Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Retro Review - Red Dead Redemption

With the show Westworld premiering on HBO last week (which I hope to get to watch so I can probably post my thoughts on it here, but of course my Xbox One won't play it, go figure) I figured I would write about one of my favorite video games of all-time, Red Dead Redemption.

The game came out in 2010 and was one of the first two games I bought for my Xbox 360 at the time (the other being Arkham Asylum). I had watched my brother play the game on his PS3 and I instantly fell in love with what I was watching. Since it is made my Rockstar Games, everyone compares it to the producer's main title, Grand Theft Auto, calling it the GTA of the Old West, and in many ways it is, but it is also so much more.

The show Westworld, which is inspired of the late great Michael Crichton's movie in the 70s about a highly advanced 'theme park' where guests are immersed into a life-like environment populated with androids and are allowed to do anything they want. When reading about the show, I came across an interview with the show runners and they said they took inspiration from the game I am writing about, Red Dead Redemption.

The game is set in 1911 and features areas based on all different terrains and real world places that one could say make up the frontier. You have the Old American West with deserts and canyons, the Great Plains, a Louisiana looking bayou town, the heavily forested mountains, and across the river that runs east and west is Mexico. Of course all of these places have names that aren't real places, and some of them even have names taken straight out of John Wayne movies, which is neat.

The premise of the game is simple: you are John Marston, an ex-outlaw who is volun-told by the US Government to track down a bunch of your former gang members in order to get a pardon. This character is what makes the game for many people. He is one of the best written characters in any game ever (one of the others is in my favorite game, The Witcher 3, which is Geralt of Rivia). But what I think really makes this game great, and in many ways better than any GTA game by far, is how you are free to make the decisions for Marston in any way you want.

Sure GTA attempts to let you make decisions, but ultimately those decisions seem to always lead to the same place, which feels very linear and there isn't any consequence to any decision you make. You still always have the same experience. In RDR, you want to play as a good guy and make sound, moral decision? Great! Or do you want to rampage and become an outlaw? Go ahead! Which ever path you choose has a different outcome on how you interact with the world. It is very reminiscent of the LucasArts (R.I.P.) game Dark Forces 2 where you choose to either become a Jedi or Sith and the end of the game varies based on your choice.

The ending of the game may not change on your choice (more on this later), but as stated, the world interacts with you differently. In the game, there is an honor and fame system that you gain points to either side based on the decisions you make. If you help the general public by taking out bad guys, your honor goes up. If you decide to just start shooting up the innocents, your honor goes down. The more famous you become, the more random people walking by say hello and acknowledge your presence.

I have played through the game many times and usually always go the 'good guy' route. This is mainly because if you go the bad guy route, you will start to pick up bounty hunters trying to capture you and a bunch of random people trying to shoot you every where you go. To me, that isn't any fun when I'm just trying to go from point A to point B and am constantly getting shot at. Plus there are more than enough gang members that you can take out to satisfy the need to get rid of someone all over the place that you won't rack up a huge wanted level (much harder to get away on horse than in cars like in GTA).

Another reason this game surpasses GTA for me is that it isn't set in the present day. I get some people like present day stuff so they can 'pimp their ride' or do whatever that they can't do in real life. But here's the thing, if I want to go to a bar in a city, I can do so in real life. If I want to drive a car around, I can do that too. What I can't do is go outside and visit an old-time saloon with a piano player constantly playing ragtime (unless I'm at Disney World). I also can't just go out and ride a horse all over hunting wild animals (I don't need a permit to hunt in the game). I can explore the Old West as it is fictionalized and that to me is something that is way more exciting than something I can experience by walking outside.

The hunting aspect in this game honestly is one of the best things about this game, and part of the reason I fell in love with it so much. I can't tell you how many hours I've just rode around hunting all the different wild animals that fill the vast beautiful landscape. From armadillos to cougars, and elk to grizzly bears, the amount of wildlife is astounding. I think there are over 30 different species in the game, all of which you can kill. That's just the first part of hunting. The second part is when you can skin the animals collecting the hides and meat (or feathers if a bird), and possibly antlers of bucks and elk or even cougar fangs or boar tusks. These items you can then sell at the merchant and make a boat load of money.

Pro tip: when hunting grizzly bears, make them chase you a long way from where you find them otherwise when you try to collect the pelt, it takes so long that another one spawns and will kill you while trying to claim your prize. I can't tell you how many times that bears have killed me in this game. They are kind of terrifying in the sense that if you don't hear their initial roar that lets you know one is coming for you (which is often), they seemingly come out of nowhere. This is why I always trudge lightly through the woods in the mountains. They usually can be found in pairs, which they frequently 'Raptor Attack' you. I say this because you may have your sights trained on one, and then another attacks you from the side out of nowhere and kills you. Scares the bejesus out of me every time that happens.

You can become quite the adept salesman in this game as well since the items you collect off of animals can be sold for different sums depending on where you are at in the world. Say you kill a buffalo on the great plains, well if you take the items from the buffalo to Mexico where there aren't any, the price skyrockets as the demand is high and the supply is low. It's things like this that sets this game apart from any free roaming open world game to me. This is also why I was so let down playing GTA V when it came out that, yes, there were animals in the world, but after you killed them in the game, that's all you could do. I missed what RDR let me do, making an honest wage on hunting instead of having to make money in some underhanded way (which you basically do in GTA V).

Another fantastic layer of this game is all the strangers that you meet along the way. Many of the characters you meet during the main story line are great characters and you have great scenes of dialogue with them, but the real weight of the game is with the short stories you uncover with the strangers.

Many of these encounters have you feeling like you are helping someone less fortunate complete a task that seems sweet and you are doing good. However, many of these encounters have a Stephen King like plot twist at the end that you don't see coming. Many of these twists are very tragic and leave you feeling hollow inside, but makes you feel the brutality of the times that the game is set in. This kind of roller coaster of emotion is great in game play, and it also keeps you wanting to go digging for more. These side missions also let you decide how you want to 'help' someone and they have different outcomes based on your choice, going back to what I said earlier about doing what you want to do, or what you think is right.

Another aspect of the game that I enjoyed is the bounty system, where law enforcement would place wanted posters of outlaws and you could track them down and collect your fee, which varied if you chose dead or alive. It was fun tracking down various bad guys that had names and faces and finding their outposts and getting into shootouts. I reminded me of playing the old Konami classic on Genesis and Super NES, Sunset Riders, where you were bounty hunters in the old west tracking down outlaws in much the same way, except in linear 2d worlds.

One thing I liked near the beginning of the game was the duel feature, where someone would challenge you to a gunfight. At the start, these were fun so you can show off your quick draw, but over time and the more you do them, the harder it got to win them. It isn't a one shot duel, instead it's who unloads their gun the quickest (so choose a pistol with less bullets, like 6) and I guess the most accurate. The person with the highest damage, which is a bar that shows how much damage per bullet you shoot, is the one that will win. But I'm not entirely sure that works as I know I was targeting my enemies head and not getting very much damage for it. If there is a thing I dislike about this game, this is the thing.

One thing I guess I'm indifferent on is all the different mini-games you can play. You can play horseshoes, poker, blackjack, liar's dice, do arm wrestling, and do five finger filet. In order to get 100% game completion (which I always have to do), you have to win at all of these. Sometimes winning is just walking away with more money than you started with (at card games) or beating all of your opponents. Poker is sometimes really difficult, and doesn't usually work like it would in real life. The only one I enjoy playing a bunch is liar's dice, as once you figure out the physics and AI of the game, it isn't really difficult to win every time, in most cases not losing a single die.

I do enjoy that most of these mini games though are found basically in what you would call a casino in the small towns across the world. My favorite place to go is in Thieves Landing, which is the bayou town. This area of the map just suits my style and I enjoy just hanging out in the town.

I think the reason why almost every game critic rates this game so highly is the ending to the game. You eventually track down the leader of the gang, Dutch, at his lair up in the mountains, but you don't kill him. It shows the character development for your character as in the beginning you get shot by a different gang member and are looking to kill him for what he did. At the end, your character wants to bring in the big bad, but Dutch ends up jumping off a cliff to his death instead.

So you feel like this is the end, right? You got the bad guy for the government and your pardon is in the mail! You get to go home to your family!

Then it gets to the part that no one expected. While at your ranch on the plains with your family, you are settling into your new laid-back ranching lifestyle when the US Army shows up at your place. You find out they had no intention of giving you a pardon, they just wanted to do the dirty work and then eliminate you for all your past sins (prior to the game, or maybe during the game).

The main story line ends with you getting gunned down by like 15 guys almost firing squad style as you exit the barn to face them head on after a stand-off, and can only take out a few before you meet your ultimate end. The first time I played the game I was so shocked at this turn of events. I just spent countless hours with Mr. Marston, feeling I've done nothing but good things for random people and getting my mission accomplished only to die at the end and nothing I could do about it.

I can see why some people would be mad at this, but to me this was great. It was so unexpected, and now any game I play I wouldn't be shocked if my character dies. But it once again showed the brutality of the times that it seemed like there were no happy endings.

So if you haven't ever played the game, I know if you made it this far reading, I spoiled it for you, but hey, the game has been out a long time and there have been countless articles about it, I highly recommend you doing so. I is truly a masterpiece of what an open world game should be. It doesn't feature the incessant go find this hidden thing that GTA and Arkham does (screw you Riddler trophies), and has an abundance of great story telling and inner conflicts of the characters.

Also, you can get the saddest achievement of all-time while playing it! The only animals that don't respawn their numbers is the herd of buffalo on the great plains. You can pick them off one by one, or attempt to get them all at the same time, but once they are gone, they are GONE. You get the Manifest Destiny achievement for you effort. Congratulations, you made buffalo extinct!

But seriously, if you haven't played this game, play this game.

Thanks for reading,

Mike G.

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