What's the deal with Red Dead Redemption?

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Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption came in the mail on Tuesday, and my first course of action was to call the Ron and Fez Show on Sirius XM. “Hey, guys, I see your names in the credits. You rock!” Calling the show and talking to East Side Dave (by the way, SAVE DAVE) and Ron was the highlight of my week. Well, it was the highlight of my week until I was able to pop the disc into my 360 (it’s also available for the PS3). As I told Ron on the air, Rockstar knows how to make a good video game. A really good video game, in fact.

What’s pretty funny about Red Dead Redemption is that I’ve seen it derisively referred to as nothing more than Grand Theft Auto IV in the Wild West. You know, as if GTA IV is a bad game! Was the hype surrounding that game warranted? I don’t know. What I do know is that it was a fine, fine game in a world filled with (polluted with?) generic modern warfare shooter after generic space marine shooter. There’s more to GTA than running over pedestrians and robbing hot dog vendors. Play the missions, let the story develop, and you’ll say to yourself, “There’s actually a pretty great script and some solid voice acting here.” Rockstar (along with BioWare) is the best in the business in that regard.

It’s 1911, and the old ways of the West are dying; its days of being “wild” are drawing to a close. That’s not good news for the game’s main character, a well-dressed ex-crook named John Marston who’s forced to track down one of his old running buddies for the increasingly powerful federal government. (I feel like I’m channeling Rush Limbaugh or that other bozo with “increasingly powerful federal government.”) You approach your destination, from parts unknown, on a train straight out of “There Will Be Blood,” eavesdropping on the conversations of an old woman who speaks of bringing “civilization” to the area and a young woman who asks her father to reconcile Christianity’s many contradictions.

This will not be a light day at the office.

Your train pulls up to a small town in the middle of nowhere, and off you go.

This sandbox-style game takes place in a literal sandbox: dirt and broken down rocks comprise the majority of the scenery, and cacti and other rubbish-looking plant life remind you that you’re not “back east” anymore. It’s a big sandbox, too, and as believable as Liberty City, with cross-map trips taking upwards of 10 minutes on horseback. Small towns—nothing more than a couple of shacks and a saloon—rise out of the nothingness and offer you a place to have a drink, buy guns and ammunition from a vendor voiced by noted gun nut Anthony of Sirius XM’s Opie and Anthony, gamble with local miscreants, and rest/save your game. Nowhere near a town? With a few button presses you’ve made a campfire, where you can save your game and fast-travel to a waypoint. Don’t fast-travel too often lest you diminish the game’s sense of scope. Exploration is vital, as it’s the only way to find and kill local fauna, whose hides you can collect and later sell.

You already know how to use the map; it’s identical to GTA IV‘s. Letters hover over it, located on the lower left-hand side of the screen, and point to mission-giving characters. You visit these characters, obtain a mission, complete the mission, then go on another mission until you move onto the next mission-giving character. This moves the story along, in short, well-acted cinematics—again, like in GTA. You’ll have noticed a pattern by now.

Mid-mission checkpoints are more frequent, thank heavens.

When I played the game at PAX East a few weeks (months? I’ve lost all track of time) back, one of the things the friendly Rockstar rep highlighted was the horse mechanics. I’m almost certain that’s the first time I’ve written the phrase “horse mechanics.” There’s nothing to it: you tap A to get the horse going, then hold A to keep steady the pace, steering all the while with the Left Stick. When in town you hitch your horse to a handy hitching pole—the horse will wait for you. Or, if out in the middle of nowhere, hitting Up on the D-Pad causes you to whistle out for the horse, which shows up a few moments later. It’s all very Zelda-like, an observation that rather pleased the Rockstar rep. There’s no harm in being compared to Zelda.

Aiming is less frustrating than it’s been in past Rockstar games. You whip out your gun with the Left Trigger. The default mode lets you free-aim with the Right Stick, but if you pull the Left Trigger while near, say, a bad guy’s head, the aiming reticule automatically locks on. Then you pull the Right Trigger. Then the bad guy dies. It’s all very poetic. In my view this is Rockstar saying, “Look, there’s no way in hell you’re going to have any sort of precision while aiming with the 360 controller, so let’s just automate the process for you as much as possible.” (There is, of course, a fully manual mode if you’re a crazy person.) Rockstar should be given credit for trying (and trying… since the days of GTA III for the PS2) to figure out how to make aiming with a controller as painless as possible, but let’s face facts: no control scheme will ever better a mouse and keyboard. This is not up for debate. Perhaps a PC version is warranted? The game looks good on the aging 360 hardware, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the visual bump with a modern day video card and processor.

The multi-player? I know that it exists, but I haven’t put in the time to write about it. My guess is that if you got a kick out of GTA IV‘s multi-player mode then you’ll probably feel right at home here.

A few more things come to mind. One is that Rockstar seems to have perfected this particular type of gameplay experience. That is, going from person to person, doing mission after mission, developing a story along the way that’s better than much of what’s coming out of Hollywood these days—Rockstar has that on lockdown. For how much longer will that appeal, I wonder? The second is that Rockstar’s virtual worlds are the most convincing in gaming today. Red Dead Redemption‘s lands aren’t as densely populated as Liberty City, but every single inhabitant has something on his or her mind, and will, if given the opportunity, talk your ear off. Voice actors not currently affiliated with BioWare (because they already know this) take note: this is how lines are supposed to be delivered. I’ve recently been playing through Halo 3 and I can, at times, feel my kidneys cringe in embarrassment at some of the dialogue. So bad.

How do I end this? I guess by saying the game could be Rockstar’s best effort yet. So if that appeals to you…

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