Game Changers: Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360) (Rockstar Games, 2010)

Game Changers is a semi-regular column featuring games which have had a significant impact on me over the years. Games that were so incredibly stunning and awe-inspiring, they changed my conception of what a game could be at the time. Previously, I have written about Out Run, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Street Fighter Alpha 3.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the Wild West. Growing up, one of my favorite things to do (whenever I wasn't playing games or practicing spinning toy pop-guns like a gunslinger) was kick back and watch some great Westerns on TV. "Back to the Future, part III", "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr", "Tombstone", the legendary Clint Eastwood "Man with No Name" trilogy ("A Fistful of Dollars", "For a Few Dollars More", and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"), and of course, the John Wayne classics like "Rio Bravo", "El Dorado", and "True Grit" (to name more than a few). These films (and one show) are some of the finest examples the genre has to offer. They are far from the only cinematic representations available, however.

When it comes to games, the options are much less prevalent. When I was young, there were really only two Western games that I found to be any good, Sunset Riders and Lethal Enforcers II: Gun Fighters. Both were multiplayer Arcade titles from Konami and both were really great games. They also both came out in the early '90s and quickly received multiple home console ports.

I acquired them (for my Sega Genesis and Sega CD, respectively) pretty much as soon as I found out about them. I spent a lot of time playing both of them and they still remain two of my favorite games to this day. But the early '90s was a fairly long time ago. Gaming changed a good bit as the years marched on.

Tons of great new games came and went but almost none of them featured an Old West setting. The incredibly few that did were either not available on the platforms I owned or were just not very good. I started to think I might never play a great modern Western game. But finally, in 2010, Rockstar Games released perhaps the greatest Wild West game of all time, Red Dead Redemption.

RDR - Desert

Tell me this doesn't look amazing!

Taking the Scenic Route

Red Dead Redemption was truly a great reward for patient gamers everywhere. It wasn't just one of the best Westerns I'd ever played, but one of the best games, period. With it's jaw-droppingly beautiful open world, incredible attention to detail, gritty action-adventure gameplay, compelling story, perfectly fitting musical score, and great voice acting, Red Dead Redemption got a hold on me and wouldn't let go for several weeks after I first put the disc in the tray. All of the flawlessly executed elements came together to form the perfect video game representation of a Western.

The graphics in the game are something to behold. RDR features an enhanced version of Rockstar's proprietary RAGE game engine. It had been previously used in their highly acclaimed 2008 release, Grand Theft Auto IV. The draw distance was increased for Read Dead Redemption, and it shows (not that it wasn't already quite impressive in GTA). In many areas of the game, you can see the landscape continue on into the distance for a staggeringly long way. And the realistic look of that landscape, as well as the people and animals that inhabit it, is just insane.

The realism isn't merely limited to the art, either. The openness of the game world and the mind-blowing attention to detail really make you feel as though you are exploring a living world. People ignore you, greet you, ask for your help, or try to kill you, and they will react to whatever you do. Birds fly overhead or out of the brush, animals go about their business; some may attack you while others will run from you. Tumbleweeds blow across dusty trails, steam trains pass by at regular intervals, the sun rises and sets, the stars come out and disappear, clouds slowly roam across the sky... Just wander around for ten to fifteen minutes and you'll start to think that you're actually there.

Red Dead Redemption - Assist

John does his civic duty by assisting the town marshal with the apprehension (or annihilation) of some local bandits.

So Much To Do, As Much Time As You Need

The size of the map is humongous. Even despite the fact that two large areas are inaccessible until a bit later on in the game, the main area is still quite massive on its own. The freedom of being able to go almost anywhere you want, at any time, works perfectly for this game. There is a lot you can do, too. Ride the train, ride a horse, rope a horse, race on horses, herd some cattle, play cards, play dice, play horseshoes, bounty hunt, hunt wildlife, participate in shooting competitions, pick herbs, gunfight, enforce the law, run from the law, save people, steal from people, kill bad guys, or pretty much just kill anything that moves. And there is still quite a bit more!

The basic gameplay is very similar to the aforementioned (and quite excellent) gameplay of Grand Theft Auto IV. The biggest difference here is that you are riding on (and perhaps, occasionally stealing) stagecoaches and horses, instead of cars and motorcycles. The mechanics are all still enjoyable and satisfying, and just as well-suited to this gritty Wild West adventure as they were to the modern criminal underworld setting of GTA.

The story is appropriately long for a game, but gripping and dramatic enough for any Western. You play as John Marston, something of a reformed outlaw, who is forced by the government to track down his former partners in crime, and bring them to justice. The story takes you from the American Southwest scrublands, across the border into the deserts of Mexico, and then further north to mountainous timberlands. Along the epic journey, John gets shot and left for dead, caught up in the middle of a revolution, and even meets the devil himself (if you haven't played the game, that last part may sound a bit out of place in a Western, but believe me when I say that it was executed to perfection and is one of my favorite interactions in the game).

Red Dead Redemption - Boom

"Boom", goes the dynamite.

A Bang Up Job

The sound design and voice acting are both top notch. The characters all come across sincerely and believably dramatic. The voice actors are all perfectly suited to their characters and do an outstanding job of pulling you into the story. The sound effects all sound as real as a good Hollywood Western. Some of the sound and visual elements actually felt like they were ripped right out of the previously mentioned "Man with No Name" trilogy (intentionally, I'm sure, which I am absolutely okay with).

The music in the game is very well done and also largely seemed to pay homage to the same cinematic source material. It is quite varied and has both American and Mexican influences. I downloaded the soundtrack off iTunes after I finished the game because, again, I have always been a sucker for a good Western. I will take it in any form I can get it, be it movie, show, music album, or video game.

There are rumors that Rockstar may currently be working on a new Red Dead game. I sure hope that those rumors turn out to be true. Because, if they do, and the new game is even half as astonishingly good as Red Dead Redemption, it will be a true joy to experience.


[Images: Rockstar Games]