Red Dead Redemption – Xbox 360 review

Review by Johnus Maximus

The year is 1911. When an ex-gunslinger’s family are held captive by the American government, he’s forced to get back in the saddle and hunt the gang of outlaws he used to run with, putting his ideals aside in order to get the job done.

Developed by Rockstar San Diego and published by Rockstar Games, Red Dead Redemption combines a compelling single player campaign with a vast open-world sandbox, some fun multiplayer features and an authentic Western setting.  Also available for PS3, it’s without a doubt one of 2010’s essential titles.

Red Dead Redemption begins with an unassuming ride on a steam locomotive, a sedate journey through harsh, relatively untamed environment of the Old West. Departing under duress, protagonist John Marston can do naught but sit back and watch the savage landscape of New Austin (a diverse territory comprising an amalgamation of California, Texas and Nevada) go by.

As he eavesdrops into the conversations of those around him, you learn this is a time of great progress in the American expansion across the continent, with mass production of new technology, such as automobiles and telephones, helping the spread of  “civilisation”. In these changing times, the traditional cowboy is seen as something of an anachronism, and law enforcement is more strictly controlled by government.

In a naive attempt at a peaceful resolution, John ends up taking a bullet to the chest and being left for the vultures to pick apart.  Fortunately, local rancher and all round bag of sass Bonnie McFarlane rescues John, facilitating his recovery and some plot exposition. We learn of the peril his family are in, of the type of people John is going up against, and importantly, the sort of man John used to be.


“You don’t have to do this, just put down the gun!”

Bonnie also provides John with the opportunity to undertake some of that many tutorials that are skilfully integrated into the daily routines of the ranch. The most important skills are shooting and horse riding, both of which have been handled excellently in this game. Gunplay was one of the things Rockstar have never truly excelled at, but the mechanic in Redemption is vastly improved over that in GTA IV.

In addition to the traditional third person combat routine – cover, aim, fire, reload – John also has the “Dead Eye” ability at his disposal, which allows him a few seconds of bullet-time in which to target as many people as his ammo allows, then after exiting the bullet time, firing all shots in rapid succession with pinpoint accuracy. It is similar to Splinter Cell Redemptions “Mark and Execute” function, but it also allows you to target specific body parts, if say you want to disarm your foe.

As you perform tasks and create a friendship with Bonnie and her fellow ranchers, you’ll soon start to do missions for them that have you venturing beyond the relative safety of the farm. Using motion capture techniques, Rockstar have created some very lifelike equine companions for you to befriend, and while they may never have the charm of Epona or Agro you’ll come to rely on them immensely.


“You wanna die?”

As with their other sandbox titles, Rockstar have placed a significant degree of freedom into your hands when structuring the flow of missions. Giant letters embossed on your map denote characters with whom you may contact to continue the progress of the storyline. It’s not mandatory to explore the world, and other than cash rewards, costumes and weapon unlocks there is no RPG-style character progression to force you down the unexplored path.

However, the game has a way of sinking its claws into you and appealing to your natural sense of exploration and conflict resolution. Many differing random encounters occur – shopkeepers get robbed, ladies get hogtied and kidnapped, horses get stolen and gangs of bandits lie in wait to attack if you stop to help a seemingly fraught, solitary woman sitting at the side of a desert road.

Frequently intervening in these random encounters will earn John Marston a reputation, this can work both for and against you as certain factions will start to offer you assistance or be more or less likely to try and instigate trouble depending on how you are progressing. It can also lead to people being more likely to recognise and want to duel you, which is another of the games signature features that utilises the “Dead Eye” feature to great effect.


“Ola Mexico, me nombre es John Marston”

In the vast open world, people aren’t the only threat to your existence, as you’ll forever be at the mercy of wild creatures like coyotes, wolves, snakes, cougars and bears. If you so choose, you can hunt them, once killed they can be skinned and gutted, their pelts and parts can be sold in settlement stores, or just kept in your inventory as part of some macabre hobby. As well as the hunting, you can search out herbs, again to be sold in shops or used as quest requirements.

This open world gameplay reminded me on many occasions of the early stages of World of Warcraft, going hither and thither on fetch quests and generally fearing for your safety when anything other than yourself moves. It’s just a shame that there isn’t a massive amount of use for the items you collect, other than for trading in to buy bullets, food and the sparsely granted unique items that reveal hidden portions of the map or allow you to ride better mounts.

Redemption has a long story to tell, and to begin with the interaction between John and the many people he meets is played out exceptionally. Unfortunately, as the game progresses, you will start to notice a marked transition from serious, believable characters to somewhat moronic, clichéd degenerates. It’s typical of a Rockstar game to include some comic relief, but in the context of the wider setting and tone, some of these characters can make the middle third of the game extremely trying.


“Blessed are the peacemakers”

It comes as a great relief that the final act in the game is one of the most exciting and powerful experiences I have had with this genre. The conclusion is somewhat predictable, but executed with finesse. It’s difficult to elaborate my feelings without hinting at potential spoilers, so I’ll just say that it ends magnificently.

Finishing the story is not the end of your time with Redemption though, as you’ll probably still have to fully complete some of the many allotted tasks Rockstar have seeded the game with. Clearing out gang hideouts, hunting for buried treasure, beating people at poker, gathering rare herbs and breaking in horses, there’s a lot to do in the game. Except swimming, for some reason this kills you instantly.

Should you desire, you can participate in these activities online, as the multiplayer mode provides the same huge sandbox to play in and aside from a few small differences, it’s very much the same game. In the sandbox you make your own fun – forming posses with friends and strangers, participating in competitive mini-games and completing ambient tasks like hunting. Everything you do inevitably rewards experience points, which in turn unlock better weapons, mounts and character skins.


“You comfortable?”

You can play in a public match, or if you prefer, create a private invitation-only match. Both allow sixteen players to roam the world simultaneously, with up to eight players per posse. With the range of gameplay choices the online portion can be daunting, especially if you come into contact with “griefers”, the bane of most MMO style games. However, if you can find a few likeminded players it can prove to be hugely entertaining.

I’m not convinced that the online portion of Redemption has a lasting appeal, I think it will only remain fun and interesting if the people you end up playing it with are those with a more mature personality. It is a game that gives great value for money, however – completing all that the campaign has to offer and maxing out your online skill level is no mean feat. At least one piece of downloadable content has been confirmed by Rockstar, so that will also extend your options.

Despite the potential for irritation during middle third of the campaign, I can find no real reason to not recommend this game to everyone, even those like myself with limited interest in the Western genre. The setting is believable, the score is exhilarating and there is certainly no shortage of action.

Red Dead Redemption scores five shiny sheriffs badges out of five