Friday, June 1, 2012

GOT 'IM - Red Dead Redemption

Another month down, another target complete. This is probably my favorite backlogged game I've finished this year - I was always impressed when I saw Jon or miki_sei playing it, and I finally got around to it on my own: Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption isn't exactly a direct sequel to 2004's Red Dead Revolver; when RockStar Games bought the rights to that Capcom title, I think they just wanted to do a Western with a name that would be slightly familiar. In any case, Red Dead Redemption is RockStar's attempt at a sweeping, epic open-world action Western and they in large part succeed.

Red Dead Redemption (henceforth referred to as RDR) has a Grand Theft Auto pedigree that's hard not to notice. Your player-character, John Marston, completes objectives by locating needy NPCs on the map, and the objectives run the gamut from escort missions to clearing out an area full of enemies to occasional stealth and seizure. Yup, sounds like GTA to me.

The label of "GTA in the Old West" seems arbitrary and unfair, but it's 100% true and I mean it as a compliment. The basic framework of RDR is that of a GTA game with horses, wagons, old rifles and revolvers, dusty villages, and the climate and topography of the American Southwest. GTA wears its new setting well.

Let's talk about narrative. RDR is set in the a part of the American Southwest which is separated from Mexico by a river. New Austin, the starting area, is basically Texas, except it only has five or six major towns and each one is smaller than a typical high school campus. John Marston arrives in New Austin accompanied by some suspicious men in suits, and immediately begins inquiring about local outlaws. Avoiding a few spoilers, John Marston is a former outlaw being forced to confront his past, and RDR is his quest for closure and redemption.

John Marston is one of my favorite game protagonists of all time. His character resonated with me. Whether you decide to be honorable or dishonorable in the game, John takes an amusingly straightforward attitude with anyone he meets (yes, there's a karma system, but it has very little impact on the main story, if any). He's always polite to ladies (John's a faithful married man, so don't get any ideas), but treats men who string him around with contempt. When characters keep presenting him with random-seeming tasks and deflect John's requests for help, he reacts with an impatience, sarcasm, and exasperation that often echoes the player's exact feelings. RDR doesn't break the fourth wall or anything, but John Marston is one of the realest-seeming main characters in any videogame I've ever played. That's something.

But I guess I should talk about the game itself, right? Well, when you're not carrying out a specific mission for an NPC, you basically have free reign to explore all of New Austin, the fictional Mexican province of Nuevo Paraiso, and the nearby state of West Elizabeth, which seems like a river region to me, like parts of Arkansas or Missouri. When you're roaming the roads and trails, you can assist strangers, kill innocents, outlaws, or law enforcement, hunt all manner of wildlife, break stallions, perform odd jobs, play cards and other minigames, collect herbs to create items or sell to stores, or, well, a large number of totally peripheral activities. It's overwhelming at first.

I never made it very far in the hunting, sharpshooting, or gathering challenges, but I cleared every criminal hideout possible (some multiple times), helped a majority of the unique strangers in the game, and obtained several character outfits by performing specific objectives. My favorite was capturing bounties - Marston picks up a wanted poster, travels to the quarry's hideout, takes out his men, captures the bounty with his lasso, hogties him, and delivers him back to the nearest jail with more bandits in hot pursuit. I could've done that all day. Even better, all of these sidequest activities can be performed in multiplayer. You can posse up with up to eight players, enter a free-roam game where it's every man for himself, and experience RDR in a more social environment. It's a lot of fun.

The basic mechanics of the game work just fine, but aren't anything particularly special or perfect. Gunplay is that of a cover-based shooter (like it or not, take it or leave it, cliche or other cliche), with a deadeye shot in single-player that makes killing groups quickly a lot easier. John Marston isn't terribly agile, and if you get stuck / unstuck in cover then you can die in a hurry, but there's nothing terribly broken about combat. My biggest complaint is visibility, as the game's dim, dusty look makes enemies hard to see on occasion.

Riding on horseback is pretty good most of the time, and controls more easily than Agro in Shadow of the Colossus. I had trouble shooting from horseback (I never quite mastered the controls for aiming + moving on the trail + whatever else), but it wasn't a deal-breaker. My only complaint was that they made the horse-breaking (which is a good idea and mostly fun) a little unnecessary - they give you one of the three best horses in the game as a reward in an early mission.

The tone of Red Dead Redemption seems... appropriate. It's the early 20th century, and the old way of the west (cowboys and Indians, toughness and independence) is dying out due to the onset of technology and the influx of new settlers. Everything from the gray-red-and-brown visuals (surprisingly fitting this time!) to the bluesy, minimalist musical score fit the melancholy undercurrent of RDR just fine. The saddest part of all - RDR is full of entertaining, larger-than-life characters and fabulous dialog. Why is that sad? With one exception (avoiding spoilers), every character in the game is either A) evil, B) tragically, obviously flawed, C) meaning well, but ultimately failing in their goals, or D) unceremoniously dead by game's end. Almost every likeable character or optimistic setup dies or darkens by the end of the game. With one exception. So have fun playing it.

There's a lot I could keep saying about Red Dead Redemption, but I don't want to bog you down with details. There's a lot to do overall and that's awesome. The single-player story is pretty good, even if the mission construction is awfully arbitrary and I'd rather just spend more time on my own. The game is ultimately a downer, but its ending is rightfully called one of the best in modern gaming history. RDR seems weak and samey at times, but it delivers tremendous variety and scope, great characters and story, and one of the greatest adaptations of the Old West in a long time. Red Dead Redemption is worth it.

Games Beaten: 2012 Edition

1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
9. Journey
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution
13. Red Dead Redemption

Targets: 4/12


So RDR was awesome. Really awesome. But with the year five-twelfths over, my list is a mere four-twelfths complete. I'm behind, but hopefully not for long. I think my next two or three games will be of the PS2, PSP, and Wii variety, as I may lack full HDTV and internet access for an unknown period. Up next is probably the most popular game in a series that I've never really given a fair chance; now is that chance. Persona 3, you're on deck. Maybe after DeathSpank 2. Because that will take like two hours. And not two hundred.

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