Exploration is a chief aspect of Red Dead Redemption’s lasting appeal. The territories of New Austin, Nuevo Parasio and West Elisabeth are teeming with treasure -- both literally and in terms of gameplay. The amount of things to see and do in the game is dizzying to behold: its sheer scope nearly rivals full-blown RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. (Just like in that game, you can even pick herbs and flowers.)
And it’s not just pointless filler either: every aspect of the game world comes with a set of ranked challenges; from sharp shooting to pelt collection. Achievement/Trophy junkies are bound to be playing this game for many moons to come.
As compelling as the storyline may be, the true star of the game is the American landscape. Red Dead Redemption’s depiction of the West is dauntingly huge, with vast swathes of land separating each district. All told, the landscape is significantly larger than GTA IV’s Liberty City, and the untamed terrain is almost as densely populated. In addition to travellers, lawman and bandits, the land is home to a veritable menagerie of critters, beasts ‘n’ varmints. Rabbits, armadillos, wild boars, vultures, coyotes, deer, wolves, rattlesnakes and grizzly bears are just some of the wildlife you’ll encounter on your travels. Naturally, Marston can interact with every creature in the game world, with plenty of hunting opportunities for any wannabe survivalists out there. (Squeamish gamers beware — the skinned carcasses left behind are a gruesome sight to behold.)
Random events also figure big on the map, with robberies, hangings, jail breaks and raids all just a brief gallop away. Once again, your actions have bearing on how much honour Marston accumulates, which in turn affects how other characters perceive him. Put holes in a lawman and you’ll be on the Most Wanted list before you can say “sufferin’ succotash”; save civilians from certain death and you’ll become an instant hero. (In the heat of battle, it’s easy to accidentally shoot would-be allies in the back, so God fearin’ gamers will need to keep their trigger-fingers in check.)
Rockstar Games is famous for lending film-quality voice work to its productions, and Red Dead Redemption is thankfully no exception. The dialogue in the game is authentic to the period, yet it never comes across sounding clichéd or awkward. The voice talent hae done some truly stellar work here — we’d go so far as to say it’s the best acting we’ve seen in a video game to date. Newcomer Rob Wiethoff is especially good as the game’s enigmatic protagonist: his southern drawl and easy laugh bring Marston to life in a way few games can match. The supporting cast is also uniformly solid; from the lowliest farmhand right up to the plot’s major players. Even the coyotes put in a compelling turn.
Rockstar seems to have matured greatly in its storytelling. The inhabitants of GTA’s Liberty City often felt like caricatures (albeit to deliberate comic effect). By contrast, the men and women who populate Red Dead Redemption are a lot more three-dimensional. There are still plenty of colourful villains and crazy eccentrics running around, but they somehow feel more believable. Needless to say, if you value cinematic cut scenes in your video games, Red Dead Redemption will not disappoint.
One of the games most impressive achievements is the graphical eye-candy on display. The RAGE engine sure has some a long way since Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis. The varied landscapes look suitably grand and legendary, while the character models are all startlingly realised. The cast might lack the photorealistic polish of something like Mass Effect 2, but the characterisation on display is definitely superior. Considering every cut-scene is delivered using the in-game engine, only a miser would have cause to complain. We especially liked how the equipment Marsden accumulates is visible on his person. (Unlike GTA IV, there are no magically appearing weapons.) It’s a small touch, but impressive nonetheless.
Special mention must also go to the game’s amazing weather and lighting effects. From shards of sunlight filtering through trees to the speckle of rainwater on the camera lens, the graphics impress at every turn. Light refracts off characters and objects in an organic way, while clouds shift and dissipate like the real thing. The sunsets in the game are spectacular to behold, as cinematic and poetic as any John Ford film you care to name. Your first glimpse of the moonlit sky will leave you (literally) star struck.
But the game’s most impressive technical achievement is probably the horses. The steeds in the game not only handle superbly; they also look startlingly lifelike thanks to the realistic animations. It truly is a milestone for video game mounts -- nothing else comes remotely close.
If we had one criticism about the game, it’s that it tells its story a little too well. The character of Marston is so convincing that we felt compelled to do the right thing and earn the man his salvation. This clashes with a gamer’s natural inclination to cause as much murder and mayhem as possible. But herein lies the beauty of Red Dead Redemption: it makes you care about the world and its inhabitants far more than any sandbox game before it. The potential for GTA-style carnage is still there, but you’ll feel just as compelled to saddle up your faithful steed and explore the open plains of this bygone era.
Many video games strive for perfection -- Red Dead Redemption may just have achieved it.
[Note: to find out about Red Dead Redemption's excellent multiplayer, read our hands-on report here.]
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