It is immeasurably tedious when anyone notes the extensive body of cinematic influences that inflect upon any specific videogame, and when this tiresome dirge is directed at Rockstar’s back catalogue, doubly so. When Graham Linehan lambasted Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for its innumerable salutations toward Brian DePalma’s 1983 remake of Scarface on the BBC’s Gameswipe show last year, it was an attack directed at a property that had clearly been heinously misconstrued. Vice City was obviously intended to be an overblown parody of (the already heroically flamboyant) Scarface, not merely an apathetic augmentation of it. The breadth of any artist’s palette should never be an issue in any case; particularly when it results in an abundance of gratifying rewards.
Nevertheless, with Red Dead Redemption, Linehan won’t find even one drop of fuel if he is looking to keep that particular fire burning. It is certainly a game that has been shaped by classic movies (both old and new) that have depicted the final days of Old West, but it is heightened by some pretty meticulous historical research. Historians or enthusiasts of the period are very likely to be significantly elated by the exhaustive legitimacy of this world and everything in it. Even the one single truth about this period of history that is perennially glossed over on the big screen (the well-documented evidence that suggests that the American West was the epicentre of a nationwide cocaine epidemic) is attendant, albeit covertly. And humorously.
So the authenticity of the environment cannot be faulted, and the story that takes place within it is a thoroughly compelling hunk of sprawling, full-strength pulp. John Marston is a familiar hero to be sure – an ex-bandit dragged back into the fray by an outfit of nihilistic proto-lawmen – but his perpetual battle with an outdated sense of allegiance is expertly conveyed, as much through his actions as his dialogue. You have a hand in shaping Marston (and more importantly, the way in which everyone else perceives him) but these aren’t choices that have been funnelled into a system involving a menu and the deliberation-friendly press of a single button, as in something like Fallout 3. These are decisions that can only be made on the spur of the moment, and for which you’ll have to (sometimes instantaneously) suffer the consequences of.
The best instances of this take place when you’re least expecting them, usually during one of the unforeseen and unscripted incidents that frequently present themselves from out of nowhere. In one scenario, during which we were idly scouring a desolate plain for animal skins, a toothless loner emerged from behind a small mound, pleading with us for a ride back into town. Deciding to act as a good samaritan, we dismounted our horse and headed over to initiate a conversation with the gentleman, before the oily pest sprinted past us, yelled “I’ve got a better idea!” and rode our trusty steed into the distance before we could even draw a weapon. The sense of involvement that encounters like these bring to the experience is genuinely unparalleled, and some of the very finest of them (including an encounter with a cannibalistic serial killer) often take place when you’re just nonchalantly wandering the landscape.
And you will want to wander. The game’s marvellous eco-system makes hunting an endlessly enjoyable (and profitable) distraction, but the enveloping visual beauty of this world cannot be under-emphasised. Though it is so gigantic that wide distances will be covered by train or stagecoach (or via a camp-fire bypass system when you’re really outlying) the ever-present spirit of old-fashioned scale and spectacle means that you’ll opt for a shortcut far, far less than you ever did in GTA. This is a sandbox that many people will want to traverse, on horseback, in its glorious entirety.
The core gameplay will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played any Grand Theft Auto game since GTA III, but there are a handful of very pleasing refinements. The honour/dishonour system is clearly the standout, and it won’t stifle anyone’s enjoyment regardless of how they choose to play. Every mission you complete will result in repercussions of some kind, but those who like to create lawless havoc are free to use the resulting funds they’ll earn to buy their way out of trouble. The wealth of available minigames are as entertaining as you’ve come to expect (they include poker and horseshoe tossing) and the return of Red Dead Revolver’s ‘Dead-Eye’ targeting system adds an invigorating, arcadey frisson to the gunplay.
But as was the case with GTA IV (and The Lost And Damned in particular) for the all of the sweeping waves of delirium offered up by the gameplay, they wouldn’t be even half as potent if the story wasn’t so impeccably crafted. The ability to skip cutscenes in games these days is often a bone of genuine contention; allow it and you’re binning several people’s hard work; deny it and you’re forcing something inessential on players who in many cases didn’t want it in the first place. The cinematics in Red Dead Redemption, as with GTA IV, can be skipped. You’re less likely than ever to elect to do so.
Rockstar have truly outdone themselves this time. Red Dead Redemption is a masterful endeavor, and should be dismissed or evaded by absolutely nobody. Because contemporary videogaming simply doesn’t get any better than this.
Watch the Red Dead Redemption trailer here…
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