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Review: Red Dead Redemption

Grand Theft Oater?
By MITCH KRPATA  |  June 21, 2010
3.5 3.5 Stars

 

The land doesn't care. Not about the storms that blow across its plains. Not about the animals that stalk one another through its grasses. And certainly not about the men who occasionally appear over the horizon and try to build a civilization on its sands. The rock formations that loom over the desert were there æons before the first human stood in their shadows, and they'll be there for æons after. We see ourselves as the major players in the drama, upon whose actions the fate of the world hinges, but the blood we spill will be washed away as soon as the rains come.

Red Dead Redemption | for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Rockstar San Diego | Published by Rockstar Games
These are the kinds of thoughts that cross your mind when you play Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar Games' attempt to bring the revisionist Western into the world of video games. Rockstar's biggest strength has always been building vibrant, convincing worlds, and this one is no exception. The fictional New Austin comprises aspects of the American Midwest and Southwest and Mexico. As in Far Cry 2 — another game that juxtaposed human brutality with a serene and remote environment — the raw beauty of the place is reason enough to play. You'll gallop across plains, ford streams, and make your bed under a million bright stars. Nothing could happen and it would still be worth riding from one end of the map to the other.

But the map is busy — sometimes too much so. New Austin is crawling with wildlife. Crows circle overhead while rabbits dart through the brush. You may get ambushed by a mountain lion. The animals are threats, to be sure, but the real danger comes from the people you'll encounter along the way. Rockstar's vision of the Old West is at times a little too close to its vision of modern-day New York, in that there's always some brouhaha over the next rise in which you're compelled to intercede. Not that such a thing never happened to a lone rider — but it probably didn't happen several times a day.

Where Rockstar has tended to falter in the past is in its story lines — or rather, the characters who populate those story lines. It still can't resist the occasional caricature (or the occasional ass joke), but Red Dead Redemption continues the maturation process of Grand Theft Auto IV. Our hero, John Marston, is capable of great violence, but unlike even GTA4's Niko Bellic, he's not trapped in a game that keeps undercutting the narrative's insistence that he's basically a good guy. Some of that's simple math: New Austin has relatively few innocents.

Some rough edges remain. As Rockstar's storytelling grows more compelling, the seams become more apparent. During tense missions, it's possible to plow into a bystander on your horse and fail the objective on grounds of "terrorizing the townsfolk." Even simple errors, like the way your horse teleports to the side when you encounter another rider at high speed, sound the occasional flat note in an otherwise virtuoso performance.

This being a Rockstar game, the story of Marston's quest for revenge — and, yes, redemption — is adorned with endless side missions and mini-games. At their best, they flesh out the world. What would an Old West setting be without some back-room poker? Some of this is busy work, like the series of challenges that send Marston into the wilds to hunt game under increasingly stringent conditions. Yet it's all worth pursuing just to experience the harsh environs, and to marvel, evenings, at the red sky in the West.

  Topics: Videogames , Technology, Culture and Lifestyle, Games,  More more >
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