After months spent waiting, watching images and videos, and from time to time taking part to previews which just made the waiting even more unbearable, Red Dead Redemption is at last available on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Considering the huge amount of news and articles written about the game, we felt sort of compelled to end the story with a genuine made-in-Gamersyde review. Here’s the verdict, just after the click.
Let’s not spend too much time describing the background of Red Dead Redemption, having already discussed it in our two previous articles last December and last January. For sure, Rockstar’s bet to choose 1911 as the beginning of an epic adventure in a declining Far West is already won, the context being simultaneously original, realistic, and incredibly violent. Primal racism, cruelty towards women and the weakest, you will have to face all of it during John Marston’s quest for redemption. After a great introduction sequence, where the piano tunes reminds us of Lost in its most melancholic moments, where we can see a car being dropped off the ship – most likely a reference to the opening sequence of GTA4 – and where characters and landscapes are introduced to us with Rockstar’s usual excellence, we can finally begin the adventure. And what an adventure!
The strength of Red Dead Redemption undoubtly comes from the excellent work done on the atmosphere. The world Marston lives in really seems alive, and this contributes to giving credit to the game. From the arrival in Armadillo, which we unveiled last week in our first 10 minute video, to the surrounding nature and the McFarlane ranch where Marston will make his first friends, it’s very hard not to literally dive into early 20th-century America. Dust blown away in the streets, farm animals, citizens busy whith their day-to-day activities, snapping flags and the sound of the leaves blowing in the wind, everything is put in place to immerse the player, even when nothing special happens on the screen. Red Dead Redemption’s universe is not still, and it lets you enjoy all the vitality coming from it.
If most of Marston’s activities will involve tough gunfights between badass desperados, he won’t necessarily have to shoot. Aiming at a complete and varied game, Rockstar filled it with all the activities we can expect from a Western : breaking horses, herding cattle, hunting, picking plants, money games (among which poker, black-jack, dice games or even the horseshoe game, etc.), setting up a scam with the local crook to sell Dr Doxey’s elixir, and even more. More surprisingly, especially when you forget the story is actually set in 1911, it’s even possible to go the town theater and watch some of the several short silent movies. Treasure hunting is also available, with maps showing little sketches of the place marked with a cross. The great thing is that the player can only rely on his observation skills to find the precious loot.
The game doesn’t forget pure action though, a good opportunity to relax after cheating at a poker game, and to check if the controls of the character have evolved in a good way since GTA4. Three control modes are available, casual, normal, expert. For the first one, you have a system similar in every way to Niko’s in 2007: automatic aim, change of target with the right stick. Normal mode is a little more assisted than expert mode but barely. If you want the fully manual mode, then go with expert mode. First problem encountered when playing in this mode, aiming is awfully slow, even when pushing the sticks' sensitivity to the maximum. Considering this, Red Dead Redemption is ages behind best-in-class Uncharted and Gears of War. It’s not easy to forgive the lack of reactivity in a game where it’s one of the major components of the gameplay, but still, you get used to it, the slow motion launched with the Dead Eye mode enabling to compensate the problem.
The movements of the character aren’t very smooth either as soon as you are obliged to move around in small places such as the inside of a house, thankfully, it does not happen that much. This being said, the quality of the animations is so good, humans and animals alike, that you finally forget such flaws. Especially considering that the cover system seems to be more efficient than before. When you’re riding a horse, once you’ve got used to the controls (A to use your spurs – don’t overuse it to avoid exhausting your horse – RB to take the reins and ask him to slow down), it is really enjoyable to play. It’s not always easy to aim while gallopping full speed, but the least gifted of us will still be able to use casual aim mode. I was talking earlier of the impressive work accomplished on the animations, but hit detection is also way better than in GTA4. Shooting every possible part of a target's body and watching the effects it causes never gets old.
As the Wild West without duels wouldn’t make more sense than a cheeseburger without cheese, we obviously have face-to-face duels in the pure tradition of western movies. As your fame increases, you are regularly duelled by some trigger happy dudes wishing to steal your thunder to get a better place in the sun. Up to you to accept the challenge or not, but after all, it’s always tempting to break a young fool’s dream, isn't it? Rather simple compared with those from Call of Juarez Bound in Blood, you just have to hit the left trigger to unshethe your gun, then aim at as many lethal parts as possible on your opponent’s body (a bar is available to assess each competitor’s damages) and you’re the winner. Or not… Awesomeness being to disarm your opponent and let him live with his shame for only friend.
As great as it is, Red Dead Redemption could have pushed it further in some areas of the game. The only point of hunting and plants picking for example is money, while we could have hoped to be able to use the precious meat to gain health between two shootings. Along the same lines, we definitely regret that campgrounds don’t have the same functions as in Japanese RPGs (save the game, which is possible here, but also healing). To make all of these things possible, they just had to implement a health system different from what you find in Gears of War/Uncharted/CoD, and, like in other sandbox games like GTA4 or Just Cause 2, give the character a real health bar that needs refill from time to time. This is nitpicking really, but it’s kind of important if you think what the gameplay could have been if it had stayed true to the idea of "survival of the fittest in a harsh environment". After all, what kind of threat is a rattlesnake when you don’t have to fear the effect of poison?
Too bad also that the game suffers from occasional glitches (more or less funny), a few massive slowdowns (luckily rare) without any apparent reason (yes, on Xbox 360 too, for those who would tend to doubt this) and a few pop-up issues on some elements of the environment. Apart from that, it’s a flawless victory, with an enormous map (even it may seem small at first), lighting effects that are both beautiful and realistic, giving each moment of the day a specific atmosphere. The day and night cycle lets us witness a more active fauna as soon as night comes, and you will quickly realize how leaving the trail can become dangerous when cougars are nearby (we’re talking about animals here). Beautiful too, the thunder storms and the lightning almost make us want to shut down all electric appliances of the house in case they all fry. At every corner, you are rewarded with a new vista, and for nature lovers like me, the game’s offering everything we expected.
Talking about strolls, I’d like to end this review talking about the Free Roam mode which lets you share some good manly time with your friend list. Here again, everything’s not perfect, and you can only regret that the world seems emptier than in one player mode, even if you get a more fluid and stable framerate. A few forts defended by the AI, a few other more classical modes (deathmatch and CTF for example) but mostly long rides on your horses to fulfill everyone's desire, even the strangest ones. The huge video (in every way) below will let you appreciate, I hope, the good mood ruling during these sessions, and will give you the chance to discover some new breathtaking landscapes. We want to mention that no animal has been hurt during the shooting of this video and Gamersyde is in no way responsible for the violent and irresponsible behavior of some of its members.
Red Dead Redemption may not be perfect but it’s at least the great game we’ve been waiting for months, and we did not expect any less from it. Once the few flaws have been forgotten, there is nothing else to do but to congratulate Rockstar for this meticulous retranscription of a part of American history. Full of life, thanks to a varied flora and fauna, as well as all these random events on the road, it’s impossible not to rush to such a golden experience, what will clearly become the new sandbow game reference. A title Gamersyde can only recommend if dust and horses don’t frighten you.