Red Dead Redemption goes a long way to live up to its name. Wearing the sand-filled boots of John Marston, an outlaw forced to hunt the members from the gang he grew up with, Rockstar Games introduces us to an ambitious take on the open world genre from the perspective of the Wild West in 1911. It’s here you’ll find that deadly duels are just a part of the everyday routine and all sorts of stereotypical western characters take part in the experience. It truly is a ride, even eight years after its release.
I’ve heard nothing but praise about Red Dead Redemption since it first launched in 2010. It took me a long time to get my hands on a PlayStation 3 and even then, I only played it for less than two hours. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of Rockstar’s work, but I always felt overwhelmed by the scale of the Grand Theft Auto series and the stiff gameplay of Manhunt. Red Dead Redemption, on the other hand, sets itself apart with a personal story that follows a compelling main character trapped between political interests and the safety of his family.
The story begins with John Marston confronting his target with only a pistol and some serious guts. It doesn’t take long for him to get shot and left for dead. Bonnie MacFarlane, a farmer who lives on a ranch helping her father, rescues the outlaw and patches him up. She’s the first of many allies that Marston meets in his travels and, in Rockstar fashion, has a set of missions surrounding her story. These typically involve completing favors that slowly, and sometimes tediously, reveal more information about the plot.
Missions include capturing wild horses, scaring crows from silos, herding cattle, and even going full throttle with Winchester rifles, shotguns, and pistols on anything that crosses your path. Marston always makes his intentions clear, though. He isn’t there to help the community, start a revolution, or lend a hand to the nearest tyrant. His actions come down to one objective: finding the members of his old gang so he can finish the job and return to his family.
Red Dead Redemption is an open world, and it has everything you can expect from one, in a Spaghetti Western kind of way. You can watch hilarious animated movies, hit up taverns to play poker or blackjack, and share a few rounds of Five Finger Fillet with some peasants. There are more involved activities like taking contracts to capture bandits and participating in duels in towns.
Randomized events in the game aim to keep you on your toes. A person asking for help on the side of the road can be a setup for a robbery with a group of bandits hiding behind the cart. And in some cases, you’ll have to catch a thief with your lasso or take part in a robbery in exchange for a cut of the bounty.
The most memorable event I had with Red Dead Redemption involved a woman held up by the town’s guards as she witnessed her lover’s execution. Her screams could be heard from blocks away. When I reached the scene, I stood there watching and thinking about whether it was my place to stop the execution from happening. Before I could make a decision, it was too late. The guards cleared the site and laughed, mocking the victims as the woman ran inside and fell to the floor, crying alongside the body.
At first, moments like these brought Red Dead Redemption to life. It made me believe that these characters had struggles outside of Marston’s everyday interactions with them. Sadly, these events repeat, diminishing their impact to the point where I began to ignore them.
Another feature I wasn’t fond of was the gathering system. While there’s plenty of flora and fauna to collect in the game, the sheer amount made it far too much of a hassle and failed to keep me entertained for very long. You can also stop by stores to trade skins and meat for weapons or medicine, but I only used those a couple of times. Once I got my hands on the bolt action rifle and a double-barreled shotgun, I found that I didn’t need anything else.
Red Dead Redemption adds to its complexity with a karma system, but this time, it’s in a good way. Divided between Honor (measured by actions such as attacking civilians or robbery) and Fame (public recognition gained by completing a variety of different tasks), both statuses grant different perks and items depending on the path you choose to follow. While Honor can get you discounts at stores, Fame can put a bounty on your head or earn you respect. It’s a system that makes every interaction with the world meaningful.
For an open world game released in 2010, Red Dead Redemption still feels massive. Each system is intricate, and the level of detail in everything that surrounds Marston is palpable. Thankfully, it doesn’t lack features that would otherwise make the game’s size feel cumbersome. You can save on a whim using the unlimited amount of camp kits and even fast-travel across the map.
It feels good to play as well. Shooting works as intended, and weapons handle differently from one another. I did make permanent use of auto-aim, though, due to the unreliable frame rates I experienced on PS3 that lead to frustrating hiccups during big shootouts. The highlight of gunplay is definitely the Dead Eye system, which allows you to slow down time and target multiple enemies for a continued shooting spree. In the dozen of hours it took me to finish Red Dead Redemption, this never got old.
There are a few bugs in Red Dead Redemption, but I found them to be more comical than annoying. In one instance, as I was completing a random event for a merchant threatened by a gang, I learned that enemies in Red Dead Redemption are only incapacitated if shot in the legs. As I triggered a live cutscene speaking to the targeted NPC, the bandit I thought I killed shot at him. Unfortunately for me and luckily for John, the bandit only attacked the merchant. But it left me frozen in place with no way to escape, so I had to reset the game. There were other bugs such as characters stuck in walls, but nothing as game-breaking as that neverending cutscene.
Red Dead Redemption is the most compelling when it focuses on John Marston’s story. And believe me, it’s a bittersweet one. No one can deny all the terrible things Marston and his gang did. It’s a reality we’re reminded of constantly throughout the game. It’s difficult to witness a reformed outlaw, now settled with his family on a farm, being forced to confront the result of his past actions. While John may have moved on from his old life and will do anything to get his family back, he still struggles with facing the people he once considered his only family.
It’s a tale of redemption and one that gets more complicated the further into the story you go. As you get closer to the game’s final moments, you begin to feel as though Marston doesn’t deserve any of the cards he’s been dealt, even with the odds stacked against him. It’s a story that leaves you with some mixed feelings, especially during the final moments.
Red Dead Redemption is still a game worthy of your time, even if you ignore all the open-world shenanigans and only play through the main story. If you’re not a fan of the shooting, its missions can get repetitive fast, but in the end, John Marston’s tale will keep you going. I can only hope that Red Dead Redemption 2 can live up to its legacy, even with its bigger-than-life open world, our new protagonist Arthur Morgan still has some pretty big cowboy boots to fill.