game where that was the focus over killing 2,986 men with snap-on aiming). I can’t feel bad about some old guy dying when I’ve only spent approximately 1 hour with him in a 80 hour experience. I will say though, that the actual ending, and what it means for the title, is flat-out brilliant.

    In general, the mission design is standard Rockstar. There are a couple of great ones, like the early mission where you are rounding up the cows during a storm, but mostly it’s just killing dudes over and over and over again. It also include the absolute worst mission I’ve ever seen in a Rockstar game (this criticism is relative, of course, many of the older have objectively worse missions but those games are a) older and were breaking newer ground at the time and b) didn’t create a world as immersive as RDR to jar against): the one were you are manning a mounted gun on the back of train. The entire mission consists of you simply holding down fire and mowing down the hordes of idiots on horseback whose seemingly only desires in life are to ride in front of your stream of high-velocity metal death. I have no idea how that made it into the finished game.

    I know I’ve gone off on a bit of a rant here and I don’t mean it to come off as grumpily as it might read. I’m just a little flummoxed at the unanimous, 10/10 praise this game constantly gets. To me, it’s just Rockstar doing what they always do, flaws and all, transplanted into a, admittedly breathtaking, Western setting. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me but I would have thought there would have been more varied opinions. It gets awfully lovely being a curmudgeon. 😛

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