After an incredibly long drought that produced no worthwhile games over the last few months, I was excited to get my hands on Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s newest open world cowboy adventure. It has glowing reviews from everywhere from Game Informer to the New York Times, who actually called it a “tour de force.”
Now, I know this game is going to take a while to get through, which is why I’m breaking up this review into a few journal entries rather than one overview. I’ve had the game for two days now, and so this will mostly be a lot of first impressions.
So far what I’ve found is a very fun game, but nothing that’s absolutely knocking my socks off. It is certainly Grand Theft Auto in the West, but so far, it seems like a lot…less. But we’ll see if that remains true as I spend more and more time with the game.
It’s 1911 and John Marsten has been sent by the US Government to round up one of his old outlaw buddies terrorizing an area near the Mexico border. In order to take him down, Marsten needs help and meets a lot of characters along the way that both help and hinder him on his quest.
It really looks like this. Incredible.
What speaks to me most about Red Dead Redemption is the story. I’ve never seen better voice acting in a game (it even rivals Mass Effect) and the characters are fleshed out to be human rather than well-skinned polygons. The landscape is gorgeous, the world is immersive, and it’s easy to get lost out there for hours without realizing how long you’ve been playing.
It’s a fun feeling to be a badass gunslinger, and without a doubt this is the best Western game ever made, though many before it have tried. It’s fun, and the missions are diverse, but the game is certainly not without its issues.
There are certain limitations that come with setting a game in 1911. The weapon selection is paltry compared to GTA, because as you’d expect, there’s no way to cram RPGs or flamethrowers into a game like this. Instead so far, we’re limited to a few guns that shoot bullets and that don’t really seem all that different from one another as nearly every enemy will die in a shot or two.
A rifle is a rifle is a rifle.
To an even greater extent, this is true for horses, which stand in for cars in this game. I will credit Red Dead for having the best horse control mechanic of any game I’ve ever played, as frequently players of games like Oblivion know that controlling virtual beasts like that is often a gigantic pain in the ass.
The problem with horseback riding is that you can never tell how good your current horse is. In GTA it was easy to see how well your car handled, or how fast its top speed was, but not so in Red Dead. As you’re usually the only one trucking through the desert, there’s no point of reference with your horse. I only recently learned that the horse I’d been using for most of the game wasn’t that great, as I got my ass kicked in a race. But how do I get a better horse? I can wrangle wild stallions or steal one from town, but I don’t have an easy way to see if those are any better than the one I have now.
This could be fixed by at least a chart that showed which color and patterns of horses are better than others, but I don’t even know if that’s how they’re separated. Even better would just be a “scouting” option that would give you actual stats about whatever horse you’re looking at. That wasn’t necessary for cars in GTA, but it would certainly help here.
Are black horses better? Worse? The same?
I’m also not sure what makes a horse your “main horse.” I wrangled a wild horse for fun, and then found that it was my new go-to, and the one I’d previously been bonding with was now gone forever. Even if he is somewhere, I wouldn’t even know him if I saw him, as there’s no way to name your horse or distinguish it from any others. The only way I know my current horse is mine is because he comes when I whistle. I guess horses are disposable as cars like in GTA, but I don’t think that’s necessary, and it would have been nice to have one horse you could really end up calling your friend throughout the game.
Combat in Red Dead is fun, as nothing is quite as gratifying as shooting a bandit off a horse and watching him get dragged through the desert by his caught leg. The same goes for popping a wanted outlaw in the knee so he can’t escape, hogtieing him and hauling his ass back to town for a big reward.
But the game so far just isn’t very hard so far. Nearly every enemy you encounter dies in either one or two shots from the most basic of guns, and the auto-aim function is far more generous than it should be. You also have a “Dead Eye” meter (a carryover from the first game), which makes everything yellow and freezes time. This is useful if you find yourself facing three men at once or trying to snipe a sprinting deer from your horse, and gives combat a leg up from typical GTA controls.
Dead Eye duels are fun, but I have yet to figure out how to lose one.
I’m also bothered by the addition of an “honor” meter in the game, as moral choices now have quantitative consequences. You don’t do things because you want to, you do them to make your meter go up. The honor meter also doesn’t leave any room for typical Grand Theft Auto f*cking around, as you might spend the last ten hours (as I have) building up your honor from missions and random acts of helpfulness, but if you decide to go on a killing spree for fun, you can lose all of that work in under two minutes if you find a busy enough town square. The game even penalizes you for stupid shit like some dumbass running in front of your horse and getting creamed. Honor minus 50. Can you imagine if in Grand Theft Auto you received negative points for running pedestrians over? That’s as common as breathing in that game!
I suppose I could just say “f*ck it!” and play the game as an evil sonofabitch, but that really just clashes with John Marsten’s personality, as in all the cutscenes he seems like a pretty stand-up guy, and nearly all missions you find make your honor go up. It’s also unclear if this is a Renegade/Paragon type deal that if you play the game as a baddie, you get certain rewards. So far, the only thing I’ve seen from committing crimes are increased shop prices and a big fat bounty on your head. There are probably some things about this whole honor system I don’t understand yet, but so far, I just don’t really see why a “fame” meter couldn’t have been enough.
I’m definitely having a blast with Red Dead so far, but I feel like a few minor tweaks could have made the game even better. There’s lots more to talk about, but I’ll save that for a future journal. Happy trails!