Red Dead Redemption Review (Xbox360)

From the moment cowboy John Marston alights from his train in frontier town Armadillo, it's Redemption's open-world elements that immediately entice. The town itself contains a microcosm of attractions, mini-games and side missions, but it's those rolling twilight prairies on the horizon that draw the eye. Standing and gazing, it's easy to begin wondering exactly how far you can travel. Does the train work perhaps? (it does) Can I explore the other side of the river? (you can, but you can't swim) Can you scale those distant mountains? (yep) Where is that gunfire coming from? (...) What was that scream? (!) What the bloody hell was that crawling in the grass... and where are my weapons? (a rabbit, and mapped to the left bumper)

The scars are never explained

Following a quick primer on horse-riding mechanics and a chat with of a couple of major characters, Red Dead hands you your trusty iron and steed, and turns you loose. Story missions observe a traditional template and introduce each of the major geographical areas as you play through, but simply riding around with no prior knowledge of the environment is a joy unto itself. Gangs of bandits, rural dwellers, lost townsfolk and all manner of wildlife populate the land with enough variety to keep encounters regular, whilst Rockstar also introduces the concept of 'world events', which are scripted sequences placed into the environment at random. Players can be galloping across a field and suddenly find themselves intervening in an outlaw hanging, in a race to pick herbs or stepping into a gang fight, and whilst there is some inevitable repetition to be found in these moments, they remain optional and numerous enough to embolden rather than detract from the experience.

Although initially less daunting viewed on a menu screen than it is in-game, the world map neatly compresses and stitches together all the major southern landscapes into one seamless entity. From the snow-capped mountains that mark the northern-most peak to the Louisiana-style swampland and deserts of New Austin, borders are difficult to notice as you travel at relatively sedate pace from one area to the next, landscape and texturing gradually bleeding to a different style. Long rides from point-to-point rarely cease to be anything less than enjoyable thanks to a solid control scheme (the option to fast-travel via portable camp also exists), whilst staying within earshot of other horseback companions requires only a single button press and occasional steering. That simplistic mechanic also allows for mid-mission travel dialogue to remain a well-utilised exposition tool, and an intriguing gaggle of characters ensure that verbal exchanges are entertaining.

Indeed, Redemption's winding plot notably improves and matures Rockstar's dependence on comedy shock and awe storytelling. Their appetite for the extreme is curbed in favour of a tale that pays subtle homage to cinematic classics, and whilst international characters are still painted with a stereotypical ethnicity brush, they rarely descend to the depths of portrayal that you might expect. Focussing on an American frontier on the cusp of dramatic industrial and cultural change, John Marston's story is that of man caught between two lives, trying to make sense of his future set against a bleak past. Excellent vocal casting and a willingness to explore some rarely-tapped subject matter (particularly in the triumphant final few hours) shifts the action along some interesting tangents, notably swerving away from maniacal villains or super-heroic feats of endeavour.

One of the many diversions

But whilst the story marks a slight shift away from convention, Rockstar's mission structure is firmly rooted in the past. Travelling to a designated location on the map and dispatching a number of enemies comprises the bulk of the story content, but the unique set pieces and departure from modern weaponry make them all the more entertaining. Whilst still erring on the side of sluggish a little too often for comfort, gunplay is notably improved over previous titles and relatively easy to pick up thanks to a generous lock-on system. The slow-motion 'Deadeye' aiming mode (in which your foes are 'painted' with a target and executed with rapid fire) is rarely required outside of duels and choice sequences in the plot, but instead acts as a sorely-required difficulty regulator in normal play, turning moments that would previously have required a restart into last-gasp last-man-standing victories. Crucially, it doesn't work to cheapen the experience any, and it'll be interesting to see how GTA V deals with that particular conundrum - as Red Dead benefits hugely from its inclusion.

Deadeye also exists to some degree in Redemption's much-vaunted Multiplayer, although the slow-motion effects are omitted for obvious reasons. Free Roam is everything the developer claimed it would be, allowing groups of eight to traverse the entire map and engage in pitched battles with other player-controlled or AI gangs, all the while earning XP to unlock character models, horses and titles. The joy here is much the same as GTA IV, and watching as a stray bullet turns a co-operative session into a friendly-fire bloodbath, or witnessing a horse and rider crumpling inches from your feet after pitching themselves off a 50ft cliff frankly never gets old. It's light-hearted and supremely fun, and whilst I doubt it will endure to the lengths of a Modern Warfare or Halo, if you jump in now you can't help but be entertained. Network performance has been a little hit-and-miss however, but as ever with these things, it's difficult to tell if that was the game or the players ruining things.

Horses are the primary mode of transport

It's also worth noting at this stage that Redemption is an unusually beautiful title. With every inch of the land packed with period detail and atmosphere, it's the lighting, audio and weather effects that really steal the show. Far more pronounced than those found in Liberty City, Rockstar has employed a degree of artistic licence that wrings the most out of its landscape, with the use of shadow, heat haze and reflection particularly dramatic. Wind ripples through the prairies as Mist rolls in from the foggy hills, sand glares a harsh white in the Mexican mid-day sun, thunderstorms unleash dramatic lightning and dusk bathes the land in a warm orange glow. Playing an open-world game in which the precise time of day can be ascertained simply by quality and tone of light, regardless of weather, is a refreshing experience to say the least, and an extremely commendable achievement.

And whilst that may seem like overly-effusive praise for a relatively inconsequential part of the design, it's precisely that attention to detail that enables Redemption to succeed where others have fallen. There are moments in Marston's quest where you'll entirely forget the narrative and just be content to watch the sunrise crest over a distant mountain, or spot something occurring in the distance that leads to an hour-long diversion and an impromptu hunting trip. But more than ever before, those are the moments that define the world and lend an additional weight to the narrative. Rockstar's latest feels like an actual location rather than a movie set, and it's compelling, cohesive, at once familiar and yet imbued with a sense of slack-jawed wonderment. It's also absolutely unmissable. 

Best Game Moment: Discovering your first Grizzly, high up in the mountains.

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By stuntkid (SI Elite) on May 30, 2010
Sounds great!
By Richie82 (SI Member) on May 30, 2010
Great review, Manny. I heartily agree, especially having killed off the game last night. It's pure, effing genius.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on May 31, 2010
I hope, as they did with GTA IV Rockstar will port this to PC. This is one console port I'd buy.
By Jake_SI (SI Elite) on Jun 02, 2010
Such a great game... I really don't think I could ever get sick of it. It's just so much fun to jump in-game and mess about. I often find myself starting the game up to play the campaign, and then 2 or 3 hours later, I haven't done a single mission, instead I've just been playing around doing other things such as hunting bears, robbing banks, exploring.. and more.

You really cant go wrong with this game, the campaign is great, massive replay value.. and an awesome multiplayer.
By Twig113 (SI Newbie) on Jun 06, 2010
I want this to come out for PC it looks so awsome
By DARK_RAVEN (I just got here) on Jun 17, 2010
By space_case_stace (I just got here) on Jul 08, 2010
3 days of gaming and your done come on rockstar you can think up more things to do, wish there was more missions great game otherwise.
By PCfreak22 (SI Newbie) on Jul 17, 2010
it would be nice if they could release it on many of us PC owners would be pleased :)
By Imperials_Creations (SI Newbie) on Jul 25, 2010
yeah, I am hoping for that! They said that for GTA IV and they release it for PC! They need release it for PC!
By BoneArc (SI Elite) on Jul 26, 2010
oh Come on ! no pc version yet ?!

god .... i hope they announce it soon
By Imperials_Creations (SI Newbie) on Jul 27, 2010
me too!;)
By PyrettaBlaze (SI Veteran Member) on Jan 26, 2011
I never played the actual RDR game but I have played the DLC on it, Undead Nightmare, and OMG it was so fun! Now I wanna get it to play both.
By paelleon (SI Veteran Member) on Feb 16, 2011
Nope. There will not be a PC release. Isn't this stupid?