The American West has made actors famous and writers rich. It has inspired children on the playground and grizzled country singers alike. Its stories of heroes and bandits, gold rushes and simple homesteaders have been fictionalized and romanticized to the point that they’re known the world over. And yet, videogame makers have either ignored the setting or attempted to squeeze it into existing game conventions with limited success. That has all changed now that Rockstar, the group made famous for its Grand Theft Auto series, turned its eye towards the Wild West. No game maker has approached the period with as much passion and power as Red Dead Redemption. This is the new bar that all Westerns must strive to reach. It is a sandbox-style action-adventure western video game developed by Rockstar San Diego.
As you ride the train west from the northern city of Blackwater, you have no idea what’s waiting for you in the frontier town of Armadillo at the end of Red Dead Redemption’s intro sequence. Conversations between other passengers clue you in to the state of the nation, and a quick look out of the window tells you that the territories are as untamed as they are beautiful. But it’s not until you step off the train in the well-worn boots of protagonist John Marston and have to sidestep a drunk staggering out of the saloon that you realize how alive the world feels, and how much fun you’re going to have exploring it. Similarities with recent Grand Theft Auto games are immediately apparent in the controls and the HUD, though both have been improved in subtle but important ways. Those basics, in conjunction with excellent gameplay, a great story, and a sizable multiplayer suite make Red Dead Redemption something very special.
When you arrive in Armadillo for the first time, you’re a small fish in an extremely large pond. None of the townsfolk have ever heard of John Marston, and they’re too busy believably going about their business to pay you much attention unless you bump into them. The gameworld stretches for miles in every direction beyond the confines of the modest town, and if it weren’t for a number of mandatory missions that deftly familiarize you with the controls and gameplay mechanics early on, the prospect of venturing out into the wilderness could be daunting. Marston is a deeply flawed but very likable protagonist, and therefore it doesn’t take long for him to start making friends in the New Austin territory. One of them, a ranch owner whom you meet early in the game, gives you both a place to stay (which doubles as a place to save your progress) and a horse to call your own, and it’s at this point that you’re more or less free to do as you please. Marston’s lengthy and occasionally surprising story is linear for the most part, but it’s told through missions that don’t always need to be completed in a specific order, and you’re free to ignore them for a time if you’d rather just explore the giant Wild West sandbox you’re playing in.
Whether you’re galloping between locations where there are missions available or just trotting around aimlessly, Red Dead Redemption’s world is a far easier one to get sidetracked in than most. That’s because in addition to the dozens of excellent and varied story missions, there are countless optional undertakings to enjoy–most of which offer some tangible reward in the form of money, weapons, or reputation. While you’re in town, you might choose to gamble at card and dice tables or tear a wanted poster from the wall and do some bounty hunting, for example. And when you’re in the middle of nowhere, opportunities for gunfights and the like have a habit of presenting themselves or even forcing themselves upon you. Random strangers in need of help can show up at any time, and while it’s a little jarring to find two or three strangers in the same predicament back-to-back, most of their requests are varied and fun for the short time that they take to complete. You might be called upon to retrieve a stolen wagon, to collect herbs, or even to rescue someone being hanged from a tree. There’s no penalty for ignoring strangers, but when you help them you collect a small reward and become a little more famous in the process.
Fame is interesting in Red Dead Redemption, because it’s measured alongside but independently of your honor. Regardless of whether you’re doing good deeds or bad, becoming increasingly famous is inevitable as you progress through the game. How people react when they recognize you is determined by your honor, though, which can be positive or negative. If you spend your time acting dishonorably, townsfolk might be terrified of you, but if you’re considered a hero, they’ll go out of their way to greet you and might even applaud as you ride into town. Either way, there are pros and cons to becoming something of a public figure. People won’t bother to report you when you steal a horse if you’re famous, and any bounty hunters or posses that come after you when there’s a price on your head will take twice as long to try again after failing the first time, for example. On the flip side, as you make a name for yourself you become a target for gunslingers who are looking to make names for themselves, and so you’re challenged to duels that play out entirely using the game’s slow-motion “dead eye” mechanic.
In duels, even though speed is a factor, dead eye affords you an opportunity to place your shots precisely. The head is the most obvious target, but occasionally you might be required to (or wish to) win a duel without actually killing your opponent. With practice, you can shoot a gun out of an enemy’s hand as he makes his move, which is especially satisfying and makes you more famous than killing someone outright. Dead eye can be used in much the same way during regular play, but a slowly replenishing meter limits how often you can trigger it, and given how effective the lock-on targeting system is, you’re unlikely to need it much. With the exception of sniper rifles, you can lock on to enemies from a great distance with any weapon. Then, once you’re locked on, you can tweak your aim to target a specific part of your enemy. Nudge your aim up just a touch, and there’s a good chance you’ll get a one-hit-kill headshot. (You do that so often that it’s likely to become a reflex every time you raise your weapon). However, you don’t always want to kill your enemies, because, for example, once you learn to use a lasso, you have the option to bring bounties in alive. It’s more challenging, but it also doubles your reward, and it’s extremely satisfying to shoot a criminal in the leg so that he falls to ground and can only try to crawl away, hog-tie and slump him over the back of your horse, and then deliver him to the local sheriff.
You can also use your lasso to rope wild horses, which is a fun way to upgrade or just replace the mount that you spend so much time with. After catching a wild horse, you wait for just the right moment to mount it and then, via a simple minigame in which you maintain your balance as the horse tries to buck you, you break it. Initially, you might want to change your horse just to get a color that you like (there are lots to choose from), but it’s also fun to keep a lookout for rare breeds, because they not only look a little more impressive but are also noticeably quicker. Regardless of what kind of horse you ride (including those that are pulling carts and wagons), the responsive controls work in the same way and make it easy to adjust your speed from a walk to a trot, canter, or gallop. You also have the option to match your speed with that of any character you’re riding alongside, which is incredibly useful.
As you spend more time with the same horse, it rewards your loyalty by increasing the length of its energy bar, which determines how long it can sprint at full speed. You shouldn’t become too attached to your mounts, though, because Red Dead Redemption’s world is both a dangerous place and one in which horses occasionally behave unpredictably. There’s nothing wrong with a horse walking around a little when you climb off it, but if you leave it close to a deep river, you run the risk of losing it if–as we witnessed on one occasion–it stupidly steps in, because, like you, horses can’t swim. Horses also have a habit of not staying put when you tie them to a hitching post, so you then need to whistle for them to come to you from wherever they’ve ended up or run the risk of inadvertently stealing someone else’s identical mount. Other, more avoidable ways to lose a horse include its getting shot by enemies or attacked by wild animals, though the controls for shooting from the saddle are good enough that you really have only yourself to blame if that happens.
Red Dead Redemption’s varied wildlife adds a great deal to the world and also makes it a dangerous place to let your guard down. Crows, hawks, eagles, and vultures fly overhead; armadillos, raccoons, deer, and skunks try to stay out of your way; and cougars, coyotes, wolves, and even snakes can be dangerous if they see you before you see them. All of these species and lots more inevitably cross your path, and whether they’re solitary creatures or hunting as a pack, their behavior is always believable. Furthermore, all of these animals can be hunted and then–via an animation that sees blood spattering on the screen–harvested for their skins, meat, and other valuable body parts. Beavers, boars, bobcats, bears, buffalo, bighorn–all have something to offer, and all pose a slightly different challenge.
Other than the fun of the hunt, the main reason to kill most of these animals is so that you can sell the aforementioned body parts to a store owner the next time you’re in town. Sometimes, though, there are additional incentives in the form of ambient challenges that, as the name suggests, reward you for objectives that you might complete in the course of regular gameplay. For example, sharpshooter challenges include shooting people’s hats off and shooting birds out of the sky from a moving train. Hunter challenges, on the other hand, include one-shotting grizzly bears and taking down a pack of wolves using only a knife. For a change of pace, treasure hunter challenges present you with a treasure map that often amounts to little more than sketches of a landmark, and challenge you to locate the treasure hidden nearby. You become a little more famous every time you complete one of these challenges, and beating a significant number of them is a requirement for unlocking at least one of the different outfits that Marston can change into.
Marston is an impressively detailed character whose scarred face and default outfit play big parts in making him wholly believable as a 30-something gunslinger. Other than donning a bandana that covers much of your face (and hides your identity so that you don’t affect your fame or honor while performing certain actions), there’s nothing you can do about the scars, but by putting on a different outfit you can change how certain people react to you. There are more than a dozen different outfits to discover and unlock. Some of them, like the duster jacket and the poncho, are easy to unlock and offer no real benefit other than making you look even more dangerous. Others, though, such as military and gang uniforms, can be obtained only after completing multiple challenges, and wearing them makes certain factions more accepting of you. There are even a couple of outfits that can make gambling more fun: one gives you the option to cheat anytime you deal in a game of poker, and another–acquired by signing up for the Rockstar Social Club–grants you access to a high-stakes game.
Believe it or not, even while cheating at cards and gunning down hundreds of enemies, it’s possible–with only one exception during a plot-critical mission–to make it through Red Dead Redemption’s entire story without ever getting on the wrong side of the law. It’s fun to play as a heroic bounty hunter, but it’s also fun to be chased by one, or several. Much like the system in GTA, being spotted committing a crime alerts local law enforcement, and until you outrun them, they pursue you relentlessly. Your crimes aren’t completely forgotten the moment you escape in Red Dead Redemption, though, because every crime that you commit raises the bounty on your head, and the only way to clear that is to visit a telegraph operator and either pay the amount of your bounty yourself as a fine or present him with a letter of pardon–which isn’t easy to come by. It’s a great system, because in conjunction with fame and honor it really makes you feel like your actions have lasting consequences.
Depending on how much time you spend completing optional challenges, Red Dead Redemption’s single-player mode can take you anywhere from 20 to 40 hours to play through. If you’re in a rush to get through the game for some reason, you can use stagecoaches and quick travel options to move between key locations on the gigantic map instantly, but there’s so much fun to be had out in the wilderness that bypassing those areas isn’t recommended. You should also know that while bugs and glitches are few and far between, there’s at least one stagecoach driver who apparently isn’t great at math and might inexplicably charge you $100 (not an insignificant sum of money, given that it’s enough to buy property) on top of the quoted price for a journey. Other problems worthy of note during our 30-plus hours in single-player included a conversation between Marston and another character in which only Marston’s lines could be heard, an attempt to crouch behind a decrepit overturned wagon that resulted in Marston being thrown high up into the air, and a cutscene in which two versions of the same character–one injured and animated, one neither–appeared alongside each other. You might also notice characters having some pathfinding problems when confronted by hitching posts, stacks of crates, and the like, but beyond these extremely rare issues, the world of Red Dead Redemption is very difficult to find fault with. It looks incredible, it sounds superb (though the excellent soundtrack occasionally swells up without reason), and it’s just a fun place to spend time regardless of what you’re doing or whom you’re doing it with.
In addition to its lengthy single-player offering, Red Dead Redemption boasts a good number of multiplayer modes that support both competitive and cooperative play. No matter which mode you want to play, all multiplayer sessions start out in Free Roam. Here, you and up to 15 other players are free to do whatever you please with the entire gameworld at your disposal. You can shoot each other, you can cause trouble with townsfolk, you can form posses to complete gang hideout missions, or you can become the session’s most wanted outlaw and then kill or steer clear of any other players who come looking to collect the bounty on your head. Your character in Free Roam mode is persistent, and as you earn experience points you gain access to additional character models, better weapons, and superior mounts. It’s unfortunate that you don’t get to design a character from scratch, and it can be frustrating to enter Free Roam as a level-one player riding a burro and armed only with a pistol, but it doesn’t take long to level up, and even high-level players can be killed with just a few bullets if you can get close to them.
When you enter competitive online modes, you don’t get to use your persistent character, and everyone is on a level playing field. The five modes on offer are free-for-all and team-based versions of Shootout and three versions of Capture the Bag. Clearly, these modes are variations on the traditional deathmatch and capture-the-flag themes, but they do more than just apply a Wild West lick of paint to them. For starters, all multiplayer games kick off with an awesome standoff in which all players stand around in a circle (or in two opposing lines if it’s a team game) and wait for all hell to break loose when the word “Draw” appears on the screen. And in Capture the Bag modes, the bags of gold that you carry weigh you down so that you move more slowly, making you an easy target in the free-for-all Gold Rush and making escorts or cover fire vital in the team-based Hold Your Own.
Between the Free Roam and competitive modes, there’s enough great multiplayer content to keep you playing Red Dead Redemption long after you’ve watched the credits roll at the end of the superb single-player mode and gone back in to finish up any optional challenges and missions that you missed. This is an outstanding game that tells a great story with memorable and occasionally laugh-out-loud-funny characters. Think about great moments that you remember from spaghetti Western movies, put them all into one 20- to 40-hour epic feature, and picture yourself in the starring role. Now you have some idea of what’s waiting for you in Red Dead Redemption.