While it makes an extremely strong first impression, somewhere along the way, Red Dead Redemption lost me. It's still a good game, but it made enough mistakes that I couldn't help but come away feeling disappointed.
It's not reductive to describe Red Dead Redemption as "Grand Theft Auto but with horses." Everything from the gunplay to the basic feel of movement to the structure of missions is almost identical to Grand Theft Auto IV, coming with the same exhilarating moment-to-moment gameplay and the same litany of problems. For example, firing a gun feels great, especially with the new Dead Eye system that allows you to slow time, paint targets over multiple enemies, and take them all out at once, but using cover still feels awkward and outdated. Sometimes everything worked perfectly and my character slid right into cover; other times he just stood there as I frantically jammed the cover button, as though on strike.
That's about how it goes in Red Dead: When everything works, it's a really fun game. When it doesn't, it can get frustrating. I failed several missions because my character refused to take cover, or decided to take cover in such a way that he could still easily be shot, or because I couldn't accurately gauge how much health I had left, or thanks to the unrealistically "realistic" movement speed and momentum that work okay in large, open areas but fail miserably whenever precise movements are needed, like indoors or near ledges. Still, the game is at its best during basic missions that involve you and a posse riding out to a set location to kill dozens of enemies, though the lack of mission variety definitely hurts; it often felt like the same few objectives were being recycled again and again.
The simple joy of having a good Wild West shootout is why the game's multiplayer can be incredibly satisfying at times. Matches generally start out with a tense Mexican standoff where all players have guns pointed at each other, and the last man standing has the advantage of a slight head start to go position himself. Despite being extremely brief, these segments became my favorite part of multiplayer. Unfortunately, it's all kind of unbalanced as the unlock system grants players huge benefits, like significantly upgraded weapons and horses, the more they play. Control issues are more evident against human opponents, and lock-on aiming, while enjoyable in single-player, turns the game into a race to see who can run toward dots on the minimap and lock-on to barely visible targets in the distance the fastest.
What excited and disappointed me most, though, was Red Dead Redemption's story. John Marston, a reformed outlaw, is forced by the government to hunt down key members of his former gang. The tale starts off incredibly strong and very focused, showcasing some of the best pacing, voice acting, and writing I've ever had the pleasure to experience in a video game. But very quickly, it branches off in a thousand different directions, completely losing the pinpoint focus of earlier sections. Marston is a driven man with a clear goal and a lack of tolerance for anything that gets in his way, so attempts to artificially extend the game's length by having him help everyone he meets and shoehorning obvious double crosses are audaciously transparent and detrimental to the overall narrative.
After the game's mostly sublime first act, everything falls apart. Truly interesting characters you'd just spent hours with, like Bonnie MacFarlane and the phenomenal Marshal Johnson, are tossed to the wayside and never revisited in a meaningful way. Taking their place are droves of worthless, unlikeable characters during the game's second act in Mexico that drags on and on and should've been cut entirely. Rockstar delivered a fantastic lead in John Marston, who is constantly presented as the kind of man you do not lie to or jerk around, not ever, then completely squandered it by allowing every lowlife around to lie to and jerk him around, wasting both mine and Marston's time. His tale concludes in such a remarkable way that it's definitely worth seeing through to the end credits, but the journey there is not always easy.
While the frontier presented is stunningly beautiful at times, a shocking amount of technical problems broke any sense of immersion for me on many occasions. During one mission, a critical enemy was spawned inside of a wall, so I had to restart from the last checkpoint. While roaming, I encountered a man riding a horse five feet in the air. After losing a duel mere feet away from a save point, I hit an infinite loading screen and had to restart my console. Most tragically though, were the times when the game clearly went to great lengths to set up powerful moments where songs with vocals kick in while you play. These are brilliant conceptually, but in my experience, each song was cut off within seconds because I got on or off my horse, triggering different music, utterly ruining each scene and reminding me how clumsy the game can be.
Red Dead Redemption isn't perfect. In fact, it's pretty deeply flawed in a lot of ways I hadn't expected it to be. But it takes a setting not explored often enough and makes a good enough game out of it that you should at least check out.Red Dead Redemption / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360