Reinventing a western genre is not an easy task.
Thankfully, Rockstar just reminded us why westerns are great and shouldn't be touched.
Never bring a knife to a gunfight -- Rockstar brings a Winchester
When I was in college, I mistakenly registered (thanks to a MOST incompetent adviser) in a graduate level film course called 'Western Films'. Excited and anxious to get a degree (although I was a freshman) I soon learned that 'western' didn't mean North America, rather it meant John Wayne and The Wild Bunch. Thankfully, the course taught me everything about the old west. It taught me about the old gunfighters, the appropriate method to start and stop a gunfight (generally with a lot of lead) and most of all it taught me that the anti-hero was the perfect hero for a very wild west.
I want to take this time to thank that incompetent adviser because without her I would never have loved and enjoyed this game as much as I did these past four days.
Red Dead Redemption is Rockstar Games at its best. They haven't simply put together a lively environment that has more to do with 'shock' value than purpose. One thing that always seemed to keep me from falling in love with the GTA series is the constant violence and brutal ways to torture or kill people. It always seemed like Rockstar did this just to see how far they could go with the game's violent content.
RDR has this type of aspect to it, but it doesn't quite open the door far enough for the players to go through it without thinking of the consequences. They've put together a very well planned story that awards and punishes the player for making particular choices. If you go to a town and decide you want a horse then you can take it. If you take it then you set in motion a group of consequences. Not only will you have to deal with being wanted by the law, but you also have to deal with losing 'honor' and 'fame'. On top of all this you no longer get to do side missions in the game that would call for a hero. Side missions earn you money and points for leveling up. They also earn you more 'honor' and 'fame' that help you progress in the main story. The more honor and fame you garnish, the more side missions become available. You'll get to do things like chase down horse thieves, stop kidnappings, help save helpless farmers/land folk and other more honorable things. The game makes it worth you time to be a good guy.
If you decide to go the other way then you better be prepared to accept the consequences. Restrictions to certain towns, certain items and certain money guaranteeing events is what waits for you. Some people enjoy being bad, but the game treats you like a criminal. It takes that GTA essence and refines it and applies it to a Wild West setting. If GTA was more like this then I might be more interested in the series. I really appreciate the dilemma that Rockstar Games in San Diego has put in front of the gamers. It's real and it belongs in the old west.
While you're deciding on your demeanor, you can explore what feels like an endless land. I'm a huge fan of Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Metal Gear Solid 4. Do you know what those have in common? They're very explorable. If I don't want to stay on the linear story path that Red Dead Redemption has started then I can do other things. I can help strangers out, go animal hunting (every kind of animal imaginable -- watch out for mountain lions), wrangle in wild horses, hunt down criminals or simply keep riding out to no man's land. At any given point I can bring myself back to the main story and continue, but I don't have to if I don't want to. Hell, if you want to gamble (Poker, Blackjack, Dice, etc.) you can do that. You can pretty much do anything you want. That makes this game epic. That's the selling point of the game and that's one point that is worth your time and effort. Want to take a train ride? Hop on and enjoy! Want to rob a train? Feel free!** There's so much to do in the ever expanding land that you won't be bored by the game, rather you'll be endlessly fascinated.
With this much freedom it can only be helpful when the gameplay is spot on. The gameplay is spot on. Shooting and maneuvering in the world of Red Dead Redemption is surprisingly easy. Our HD camera guy Jordan West kept remind me that aiming at strangers while riding only causes commotion and negative reaction. I couldn't stop doing it though, as it was so easy to pull out a weapon, lock onto a target and unleash ten kinds of hell. Pressing L2 allows you to unholster your weapon, while pressing R2 allows you to lock onto a target in your visual range. Locking onto birds, coyote or simple farmers is an easy task and one that I was quite concerned with when I started the game. For those out there that don't like the 'lock' system you can move the crosshairs of your weapon around with the right thumbstick. Riding and shooting is just as easy as standing still, though going up a large hill does pose a challenge at times.
One thing that Rockstar included to help the shooting easier, and something I have yet to use -- I can see its uses though, is the option for 'Dead Eye'. By pressing R3 on the controller time will slow down and allow for a more precise hit on your target. It can be compared to the VAT system in Fallout 3, but with a bit more manual control to it and less complication with math. You have a limited amount of 'Dead Eye' (as you'll find an onscreen meter to help you judge that), so be aware of what you have and how much you use.
Nothing like a good story.... if it's pretty to watch
You play John Marston and you've been asked by the federal government to retrieve a fellow 'gangster' Marston once rode with. Marston has to prepare himself for an epic gunfight and his 'friend' won't be going down so easily. It's basically one man on a mission to stop another man. It's a classic tale for the old west.
Marston's badass look is only rivaled by his badass voice. If Snake lived in the old west and didn't have Metal Gear to fight then he would be John Marston. Voiced over by Rob Wiethoff, who captures the very essence of an old west gunfighter, Marston is tough and ready to rock with his firearms. His character is a character that could find himself in an actual movie somewhere. He's every bit of an anti-hero and someone desperately looking for redemption and a good path to follow. He's incredibly mysterious and deep, which makes him a very interesting lead character. Every good movie has to have well developed characters and Rockstar clearly knew that was a key element in this game. They give bits and pieces of his story as the game progresses (not that you don't already know it) and this helps out in a rather important way. For newcomers to the series this gives a glimpse of what was and what is when it comes to Marston's story. It's like if you went to see Aliens you get so much backstory of the first that you don't need to go out and rent Ridley Scott's masterpiece. That's very organized, well planned storytelling on Rockstar's part. Again, this is what develops the character and makes him interesting, which draws the audience in and in turn makes it worth your time. This is how to successfully make a story good and memorable.
Character development is only one aspect to the game as it's supported by some incredibly stirring graphics. The character models are outrageously gorgeous, as you'll find realistic expressions, arm/leg/body movements and other sort of detailed aspects (such as clothes, guns, framerates) crafted so diligently. It's better than MGS4, but not quite GoW3. I do have to give kudos to the shading and lighting programmers. It's outrageous how well the scenery in the game is lit and how the shadows move with the sunset and sunup. When you see a bird fly overhead you'll find their shadow appropriately trailing it on the ground. It's ridiculous how good this game looks and feels. Want more? Wait until you see your first thunderstorm. I won't spoil it, but if you see the clouds forming for rain then it's going to rain. Can't remember another game that does that so randomly and so beautifully.
I know I've already bragged how expansive the entire environment is, from towns to desert to small prairies, but it's worth mentioning how alive the areas are as well. You will find yourself in very real situations that never stay the same. You might go into Armadillo (that's the main town you're in at the beginning) and find a traveler that turns into an enemy trying to steal your horse. Should you die or should you survive/runaway then you won't find that person there again. You might have moments where a stranded girl asks you for help and you provide it without a hitch of danger. Sometimes that same type of girl in distress wants to kill you after begging for help. The land is alive with random people, things and moments. You won't experience the same thing in the same way; that's nothing short of amazing. What this causes you to do, as the player, is to be fully aware of what's out there and prepare for anything.
Again, this is why this is Rockstar's best game to date.
With all of this and so much more (such as a huge variety of weapons and transportation), there is bound to be a flaw. There is a flaw and it falls squarely to the fault of the gamer and not the game.
The online play is just as massive as the offline play. There are some really damn cool things that Rockstar has put together to make the online experience unique. For one thing, you can create posses to complete online missions. Your posse can set out to take care of criminals/bandits that lie out there in the virtual world. You can also do a 'free roam' which allows you to roam freely with other online guests. The same rules of the road apply to the online as they do offline, but the fame/honor system isn't intact. You can kill bad folk and gain XP (which ultimately gains you access weapons, new characters, better mounts (get your mind out of the gutter!) and harder levels of play. If you go on a shooting spree you will still gain XP, maybe not as much, but you'll also have the law against you and you'll become a wanted criminal. The choices are still yours and you have to do what you feel is best for your entertainment and posse.
Now with that said, you are asking yourself why the hell I said this was a flaw? Well, going back to the 'fault of the gamer' it's truly an unfair environment at times. For example, today I was playing online on 'free roam' and kicking the sh!t out of every living thing that could walk. I took out a group of bandits and then promptly started to take out a posse. Pretty cool, eh? As I leveled up, and got the online confidence brewing, my game ended abruptly. Server down? No. Ethernet port on the PS3 die? No. Did I forget to pay the cable bill? No. No, some asshole decided that my violent ways weren't beneficial to his plans and I was voted off the 'free roam' server I was playing on. That's right, I was voted off. What is this Survivor? That's not fair and especially so when I'm being successful and leveling up. The old west is tough, and those that can't hang should stay out of the kitchen.
Ridiculously irritating and unfair for gamers. Rockstar needs to take that option out immediately. I returned, but I was more careful and in the process had my ass handed to me. Don't want to upset the sensitive gamers of the world.
So, how much time do you think you'll spend with this game? Good luck estimating that! I'm 20-30 hours into it and I'm not willing to stick that tag on it. I've been pleasantly putzing around doing everything I want and haven't spent a whole hell of lot of time completing the main quest. I've got my lasso and I'm wrangling horses, and now I've got that as a whole new distraction. There's so much to this game and so much to do that you're going to get lost in this western world of wonder. Prepare yourself to give up some massive time. Regretfully I can't give any more time to the game until next week because I have Modnation Racers staring me down; rest assure that I will return to this old west.
If you didn't understand that fully, it's fun, endless and it's worth the $59.99 (I was implying all of this in that last paragraph).
**editor's note, if you're going to rob a train avoid killing the conductor while the train is on the bridge. Apparently everyone has suicidal tendencies when you park a train on a bridge; people panic and run. What I mean by 'run' is that they accidentally fall off the bridge one by one. Didn't know it, know it now.