I've never actually watched a Spaghetti Western before, but never the less the 1960s film phenomena has coloured my idea of what makes up 'a Western'. Horses, cacti, tumbleweed, shotting whiskey, hog-tying wenches, quick draws, bar brawls, bandits, and the Mexican revolution; all of these feature in Red Dead Redemption, making it as extensive a Western game as you could ever hope to play.
The Clint Eastwood of this story is one John Marston, an ex-bandit turned family man whose been blackmailed by the government to round up some of his old gang members. John Marston is a good character. He's enough of a bad-ass in a tight spot to make playing him fun, but never over does it enough for you to want to throw him off the nearest cliff. Such a balance is rarely struck in games. In an attempt to make your character 'the cool guy' many lead roles end up being two-dimensional, testosterone-totting douche bags who're as relatable as chunks of rocks, and usually about as intelligent . John Marston, however, is empathetic enough to make him a strong lead character. On one hand he's an old-school cowboy coming to terms with the encroaching modernisation of the old south-west, and on the other he's a father and a husband just trying to get his family back. Character is the narratives strong point, and beside John Marston, there's a genuinely interesting and varied support cast who'll help and hinder you on your quest for redemption.
Forgive the gruff exterior - John Marston is an empethetic and powerful lead role.
The game follows a formula similar to Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series. You're given a giant wilderness in which to play around in and you advance in the story by visiting characters on the map to do jobs for them. The missions are often at odds with the immersive freedom that the sandbox environment gives you though, in that they're painfully linear. The vast majority of these involve riding your horse from the mission start point to another point on the map where you'll kill some guys. There's some variation on this formula, but not much. Sometimes you'll be racing horses, sometimes you'll be jumping on a train or planting explosives, but with over 60 missions to do, there's really not enough change in the core gameplay to keep it fresh, and doing the missions quickly becomes about seeing the next cut-scene, rather than enjoying the gameplay.
You're given a variety of era-specific weapons to dispatch foes with - revolvers, more modern pistols, rifles, shotguns and a generous auto-aim feature to make taking out swaths of bandits easy. Yet this makes shooting feel too easy, and I found myself having more fun manually placing my shots with the expert aiming turned on. Red Dead Redemption features its own brand of bullet-time - Dead Eye - where the world slows down and takes on a twilight tone. Here you can place crosses on enemies with the left bumper and Marston will execute all these shots when you've finished with your selections. Dead Eye is available often, but not enough for you to be able to rely on it extensively.
The shooting mechanics in Red Dead Redemption are functional, but seldom engaging, which is a shame because the vast majority of the missions put the combat at the forefront of the game. This wouldn't be a problem if the combat was intuitive, but it isn't. The ability to take, and move around cover feels stiff and clunky, meaning you'll often have to fight the controls to position Marston exactly where you want him. While dead-eye can provide some genuinely cool scenarios, these are too far spread between the bland gunplay which will take up most of your mission time.
Marston takes on a hideout full of bandits, but the control of the game is nothing to get excited about.
So the missions are repetitive and linear, the opposite to the two things which make a sandbox enjoyable, which are variety and freedom. The games story, while very well written and touching, has trouble with pacing, meaning that it's usually s either painfully slow or feels far too rushed. It's a shame, because the game has some genuinely interesting thoughts on such things as the price of redemption, but ultimately fails to entwine its narrative with the gameplay often enough to fully capitalise on its great writing. The vast majority of the story involves Martson's hunt for information and most characters mission lines involve nothing but John endlessly playing errand boy before they finally tell you what you need. It's hard to feel interested in the narrative when the vast majority of the missions are simply odd-jobs for people who're holding you ransom with the information they have. Luckily this trend gives way to some more magical moments near the end of the story, which are certainly enough to make it memorable, in spite of the mediocrity that comes before it.
Rockstar's games (by which I pretty much just mean Rockstar's GTA games) have always been popular because of their sandbox environments. You're given a giant, functioning world to kick back in, and this is fun because you're given a wealth of things to do, cool ways to transverse the sandbox, and lots of squishy pixel-people to do what you want to. People usually choose to abuse this freedom, but in Red Dead Redemption you almost feel as though the game doesn't want you to. The games narrative spends such a long time establishing John Marston as something of a restrained, humble guy that while it's certainly possible for you to terrorise the west, you feel compelled to stay true to his character and....not. Or at least that was what I felt. Whatever your compulsion, Red Dead Redemption offers a wonderfully detailed sandbox, dotted with ranches, small towns, caves, trails, and forts for you to explore to your cowboy heart's content, and there's certainly a wealth of things aside from the story missions for you to indulge in.
The mini-map shows the extent of what's available outside missions. Sadly little of it is relevent.
The environments themselves are spectacular, and the majesty of the breathtaking desert vistas quite make up for the lack of visual variety that a Western setting necessarily entails. The graphical potency is let down, however, by stiff animation and bad character models. Travelling on a train during a cut-scene, I was sure two elderly women in my carriage were actually melting in the desert heat. There's a clear divide between the graphical quality of the games environments and the characters themselves, which sometimes make the cut-scenes painful to watch. Yet while you're travelling along one of the games many dusty horse-trails, this isn't something which is likely to prey on your mind.
There's alot of content in the game, befitting to any sandbox title. There's a wealth of animals to hunt, flowers to pick, and mini-games scattered all around the map. There are horses to break, challenges to meet and side-missions with an extended cast. There's alot to do, but there's often no compulsion to do it. All of the sandboxing activities offer money as a reward, and Red Dead Redemption suffers, similarly to most games, from a badly balanced economy. The only thing on sale in the game are guns, a handful of support items, and items to fill your health, deadeye and horses stamina. But every gun you'll need is gradually introduced throughout the games missions, and the game never approaches the sort of difficulty - even using expert aiming - to require the use of stat-refilling items. Had the game required the frequent spending of money, then the sandboxes many activities would of had a point. As it is they simply act as distractions for the main story missions - the gameplay of which I've already described as simply average.
The wilderness of Red Dead Redemption is harsh, unforgiving, but beautiful - just watch out for the cougars.
The activity-filled sandbox is reduced to just a sandbox - which is certainly good looking - but doesn't have the substance that a good sandbox should. Travelling by horse, while not particularly exhilarating, is decent enough, and to their credit, Rockstar has ensured that there's a wealth of random events which you can partake in while you travel from A to B. For all of the activities available in Red Dead Redemption, the most engaging one is simply riding your steed around the beautiful world - whether you be up in the snow-capped peaks of Tall Trees, the expansive Great Plains, the winding trails of New Austin, or the arid deserts of Mexico. There's a good use of sound in the game too, with each area having its own gentle ambient music, and there are some places where the music comes together with the story to offer some sincerely amazing moments. Silence, too, is important in a game where it's essentially you, your gun and your horse. The game understands this, and does well to keep the sound contextual and appropriate.
So you'll have a good idea of what Red Dead Redemption's single player portion will offer you, but there's a fair amount to be said for the multiplayer. The multiplayer is best when it echoes the games sandbox - in the free-roam. The game offers many playlists such as gang-shootouts and various objective modes, but the free-roam is truly the best chunk of the online. You climb ranks and unlock new weapons, mounts, and playable characters as you progress. You gain experience through completing gang hideouts and completing the inane amount of challenges available. You can form a posse of cowboys in free-roam and hunt down bandits, or wage war on other posses. Being a free form multiplayer, you're freedom is often dependent on the good-will of others, meaning you're bound to end up in some unavoidable conflict, but really...it's worth it for the sense of freedom the mode gives you. Sure there are other modes available, but these concentrate on Red Dead's weaker elements, and pale in comparison to the free-roam. The multiplayer won't be a viable distraction for long, but it gels well enough with the single player to sufficiently elongate the life of the game.
Red Dead Redemption is a sandbox game that fails to give you enough cohesive game elements to really distract you from the games many underwhelming missions, and the shooting is functional but mostly uninteresting. Actually playing the game isn't the good bit. It's the experience of the mood of the West, which the game is drenched in, the joy of getting to know the characters, and the depth of the games narrative that make Red Dead Redemption a game very much worth experiencing, though it wont likely hold your attention much past the point of completion.