Quick Review: Red Dead Redemption

I’m waaaay late to the party here, but I finally grabbed a copy of Red Dead Redemption from my son and gave it a whirl. I enjoy story driven games, and I had heard a lot of positive things about RDR. I started playing this a few months ago, and tonight I finally got to the end. Why did it take me so long? Let’s talk more about that in my dis-like section.

What did I enjoy?

As I said, I love story driven games, and there is a solid plot that runs through the entirety of RDR. You play the game as John Marston, an outlaw who’s been conscripted to take out his old gang buddies. You’re not a good guy, but you’re trying to turn over a new leaf. You’ve married, had a son, and you just want to settle down on your farm. That’s when the government agents come knocking, and force you to do their dirty work. You’re dumped in the middle of nowhere, and need to make good on your agreements, or your wife and child will suffer.

From there the story progresses, until it reaches its crescendo, with a litany of side plots and characters strewn across a fictional ‘old west’ setting. Although you have some agency in how you behave, the story still progresses the same, no matter what. Key characters cannot die (until they’re supposed to), and in many cases your situation is dictated by what moves the narrative forward.

Putting aside the story, I also love open world style games, and this is an area where RDR excels. You can explore to your heart’s content, and traveling through the different southwestern landscapes is beautiful and immersive (by 2010 graphical standards). There are ways to fast-travel to different parts of the map, but you’re better off just riding to your destination and finding random encounters which make the world feel more alive and rich.

The gameplay is solid, and as someone who’s playing for the purpose of story, the auto-aiming is wonderful. I was able to just have fun being a badass, instead of dealing with my frustrations as a mediocre first-person-shooter gamer. Once you get a hang of the controls and menu system it’s pretty rock solid. Selecting new weapons is pretty easy, even in the heat of battle. The ring-style system of selecting weapons means you can use muscle memory to quickly change between them. It did take some practice to get it down, but once I did it became second nature.

In addition, riding your horse was mostly fine. The mechanics of getting them to go faster (and maintain speed) or slow down is highly unrealistic, but it serves its purpose. However, I would sometimes randomly lose my horse, and then all of a sudden a new one would come galloping over the horizon, ready to go. It was weird, and sometimes I never knew what I would be riding next. I’m sure I missed something in a tutorial here, but it was a little strange.

So what didn’t I like?

Despite all of the praise above, there was actually a lot that I found problematic with the game. Despite having a solid story, it wasn’t a very deep story. The main points of the plot were spelled out early, and it took very little brainpower to anticipate where things would end up. However, that doesn’t make for a game with hours of gameplay, so the majority of your time is spent on side plots that have nothing to do with your overall objective. Countless times you’re promised that if you help a character just “one more time” they’ll help you further your goal.

This constant distraction from your main objective often became tedious. After the first dozen missions (which had nothing to do with getting you back to your wife and kids) you start to feel like nothing more than a plaything to everyone else in the world. You’re constantly finding yourself enmeshed in the squabbles and troubles of random people, with little need to help them, except for the sticky fact that the game forces you. Without giving away too many spoilers, the only time I felt that any of this paid off was in the culmination of Act 1, where everyone you had helped became instrumental in your victory. The game quickly abandoned that trope in the second two acts, and you soon found yourself killing dozens and dozens of people for no reason other than “It’s the only mission available for me, and I need to keep moving forward.” In fact in Act 2, you kill so many people (on all sides of the conflicts!), with such wanton abandon, it becomes comical.

All of this plot meandering lead to an excruciatingly long slog of a game. It’s why I ended up putting it away for a while, because nothing I was doing seemed to get me closer to what I really wanted, which was to return home to my wife and son. When I finally booted the game up again after taking a few weeks off, I was in the middle of Act 2. I picked right back up where I left off, running deadly errand, after deadly errand, for people that I cared nothing about (except for Landon Ricketts… that guy was fun).

One other gripe was how tedious many of the filler tasks were. Roping horses, or herding cattle, or even just long rides with NPCs, was often just an excuse to squeeze in more dialog. However, because the overall plot of the game is pretty straightforward, it’s like listening to someone try to tell the same story, over, and over again, trying to make it different, or add a new twist each time. Plus, many of these tasks just weren’t fun or challenging, and no matter how good you got at them they never changed. They were the same mechanic over and over again. Once you’ve broken in a couple of horses, you have no interest in doing it, again, and again.

Overall, the whole game felt like it was crammed with filler content, instead of a long cohesive narrative. I really wish that there would have been more mystery to uncover, or at least not such a direct and simple through-plot.

Conclusion

After all this, would I recommend Red Dead Redemption? Maybe? In my case, I borrowed it from my son, and so the price of free made it worth it. It’s hard not to compare it to The Outer Worlds (which I recently finished), which was another story-driven, open-world style of game. Where The Outer Worlds drew you into a long and complex story, and kept many things hidden for you to uncover, RDR just tried to take up as much time as possible to stop you from getting to the end. The world of the old west in RDR was incredibly compelling. The visuals were great, the gameplay was good, and exploration was freeing. But then it fell down by trying to tell a 1 hour story in 20 hours.

I’ve heard great thing about Red Dead Redemption 2, and I also have that disc sitting here as well. Perhaps I’ll give that a shot and see if it can make up for some of these shortcomings, but still give me the open world that I loved in RDR. With our COVID lockdown heading into deep winter I have plenty of time on my hands.

Jamison

Beer, running, and geeky things.

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