Monday, May 24, 2010

Red Dead Redemption (PS3)

Red Dead Redemption is just straight awesome. From the opening scene on your train ride out West, to the painful climax, Redemption is excellence in gaming. I don't even know where to start telling you how stupendous this game is. How 'bout let's start with the writing?

I'm really having trouble thinking of an equally well-written game. The characters are varied, vivid, and colorful without being caricatures. The protagonist, John Marston, feels like a real gentleman outlaw: intricately polite, plain-spoken, and forceful. One detail I find deeply endearing is that Marston remains faithful to his wife throughout the entire game--fucking the numerous saloon whores is not an option, and there is no obligatory love interest shoehorned into the game.

Nearly every line of dialog rings true. There are a few anachronistic word choices (I don't think anybody used "snarky" in 1911), but they're easily overlooked. Within seconds of meeting them, you find yourself adoring the sympathetic characters and despising the antagonists.

I can't say that I was too taken with the gay character, given that he was quite unpleasant; there is no sympathetic gay character to balance him out. And I also found parts of the game a little lacking in the racial diversity that certainly existed on the frontier (apparently, in real life, about 40% of cowboys were Black). But, in the more metropolitan areas of the game, racial diversity isn't an issue; in fact, social institutions (like saloons) are anachronistically integrated.

The story feels powerful and brutal, just as one imagines life on the frontier to be. I really don't want to say very much about it, because I don't at all want to spoil even one second of it for you. But suffice it to say that I didn't once want to skip a cutscene. And the ending damn-near brought a tear to my eye. It definitely left me in the same sort of a melancholy haze one experiences after watching, say, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The setting is a truly genius choice. As I mentioned above, Rockstar chose the year 1911 for their story to take place. With this choice, they're able to seamlessly mix electric lights and horseback rides. They can even include sniper rifles and semi-automatic pistols without people like me screaming bloody murder about anachronism (as I did in my Call of Juarez review). As a result of their choice for a latter-day West, Redemption manages to almost completely avoid the cliche settings that plague most media set in the Old West. It's recognizable as the Wild West, and yet it feels fantastically fresh.

Gameplay mechanics are quite excellent. Gunplay is intuitive and smooth. The Dead Eye bullet-time mode works great, allowing both queued and manual shooting. The minigames, from Texas Hold'em to horseshoes, are well-designed and fleshed out fully--although the gambling AI, once you learn its idiosyncracies, is guaranteed easy money. They even went with a simple white dot as the aiming reticle. It's like they read my Call of Juarez review and said, "Let's not do any of this shit Aubrey hates."

The only thing I found poorly-executed in terms of gameplay is shooting from horseback. In order to maintain speed on the horse, you must hold X. In order to aim, you use the right analog stick. This means that you cannot aim without your horse slowing to a crawl. I seriously think it's probably easier to shoot and ride a horse in real life than it is in Red Dead Redemption. And since combat from horseback is such an extensive part of the game, its clunkiness must be considered a major oversight on the part of the developers. It doesn't make the game unplayable, but it does mean that you'll wind up using Dead Eye for absolutely every shot you take from horseback.

My only major gripe is with the second act of the game. Without giving too much away, you journey to a Mexican border state embroiled in a civil war between an oppressive, reprehensible general and a peasant's revolution. In order to advance through the game, you must complete missions for both sides of this conflict.

However, the general's missions are largely despicable. In one of them, you're tasked with pacifying a rebel-held village. So you shoot all the revolutionaries trying to kill you. Then, the Mexican soldiers round up all the women, who are taken back to the general for use as sex slaves--and if that isn't bad enough, the general implies that he kills these rape victims when he's through with them. And, after all that, you help set fire to the village.

Now, I'm not inherently opposed to stomach-turning missions in video games. Scenes like No Russian (from Modern Warfare 2) don't phase me, and resonant as powerful art. But in a sandbox game, with a moral choice and reputation system, it seems like you should be, you know, given a damn choice. It seems to go against the very notion of an open world to be railroaded down such an obviously morally bankrupt path. It's hard to feel like I'm on the road to redeeming my murderous outlaw past, so that I can return to my farm with a clear conscience, when I'm literally forced to oppress and debase peasants in order to advance. It seems that mutually exclusive branching missions would have been easily accomplished, allowing people playing the sociopath to help the general, and those of us interested in a more well-adjusted Marston to help the rebels.

That said, the brutality of the second act is totally balanced out by the gentle beauty of the fourth act. Having finally recovered your family from the clutches of the US Marshal, the fourth act is about ranching with your family. You drive cattle, break wild mustangs, kiss your wife, and teach your son to hunt. As denouement, it succeeds without blemish.

Please don't let my couple of complaints turn you off of playing this game. There's so much to do that the objectionable missions make up a tiny percentage of the time you'll spend with Redemption. This is one of those games where you'll play through the story missions, grinning nearly the whole time, gleefully enjoying all but a few moments. And then, when you're done, you'll go back to roam the world and suck every last bit of marrow from the game's bones.

This game is a masterpiece. This game is a triumph. I'm making a note here, "huge success".

1 comment:

  1. Just played this (partially on your recommendation on MetaFilter).

    Yeah, most of this game is pretty much Grand Theft Horse. Two things really stand out to me that make this game exist on a higher level:

    1) The last chapter is astoundingly excellent. The writing is good throughout, but still pretty much in the vein of GTA with stuff like LOTS of monologuing from insultingly shallow characters. The whole Mexico chapter is not so good.

    But that last chapter... so surprising and restrained and beautiful. I think one of the reasons it stands out from other GTA games is that it shows some actual character development.

    2) The terrain! This may be odd, but I can't think of a game that created more natural-feeling terrain. It wasn't quite perfect--too bright at night, the moon never looked right, there was no wind--but good enough. Uplands, defiles, broad vistas, forests.

    Maybe my enjoyment of it was increased because it's a sandbox game and the terrain was something of a constant obstacle, instead of just being witnessed like a theme park ride in a more linear game.


    A great game. Thanks for your strong recommendation, which combined with a couple other sources convinced me to run out and buy it!


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