My Favorite GTA-Style Game to Date

Red Dead Redemption, the sequel to 2004’s Red Dead Revolver, follows in the footsteps of the Grand Theft Auto games, presenting a large open world in which the player has a central storyline and countless side missions. Also in the vein of the GTA games, the player can wreak havoc throughout the world or play a (mostly) saintly character. I have quite a bit to say on the subject of RDR, but for this first piece I’ll stick mostly to a general review.

I think I need to start this off by saying I’ve never found the GTA games all that engaging or enjoyable. I know I’m in the minority, but for some reason they’ve always hit a bit of an uncanny valley. They’re not serious enough for me to empathize with in any meaningful way, but they’re not ridiculous enough for me to cut loose and enjoy the chaos. For the second option, I love the Saint’s Row series. For the first, I now have Red Dead Redemption.

RDR Screenshot 3The character of John Marsten isn’t anything new. He’s the crook-gone-straight that has been the central character in more stories than I can count. However, in this setting it works quite well. I have to give a lot of credit to Rob Wiethoff for the voice acting, which is damn near flawless. Some of the side conversations during group rides can be a little repetitive, but I can understand using repetition in a medium where so many tend to skip or ignore the supporting dialog, myself included.  Marsten is a protagonist that I managed to identify with almost immediately, which in itself speaks volumes about the quality of the narrative.

Anyway, Marsten has basically been conscripted by the government to hunt down members of his old gang. This is accomplished by some lovely coercion, namely kidnapping his wife and son. The story progresses through Marsten’s escapades, and thankfully we never see the stereotypical relapse into crime (at least in the story, though I’m sure many people play Marsten as a raging psychopath).

As can probably be detected from that last sentence, my Marsten was a just and honorable man. I actually got angry at the game when certain duels forced a killing, despite no penalty to my in-game honor. Whenever possible, I used non-lethal force, and helped as many random encounters as I found. This fit my narrative, though it was a bit shoe-horned in. I believe that in going straight, Marsten was doing everything possible to help people to offset all of his wrongs, even at the cost of slowing his return to his family. At this point I notice that I’m wandering out of review territory, so I’ll do my best to steer it back in.

The story missions are enjoyable, though rarely challenging. They’re fairly predictable, but for the most part they manage to be interesting. I never found myself wanting to skip exposition, which is quite a rarity. The side missions can be a little silly, but even then very few felt like a grind. The mini-games were enjoyable, and in particular I plan on trying out Liar’s Dice in person in the near future.

The controls can be a bit kludgy at times, something I think results from the desire to have Marsten always be slightly swaggering. This makes turning in place amazingly awkward, and creates the strange scenario where I feel more comfortable moving and navigating on a horse than on foot.

RDR Screenshot 1Speaking of horses, this game easily has the most beautiful wildlife I’ve ever seen in a game, and the horses truly are works of art. A later piece will go into this more depth, so I’ll leave it at that rather than stray further.

Outside of the slightly off controls, my only complaint is with some of the forced “choices.” Earlier I mentioned duels where disarming isn’t an option, which is annoying, but there are more things forced at the end that bother me. That was a hint, but to be clear:

Below here there are ending spoilers. If you’re reading this, you probably know already, but just to be safe.

I had read about John’s inevitable death, and I actually liked the idea. However, playing into my character, I wanted to do absolutely everything in the game BEFORE he died, so his son Jack could be entirely untainted. This was my John’s desire. Unfortunately, I’m also an achievement whore / completionist, so getting 100% completion was a requirement. One outfit cannot be claimed unless you clear all the US hideouts in 24 in-game hours, which seemed fine, until I realized that it wasn’t even an option until after John’s death. There is no reason for this. All of the hideouts are available (and completed) long before that final scene, so why hold out the possibility of unlocking it until after the death? This seriously bothered me, and was the first stage of a disconnect with the characters I had developed.

The second came with another duel with a forced resolution. Upon confronting Edgar Ross as Jack, I wanted to be able to disarm him in a duel and walk away the better man. Unfortunately, the only options were to either ignore him completely or kill him. Going back to the completionist aspect, I ended up killing him but felt quite unsatisfied by it, leading to the second stage of my disconnect with the characters.

It was a slightly disappointing ending for such a great game narrative. I understand some of the motivations, but it broke with the character I chose to play.

Ok, spoilers are done.

RDR Screenshot 2I’ve only just started playing the multiplayer, but the fact that I even started it says a lot. Most games I prefer to stick to solo play (fighters being the exception) unless I’m playing with people I know. However, I wasn’t ready to hang up my spurs just yet, so I dived in and was pleasantly surprised.

The Free Roam aspect of RDR’s multiplayer is fantastic. It’s a cross between the single player and an MMO: most of the single player features plus the addition of real-life people. There are the standard deathmatch type games as well, but the inclusion of the Free Roam helped me maintain some interest in the “multiplayer.” I say it that way that because 90% of the time I’ve spent in Free Roam has been solo, but that’s the way I tend to play MMO’s as well.

At the end of the day, I loved the game. It’s not perfect, and some parts didn’t set well in my gut, but damn, they succeeded in making one hell of a western. Maybe that unsettled feeling was even intentional.

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