Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: Red Dead Redemption. In a word, amazing.

If there's one studio that can be counted on to provide an excellent experience, it's Rockstar. Known for their fun gameplay as well as their gritty and incredibly well-written storylines, opening up a game from Rockstar ensures that you're about to spend hours and hours in a brilliantly-developed, fully realized world. I have to say, though, that I've had my concerns lately that they might not "still have it."  GTA4 was a great but also very flawed game, Manhunt 2 was a total misstep, and the early information we've gotten on Max Payne 3, which they're taking over from Remedy, makes it look like that's going to be a total disaster.
Red Dead Redemption, though, proves that the publisher, at least for now, is back on track. To call this an improvement on the original Red Dead Revolver would be an understatement, this is not only significantly better than that first effort, but it stands as one of the best games this console generation.

Red Dead Redemption is set in 1911 in the American old West as it's beginning to die off. Trains now bring business-savvy "city folks" out to the West in larger numbers every day, people who are buying up the property owned by the cowboys and beginning the process of corporatizing and industrializing. The automobile is starting to become more common, people are beginning to hear about machines that can make men fly, the Natives are at long last losing their battle with the settlers, and the government is taking over for local law enforcement. For now, though, the West is still an untamed place, with bandits and other outlaws running rampant, with nobody but corrupt police agencies to attempt to keep the peace.

Main character John Marston simply wants out, wanting  to rid himself of his old life as a criminal. He has a wife and son, and they live on a ranch herding cattle. This is until the government kidnaps Marston's family, forcing him to hunt down his former partners in crime in exchange for his family's freedom. It's through this situation that he's thrust back into untamed Wild West.

First thing's first. Red Dead Redemption has an incredible atmosphere. From the small but bustling Western towns to the city of Blackwater, through the poor country of Mexico as it's in the midst of civil war up to the forested hills occupied by the Natives, Red Dead Redemption's world is as varied as it is lifelike. As you travel across the plains on your horse, you'll see birds fly above you, dangerous animals scurrying by, other travelers passing you, wild horses galloping over the hills, and much more....and it's all totally interactive. You can kill and skin animals to sell their hides for cash, if you see someone being robbed you can step in and help them, (or rob them yourself,) you can take bounties in the towns and then try to capture them either dead or alive, you can tame wild horses, have some drinks, gamble, ...I mean, it's amazing. There's so much to do in this world that even though you're provided an optional warp feature to take you from one area to another, I almost never used it, simply because that would deprive me of so much of the fun of this game, which is really in traveling across the West and getting to interact with it. As you journey from one area to another, you'll see people who can provide you with sidequests to take on. When you accept one of these, you have all the time you want to do them, they'll just be placed on your radar and in your journal, for you can come back to whenever you want. I'm never a sidequest person, since I hate anything that interrupts the pace of the main story, but since taking on a sidequest means that you have an infinite amount of time to do it, you can get to it when you have the time. As a result, I found myself doing these side missions almost as often as I was on the main story.

It helps that the sidequests are often just as fun and interesting as some of the main missions. That's also what's so satisfying about Red Dead Redemption: it's always fun to play. The shooting, which uses a much-improved variation on GTA4's cover system, feels perfect, the horses control very well, the radar always keeps you on track, and the checkpoints are well-placed. From the missions to the open world setting, everything in Red Dead Redemption has been done nearly to perfection, and as far as open world gaming goes, a genre that Rockstar revolutionized back with GTA3, this might be their finest effort. Sure, the world's not as big as the last couple GTA games, but in a way, it's better for that, because it's rarely tedious to travel through and there's no shortage of optional things to do and missions to progress the story.

The story is, as usual, top-quality, with dialogue that at times sounds so realistic that the characters might as well be right in the room with you having a conversation. This is how people really talk. Everyone's Western accents sound great too, and the main character, John Marston, is a very likeable guy who's not quite "good" but also not quite "bad." He's a man of principle and he has a lot of respect for the people who respect him, but if you piss him off, it will likely be the last thing you do. This type of character allows the developers to play with a morality system a bit. For doing good things for people, you gain honor, for doing criminal activities, you lose it. For doing anything, you gain fame, and the world treats you differently whether you choose to make Marston relatively good or relatively bad. None of this affects the main storyline except on very rare occasions, but it helps flesh out the game and gives you a lot of incentives to take on side missions. Do you make money by helping out the town sheriff guard at night or do you help the shady guy who offers you cash for stealing the town's food cart? The choice is all yours.

Similarly to GTA4, as you travel from one area to another during a mission, Marston and those he's working with will exchange dialogue that's as interesting as the main story, and through this dialogue you gain insight into the game's world and its characters. The characters and story remain at the forefront and make Red Dead Redemption so compelling that I found myself having to do "just one more mission" before shutting the game off just so I could see what would happen next.

Red Dead Redemption's world is realized through gorgeous visuals that bring every location to life, perfect audio that not only delivers the top-notch voice acting but the sound effects that drew me into the world, stealing the show from the also amazing music. There are occasional glitches: one time I had to restart from a checkpoint in a mission to fix the problem, at another time the game skipped a cutscene entirely that I had to then watch on Youtube, but those are really the only flaws I can think of with regard to Redemption's presentation.

There are some other little things worth pointing out, though. Yes, this game does use gameplay features that will be familiar to GTA fans. While I wouldn't go as far as to call this "GTA in the West" since this game features a lot that sets it apart from GTA, it's true that as far as Rockstar's whole "open world game design" blueprint is concerned, Red Dead Redemption doesn't make a whole lot of changes. The "Wanted" system feels tacked on and a little under-developed, and that's one area I wish had received a total change from its GTA4 roots. Similarly to GTA4, the game's clock is available at the start menu instead of being visible constantly. Why? Seems like an inconvenience to me. I also have to point out that similarly to GTA4, this game has a difficult time knowing when to end. A lengthy epilogue REALLY kills the pace, and the ending itself is a little hard to find. Call me a traditionalist, but I just like seeing credits at the end of a game. And in Redemption, once you beat the game, you're just dumped right back out onto the field with the game not really making it clear to you where you need to go to go to do the last mini-mission that will trigger the *real* ending. I also never quite managed to get the hang of the whole "dueling" system, though thankfully there's not too much of it. The only other thing I'd have to point out is that Red Dead Redemption really isn't all that challenging. Now, to me personally, the difficulty was just right, I have no complaints with it, but people who buy this looking for a challenge may be disappointed. The difficult missions don't start happening until the game's second half, and even these should be no sweat for GTA fans. There is a bullet time feature that makes you nearly invincible for a few seconds as you can target enemies in slow-mo, and your health regenerates pretty quickly. Enemies you kill drop plenty of ammo and loot, so I never found much of a need to head to the gun store to buy ammunition or the doctor to buy health packs. Then again, though, with a somewhat low difficulty level, you also get a low level of tedium, and this is easily Red Dead Redemption's biggest improvement over GTA4.

Verdict: None of these flaws prevent Red Dead Redemption from being an amazing experience. From the start, I found myself drawn in to the main character and the amazingly-developed world that Rockstar has created. The writing's sharp and stands a big step above what can be found in a lot of video games, and the voice acting is great. The shooting system is amazingly fun and it never gets old, and there's always a cool new weapon or creative new type of mission or new setting thrown your way to keep things fresh. Where this game just amazes, though, is the feeling you get when exploring this vast wild west, the feeling you get when you head from your purchased room at the Saloon through the packed bar, and out onto your map to see everything that's currently at your disposal. There's always something to do, and almost all of it's a blast. As far as open world gaming goes, Redemption certainly doesn't re-invent the wheel, but instead, it probably perfects it. Nothing wrong with that.

Presentation: Massive lifelike world with no loading breaks is always a treat to explore. Towns seamlessly blend with the vast emptiness. Story and dialogue are amazing, demonstrating that Rockstar remains at the top of their game. Some glitches occasionally rear their ugly heads, though this is very rare.

Graphics: Beautiful game, the visuals capture the setting perfectly. Some characters' faces may leave a bit to be desired, but most look great and are very expressive. Very well-directed cutscenes that seamlessly blend with the gameplay.

Audio: The sound effects are so lifelike and absorbing that I felt like I was really out there. Voice acting is top-quality, great musical score with some cool original songs as well.

Gameplay: Fun from the start. Perfect shooting controls, awesome missions, never any shortage of things to do. Gameplay will be familiar to GTA fans but there is enough new here to set Red Dead Redemption apart. Not too challenging but as a result, always a fun experience.

Replay Value: You can still explore the world after the game's conclusion, and I imagine you can have a lot of fun playing through the game again if you decide you want to try developing your main character in the opposite direction.

Overall Score: 9.5

(My reviews go on a .5 scale.)

No comments:

Post a Comment