RED DEAD REDEMPTION – Review
RED DEAD REDEMPTION is a videogame developed by Rockstar San Diego and Rockstar North, published by Rockstar Games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by JOSH BASS, DAREN BADER and TED CARSTON.
Before I begin, there are 3 things you should know.
The first one is that I find the GTA games to be a painful experience, consisting of controlling characters I don’t care about, doing stuff I don’t want for people I hate. The second thing is that I’m a big fan of Westerns, which must have been very annoying for my roommates as I discoursed about every single tiny movie influence I could spot in Red Dead Redemption, from John Marston’s duster outfit, straight out of Once Upon a Time in the West, to the plot itself, lifted from The Proposition. The third one is that I really like how most Rockstar games come with an actual map enclosed with the game box. Not only is it a testament for the amount of polish Rockstar adds to its games, but also helps the game be more immersive: as it begins to “embrace” my real life when, for instance, I use that map to plan my next moves instead of eating my dinner.
Moving on. Red Dead Redemption is a good game. It contains some moments that are pretty close to greatness and the amount of care put into this game is almost palpable (Well, actually, it IS palpable! There is that map after all!). Unfortunately, however, it still suffers from issues like pacing, ludonarrative dissonance, flat characters, lack of focus, clutter and noise. There are also some control issues (e.g.: occasionally, turning your horse will feel like you are back to Resident Evil‘s “tank controls” days), but who cares about those, right? However, one thing is for certain: Red Dead Redemption is certainly the best western game out there right now – though I am certain it will be later passed by better western games.
Red Dead Redemption is a game in love with the Western mythology built by hundreds of films. That’s also its biggest asset: it manages to capture the look and feel we remember from those movies. Even the game’s amazing soundtrack appears to be greatly inspired by Ennio Morricone, the quintessential composer for Spaghetti Western (though Red Dead Redemption is no Spagetti Western).
The territory of New Austin is an achievement in itself. Problem is that all those incredible vistas are rarely used as something more than mere backgrounds for action. This is too bad, for I believe a good story should spring out of its environment. In Red Dead Redemption, missions and locales are usually interchangeable between themselves and don’t carry a legacy of their own. It’s the opposite of a game like, say, Psychonauts, where the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp actually feels like a character or even the GTA games, where the cities of Vice City and Liberty City had they own mythology built upon, little by little, by each new sequel that came out. The result is that the world of New Austin cannot survive on its own without the player’s imagination (No really, it can’t. With the frequency of crimes that would happen there if your character weren’t around, society would crumble down into something worse than hell).
More specifically, Red Dead Redemption is a game in love with Sam Peckinpah’s movies. Especially The Wild Bunch, a movie where a gang of outlaws are living the final days of the Old West while being chased by a former partner. Red Dead Redemption is also set in the decline of the Old West, but only anachronically, as the game takes place in 1911, when the Old West was already almost dead. This was probably a conscious decision though, as the story wouldn’t be able to incorporate the events of the Mexican Revolution otherwise.
The main difference between The Wild Bunch and this game is that while the former focuses on the runaway gang, Red Dead Redemption focuses on the former partner. That former partner is you, John Marston, who must hunt his former associates in order to save his family, kidnapped by the government.
John is a contradictory fellow. Even his looks are contradictory: he looks so evil and badass you would think his birth could be considered some nasty form of reverse rape, his outlaw past is still feared, his face is adorned by scars that look like cat whiskers and yet his voice sounds like if Jesus were your school counselor. As I played the game, I kept wondering whether Marston was a hero or a psychopathic killer. Normally, this would be in the veins of postmodern realism, where the link between heroism and sociopathy are so blurred, one might say it was nonexistent. We’ve already seen this lack of distinction several times, from Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle to No More Heroes‘s Travis Touchdown and even in The Wild Bunch‘s Pike Bishop. However, that link is more than obvious in Red Dead Redemption: it’s located exactly when his cutscenes and dialogs end. During them, Marston is the hero, but once they are over, Marston is a loon.
The game wants you to forge a real relationship to this character and, much to its credits, it almost succeeds. It is an uneasy friendship. For most of the time, we won’t understand what is driving Marston (even when we are NOT playing as the World’s Biggest Asshole). Not while there are Achievements asking us to sacrifice women on train tracks. Not while there is the gameplay demanding Marston spend hours and hours picking flowers, skinning random animals and collecting horses. Not while Marston is unable to refuse even most inane request. Dude, shouldn’t you be saving your family instead?
And yes, I am aware games nowadays have to add lots of content or else people are going to start bitching that they aren’t getting their money’s worth, but that is getting in the way of the characterization effort. Ultimately, all these activities – picking flowers, skinning animals, hunting horses, searching for treasures – are just noise. It’s not like there are any use for flowers, horses or even money. It’s not that you need the meat for nourishment or the flowers for medicine (“Survivalist” awards my ass). It’s not like a man working to save his family would bother to help an old coot win horse races! This noise happens all the time in Red Dead Redemption and the development of Marston’s character is not the only victim. The game’s pacing fell down in this battle as well.
The culprit here has a name and a surname: Mexican Revolution.
For some reason, the game’s developers felt it was necessary to add the Mexican Revolution to the plot. Before reaching Mexico, John had already spent much time and effort trying to reach the first member of his old gang, Bill Williamson. Alas, the game stole whatever payoff we might get from those efforts as Williamson escaped to Mexico. The justification is that the second member of Marston’s old gang is Mexican. Thus Marston is forced to run quests for both sides of the Mexican conflict despite the fact that (1) both targets don’t have any reason to be involved with the conflict, (2) Marston doesn’t have any reason to help either side of the conflict as neither is guaranteed to help him back and (3) the things demanded by Marston (and that he willfully agrees to do due to the man’s inexhaustible patience to run errands for any shady guy that pops up) can be so out of sync to the things he claim to believe in one questions his ethics, intentions and the Robin Hood-like tales of his past. To say that Marston walks in gray areas is an understatement. Again: once the cutscenes are over, the guy is a loon.
Of course, we don’t abandon him as to finally see how the wife and kid he is always talking about look like is a very strong bait. Remember when you played your first Mario game on the NES and you had no clue to how Princess Toadstool looked like? Same pull.
It’s only after that bloated tangent in Mexico that the game’s story finally starts regaining focus and stops feeling like a cobbled together series of shooting marathons. Only then we have all the pieces of this conflict at the center stage: the gang leader Dutch, the government (represented by the figure of Edgar Ross) and Marston with his family in tow. These are the only characters that are not two-dimensional twits, just waiting for you to come around so they can give you your next mission. Red Dead Redemption would be much better had it focused only at those characters. The whole ordeal you had to endure to get to Williamson feels it was for naught in comparison. Firstly because as he had long cut ties with Marston and Dutch, so he no longer represented the lifestyle that held such a strong influence in Marston anymore. Secondly because there was no real reason for Marston to be asked to hunt him down in the first place. Why couldn’t the Edgar Ross muster a posse and march to his little Fort Mercer instead? Because it’s suicide? Well, no shit – and indeed that is the very first thing Marston does after the opening credits. But wait! It’s not a suicide mission after all: once Williamson is gone, Fort Mercer becomes a “gang hideout” one can raid to their heart’s content.
Still, the brilliance of the game is not how the conflict between Dutch, Ross and Marston is handled. That could be better. But the fact that the game carries on after the conflict is solved. Most games would have stopped when the family is saved, slapped a “Thank you for playing” on the screen and roll out the credits song. Not Red Dead Redemption, though. It goes on for a while and then presents us with a twist that will make that long time investment seem almost worth it.
If I could resume Red Dead Redemption in one word, it would still be the word trivial. After the initial awe at New Austin is gone, the game becomes a simple series of shooting marathons with cutscenes and conversations that expose the plot in-between. These marathons are the game’s main gameplay loop and the problem is that shooting people feels rather trite. There are not rewarding moments like the slow-motion action of Alan Wake of the satisfying sound of a headshot in Gears of War. Each kill feels the same and just like Mass Effect 2 can sometimes feel ridiculous when you realize any Asari chambermaid could probably hire a mercenary squad, so does Red Dead Redemption when some gangs of bandits have more members than the Mexican army. And yet you never feel overwhelmed due to Marston’s special – and unexplained – super-power, the Dead Eye Targeting, which makes every fight look like a reverse Peckinpah shootout. In Peckinpah’s movies, action sequences intercalate rapid editing with (lots of) people falling in slow motion to heighten the impact of the violence (only Peckinpah’s movies have more victims than John Marston). In the game, the Red Dead Eye gives you an (unfair) slow motion vision during which you can aim and select your targets at your leisure – and they will all fall once the game’s tempo return to normal. While it is nice to see everyone around you fall at the same time, it’s undeniable that this took all the challenge out of the match and, consequently, from the main gameplay loop. So, barely rewarding (seeing lots people fall simultaneously) and barely challenging (only when you run out of super-power juice). On the other hand, the game’s twist greatly benefits from the Dead Eye Targeting. So… a tie?
Also good: the soundtrack. I know have mentioned it already, but I think it deserved more attention in this review. So there.
Even with all the challenges and tasks the game still demanded of me, I didn’t feel like playing much once the main quest was over. I just horsed around towns, trying to cleanse the world of New Austin from all sort of lifeform (it clearly was the problem for all the misdeeds in that world), but soon it became boring (why the hell did they have to respawn anyways?). The things that first amused me, like the random encounters you find while travelling, had long lost their magic. I was already shooting anyone that asked for a ride in sight as, by then, I knew they just wanted steal my horse. Red Dead Redemption kept shaking its car keys in front of me long after I grew up and the whole thing started to seem a bit sad. Remember when I said New Austin could not survive without the player’s imagination? This was when it finally died for me, as I could no longer suspend my disbelief. It was time to put the game down.
In the end, it’s no wonder people only take Red Dead Redemption‘s ending once they are done playing. As polished as it may be, this game feels dull and pointless for a long while. You know what? Keep the world of New Austin, reduce the trivial moments, make each gunfight more sparse and meaningful, the plot more focused – perhaps even feature several mini tales instead of a single one (the game world is big enough for that anyways) – and maybe then this would become a great game. But until then, the greatness of Red Dead Redemption will remain a forever unfulfilled promise, just like Marston’s long sought farming dreams.