Holy Great Googly Moogly! Red Dead Redemption is here!!!
I love westerns.
Not all westerns. I’m fairly specific.
In the list of the Best Westerns of all time i would have to say Unforgiven is the obvious top. The paragon of all. The Alpha and the Omega. It is the condensed mythology of all of the history and mythos of westward expansion jammed into a very painful two hours – as complicated psychologically as it is cathartic. Next up is Lonesome Dove, both the book and the exceptional Miniseries. I always figured we’re all stuck somewhere between the extremes of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call and their steady, plodding, manuevers through the american west is our steady and plodding movement from coast to coast. Enterprise and ingenuity meet laziness and ease, still somehow managing to accomplish the amazing.
I have often lamented the dearth of westerns in Videogames which is choked full of aliens, mutants, zombies, magic and fantasy and so far still woefully lacks anything compelling in terms of psychology or narrative. This is a lament i will probably continue until the powers that be in the gaming industry realize that they need to start hiring good writers to craft their stories, and until there is an active program generated by the universities to train writers in how to tell a story well using buttons and joysticks.
Well, along comes Red Dead Redemption. While it is not a triumph of storytelling – no matter what the glowing reviewers might say – it’s closer than most things have come. It is also a wonderful triumph of an experience. No video game has given me more joy to see its main character being rained on. I can’t tell you the glee i had when i roped my first mustang and then tamed it and then to ride drag on a herd of cattle? Really? Do i honestly get to do this in a game? Oh but it gets even better than that. Just you wait.
Anyone who has played any of Rockstars Grand Theft Auto series will know of its tenet for allowing the player to do things and go anywhere. This is no longer a shock in the video game world, but never has it been so pretty. In watching the cinematic opening scene i felt like my Xbox had been rebuilt from the ground up. I fear, now, that Red Dead’s gorgeous setting, graphics and game play may have ruined me for other games. I think i spent several minutes of my first day just wandering around to watch the dust get kicked up by my boots.
If you’ve played the first Red Dead nothing is similar. Nothing. The traditional pathed environments, missions and most particularly the overly mythologized spaghetti western thematic is gone entirely. The world is now populated with wry witticisms delivered by townsfolk, the occasional opportunist bad guy, card sharps, hucksters, gamblers, thieves, gunmen, and tired relics. For the most part they are fairly believable entities, blithely unaware that the weight of civilized westward expansion is about to put their world to an end and it’s unfortunate and leveraged harbinger is you.
John Marston, the character you portray, is much like many of the characters in the game. He’s simple, just wishing to live out the rest of his days tolling in the fields with his young family but unable to walk completely away from his past. Like Josie Wales or Bill Munny, he trudges back into the violence he thought he’d left grudgingly but with an odd acceptance. He is also the agent of change and everyone he meets seems to know it and resent it.
Quite literally Marston is set loose in the land by ‘the folks back east’ to bring the law to the land he used to run ragged in. His job, whether you choose to accept it or not, is to bring to ‘justice’ his former compadres of the bandit gang he once ran with. It’s not a job he wants. It’s not going to be easy. But within ten minutes of playing it you know damned well it’s going to be fun.
I have, after a week and then some of playing, JUST managed to unlock a new section of the already dauntingly huge map. Throughout the map, all of the maps, you meet the straggling bandit, those who are slowly losing their minds in the vastness of the west and all number of characters you will appreciate (and some you will not). But the land itself is alive. Coyotes, wolves, mountain lions. You can race deer on horseback, watch buzzards circle fresh corpses, listen to the wind whistle through the arid barnboards of a dead town, and ride forever into dusk while being struck with the beauty of an enormous blue moon.
Yeah. I fancy myself a gamer at times but i knew this was special when i rode to the edge of a cliff and simply stood looking out over the plains studded with the silhouettes of cacti, sparkling with the faraway light of a town, and all glowing under that moon. The game puts you into the west in a way no game and few movies have.
There are a few sticking points I feel I have to mention if this is to be a truly fair review though. Every so often things don’t quite work the way they ought. I noticed once, in coming out of the saloon i occasionally call home, a feller leaning on a chair that didn’t exist. Needless to say he was a little easy to knock over. I wondered briefly if he was a transplanted mime from France, finding himself a stranger in a land made of and for strangers.
And speaking of strangers – they are out there, providing respite and relief from the main path of the storyline and if you are to play the game i highly recommend you seek them out. From the young woman trying to survive the desert on faith alone, to the sad wanderer dreaming of a destiny too long-delayed, their brief stories add poignancy to the main quest, acting as waypoints on your moral compass, to some extent, in your dealings with the slippery characters you end up fraternizing with.
As usual the controls can feel a bit sluggish at times and sometimes it gets a tad frustrating, like while trying to follow a dog through a henhouse while brandishing a Winchester. Marston, while walking, moves interminably slow but there is always the run function. Because of the grand scope of the environment, no enemy you ever draw a bead on feels particularly close and you will often find yourself looking into the blue night trying to find muzzle flashes to direct your fire at. In my opinion this is not a bad thing.
If i had one major critique it would be that the tutorial doesn’t fully explain everything. I still struggle with the quickdraw (a mini game wherein you square off against an opponent High Noon style) and Dead Eye (a function wherein you slow down time allowing you to shoot down multiple opponents in rapid succession) still eludes me from time to time. As a whole, however, Red Dead is enormously satisfying and i hope it continues to be with the release of further Downloadable Content.
Basically, if you are a western fan, this is the game you’ve been waiting for. It’s too early in video game history to call it the Unforgiven of Videogame Westerns – more like The Searchers or High Noon, but it has everything you need – roping, gunmen, law and order, gorgeousness on a grand scale, and characters who are well above the average of the fairest examples of compelling video game folk.
I’ll see your steely eyes in Armadillo. Come heeled.