If there’s one thing the world of video games is missing, it’s a solid western. The idea of riding a horse into a bandit-stricken town in order to duel arrogant gunslingers and cheat at poker is exhilarating. But realistically, what options do we have? Don’t think about it too hard, because Red Dead Redemption is here, and it’s the only romp through the Wild West you’re going to need.
Redemption places you in the shoes of John Marston, a reformed criminal pulled from his newly found life of quietude who is tasked with hunting down a former partner to appease the US government. His first attempt to talk to the man ends in Marston getting shot, which is where you take over. You wake up at a ranch and begin to work your way into the favor of the locals as you formulate a new plan.
So what exactly will you do to accomplish this? Well, you’ll do like the cowboys.
You’ll break horses, ride cattle, hunt bandits, drink, fight, cheat at poker and, well, a lot of other things. Coming from Rockstar Games, the open world specialists, you shouldn’t expect a streamlined, linear experience. This is a sandbox — a sandbox that exchanges the usual slew of skylines and rush hour traffic for stunning vistas and stage coaches.
Redemption is a beautiful game. You may think rounding cattle sounds needlessly boring, but when you look over the side of a cliff into a desert river valley just as the sun sets, “wow” will be the only words out of your mouth. It is a stunningly realized world. Small towns and outposts are scattered about the world, and the first time you ride into one is always something grand. Not that there’s anything particular special about each town, but the dynamic way some quests are created makes for some truly unique experiences.
Aside from the usual story missions, there are few different categories of side missions. The static ones are given by strangers, who appear at different points in time to give you specific quests that range from investigating missing persons to gathering a set number of supplies. This could be anything from picking flowers to skinning rabbits. Along with these quests you have a number of survival challenges that are always running. Shoot five birds out of the sky and you’ll unlock a new set of objectives. Find a treasure map and hunt down the hidden goodies and you’ll soon be tasked with looking for another buried chest.
While this is all well and good, it’s the random events that are truly special. My first time riding into the town of Armadillo, a group of three bandits shooting guns into the air dragged a poor wench out of town. I could have ignored them, but I chose to step in and try to shoot them down before they could get away. This resulted in my quick demise. Later, as I was riding along minding my own business, a lady next to an overturned stage coach flagged me down asking for help. Turns out she was just luring me into an ambush, as when I stopped three men jumped up and quickly gunned me down.
It won’t be long before you learn to abuse the auto aim and dead eye features and outshoot every varmint in town. Holding L2 draws your gun and automatically locks you on to the target closest to where you’re looking. Quickly releasing and repressing the button will disengage and reengage the auto aim, which makes taking down large groups of targets a breeze. R3 activates dead eye mode, where you can target enemies in slow motion and unleash a hail of bullets in a split second. As long as you learn to take cover as appropriate, combat won’t give you many problems.
None of this really matters though, as the overall experience is really why you’re playing. Just when you start to get bored, the game rewards you with a lasso and you end up spending the next five hours dragging criminals/innocents through town as all the residents cheer/scream in delight/horror. Maybe after that’s over you’ll stop at the gunsmith to pick up a semi-automatic shotgun, just in case one of those ranchers decides to cheat at horseshoes. Then it’s off to Mexico, where the blackjack tables are fast and loose. Perhaps a bar fight with the locals to cap off the night?
In truth, you’ll probably get sick of it all by the time the main story wraps up. It’s a fun ride though, as you’ll certainly get at least 30 hours out of it, which feels about right. After that, feel free to try out the online mode for another few hours. The basis of online is the free roam, which is a modified version of the world map that consists mostly of riding from one gang hideout to the next to complete static missions. Completing these earn you experience points you can use to unlock weapons, character models, new horses (although who doesn’t want to ride an adorable burro?), etc. It’s pretty boring solo, though it can be fun to snipe unsuspecting players riding off in the distance. Grab a group of friends and you’ll breath more life into the experience, but it won’t take long to peter out. There are organized games of the usual shooter variants, but the auto aiming can be annoying, and the somewhat awkward controls get in the way even with that feature disabled.
Redemption controls like your typical third person game: left stick moves and right stick looks, and aiming down the sights of your gun puts you into a strafing mode. Problem is, there’s slightly more lag to the aiming than I’d care for, and Marston turns around with the grace of an 18 wheeler, which can make simple things like lining up to go through a doorway a bit of a chore if you’re positioned awkwardly.
Horses are a bit unwieldy as well, and you’ll definitely grow weary of riding to just outside of town and setting up camp to allow you to quick travel around. The cover system is needlessly sticky, and you’ll often find yourself spending more time lining up for a proper hide than actually shooting. Various bugs are bound to pop up as well, ranging from bandits getting stuck in mountains to story NPCs getting caught on fences to everything in between. And let’s not even get into how easy it is to make money once you master five finger fillet.
In the end it won’t matter, because you’re going to have a blast anyway. The sprawling views, the click-clack of horse hooves and the cat calls of immoral women overcome any shortcomings you may encounter. Redemption is an experience you can’t get anywhere else, and all those involved in its creation should be applauded. Buy it and love it.