Red Dead Redemption Review: Take 2
Sandbox games produced by Rockstar have a common failing that the company has never managed to address – or, really, even admit to. Namely, once you’ve run around for a bit, causing mayhem and destruction and making a general ass of yourself, there’s not a whole lot of reason to keep playing. Sure, you’ll pop Grand Theft Auto in every once in a while, if for no other reason than to kill some time by engaging in some honest-to-goodness old-fashioned American slaughter. When you get down to it, though, while it may satisfy a basic need, it doesn’t really nourish or excite you. Rockstar Studios is the fast food of the gaming industry – it certainly has a place in the market and a right to exist, but with the exception of the “Max Payne” series (of which a 3rd installment is both necessary and deserved), don’t go expecting it to produce anything of any real substance.
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I can say this: Rockstar does have something going for it: The company's production value is unmatched. Its games look so good and so polished and complete that, on the surface and at first glance, I can forget all the disappointment the GTA series has produced. The company can polish that turd to a shining finish and trick even the most experienced gamers, and I have to say, that takes a moderate amount of talent.
So, allow me to start with this: Red Dead Redemption is an extremely well-polished turd. It is a genuinely gorgeous-looking game, and as mentioned, it was so pretty that it managed to trick me (as well as several friends of mine) into thinking it was a great game. Upon picking it up, I was genuinely thrilled – there hadn’t been a good western shooter since LucasArts’ Outlaws, and I felt the genre was perilously close to extinction. It appears as though the developers at Rockstar spent countless hours watching and researching classic spaghetti westerns in an attempt to translate that genre onto an interactive platform, and should be lauded strictly for their effort and success in that endeavor. Gratuitous violence, moral ambiguity and a skewing of traditional “right-and-wrong” values are what set the revisionist westerns apart from their campier, “classic” counterparts, and those same standards are what place Red Dead Redemption apart (though, not separate from) from its GTA predecessors.
The graphic presentation and the setting are about where I get off.
RDR can’t stay interesting for long enough to really matter. There’s a semblance of a story: John Marston is hired/coerced/forced to hunt down and kill his old outlaw buddies for the sake of the government because for reasons unknown/kept secret/forgotten by the developers, the government can’t be bothered to bring its own criminals to justice. Along the way, you help out Rockstar’s usual cast of completely unpleasant, un-relatable characters who inhabit the region of South Texas and North Mexico.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Rockstar game without myriad mini-games along the way, allowing you to earn/gamble money to (presumably) throw in the air and dance around in like a madman in the rain. I assume this because I never had to buy ANYTHING in RDR other than more places to save my game. Also, it’s easier to earn money in this manner, because, unlike GTA, killing, skinning, and robbing a prostitute is now frowned upon. These mini-games serve mostly as distractions, allowing you to do things other than play RDR. There’s horseshoes, blackjack, bishop-boxing, Texas hold ‘em, 5-Finger fillet, liar’s dice, spittoon bobsledding, arm-wrestling, hunting, cattle-rustling, horse wrangling, jackalope-breeding, dueling (only if challenged), flower picking and (of course) chupacabre snaring. I made up four of those activities just now, but the idea is this: RDR is using the mini-games as an attempt to distract the player from the game itself. For the record, you can earn other costumes in-game, allowing you to do different things – skirt the law, avoid certain gangs, etc. There’s even a useless costume that – somehow – allows you to cheat at cards, in case you’re unable to work out how to exploit the AI and make them bust themselves out. I personally could never get the suit to work – every time I was caught cheating and would have to blow some idiot away.
It totally wasn’t a big deal, either. Said idiot would resurrect himself a few days later because if Jonah Hex and High Plains Drifter have taught us anything, it’s that old west resurrection was not only common, it was rampant. I mean, really – I can understand using the same character model, but Rockstar couldn’t even be bothered to change the character’s name? There’s something profoundly unsatisfying about killing someone who refuses to stay dead – even when you hog tie him and leave him on the train tracks, watching from a distance as he explodes once the train comes along.
Along with numerous bugs (clipping errors, model errors, sound errors) and a persistent world that is anything but (resurrecting gangs and shopkeepers), RDR just isn’t terribly engaging. It’s got Rockstar sandbox syndrome – the missions are ho-hum at best, and downright infuriating and stupid at worst. Rockstar must have anticipated that everybody playing had some intense interest in being a farmhand because you have to rustle cattle – not once – but several times over the course of this game.
The bottom line: Read Dead Redemption is a running attempt at a game. It’s fun when you first pick it up, but with an inverse learning curve, bug problems, and a weak story propelled forward with unlikeable characters, it doesn’t have enough going for it to warrant it beyond a bargain-bin purchase.