By Marty Mulrooney & Duncan Voice
With AMO still growing every day, it is sometimes difficult for us to get our gaming reviews out the door as quickly as we would like, especially with huge titles such as Red Dead Redemption. On the plus side, this can often give us a far more extensive amount of time than our competitors to fully complete a game and offer a clearheaded verdict once the hype-leaden dust clouds have settled. For players who have already finished the game and newcomers finally ready to bite the bullet, this multi-format review will cover RDR’s single and multiplayer modes in-depth, on both PS3 and Xbox 360.
Before we begin our review, it is important to say a few words about the differences between the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game. First of all, the PS3 version (Blu-ray) requires a 600mb install, which is a lot smaller than GTA IV’s 3.3GB install, but could still prove an annoyance to people with limited hard drive space. The Xbox 360 runs straight from the DVD disk. Load time improvements on the PS3 due to installing prove negligible.
A quick Google search will quickly show a multitude of comparisons between the two versions. AMO can only comment from our own experience: both play identically. The Xbox 360 version is slightly sharper and has more foliage on the ground in native 720p, whereas the PS3 is rendered at sub-HD (1152×640) and uses some tricks such as quincunx anti-aliasing to close the gap visually. It nearly works, but RDR on PS3 does look slightly blurrier as a result. Both versions have impressive draw distances and provide a full open world: neither is pushing their respective console to the limit. Such is the nature of multiplatform game development. Regardless, both consoles provide the exact same core game.
Single Player Review by Marty Mulrooney (PlayStation 3)
It is difficult when first loading Red Dead Redemption not to make comparisons with Grand Theft Auto IV. Based upon the same engine (RAGE), everything feels very familiar. The controls are practically the same and the radar even makes a reappearance at the bottom left hand corner of the screen. However, the cutscenes are much improved, with most characters looking fantastic, especially protagonist John Marston. Likewise, the world is altogether much more fully realised: instead of hulking skyscrapers and concrete jungles, players are now thrown into a wilderness of cacti and desert soil. This is a brand new game that doesn’t require players to be familiar with Red Dead Revolver on PlayStation 2, which was a much more linear, shooter style affair.
The storyline is a simple one that takes a long time to blossom. The year is 1911, the location is America… and the Wild West is dying. Criminal-gone-straight John Marston is being blackmailed by the government to hunt down and kill his old gang members. Along the way, he will meet a wide and varied array of friends, foes and villains. Missions are given in the typical GTA style, yet some don’t feel very well integrated into the world. Horse races seem an odd fit and it doesn’t help that the controls when riding aren’t as intuitive as when on foot. Still, it is very interesting to witness the dawn of technology, cities and street cars whilst embodying a man who actively fights these changes.
To date, the best horse riding mechanic in gaming I have ever experienced was in Shadow Of The Colossus on PlayStation 2. Red Dead Redemption has a good stab at it, but I never felt a connection with my horse or felt fully in control. Staying on clearly marked paths will allow your horse to ride swiftly, with a tap of the X button spurring him onwards. Go off-road and your speed drops. A blue bar at the side of the radar shows your ride’s stamina: fully deplete it without letting it replenish and you will be thrown to the ground. Other horses can be caught or bought later on and once you acquire a good one, you will never look back. Shooting whilst riding is easy enough although you do have to concentrate!
Holding X when riding with companions makes your horse automatically match their speed. This is a roundabout way of allowing conversations to occur when travelling, much like in GTA IV. However, unlike in that game, RDR often makes players feel like an inactive bystander, which is a shame. When riding as a stagecoach passenger with a NPC to a mission for example, you can either sit there and listen to them talk for the entire journey (which could last over 5 minutes due to the size of the map) or skip the long, boring process entirely, the downside being that you will of course miss some dialogue. It is as if the developers wanted to include extra conversations and character development but couldn’t think of a way to do so during regular gameplay.
Gunplay fares far better. The shooting mechanics of the RAGE engine have been totally overhauled for Read Dead Redemption. In the PS3 version, pressing L2 will snap the reticule (now a small white dot) to the nearest enemy. Players can then quickly use the right analogue stick to fine-tune their aim and snap off a shot with a tap of R2. It works really well and the weapons all have a satisfying impact, sounding very authentic. The cover system works quite effectively overall as well, with very few instances of sticking to the wrong object. Cleverly, holding L1 allows quick access to a Weapon Wheel, meaning that players can quickly access their kit without wasting time having to cycle through every weapon.
Dead Eye allows player to slow down time and target their enemies more efficiently. Killing enemies fills up a red meter on the right hand side of the radar. When this is full, Dead Eye can be triggered. Initially I found this mode almost akin to cheating: in its main form, sweeping the reticule over enemies immediately targets them with a red cross. Marston then automatically shoots all of these markers. Later in the game, the player has to place these markers manually and I found this a far more skilful and satisfying experience: this final form should have been implemented from the outset. Pistols are fun and look the part, but I often found myself favouring a rifle, popping off enemies at a distance from cover. Shooting right next to an enemy triggers a unique finishing move for the currently equipped weapon.
As previously mentioned, the missions are a mixed bag. Some are fantastic, offering a perfect mixture of frantic horse riding, bloody shoot-outs and hard earned cash rewards (if not an overreliance on Gatling guns at times). Others aren’t that great, boring journeys combined with mundane tasks that never really grab your imagination. They are basically inconsistent: sometimes the story picks up steam, before deflating again and going back to the same old generic missions. Rinse and repeat. The cast are well voiced and portrayed, but I found it hard to truly care for more than a handful of the supporting characters.
Luckily, players can keep themselves busy with plenty of side quests. Bounty hunting can prove lucrative (unless you become the target after law breaking), whilst shopkeepers will always reward you for lassoing a runway thief. A NPC might even want to challenge you to a duel. Players can also meet a variety of strangers dotted around the map, greatly increasing the game’s length with a variety of optional quests. There is plenty to do including gambling and hunting animals from the world’s thriving ecosystem, before skinning them and selling their hides. There is too much content to mention in one review: if anything, this game offers superb value for money.
Fame and Honour levels fluctuate throughout. As well as effecting the price of items in stores and lawmen’s strictness, it also influences how civilians will react to you. Sadly, I felt this was a rather underdeveloped feature: it somewhat clashes to play a family man who won’t cheat on his wife (prostitutes feature but cannot be frequented), who is depicted as an honourable man in cutscenes, and then go blasting innocent civilians. It just doesn’t feel right and has no influence on the storyline, unlike in games such as inFamous. I actually reloaded during one mission because I accidentally shot a female hostage in the head and felt bad!
These inconsistencies carry across into the story itself. It becomes hard to swallow that Marston is so heroic, but will often cross paths with characters who rape and murder during cutscenes and not even blink an eye. It could be argued that he knows his limits, but it still goes against the established nature of this reluctant hero. The story sometimes seems to set up despicable characters as prime targets for Marston’s unique brand of justice, before encouraging us to work for them instead, doing their dirty work. The way Marston follows orders from the government is believable in the grand scheme of things, but the way other characters send him on errands hurts the believability. It is almost enough to destroy the momentum of the narrative… but then the ending slaps you in the face and leaves your ears ringing.
It was only when the game reached its conclusion that I realised what an amazing protagonist John Marston actually is. Why? Because, after the conclusion (which would have been the natural end for many games), RDR continues onwards towards a final that rivals the very best Western cinema has to offer. Relative unknown Rob Wiethoff voices the character beautifully and Rockstar San Diego use this iconic main man’s presence to implement some truly memorable scenes. The soundtrack is wonderful, if not slightly generic. However, the surprise use of specially recorded songs (such as Far Away by José González) add some amazingly cinematic moments that transcend the GTA mould. One man, his horse and the endless West, rain lashing down with thunder on the horizon. But again, it was the ending that blew me away…
Spoiler Warning! The ending of Red Dead Redemption takes a great game and makes it unforgettable despite its faults. After some boring final missions that are obviously included to lull players into a false sense of security after their return home, Marston is betrayed and the government men he worked for come to kill him. The moment he steps out of his barn, faced with dozens of armed men as his wife and child flee, my heart caught in my throat. His death holds a weight that I have seldom felt before in videogames. I suddenly wasn’t invincible anymore. Playing his child years later, grown up and out for vengeance, after everything John did to offer him a better life… just broke my heart. Deadman’s Gun by Ashtar Command plays over the credits. The lyrics are apt enough to evoke a tear. One of the finest endings to a videogame ever. Haunting, tragic and unforgettable. Spoilers Finished.
Bugs and glitches are a common issue throughout RDR. YouTube is full of examples. The ones I came across personally included invisible cougars, NPC’s stuck in the ground at the waist, and being shot high into the air when trying to take cover, arms flailing. It is a real shame that these issues exist but there doesn’t seem to be anything game breaking which is the main thing.
Overall, Red Dead Redemption is an uneven gaming experience and I cannot claim to have enjoyed every last moment of the single player campaign. Some parts work better than others and I still feel that the RAGE engine could do with being updated to fully take advantage of next-gen game development, especially on PlayStation 3. Luckily, the ending is masterful and almost makes up for these prior misgivings. Almost.
Multiplayer Review by Duncan Voice (Xbox 360)
Me and the gang had just cleaned up the scum over at Tumbleweed, and were fixin’ on heading on over to Gaptooth Breach, when a cocky bunch of new breeds started firin’ and airin’ their lungs at us over the local chat.
This town were ours, an’ we weren’t in no mood to give it up an’ started shootin’ back at them sorry sons of a working girl. They’d got a lucky few hits in, takin’ down my fella’s horse, probably usin’ a rolling block rifle so they were plenty out of our range.
Them gutless beef-headed outlaws had disappeared behind the ridge, but ah sure as hell weren’t gon’ let them get away with it. I instructed my posse to guard the town, as I set off on the long way round.
My steed ain’t no bad hoss, and covered the distance in moments. Them yella-bellies were just sittin’ ugly taking shots at some poor fella on a nag. I trotted up behind them, pulled out my revolver. The colour washed away from mah eyes as time slowed down. I picked my targets, painting them there fools with a cross, marking them for death. Three bullets later, them scumbags were eatin’ dirt. Now ah don’t remember their names, but the next thing I did see was prettier than my Ma on her weddin’ day.
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Red Dead Redemption’s Free Roam mode is capable of producing moments so awesome that they feel like a scripted event lifted out of the single player, whilst on the other hand it teeters dangerously close to becoming a boring grind.
Forming posses, players can roam the Old West and complete gang hideouts that offer large chunk of experience points. It soon becomes clear that this method is also the fastest way to level up, and so repeated plays become standard.
On completion, the gang hideouts offer upwards of 1,000 experience points with further rewards for accuracy and speed. For example, in Fort Mercer the enemies re-spawn in the same position every time, so the challenge soon dissipates as the experience reward rises.
At any point, an enemy player can come in and disrupt the fighting, meaning you not only have to fight the AI, but also another player. This is easily combatable however if you want to level in peace, as the private mode means you are free to complete any challenges and hideouts, with any experience gained still applying.
This means that you could technically reach level 50 without ever having fired a single shot at another player. This would be missing the point, and would require the patience of a saint, but surely the highest level in a multiplayer shooter should show your proficiency/level of skill, not your ability to grind for hours on end?
Preceding each game is a brilliant standoff. An announcer introduces the teams before the frantic shootout begins, giving those with an affinity for headshots the chance to nudge ahead before the game begins proper.
Weapons and characters unlocked for use in Free Roam mode aren’t usable during the various death matches and games of Capture The Bag. Players with the presence of mind to hunt out the more powerful weapons will find themselves at an advantage, although there is never a situation where new players find themselves struggling.
Irritations come in the form of the occasional connection issue, sometimes failing to load Free Roam mode and the Euphoria Engine’s gigantic turning circle leaving you open to attack whilst you run back and forth struggling to get through a door.
Regular unlocks come thick and fast, with titles, characters and mounts allowing you to forge your own personality to some extent. At only 200xp for a win that could take five to ten minutes, levelling through matchmaking is a slow process and for players that are that way inclined, gang hideout grinding remains the fastest and easiest option.
Free DLC is always good, and Outlaws To The End is no exception. A co-op mission pack, players can work in gangs of up to four players to complete scenarios with short narratives, taking place in familiar locales. In typical co-op fashion, downed teammates can be revived. It adds a much needed injection of variety to a multiplayer mode in danger of becoming tedious.
Future, albeit paid for, DLC packs have been confirmed for release in the near future, adding extra locations, horse racing and a… zombie mode?!
Red Dead Redemption’s multiplayer certainly does enough to keep the disc in the drive long after the campaign has reached its wonderful conclusion. Being able to level up without taking part in any player versus player action seems to be a glaring oversight, but thankfully I’ve yet to encounter any of the major bugs that can be found in the single player mode. Watching Marston fly up fifty metres before crashing back to earth after trying to enter cover was a particular highlight.
Played with friends, it’s probably the most fun I’ve had in any multiplayer. Playing solo still warrants RDR’s place in your disc drive, but only just.
After discussing the game between them, both Marty and Duncan have decided Red Dead Redemption (regardless of console) deserves:
8 OUT OF 10
All images ©2010 Rockstar Games. All rights reserved.