Ed's note: this review does not include multiplayer - NZGamer.com will deliver a multiplayer review (along with most of the rest of the world) after Red Dead Redemption has been out a while and we can really get stuck into the soup.
There's a line in the movie Almost Famous, where a rock journalist asks the guitarist of a rising band what he loves about music. If someone were to ask me that question of Red Dead Redemption (which I suppose you are doing, in a tacit sort of way, by reading this review) then my answer would follow the fictional guitarist's to the word: "To begin with... everything."
In Red Dead, gamers take the role of John Marston; a reformed(ish) outlaw who is trying to track down and capture or kill the members of his old gang. We open with Marston riding a train as he listens to the drab conversations of his fellow passengers, and he is met at his destination by a couple of employees of the US government. They ask that John head out to an old fort, where one of his former gang mates is holed up. There, the man himself is gunned down. He awakes with his shot-gut on the mend in McFarlane's Ranch, and it's here his story starts. Marston's motivation is his wife and child, sectioned off somewhere while he works to bring the men from his old life in. His family are captives of the government, and as such, John has little choice but to do as they say. This is the thread on which the entire core narrative is strung: perhaps not the most original fare, but believe me when I say Rockstar have made it feel entirely like their own.
The story - expertly written, superbly paced, completely gripping and utterly believable - is so damn good, that there's a real danger in revealing any more than the above (and despite how short and sweet I tried to make it, even that feels like a little too much). Quite simply put, Red Dead is a masterpiece of storytelling, and that you get to control the action and flow of events only serves to make you feel lucky to be a part of it. This reviewer sure isn't going to spoil anything for anyone: the smallest detail could potentially unravel just enough of the proceedings to change the way you play, and that's too much responsibility for me, I'm sorry. This is testament to a truly excellent piece of work on the part of the game's writers. Apart from just one tiny slip, there are, for me, zero complaints to make about how Red Dead is arranged. Gamers who enjoy narrative-heavy games should not think for a second that they can leave this one on the shelf.
Characters in Red Dead Redemption are highly polished, and like the story, extremely believable. Their politics and proclivities are clearly defined, and displayed through creative use of cutscenes or simply in the myriad tasks and missions you will perform for, or with them. Often, long horseback rides are required to get from point A to point B, and those you ride with tend to have their lips shaken loose by all the rough terrain. You will learn a great deal about the area, the people and the political landscape as they chatter away. None of this is a chore, with both the scripting and voice acting nearing a perfection I have never seen in a game before. Yes, yes - there are minor slippages, of course - but if you want to take a view driven by the numbers, so very many splendid interactions and character developments more than outweigh a couple of minor flat spots. Voiceovers mashing up is probably the biggest flaw; if a couple of voices all fight to be heard at once, along with background explosions, weather effects or animal noises, you can sometimes feel like you've missed something. The actual effect on your gaming experience, however, is nil.
The story takes place broadly in two places: New Austin (America), and Mexico. Consider for a second the implications of a landscape so vast that it covers two different countries, and not only that, but you can ride from one to another. No cutscene or load screen linking the two. No hopping on a boat and miraculously finding yourself in a new area (you can do this kind of fast travel if you want, but that's not the point I'm making, so pipe down). No barriers keeping you from making decisions about where you go and when. Just a huge expanse of land, encompassing unfathomable quantities of flora and fauna, and every wild substance underfoot you can imagine; snow, sand, barren rock, lush forests, grassy plains, dustbowl towns, paved streets, marshy hideaways, to name a few.
For the most part, the game controls in a logical, straightforward way. As with any game of this scope, there are certain places you can get bogged down; usually these are due to the many little twists and turns you'll take with your horse. But hey, horses are a difficult animal to control in real life, so be grateful that in Red Dead they ride very easily and you'll only run into trouble if you find yourself, say, wedged in between two objects. Ride with enough care - stick to roads (this is also faster), don't be too eager with your spurs, and keep the camera steady - and you should be just fine. Walking and running generally poses no such trouble, and wagons are difficult to control only in the sense that their in-game physics are so true to life. They're top-heavy brutes, prone to tipping and falling into ravines, along with you and whomever you're carrying. Hit a rock, and you can expect to break a wheel, roll, or in the very least experience some major slowdown. If you're trying to escape a posse, this can be deadly. You'll use your shoulder buttons for aiming and firing, and for very hairy moments you're able to rely on the Dead-Eye aiming system. Line em up (in slow-mo) and knock em down. This can be used for human and animal targets, and is the only part of Red Dead that really says "just a game," other than being able to take more than one bullet without curling up in a ball and telling the bandits not to be so mean.
The cover system works excellently. John can hide, fire blind, pop up, vault over cover, and use just about anything in the landscape to try and stay out of the way of the thousands and thousands of rounds that will be fired at him on his adventure. Cover works just like you should expect it to - if something isn't quite big enough, it won't stop jack, and you'll soon find yourself bleeding into the sand. If your cover is too big and bulky, it can be hard to pick a decent firing line. Now, this all presupposes that your enemies are in fixed positions. Well, no. They're often hunting you down. When a major firefight ensues, you can usually rely on being able to zig-zag from one cover position to another, while taking out the bad guys, but it's not always so simple. Fights ahorseback can be logistical nightmares, as you fire to the side and behind you at an enemy that gallops about in evenly spread assault teams. If they're trying to steal cattle from you, or kill someone you're protecting, you better be ready (and practiced) with the control system required to turn the tide.
With such a massive expanse of land to cover, you will need to use the map in your system menu a great deal. While you can use stagecoach taxis to cover long distances for a fee (using a skip to destination function if you wish, or simply sitting back and enjoying the scenery) riding somewhere will often be the only way to go. For missions, a marker is set on your map (a device that will be familiar) and you'll sometimes follow another rider to where the action's at. If not, you can set a waypoint and follow a red line that shows on your minimap. This won't always be the quickest way, but it does stick to roadways, ensuring you can get the maximum speed from your horse. If you want to thrash away overland you can, but if you hit a ridge you can't get down or run into a pack of coyotes, then it'll slow you down anyway. You can also travel Harry Potter style; if after a mission you find yourself too far away from your next location, then make camp (you can also use this to save). From here, you'll be able to skip to a number of discovered spots, moving time forward six hours as you do so.
These methods of travel are invaluable if you wish to just crack on through the game, but do not underestimate the enormity of the fun to be had by riding or even walking from place to place. The landscape is teeming with people, little settlements and buildings, animals and local wonderments. Strangers will sometimes ask for your help with little tasks, which you can do in exchange for fame and honour. Some of the deeds are less than savoury, and if you take these on you risk dropping your honour down a few notches. And this in itself is an unfettered delight in Red Dead - like open world games need nowadays in order to succeed, the system by which you choose your paths is varied and rigourously imagined.
Your missions will push your honour and fame up on their own. The core story is one, largely, of treading the righteous path. There are some small deviations, but for the most part good men will be rewarded for the even-handed way they go about protecting the people, riding with sheriffs and upholding the law. But outside of that? You're free to do whatever the hell you want. A bounty system is attached to your wanted level, and the number of crimes you commit. A range of factors will contribute to your notoriety, and people in the world will react to your presence based on whether you're a good dude or bad seed, and likewise their own disposition. Honour begets, honour, etc. Knowing this, sitting down to play Red Dead Redemption becomes an exciting, almost overwhelming, prospect.
The sheer number of side quests and distractions is staggering. In and around towns (and, hell, way out in the back of beyond) you'll find citizens who need your help with getting back stolen horses, liberating captured friends or escaping from packs of wild animals; depending on their nature and status, you might also find yourself mixed up in political feuds, barfights, tussles with outlaws and lawmen both. You can play poker and blackjack, hunt and skin the wildlife, hunt bounties or seek treasure. This game is just packed with extras: here might be the very best time to use the phrase "like a western GTA." That said, we need to be careful not to pigeonhole it. GTA is a big game - the cities are expansive and options presenting the gamer as varied as anything on the market (until now). But Red Dead Redemption is more than big. Bigger than big. Its bigness is difficult to comprehend. If I wasn't so confident that this word was going to get wrung out of all its semiotic goodness in the reviews for this title, I would call it EPIC. See what I did there, partner?
You'll have noticed that the only place Red Dead doesn't score a 10 for the section score is graphics. It feels almost mean, like I'm slapping the artists across the chops, but all it represents is that there are enough visual anomalies that at times you are knocked back out of the otherwise wholly enthralling experience by, say, a cactus disappearing into your chest. Or a shadow (so detailed that when you're climbing ladders you can actually see your shadow-hands clasped around the rungs) flickering into nothingness when you pass a certain wall. Little pieces of blood and meat sometimes hang suspended in mid air after a fight. Bushes that don't so much as temor as you blast through them on your horse. But guess what: none of this actually matters. In a game that is as relentlessly flawless as this, such trifling imperfections - and that's all it amounts to, a lack of quite frankly unattainable perfection - don't factor. Tested on both a CRT and hi-def telly, the game looks gorgeous. The character detailing is impeccable, with every hair in place. The horses are muscled and lean. The landscapes appear to be crafted after some attempt at topographical pornography. As much care has been taken with the biggest grizzly bears and elaborately armed banditos as with the shyest armadillos and those supplementary characters you won't give a second glance. So, not a 10, but only because the rest of the game works so damn hard it's impossible to be completely forgiving in this single respect.
Red Dead's soundtrack, on the other hand, is perfect. The music. Just. Fits. And it should, put together by a host of master artists. You can probably have a decent whack at imagining a haunting western tune to accompany your character as he rides off into the sunset; these conventions are well known and documented, and if you are any kind of western fan, you'll be well acquainted. Lonesome whistling, forlorn fiddles, jaunty pianos, we're not going to accurately capture it with words (and we're not supposed to). It'll be down to you to listen closely and extract each and every honey soaked note. As I said earlier, the voice acting is outstanding, and the rest of the game's aural achievements are spread through explosions, gunfire, the booming of thunder, and the hammering of rain and wind. In terms of its ability to hold you in place, ensconcing the gamer so firmly in the world and setting an undeniable scene, I have never heard a game quite like it.
Where they have been able to, the scriptwriters have injected as much comedy as possible into what's a pretty stony-faced plot. We're dealing with a lot of grave material in Red Dead, so it's always a pleasure to hear someone excuse themselves from being late by saying "I woke up with my head in a pair of tits and it seemed ill mannered not to get reacquainted with them." That dry sense of humour comes in wherever there's a call for it, so expect to get your chance to laugh (or at least facepalm in silent embarrassment). At a card table in the town of Chapurosa things start getting a little rocky, resulting in gun barrels bristling like the spikes of a porcupine: everyone's pointing at everyone else and one bandit observes that "...there must be a name for this." As you're sitting there slapping your knee, spilling your drink, and floundering around in the couch cushions for the controller thinking, "A Mexican standoff! In Mexico! How droll!" one of the others calls it an impasse.
Best of the best
We're getting just a bit long in the tooth here, so it's time to wrap this up with some honourable mentions. Even in the general brilliance of Red Dead Redemption, there are some elements that manage to really stand out. The game's physics are superbly wrought: bodies (human and animal) live and die with startling realism. A shot soldier tumbling down a cliff or being blasted into the sky by dynamite will confirm this for you pretty quickly. Hell, even the way a chicken hits the deck before you pluck its feathers for sale is impressive.
The weather effects are amazing; sunsets, sunrises, rain, snow and storms are all gorgeous additions. The combat is high paced, high adrenaline and fosters a very genuine sense of nervousness ahead of major assaults. The weaponry available all has its own part to play, from pistol to fire-bottle, lasso to throwing knife. Killing for true love just never gets boring, and looting the spoils feels fresh each and every time.
The period in which Red Dead has been set has obviously been given a lot of thought. Mexican uprising, the encroaching government, the appearance of motor cars and other signs of a slow creeping civilization (itself somehow like an enemy)... it all sits perfectly between the old west and the new America. This means the days of quickdraw live on alongside vehicle mounted machine guns. This delivers a mass of options, and the developers have done a great job harnessing that.
Lastly, I want to talk about the scripting. Before I mosey along, hats must be tipped, and shots of whiskey downed in the name of truly flawless writing. It has been an age since a game has held me so rigidly fixed from end to end, and kept me guessing the whole way. I know I have already mentioned this, but it can't be overstated. Red Dead Redemption has a film quality design and delivery as good as anything you have ever seen at the movies. Rockstar and game developers world over may just work until the End Times and never top it. I can't give anything away (and I won't) but let me leave it alone by saying to anyone who likes a well written narrative, no matter what genre of game you're usually into, this is the cream of the crop. There is nothing better. Not a single character has been left behind: each and every sound bite and turn of events echoes with authenticity.
Red Dead Redemption has, to this point, been a near perfect experience in videogaming. It's a game of wide open spaces, gravelly voiced cowboys, crooked politicians, and intimidating facial hair. Now's the time for me to go an obsess about whether I have accurately conveyed not only my intense pleasure in having finally been able to play it end to end, but whether I have quite rightly said: YOU won't be disappointed. The world is populated by rustlers, cutthroats, thieves, whores and power-drunk commanders. But at the same time, you'll find sweethearts, poets, hardworking ranchers and those that are willing to die alongside you for a good cause. You can choose which side of the line you want to walk, and I am quite sure you'll be walking it for a long, long time. On a personal note, this reviewer has a new favourite of all time: see ya later, Ocarina... we had some good times.
There it is, Red Dead Redemption, by Rockstar Games: NZGamer.com's first ever, and eminently deserving, ten out of ten. Play it until the credits roll. And then keep on going.