Red Dead is a solid game by Rockstar. Of all its parts the setting is the strongest, and if you do not enjoy that you likely will not enjoy the game. I don’t think this is too big an issue as there is so few cowboy games particularly that are this good. But let’s move on to the game itself.
The shooting is rather terrible, but surprisingly satisfying. Our antihero, John Marston, is not the best at getting into cover, his movement is rather finicky, and his regenerating health is pretty hard to gauge, but the dead eye ‘slo-mo’ targeting allows for pin-point accurate shots that will make any five year old in cowboy pajamas smile. When not using dead eye tapping L2 to aim and R2 to fire in rapid succession used the auto aim to pick off enemies rapidly and easily. Riding horses is more like riding a tank with a mind of its own. A very stupid mind. You spend a lot of time on a horse, and they did little to make it easy. Following someone on horseback during a mission is a common occurrence but there seems to be only just enough AI in your horse to make it almost follow the other horse(s) but not enough to keep it from running off a cliff or bumping into your companion (and interrupting their dialogue) or trampling a sheriff and failing your mission. This would not really matter if the game did not make you think your horse was following them by sometimes matching their speed and sometimes following their turns on trails. Oh, and having crappy horse controls. This is most aggravating because they clearly had horse AI for following other characters, as you see them follow you or follow with you.
In the end though, the controls were mostly good. The issues I mostly had were with bad design decisions. Such as not giving you important gameplay mechanics till they decide you have done what they want you to do in the game. I don’t mind doing this for say, a more powerful weapon, a cool set of armor, some plot specific item or just something that you do not need as a standard part of the game. But Red Dead makes the mistake of not giving you a lasso, an weapon that you need for many activities and you actually are magically given during your first Marshal mission to learn how to hogtie and return a bounty but magically disappears right after with no notice thus making it impossible for you to do anything but complete bounties by killing (which is not what the game has taught you thus far). To get and keep your lasso you must complete a different character’s (3rd?) mission . Weapons like the sniper rifle or throwing knives I am fine with waiting 20+hours into the game for, but I NEED that lasso to be a cowboy in this cowboy game and schizophrenic design issues are rookie mistakes I would not expect of a company given game of the year so regularly.
Another issue is, as an open world game with missions that are only available during certain times of day (or night) there is no ‘pass the time’ function. You can skip 6 hours if you sleep in a purchased room where you can also save your game, but there is no way to know if you need to until you have made it all the way to where the mission starts. This either gives you the chance or forces you to (depending on your mood and outlook) to do the random sub missions or hunt the wildlife. The subquests are mostly fun and well written but the random events are very… iffy. At first I think I like that they do not go the typical open world way of telling you that doing them either opens up an area or if you do all X number of them you have finished them or some such thing. They are just random. They are also very easy to botch up and are sometimes difficult to understand who is doing what where... But mostly they are a pretty good addition to the general cowboy-badassery. The wildlife was mostly fun, except the spawning seemed rather borked. Either there was only a few easy to hunt animals (non hostiles, like deer and rabbits) or there were hostiles. Lots of them. If you met one pack of wolves there was likely more, one or two packs right behind them. Maybe a cougar. If there is a cougar there is nearly always two, maybe three. And those things are some of the scariest things I have ever had jump on me at night while looting bodies. And they do NOT hunt in packs, whatever Red Dead’s spawning rules say. Also I have never seen bobcats and wolves hunt men down together but it is a video game so I’ll suspend my belief a bit.
Next let us discuss the characters in Red Dead’s story. I’ve heard that Rockstar is one of the best in this department. I cannot understand that. It is very alike to saying NSYNC has a deep understand of the true meaning of love. Every character is a stereotype with dialogue consisting almost completely of clichés. This does make for a pretty good western story, but not one of the best in video games! When your best, most believable, consistent and strongest is a Irishman who is a drunk, guns dealer, and is called… Wait for it… “Irish” you‘ve got some work to do. I’m not saying (most) of their characters are bad, most are pretty good but the dialogue they have written for them is either funny, an attempt and being funny, or an attempt at being deep or serious but only managing to use actual clichés to convey their points.
I think I heard more about Read Dead’s ending than any other part. As someone who loved Red Dead Revolver and just wanted another fun cowboy game I didn’t really care to much about the story, but everyone seemed to be insisting it was somehow groundbreaking, or at least great. I don’t really see how the ending (the least played part of a game) should be the most vital part, aside from the taste in your mouth it leaves when you are done with a game. The Beginning is what holds you in the game. The intro of Red Dead is a somewhat boring train ride and then your character getting shot. It takes a good twenty minutes to get to play but that is OK. No biggie. I felt the tutorials were pretty lousy, and I had to repeatedly look up online how to do things (how to get my lasso, how to fight in a duel, how to fast travel, and so on) because whenever there was a tutorial it was given by tiny text in the top of the screen on a timer. It might have been just me but I don’t think I read a single one all the way through before it disappeared and there is no way to repeat them. But OK, we are in an information age with things like youtube and wikis that allow other users to teach me how to play games, instead of developers.
Next is the middle, the place where most people drop out of a game and stop playing. You finally leave your rather lame, but still rather funny characters in America (I particularly liked Seth and Irish), to go to Mexico. Which is full of even worse stereotyped characters, the only good one is the first one, and all he does is insult your character. I still liked Ricketts though. He had a good mustache. I heard from a game website that crossing over into Mexico was a great moment… I thought they meant the crossing over which is a crappy boat ride you spent getting shot at. I forgot about their silly grabs for emotion that involve actually playing some memorable music in the game for once while you ride your horse. I actually typically enjoy that kind of thing; I just somehow missed this one and went on to not enjoy Mexico that much because I felt the layout, design and characters were weaker than America’s.
So you move past the middle into the final parts of the game. These are my favorite. You move to a more city like area and enjoy the very aggravating city folk. Particularly the government agents you are being forced to work for. As angry as they make John (and made me) they are nearly and enjoyable as Seth’s insane rants. Now for the spoiler territory.
[SPOILERZ/] You finally get back to your family and now your family becomes the people running your missions. I loved this, I really enjoyed this twist of the gameplay, if I hated being forced out of my elegant suit. The story stays the simple, all the obvious things happen and you finally realize John is not schizophrenic. I did not feel this way because of the typical GTA “my character wants a chance at redemption but I run around shooting and running over hookers” way, but because of the cutscenes. John was a generally nice guy to everyone but his direct enemies… Other than ANYONE he had some control over, which was most of the American contacts. He would yell, threaten, and ruff them all up at a moment’s notice. He is consistently angry with such characters, and with Uncle we see John is just sorta like that. If you cross him once and owe him anything he will never let it down. FINALLY! Some character development! Most of the missions are rather silly, but I enjoyed seeing John finally be happy. I especially enjoyed Bonnie and his wife meeting.
Now for that ending. Sure, I think the final twist of continuing the game as Jack is neat. It is a good game mechanic that allows for a specific story to be told. Nice one. But the ending of your character, the one you have been playing for so many hours is a desecration. It is the typical arbitrary death video games do. I love the REAL twist of the game, which is that they give you a couple seconds of dead eye to think you can survive. But the rest of it is John dying because you were not given control ten seconds earlier. I’ve taken out more men by myself then that. If I was allowed to sneak around the back and shoot, or even push a door open and shoot out the door I would have taken all the government agents out EASILY. But the worst part it is unjustified. Since the army/military/government men where there in such large numbers (over 50) they clearly were there to kill John Marston. Period. They sent an army to kill him. Not to assassinate him, nor to force him to work for them again, they attack one man with an ARMY. For no reason. They gained nothing. If they did the game doesn’t explain it. Even if you play the somewhat hidden ending as Jack, your only closure is a duel. A good ending for a western, but nothing more. If you are at all serious about the story or managed to managed to care anything about John as you played the game (as I did) then you receive no real closure. It still makes no sense that Ross was able to get over fifty government men to kill a farmer. The few days wait between the final mission and the time Ross allows John to be with his family make it especially odd. He had plenty of chances to just kill him. A terrible ending for a video game, but I guess it is a western too.
All in all, I actually really liked Red Dead. I honestly wanted to play it so bad because it was getting game of the year against what is potentially the best game of all time, Mass Effect 2. As it turns out, as a contender for best game of all time, Red Dead is a rather pathetic attempt despite some video game website’s argument. It is a game that uses cutscenes as a strong second for plot conveyance and the first is to either ride on a horse or a wagon with someone while John and the other character YELL at each other for five minutes while you just sit there staring at the back of their heads.
Anyway, and more importantly, I think it started a tradition for me, after (or during, when I had AI helping me) a fight I would run around picking up ammo and looting the bodies singing “loot the bodies! Loot the bodies!” over and over again to the tune of ‘Oh my darling” and now my wife has it stuck in her head. Excelent.