There will be spoilers in this review. I am sorry for that; I tried very hard to write about what, exactly, made this game so powerful to me without doing so but was unable. If this is a problem, you should stop reading now and simply know that I give this game the strongest positive review I can, and you should buy it immediately. Spoilers come at the end of this; they’re marked.
Let us begin.
Redemption is from the same family as Rockstar’s flagship series, Grand Theft Auto. They are not brothers, however – there are obvious genetic differences, and, in many ways, RDR has more in common with Bully than Grand Theft Auto IV, despite using the same engine.
It is the year 1911 and the “old west” is quickly becoming a faded memory. You play John Marston, a former outlaw. John turned a new leaf many years ago: he married, had a son, bought a farm. He has been living that life for fifteen years, despite having a notoriously intemperate disposition. He wants nothing more than to be left alone, to be happy with his wife, to raise his son, and maybe earn a few dollars from his farm.
This being the world of guns, however, it doesn’t last. His wife and son are “taken into custody” by government agents. They want him to track down a few members of his former gang. These men have gone off the reservation and the feds are calling in their chips: capture or kill these guys and you get your idyllic life back.
Thus we set our story’s stage.
The game’s story unfolds from this point. I’ll get back to that later. First, let’s talk about the actual “gameplay” itself.
Redemption is filled with the standard third-person combat mission styles. Go here, kill people, go somewhere else. Most storyline missions are muscle attached to this basic spine. However, like Bully (and unlike GTA), the real meat lies in the secondary and non-combat missions.
Early on, you will find yourself herding cattle, hunting rabbits, taming horses, and skinning coyotes. You’ll find treasure maps. You’ll chase down horse thieves and rescue damsels in distress. You’ll test your strength in arm wrestling, your wits in card games, and your dexterity in a wicked little game with knives and fingers.
You will find yourself dueling in the streets of a ghost town at high noon. Shoot the gun from your opponent’s hand and earn extra honor or simply blow his head off to stay alive.
Think back to every western movie you have seen. Those elements are here, and you’ll be part of them.
The game world is massive in scope, though I think it is physically smaller than many other sandbox games. Each of the three main regions has several sub-regions, each with their own flavor. We start in a region called “New Austin”, representing Arizona and Texas. Eventually, you move south into Mexico, and then north to the Great Plains (replete with the last buffalo) and the snow-covered Rocky mountains.
The terrain is terrifyingly beautiful. Human beings are few and far between but the land never feels desolate; there are always coyotes and raccoons and vultures to keep us company. It is vibrant in a way that Liberty City is not and can never be.
Much of your time will be spent riding horseback. Rumor says that the developers spent a huge amount of money doing motion capture on the equine species and it shows. Horses are an integral part of the Redemption experience and riding them to their fullest capabilities requires some skill. You’ll learn the basics early. Mastery will not come for some time but it is satisfying when it does.
The voice acting through the entire game is, in a word, stellar. I thought I had heard good voice acting in a game before. All those previous reviews where I said the voice acting was good? No, no. Those guys are average now. This game sets a new bar for quality, and it does it twice (you’ll understand when you complete the storyline).
The music is subdued and perfect. It hints a blend of spaghetti western noir with burgeoning jazz sensibilities – especially in the later acts of the game. It’s a fluid thing, almost intelligent, and only ever serves to enhance the mood. The music serves strongly in the game’s Crowning Moment of Awesome, but it does so with the subtlety of switchblade between the ribs: silent, efficient, powerful.
There is an underlying sadness to the game. This comes not from the main story but is rather indicated by subtext: it is 1911. The west is gone. The savage Indians are not-so-savage anymore; civilization has arrived and it carries with it the death of the Old Ways. But, as John says, those Old Ways never really existed except inside the nostalgia of those trying to forget.
The story of the game draws from the great westerns of the past fifty years. It sings of The Searchers, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The game’s final chapter echoes the death of the west as played out in The Shootist. Each of these films – and many more – are homaged in some interesting and loving way.
Like GTA IV, Redemption‘s skin covers a story that is cinematic in scope. However, where GTA IV’s Niko Bellic is driven forward by the whips of vengeance, Redemption’s John Marston is motivated by the love of his family and the fear for their safety. Boiled down, John Marston is a father first and a gunslinger second.
This path leads us to the game’s Crowning Moment of Awesome.
Here there be spoilers.
In the third act, there are several missions that climax with John finally killing the leader of his old gang. The federal agents, true to their word, let him go and John returns home to his wife and son.
One might think that the credits should roll. But they do not. Instead, there are several missions (maybe ten or so) wherein John re-integrates with the farming lifestyle. He kills crows for his wife. Buys cattle. Herds horses.
John is a father. Most of the missions at this point are about developing a relationship with his fifteen year old son, Jack. He teaches Jack to ride, to shoot, to hunt. He is a father.
It’s a dynamic shift in the narrative. It’s smooth. The music (pay attention to it) changes through this; it becomes less adventurous and more contemplative, following John’s patterns. The impatient among you may want to skip the dialog sessions, but I urge otherwise: listen to Abigail’s nervous chatter about John’s time away from them. Hear Jack’s frustration at his father leaving them.
Because, as expected, the law men return. And hell follows with them.
There is a dénouement afterwards. The story picks up again in 1914. You will play Jack, now a man. And his story is one of revenge.
I cannot impress upon you how great this game is.