Red Dead Redemption

for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, by Rockstar Games, 2010, $59.99.

Rockstar Games has revolutionized single-player gaming by providing an expansive, open world to roam rather than constraining players within linear levels. With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar raises the bar for other developers, boldly planting its spurs in a new, though perhaps not wholly original, setting.

The year is 1911, and former outlaw John Marston is forced to track down and kill a deadly member of his old gang to free his wife and son from the scheming federal agents that have them in custody. With times rapidly changing, a civil war in Mexico and ranchers in distress (did someone say, Shane?), this is far more than just a revenge story. Marston is a deep protagonist who serves as an analogy for the West as a whole during this period: worn-down, scarred and increasingly under the thumb of men in suits. In its 60-plus missions, the plot tends to wander off on meaningless tangents, and perhaps the side characters won’t be as memorable as ones Rockstar created previously, but those few forgetful moments along the ride do not take away from the powerful and pitch-perfect final hours that conclude the game.

Although it has the grittiness of a spaghetti Western, and includes Ford favorite Monument Valley, it is clear the game has its deepest connection with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. One could go so far as to say that if, in an alternate reality, the famed director had made a video game, this would be it: Gatling guns, blood, revenge, morally ambiguous and oddball characters and, of course, the death of the Wild West. Heck, one mission even resembles the film’s opening sequence.

Outside of the central action, there is much to do: go game hunting, join bounty hunts, rob banks, play poker, break horses—anything you might want to do in the Wild West. In terms of gameplay, Red Dead closely resembles Rock star’s best-selling series Grand Theft Auto, with one notable exception—Dead-Eye, a feature carried over from 2004’s Red Dead Revolver that allows a player to slow time temporarily to blast away at multiple targets à la Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name.” As cool as this feature is, it almost makes things too easy. Most people won’t complain, but experienced gamers will find getting through the game a breeze.

Production values are as high as those of any video game on the market. The graphics for the world and setting are top-notch (thunderstorms and sunsets are particularly striking). Poor facial animation and glitches prevent Red Dead from being a graphic powerhouse, but these don’t take away from the overall experience.Video game developers often overlook voice acting and the soundtrack, but Rockstar honed both here. The music may be the game’s single best aspect, even putting most Hollywood Westerns to shame. While a Western soundtrack can fall into cliché after the fashion of The Magnificent Seven or Ennio Morricone, it’s done here with a certain distinctiveness and expertise.

One could say Red Dead isn’t revolutionary, perhaps little more than Grand Theft Auto:Wild West, but that would be too simplistic. In terms of structure, it may be unoriginal; but in tone, complexity and story, it stretches well beyond street thugs and drug dealers. In an industry that has worn out World War II and fantasy settings, Red Dead Redemption might be more important than it first appears. What Grand Theft Auto once did for open-world games, Red Dead Redemption could do for Westerns— popularize and influence a genre still untamed by the video game industry.


Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.