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Red Dead Redemption
Score: 99%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1; 2 - 16 (Online)
Genre: Action/ Free-Roaming/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
The western theme has always been overlooked in the gaming world. Sure, there have been a few good ones out there, but none of them really captured the feeling of being in the "Wild West" and certainly none of them have been great. Since its first announcement, we all knew Rockstar was the only developer that could deliver what the western genre needed. Turns out, it needed Red Dead Redemption.

Easily the richest and most beautiful open-world game of its kind, Red Dead Redemption is the most breathtaking game I have ever seen. Rockstar nailed the environment. The huge, open prairies seamlessly blend into picturesque desert landscapes. The mountainside terrain overlooks dense wooded forests while all manner of flora and fauna inhabit this vibrant world. I often found myself roaming the countryside just to see what was over that mesa, or what was downriver because I actually felt like I was exploring the wilderness, which is hard to do with polygons and pixels.

Not content to simply present the stellar landscapes of the Old West, Red Dead Redemption also incorporates an actual ecosystem with intelligent wildlife that react to the actions of their surroundings. These touches draw the player into the world like never before. Horses, buffalo, armadillos, snakes, and skunks are all following their instinct for survival and even hunt each other as well as your character in the massive world. The Euphoria physics engine, (which was used in Grand Theft Auto IV,) creates some of the most believable and compelling animations in gaming history, like stampeding herds of cattle or cougars silently stalking their prey.

But Red Dead doesn't just excel with its visuals; it also boasts the most meticulous sound design I have heard in recent memory. An original score and period accurate songs were chosen for Red Dead to put the player in the era of the end of the wild frontier. The entire audio design is brilliantly handled by using specific western-themed audio cues and absolutely perfect song choices during specific missions to create a sense of longing and nostalgia for a time long gone. The acting is also top-notch and the characters are never laid on too thick. Each actor breathes life into their character, like a paranoid grave-robber who believes what he does to dead people is okay as long as they're dead, but you still find yourself deeply caring about the outcome of many of the stories. Besides the excellent single-player story experience found in Red Dead Redemption, I think it will be remembered most for its amazing world that will take years for other games to catch up to, at least other games not made by Rockstar.


Gameplay:
The story of Red Dead Redemption follows John Marston, a retired outlaw that just wants to settle down and live his own life during the tumultuous expansion time of America during 1911. Unfortunately for John, his old gang is still causing trouble out West and the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation has forced John's cooperation by holding his family hostage until he kills the former members of his gang. His journey will take him all over the old American West and even Mexico to get his family back. Usually the main characters in Rockstar games tend to be selfish or na´ve, but in the case of Marston, his motivations to save his family are pure. He does what he needs to in order to gain the support of those he needs (which could include many bad things,) but he is still only acting out of selflessness, which is a first for the games Rockstar makes.

What this means is that the choices you make in Red Dead are easily swayed and affected by the situation you find yourself in (also, no seedy behavior with the women, because John is faithfully married.) Adopting a moral system similar to inFamous, you can be the dirtiest outlaw that ever tormented the West or the hero that brought swift justice and peace to the rustled old land. The moral system also affects a notoriety meter which increases as your deeds become larger and larger. Rob a train and the police will recognize you the moment you step into town, but if you save the citizens of the town from senseless gang violence, you become respected and the townsfolk respond more positively to you. All of these factors come together to make a wonderfully open and deep experience I can only compare to the likes of Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Red Dead Redemption feels like it becomes more of a role-playing-game than Final Fantasy XIII.

The mission structure follows very closely to the formula GTA established many years ago. Marston meets a new person who has the info he needs, but they won't give it up until they get their own problems sorted out with Marston's aid. These people introduce these other people who lead you to these other people and so on. It doesn't feel tired or gimmicky because the variety and pacing of the missions keeps things fresh and exciting. More often than not, you're main goal is to shoot bad guys, but every once in a while you will have to help a crooked old salesman pitch his new cure-all tonic or protect a farmer's ranch from a bad storm rolling in.

Rockstar have outdone themselves this time with the sheer number of missions to complete outside of the main storyline. Called "Stranger missions," John Marston can cross paths with a stranger who asks a favor with no explanation. If John accepts, he could be accomplishing a great deed or help to further a more insidious plot. These stranger missions take a few in-game days to complete, but some have more memorable outcomes than the main story missions.

If the missions have become too boring or rudimentary for you, then go distract yourself. You can gamble by playing blackjack, poker, liar's dice, five-finger fillet, arm-wrestling, or horseshoes. Don't like to gamble? Go treasure hunting for buried gold all over the vast wilderness, or hunt the wildlife and sell the pelts. You can even accept bounties for the local sheriff and help them to clean out gang hideouts all over the towns. If John becomes too notorious with certain people, he can be challenged to a duel or quick-draw. With so many distractions, it is hard to pull yourself away from the game because there is always something to do at every turn.

For most people, however, the greatest distraction (and the biggest improvement over previous efforts) is the multiplayer. Long-time Rockstar fans recognize the multiplayer as a fun distraction, but it never really competes on its own. Red Dead is the first time Rockstar has offered a multiplayer experience as deep and addictive as their single-player stories. Offering a deep rewards and leveling system, the online component of Red Dead is broken into two main modes: Free Roam and Competitive

Free Roam has the whole world of Red Dead Redemption act as a playground for an entire 16-player lobby. While in Free Roam, friends can find one another and form a posse to tackle missions together like capturing bounties or storming gang hideouts. Players can also participate in gang wars with one team's 8-man posse competing against another. Having a full-blown Wild West war is tons of fun and I encourage everyone to give a shot at least once (especially in the rocky valleys of Pike's Basin.)

For fans of the more traditional game types, Red Dead also offers more structured online modes like "Free for All" or "Team Deathmatch" as well as a few variations of old stand-bys like "Capture the Flag." The rewards and challenge systems in the multiplayer also give the online portion an extra layer of completionist envy by using all the challenges as unlocks for new gear, guns, or mounts (like golden horses or buffalo.) The amount of things to do and see in the multiplayer is just as extensive as the single-player which means no matter which you decide to play, you will get your money's worth with Red Dead.


Difficulty:
One of the many design choices that have plagued Rockstar for years is the lack of a forgiving checkpoint system mid-mission. Red Dead Redemption solves that by not only offering a very forgiving checkpoint system, but also a fast-travel system for getting around the world quicker as well. By pulling up the in-game map, you place a marker where you would like to travel, set up a campsite and choose to travel there. Done. This makes it much easier to get what you want out of the game, whether it is the story missions, the bounties, or any of the other side quests.

With so much to do, collect, and kill it is a pretty steep task to earn the 100% completion challenge. It is definitely doable, but it will take a fairly long time to get that lofty landmark. With the exception of one cheap escort mission, I never felt that Red Dead was too hard; it was always challenging but never unfair. But just as a hint, the right equipment solves many problems you will encounter.


Game Mechanics:
The main gameplay mechanic of Red Dead Redemption is the Dead-Eye targeting system for all the historic munitions you will acquire. By clicking in the Right Analog Stick, time slows down for Marston while he aims more precisely and can fire multiple shots when activated. It is regulated by a meter that refills over time and by performing spectacular kills. It is absolutely essential to use Dead-Eye often as you soon realize it is the only way to take out multiple enemies on horseback. Which brings me to my next point.

Many systems and mechanics in Red Dead Redemption are not fully revealed to the player or shrouded in mystery for no reason, but none are more confusing yet crucial as horse-riding. There are many different varieties of horses to capture and ride, but the trick to riding the horses effectively is to monitor their stamina gauge. Like running around as John, to sprint on horseback you tap (X) repeatedly. But if you hold (X), the horse maintains the speed it was at before it starts to slow down. So the trick that isn't properly communicated is to play a mental rhythm game with the button presses. Tap, tap, hold. Tap, tap, hold. That strategy will get you out of more firefights and chases than you can imagine, but it is a crucial tool the game expects you to learn by yourself.

As much praise as I have piled on top of the growing response to Red Dead, I did have a few issues. Most importantly, the second act in Mexico goes on too long. Precisely three missions longer than needed and unfortunately, the entire pacing of the overall game suffers because of it. Secondly, the third-person cover system during combat is a bit weak; some objects I could hide behind while others left me a sitting duck, which I chalk up to the game not properly conveying crucial information early on. Those are the only two complaints that I have. Sure, there are some things that can be improved (like skipping certain hunting animations) but these are quibbles compared to the overall package.

Red Dead Redemption has set a new standard of expectations in gaming. While it isn't perfect, it still represents the total package by combining an excellent single-player story with a deep and compelling online multiplayer. Red Dead Redemption builds on the groundwork laid before it and refines the ideas into something totally unique. It is as American as the story it tells and it reaches across genres and boundaries to create a melting pot of gaming greatness. Red Dead Redemption is simply a masterpiece.


-HanChi, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Hanchey

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