Originally released in the summer of 2010 for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, the fact that the cowboy adaptation of Grand Theft Auto instantly became the best Wild West game around wasn’t a surprise. What was more impressive was the fact that it was possibly more enjoyable than GTA itself, and that was reflected in high review scores and ‘Game of the Year’ awards. Towards the end of 2011, a Game of the Year edition was released which included all downloadable content, including the ‘Undead Nightmare’ story expansion, and for between £20 and £25 at the moment, it’s a massive bargain if you previously missed out.
The main plot revolves around John Marston, a man trying to escape his troubled past to forge a new life with his wife and son, and the development of the game appears to have echoed his struggle with a trailer originally being sent out in 2005, an official announcement in 2008, and a release postponement of a couple of months to eventually arrive in May 2010 after the work of 800 people and a cost of around $80-$100 million, making it one of the most expensive game developments of all time. Early on, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser had admitted the game was a nightmare to create, but the company had set itself a high target by stating it was a more ambitious game than GTA IV and would surpass it as the ultimate open world game. Surprisingly, the high ambitions and some controversy over the working practices for developers involved, Red Dead Redemption succeeded in being the equal, if not superior, to the GTA series.
High Concept Drifter:
Set in 1911 at the end of the cowboy era, John Marston is able to travel throughout the New Austin territory, and later Mexico, on his journey. Having retired from an outlaw gang led by Dutch van der Linde, he has been sent to track down fellow gang members Bill Williamson and later Javier Escuella to have his wife and son returned to him, but the task starts badly when he’s shot in the chest and left for dead by Williamson.
And so begins a series of tasks and sub-plots involving various characters in New Austin and Mexico, including ranch owners, potion sellers and Mexican revolutionaries, with Marston learning tasks including cow-herding, and earning information to lead him to his targets. Along the way there are various additional challenges, including sharpshooting and survival skills, hunting particular animals, and tasks for a variety of scripted and random strangers.
What you get is a traditional tragic hero battling against his past in the main story arc, and the opportunity to visit almost every classic Western story mechanic in the subplots, whether that’s taking on a gang hideout, playing poker, or just riding across the plains hunting animals against the setting sun.
And the setting works brilliantly in a number of ways – Rockstar have shown how well they can amalgamate popular culture to give life to a setting, whether it’s the 80s of GTA Vice City or the hiphop lifestyle of San Andreas, and RDR is up there with 80’s Miami. Graphically it’s pretty good, and the lack of detailed urban environments means that there are less graphical glitches, whilst the soundtrack and character acting is a pretty good channeling of Morricone and Eastwood.
One major advantage of the environment is also that you’re less frustrated with vehicle controls – you’re generally in fairly open spaces and sub-consciously you’re more likely to blame the horse’s personality for any clumsiness rather than the control scheme – something that’s emphasised by the disobedient undead steeds you are able to ride in the Undead Nightmare expansion pack.
Other parts of the game mechanics which also stand out include the slow motion bullet time which allows you to fire off a number of targeted shots at once to allow you to perform as an expert sharpshooter, and the ability to choose between honourable and dishonourable actions without being punished for your choice (You can achieve your aims by becoming a legendary hero or the baddest man in the West, with an honour score reflecting your current status, along with the inevitable rise in a separate fame bar as you complete missions and become well-known throughout the territory)
Dances with multiplayer:
In addition to the story mode, which runs to around 25 hours accommodating a reasonable amount of side quests, and much more if you’re looking for 100% completion, you also get 16-player online multiplayer with the usual deathmatch or objective based games, and also a free roam option which allows players to join posses of up to 8 players to take on hideouts co-operatively. It all works pretty well, and the co-operative modes are a welcome part of the experience. The benefit of a retrospective look at the game means that it’s still proving popular even after this amount of time, so you’ll still find plenty of players to shoot or team-up with, and Rockstar continue to provide the occasional multiplayer event to keep gamers returning.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:
I’m not the biggest fan of Western films, but I’ve enjoyed a fair number, and there are certain high points including The Unforgiven, Butch and Sundance, and I’ll admit, Young Guns. So the prospect of becoming a classic cowboy hero was pretty appealing. And although the plot relies on tried and tested Western plots and characters, it’s done well with enough of the Rockstar cheek and humour that they didn’t feel tired and cliched. So much so, that the ending of the main story was quite emotionally moving.
The pace of the story does slow a little during the middle period, and there are at least a couple of missions which felt forced – whereas throughout the game you’re free to choose between pursuing an honourable or dishonourable approach, there are times when you’re pushed by the story into taking part in action which you and Marston both know is wrong.
Inevitably with a game of this size, some of the missions can be slightly repetitive, particularly building up your skill levels in certain areas. The Survival challenges rely on picking certain numbers of wild plants scattered around a particular area, which can be a tedious botanical exercise at times, and there are only so many variations on annihilating all the bad guys in a hideout with your trusty six-shooter before you know the score, but the variation of the duel mode and occasional random glitches do help you to take a bit of a break. And if you fancy something different, the Undead Nightmare DLC revives the story with New Austin infected by zombies to give you a bit of a different challenge.
It truly stands out as the best single player experience of Rockstar’s open world games and given the challenges of development, it’s unlikely to get a true sequel, so now’s the time to pick up a copy for a bargain price including the DLC before the arrival of Grand Theft Auto V.