In the morally ambiguous world of videogames, no title has fed the gamer’s desire for mayhem quite like Grand Theft Auto. From its earliest incarnations, Rockstar’s trademark franchise presented a world where line between civilized and lawless often blurred. Rockstar had previously kept this formula confined to the thriving metropolises of its GTA series, but the decadent lawlessness of GTA just makes too much sense in the setting defined by that very theme – the Wild West. Enter Red Dead Redemption, the name-only sequel to Red Dead Revolver, which Rockstar acquired from Angel Studios (now Rockstar San Diego) and Capcom in 2002. While developed by the same studio, Redemption bears little resemblance to its predecessor. Instead, Redemption mirrors Rockstar’s flagship franchise and may as well be called Grand Theft Auto: New Austin. Much like 2006’s Bully, Red Dead Redemption is a true formula transferred to a fresh setting.
At its core, Redemption merely ports GTA IV’s world of linear mission narrative and non-linear sidequests, challenges and mini-games to the Wild West. Unfortunately, few of these non-linear features end up more enjoyable than GTA IV. Most of the mini-games are long, drawn out, convoluted affairs. Compared to the fairly deep and entertaining offerings of billiards, bowling, arcade games, and other activities in GTA IV, Redemption hardly competes. The sidequests tend to be repetitive, bothersome affairs that generally end with some absurd twist. The only real pleasurable quests are a series of skill challenges, ranging from treasure hunting to sharpshooting.
Redemption provides little to no innovation, rare for a Rockstar title. Most changes in the gameplay are small tweaks to combat, such as an improved cover system and an expanded arsenal. The biggest inclusion is a bullet time Dead Aim feature makes gunfights less daunting and more enjoyable. The range of weaponry also improves over GTA’s typically bland offerings. However, Redemption features almost too many guns that often to clone themselves. The only fresh “weapon” is a lasso, used to either wrangle horses or hogtie enemies. However, gunplay brings the best moments of the game, as should any Western.
Redemption’s narrative follows John Marsten, aka 1900s Niko Bellic. Redemption’s lead almost identically mirrors GTA IV’s, the identical silent badass with a sordid history dropping witty comebacks and even wittier stomps to the forehead. However, Bellic’s off-the-boat naiveté worked far better than Marsten’s uneducated but smart killer with compassion shtick in the lawless frontier. The inclusion of an honor system harshly penalizes any act remotely unsavory. Accidentally killing a man being chased by wolves can set your honor meter back several missions’ worth. Maintaining a high honor presents very useful perks, while a low honor offers almost none.
The central story uses the typical mission format of Rockstar’s previous open world titles, though slightly more repetitive due to Redemption’s pre-modern setting. Unfortunately, story progression doesn’t play a strong role in wanting to advance through the missions. Most missions tend to stagnate the story rather than advance it, using repetitious bits of tired dialogue over and over in different ways – there’s only so many ways to have a conversation about comparing the federal government to thieving outlaws. While characters tend to portray typical Western clichés, the more fleshed out characters manage to give the story its soul and its impetus.
As any open world game, Red Dead Redemption relies heavily on its environment. Redemption’s map showcases beautiful landscapes of mesas, valleys, deserts, and forests as far as the eye can see. The game also uses its three different regions to vary the geography perfectly. One particular landmark, the mountain town of Torquemada, presents the best view of Redemption’s seemingly endless landscape. And while Torquemada may show off the map’s biggest strength, it paradoxically presents its biggest weakness – Redemption uses very little of its expanse to any effect. Torquemada is located at the end of a long, out of the way side trail up a steep mountain. Once reached, Torquemada offers close to nothing for the user besides a magnificent view and a single mini-game. While some may consider that reward enough, Assassin’s Creed can offer equally impressive views by simply climbing a building.
The large but desolate map does come to life with the occasional random event. However, these events become increasingly repetitive and almost annoying once you’ve cycled through each one once or twice. While Redemption uses these events to liven up the desolation, they occur far too often and with far too little diversity. Beyond the random passersby, the wilderness is primarily populated with nearly endless wildlife to hunt and defend yourself from. The general concept of hunting work but, just as random events, can become an annoyance. Hunting ceases to maintain gameplay relevance once your wallet exceeds $100, and only really benefits your skill challenges. Unfortunately, each species is either extremely abundant or dramatically scarce. Finding an armadillo is as easy as dismounting your horse, but finding a bighorn is like finding a needle in a haystack. The worst part of the hunting experience is skinning the animals – a process that involves a long, childish cutscene where blood splatters over the screen as you gut the critter. This scene can never be skipped, only avoidable by using an exploit.
Beyond the single player campaign, Redemption offers an online format that closely resembles the single player game minus the story plus the ability to play with up to 18 people simultaneously. Most of the multiplayer involves raiding gang hideouts and hunting animals, but the competitive multiplayer adds a unique dynamic to the gameplay. Unfortunately, this section of the game tends to be thin, especially considering the general desolation of the map.
Red Dead Redemption may seem like the perfect setting for a GTA styled open world game, and in many respects it is. But the sheer lack of vibrancy to the world and repetitive nature of the game hold it back from being anything more than mild entertainment for short periods of time. Despite its flaws, Redemption brings gamers the best Western videogames have seen, an achievement in itself considering the demand for a great Western since Neversoft’s flop Gun. Fans of the 3D GTA games should find themselves right at home in New Austin’s great expanse, but those looking for the same caliber entertainment out of Redemption will ultimately end up disappointed.
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