The lasting magic of Red Dead Redemption has even affected developer Rockstar Games. If you follow their work, you know that’s fairly hard to do. Rockstar portends as their name divines, very much beyond all the day-to-day game industry grind of constant news updates and project explanations. They don’t need E3 nor reveal events; a Rockstar game is an event.
So to have a Rockstar game make so much noise the first time around that it gets a sequel, this side of Grand Theft Auto, is like having two birthdays in a year. Especially since Red Dead Redemption, despite some awkwardness around the middle, deserves every bit of the attention and sequel love it’s gotten.
John Marston is a cowboy on the edge of the Industrial Revolution, rounding up his former gang members to have his family and farm delivered back to him safely by a spreading American government. We join him in a state of regression from a wild gunslinger to a family man recognizing the land is closing in around the outlaw lifestyle. The world just isn’t big enough anymore for them to hide, and he’s more than willing to adapt and survive.
He is, morally, how you make him with a broad meter swaying from good to bad depending upon your actions with the intertwined Honor and Fame systems. Given the mammoth size of the world and breadth of actions available, morality is something you’ll have to face for pennies per choice. It took me until the post-game content to fill everything to the top and given how little it affects the game overall, it never felt bloated for the sake of time.
The vast majority of those good-doing activities in Red Dead Redemption involve simply keeping those you may want dead alive. With few exceptions, in fact, the black-and-white morality is plainly obvious to the detriment of feeling invested. At that time and that place, the decision-making game style was just getting off the ground without too many far reaching effects. Unfortunately, that ain’t how this outfit operates, leaving the Honor system feeling dated and superficial without enough late-game incentive to really pick a side.
That being said, gun fights, horse riding, and fast-travel systems since have all obviously felt the touch of those found here. The cover system feels fluidly capable of existing or taking a backseat depending upon the situation. With a purpose to break the system, I took to the same missions multiple times with cover and without, finding either approach fun in certain ways and, more importantly, completely viable for success. The subtle choice of approach is due to the simple set of tools in Marston’s belt including a slow-down meter that is used again in the showdown mechanic, but here allows you to target multiple enemies at once for quick kills or disarms. Even that approach takes into account subtilty, which you’ll find is Red Dead Redemption’s greatest running system.
An aside on the showdown mechanic: I don’t think I’m using it correctly. It’s pure-grade badass to slam your opponent with slugs at a lightning pace, but I can’t seem to work in consistently likely due to idiocy on my end. I do think there are far too few opportunities to practice on rabble before larger-stakes showdowns, for what that’s worth.
The fast-travel offers a simple choice to ride it out automatically and listen to some of the terrific dialogue or skip the whole trip completely. As simple as that sounds, I wish more games integrated this option as it’s a simple, hands-off way to hear from some of your favorite characters while taking a gameplay break. Anytime Bonnie was with me on a coach ride to or from town, I’d just let the controller sit and take in her talks with John, perfectly content to do nothing but listen.
Another small piece that shines is how your horse travels along the road with just the hold of a button. This is the earliest game I know of that implemented this, and it’s been a godsend for others since. Thanks Red Dead Redemption!
My troubles with the story are basically in line with the societal majority, which is to say the entire second act. Where I differ is that I’ve never found myself intrigued or really even liking Rockstar’s stories – like, any of them. Despite recognizing the company as an unrivaled gaming powerhouse, this has kept me away from a lot of their games in the past. Color me surprised then when I find that John’s tale starts off really well because of the fabulous dialogue and fully-realized setting, and then how in love I am still with the ending thanks to a truly ballsy final few hours.
The quality of that second act doesn’t ever match the ebb and flow of the other two which makes hunting the baddies therein just feel stretched and cyclical. This is about the only part where you feel the dollar on a hook that just keeps yanking away from your reach, and it’s amplified by how removed from the main plot it really feels. You literally go south when you should be going north with the reasoning vapid after light scrutiny.
You never fully feel like you’re wasting your time though because of how well everyone is written. The dialogue dazzles in all three acts, landing the exact emotional impact intended into your heart’s hanger. Each actor and actress knocks out their performances with gusto and the sound design is wonderful as a backing. You can hear the hiss of steam of a train or the growl of a charging bear before the rapid pop of your repeater rifle to a source of endless delight. Again, it’s in the subtleties that I find the most cowboy amazement for my money.
Red Dead Redemption has glitches in spades and while I’ll never accept them as just part of the experience, I didn’t run across any massive bombs hidden in the code. Not unlike my horses, I’ve seen them, let them run their course until death, and moved on to the next feeling cold and alone inside.
With Red Dead Redemption 2 on the way soon, I ran through this one in my head repeatedly looking at how well this world and Marston had aged since 2010. While there are a few more blemishes than I remember, I can’t deny how well this land holds my attention tied to a railroad track. What certainly doesn’t hurt is the fact that no one else has really tried to ride the same rails, which makes sense in a way. Why? Because it’s a Rockstar game. Who can follow up that act?
Red Dead Redemption Score: