Saturday, September 10, 2016

Red Dead Redemption review

    This is a really overdue review but I, honestly, fell prey to hyper aversion. Everyone I knew mentioned it was one of the best video games of all time and a decent candidate for the best. However, I was leery of the idea of Rockstar being able to produce anything above Grand Theft: Stallion and it fell by the wayside. Still, with the upcoming announcement of Red Dead Redemption 2, I decided to finally give the game a try. Now, I'm kicking myself for not doing it much earlier.

Our (anti)hero.
    Red Dead Redemption's premise is ex-outlaw, John Marston, has had his family taken by the Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI) with the explicit threat they will be killed unless he brings in his ex-gang. It is the end of the Old West, though, and John is an anachronism in a land full of telephone wires and railroads. The last remaining gangs have formed up in fortresses, moved down to Mexico, or are engaged in last stands against insurmountable odds.

    Red Dead Redemption manages to capture the feel of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western with a lot of the classic ideals of the Old West getting re-examined. The persecution of Native Americans, causal racism, hypocrisies, and slow encroachment of government are handled deftly if obviously. While the main campaign is enjoyable, I actually liked the side missions which seem to always end in the most horrifying soul-deadening way possible. For example, in one of the missions, John Marston is investigating a cannibal serial killer and in the process may gun down or lasso an innocent man to deliver to the figure eating people. In another mission, he gathers flowers for a man to give to his wife only to discover he's keeping her corpse as a Norman Bates-esque trophy. Another mission still results in John trying to rescue a kidnapped woman only to discover he's after a horse the former owner has an "unhealthy" attachment to.

I wish Bonnie had been in the whole game.
    Indeed, this is one of the few video games which would actually make a decent movie as the movie actually has a number of decent points to make. The titular concept of redemption is analyzed in an interesting manner as John, unless you choose to play him otherwise, is always trying to do the right thing but this usually leads to large amounts of destruction.

    His murders and moral compromises further stain his soul even as he may become the last legendary gunslinger of the Old West. At the end of the day, John will do anything to protect his family and that includes murdering his former friends with thin justifications. We like to think of John as a pure and true hero but the fact is he wouldn't be stopping his former partners if not for the threat to his family and things like "they left me to die" and "they're criminals" ring hollow as John is after them long before we see the worst of their actions.

    Really, John is a major part of the game's appeal as he's one of the most multifaceted and well-developed video game protagonists we've seen. He wants to be moral and decent but his entire life has been one criminal undertaking after another. He judges other people for their crimes but hides behind a code which doesn't really always make sense (even to him). A favorite scene early in the game has Bonnie snarling about the outlaws who have attacked her father while John tries to weakly provide justification for why he was different. Famously, he's also a character who can theoretically do all manner of terrible things in the game but will never cheat on his wife.

Dueling is one of my favorite activities in the game. Too bad I suck at it.

    The gameplay is very entertaining with the decision to make there be an "auto-aim" feature very useful and avoiding the difficulty of the setting. Of course, auto-aim can result in you randomly murdering innocents passing by while you're trying to shoot a rabbit but that's just how it happens sometimes. I didn't much care for any of the side games from poker to five-finger-fillet but they're all there. I also appreciated the game a lot more when I realized I could fast travel between locations.

    My favorite activities in the game turned out to be the capture of those criminals listed on Wanted posters, going after gang hideouts, and dueling. In short, my favorite parts of the game were when the game simply provided me more of itself. I especially liked the additional difficulty of taking gang members alive with your lasso even if I think the hogtie function in the game is horribly broken. I can't say why I enjoyed picking flowers but I also spent an inordinate amount of time looking for Red Sage and Prickly Pears.

You can bring justice to the Old West but...should you?
      The real appeal for me is the supporting cast, though. This is a rare game where I can't actually think of a single character I didn't like. Well, maybe the anthropologist as I really wanted him to get a good ass kicking but everyone else were magnificent characters. It's a pity Bonnie MacFarland and John didn't meet earlier in their lives is all I'm saying. I also was a huge fan of the Mexican Revolution arc, even though (or perhaps because) it ends on such a downer.

     Almost every supporting character is a twist on a stock Western archetype which doesn't always go the way you expect. The Marshal in Armadillo, for example, is as tough as nails as any other Sheriff but he's also a person who doesn't actually care about enforcing the law unless it visits his region and gives good reason for it. Bonnie is as heroic and admirable a figure as any other rancher's daughter love interest but then she causally talks about how her father killed Indians to get their land (which is historically accurate as an attitude to have and would have been celebrated as late as the 1950s). Luisa believes passionately in the Revolution and her lover, completely missing the latter is sleaze and the former dependent on him.

It was an accident! Sort-of! I auto-aimed wrong!
    The graphics of the game are pretty damn good and hold up exceptionally well. I actually recommend this game be played on the Xbox One or a next generation console versus the original as it runs signifciantly better. Also, I was able to appreciate the level of detail to the graphics whereas on its original console, I wasn't. The design for the Wild West of Rockstar's fictional world is quite beautiful with a variety of terrain as well as little hints left and right how the world was and how it's changing. Historically, the Wild West only lasted from the Civil War to 1890 so it really was a far more compact period of history than people imagine.

    Despite this, there were still some glitches and I had moments where my horses were floating, horseshoes were in the middle of the air, and certain bodies were hanging around like ghosts. These flaws weren't so bad as the long loading-screen times even on the Xbox One and I'm very glad that I mostly played on my current generation console as, otherwise, it would have been awful.

John can also kill the last buffalo. Monster.
    Red Dead Redemption earns major points for the fact the game's soundtrack is absolutely awesome. It's an homage to what is already some of the best music in cinema and the use of fiddles is particularly memorable. I purchased the soundtrack and listen to it on a quite regular basis, it's so good. The main theme is particularly haunting and if not quite "The Ecstasy of Gold" then at least pretty damn good.

   The ending of the game is so famous it's hard to spoil it but I won't take the risk and will simply say it's touching as well as appropriate. I actually liked Jack Marston a lot and wish he'd gotten his own game or, at least, a really prolonged DLC. I would have enjoyed to have more insight into Jack and how he feels after the events of Red Dead Redemption. Instead, we got Undead Nightmare, which is an extremely enjoyable expansion and one which is pretty much necessary for every fan of the game to play. Even better, it doesn't actually feel that out of sorts because the zombie apocalypse in the Old West is treated with an actual plot. It's not the most singularly original plot but there's moments like when John is hired to eliminate the Sasquatch "menace" that you feel an emotional gut-punch.

    In conclusion, this is one of the few games which qualifies as art. Not perfect art but pretty damn close.


1 comment:

  1. Actually, you can split it into three types of westerns:
    The first part is your John Wayne 1950s Western. With clear cut good and bad.
    The second is the spaghetti western with the lines being blurred between good and bad.
    The third is Unforgiven where good and bad don't really matter.