Review | Red Dead Redemption
Format: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 | Genre: Action adventure | Publisher: Rockstar | Developer: Rockstar | Release date: 21/05/10 | Price: £50
Guns, horses and miles of open-world – Phill Cameron gets lost in the plains of RED DEAD REDEMPTION.
FUNDAMENTALLY, RED Dead Redemption is about putting the past to rest – whether that past includes the former gang members that John Marsten used to ride with, the somewhat lacklustre Red Dead Revolver, or the anticipation that this will just be Grand Theft Auto with revolvers and horses. Perhaps the all-encompassing lesson that Red Dead Redemption teaches us, then, is that you can only be so successful at escaping your past.
I see two types of people flocking to Red Dead Redemption, one group vastly outnumbering the other. Firstly, you’ve got anyone who ever found themselves in love the instant they say the crevasses of Clint Eastwood’s face in Fistful of Dollars, and ever since has lapped up any of far too few Western offerings in the recent years, be it in film or game. The second group – and this is the one that will be far, far larger – is those coming to Red Dead Redemption because it’s a Rockstar game.
They’ll be expecting GTA: Old West. I’d like to say they’d be disappointed, and that Red Dead Redemption is entirely its own game, but that would be going a step too far. Certainly, this follows the format GTAIV laid out so brilliantly just a few years ago. But at the same time, it builds on that format so extensively that I’m hesitant to even draw a comparison.
Above all else, GTAIV managed to make us care about a protagonist far more than any of the series before it, and perhaps more than any game before it. Instead of being presented with an amoral shell of a protagonist for you to pour personality into, we were given Nico Bellic: a man with a past, and – more importantly – real character. He was a reluctant criminal, forced into reprehensible acts through necessity more than anything else.
End of an era
Conversely, in Red Dead Redemption, we’re given John Marsten. Former outlaw and now Government pawn, he’s forced to hunt down the former members of his gang and bring them to justice, in return for the safety of his family. Like Nico, he’s forced to face his past in the most literal way possible, and because of that we learn of it in a much more interesting way than if we were just shown. It’s in the incidental dialogue between characters as they try to learn more about each other, or the attitudes John displays towards faces from his past. As he often tells those around him, he doesn’t want to be here, but he can’t be anywhere else.
There’s another undercurrent here: the past John is fighting serves as a last fling with the idea of the gunslinger. Setting the game in 1911 is an interesting choice, as by this time the Civil War was over, cars were starting to come into everyday use, and the law was finally starting to assert itself over the land. Really, this was one of the last times a man could take a pistol and a horse, and live by his own code out in the wilderness.
Red Dead Redemption is showing you the last jaunt of a one-time outlaw, clinging to a life he knows as he tries to fight a future that’s utterly inevitable. Even his goal, of getting back to his wife and son and working on a ranch, is under threat. As we’re told in one conversation, the time for ranches is over; the factories are moving in.
Of course, all this talk of themes and narrative is somewhat ignoring some of the more important aspects of the game. We’re being placed in the West, and it doesn’t matter how well-framed the story is: if the attempts to recreate such an iconic time and setting fail, all is completely lost. Fortunately, this is the West as we’d all like to imagine it. The plains go on forever until they’re lost in a mix of dust clouds and heat haze, mountains shimmering in the distance just as the cacti form that iconic silhouette against the sunset. While undeniably harsh, the place is teeming with life, from deer and coyotes to rabbits, raccoons and armadillos, all able to be interacted with – as long as you want to fill them with lead and part skin from muscle, of course.