The western is a genre somewhat neglected by the computer games industry. There have been a few reasonable efforts over the years, enjoyable romps with which to six-shoot away a few cactus-themed hours, but nothing particularly memorable. Until now, that is.
Red Dead Redemption is in theory a “spiritual successor” (whatever that means) to Red Dead Revolver, a Playstation 2 game which I think you’d probably have to lump along with the aforementioned reasonable yet unmemorable western efforts, but in fact Redemption has a lot more in common with developer Rockstar’s mega-franchise Grand Theft Auto. That’s no bad thing. When GTA III came out in 2001, the first of the series in 3d, the combination of huge game world, open-ended play and edgy ultra-violence was revolutionary, and its two sequels (or perhaps spiritual successors) Vice City and San Andreas further expanded and refined the concept of non-linear, crime-based gaming in huge and beautifully realised sandbox worlds.
I’d been a little disappointed with the most recent outing, Grand Theft Auto IV, which undoubtedly created an amazing world, but I felt the game within it was a bit bare, a bit empty, a bit lacking in the wealth of side-tasks and detail which had always made the series so compelling. So were Rockstar able to refresh the concept and add something new through the western setting? Resoundingly yes. In fact they’ve taken the whole thing to new heights. It’s bigger, bolder and more beautiful with better gameplay and pacing, but it’s also subtler, wittier, with better character work, even more atmosphere, and a level of thematic and emotional involvement which is all too rare in computer games. To put it simply, Red Dead Redemption is fucking stupendous.
So, John Marston is an ex-outlaw who has been blackmailed by an unscrupulous government into hunting down his one-time partners in crime, and his bloody quest will take him across beautifully realised analogues of 1910 Texas, Mexico, the Great Plains and Chicago. The decision to set the game in 1910, as the west is dying, rather than, say, 1880, is a masterstroke. Civilisation is coming, the government is tightening its grip on the wildnerness, the buffalo are facing extinction, the motor car is replacing the horse and the machine gun the revolver. Marston is no eager kid wanting to make a name for himself, he’s used up and worn down, the last of his breed, a fish out of water in the encroaching modern world. Rockstar’s satirical streak also seems to work better in this context. It’s more restrained than GTA, less lurid, less juvenile. Red Dead Redemption is an adult game in every sense.
As one would expect in the wild west, there are a lot of shootouts, especially in the missions that make up the central plot of the game, and while they can be great fun they’re generally pretty easy, thanks to Marston’s superb auto-aiming and dead-eye capabilities (you can slow down time for brief periods in order to paint targets on various part of your enemy, then unleash a hail of lead that sends banditos spinning like tops or, if you’re really good, shoots the guns from their disbelieving hands). But it’s actually the quieter, often unscripted moments that really soar. Breaking wild horses in the desert as the sunset leaks out over the mesas. Squatting in the snowy trees, buffalo rifle levelled, waiting for that perfect shot as a grizzly bear snuffles past. Hunting for confederate gold among the mountain peaks in a lashing lightning storm. An impromptu gunfight in a saloon after a few too many whiskies after I blew the piano player’s brains out because I just didn’t like what he was playing. Alright, that last one wasn’t a quiet moment, but you see what I’m saying. The game world is so detailed, so filled with wildlife, personality, and random occurrences, that a gentle ride between two towns can turn out to be more memorable than the most painstakingly scripted sequence in other games.
They’ve really hit the sweet spot in terms of pacing as well, and the way in which the game rewards exploration and draws you into participating in its many, many side-tasks. I loved San Andreas but I can remember getting a little bored of it by the end. I never tired of Red Dead Redemption. Indeed if it had required me to herd cattle around the map for another thirty hours without a shot fired I’d probably have happily put my chaps on and got those beefs on the road. There are hunting challenges like killing cougars with a knife, sharpshooting tasks like shooting birds from a moving train, bandit hideouts to be cleared, gambling games to master, even a pretty decent simulation of poker which more than once ended up in bloodshed in the street after I was accused (correctly, I will admit) of cheating.
To begin with I wasn’t sure about character and plotting but here, as with so much else, the designers have made some bold moves that pay off big in the long run. Rather than laying out the whole plot and history of the central character with heavy-handed exposition at the start, they let it drip through in conversations and offhand remarks as you go. You end up with a rich sense of history, almost as if the game is a direct sequel, but it never gets in the way. Facial animation is perhaps one weak spot. They’re a touch wooden even for steely frontiersmen, especially when you compare them to recent games particularly strong in this area like Uncharted 2 or Heavy Rain. But it’s made up for by some great voice acting, motion capture and a truly excellent score.
There are quite a lot of lengthy cut scenes, and here you’re watching rather than playing. Marston is always Marston, gruff and laconic but basically decent and honourable, which works well enough if you’ve been playing in a gruff but honourable way the rest of the time but is rather jarring if you’ve been acting like a psycopathic desperado (what, me?) But I guess there’ll always be a tradeoff in computer games between making the central character a kind of blank slate, offering dialogue and behaviour options to the player and a bit more roleplaying, as it were (Mass Effect being a good example) and those giving the central character a vivid personality of their own, allowing perhaps for sparkier if more limited dialogue (as in Uncharted 2). Either way, the recipe worked here, and I came to love Marston and his oddball crew of employers, sidekicks and adversaries. The ending, in particular, is absolute genius, bold and fitting, and it left me raw, forlorn, and hollowed out in the way a really great book does. You can’t say fairer than that, now, can you?
I’m not a man prone to hyperbole (except, of course, when applied to myself or my own work) but Red Dead Redemption stands head and shoulders above the rest in a year that seems to have had a lot of very good games. I’ll see how it settles on me, but at the moment, I’d say it’s on a short list of contenders for my best game ever…