I remember walking into a GameStop in the spring of 2010, intending to browse through their collection of old PS2 games in search of rare gems. When one of the employees saw me reading the back of the box for Gun, a western-themed shooter, he immediately launched into a sales pitch on Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar's latest western-themed sandbox game. I told him I wasn't interested, and even after explaining that I didn't even own a PS3 or Xbox 360, he continued on his rant, hyping up all its minigames and trying to get me to pre-order it.
A few months later, Red Dead Redemption was released to immense critical acclaim and went on to win numerous "Game of the Year" awards. It's currently the sixth and seventh-highest rated game on PS3 and Xbox 360, respectively. At the time, the allure of a western-themed sandbox game with tight action, tons of content, a great story, and a complex morality system was certainly very strong and had me seriously considering buying one of the consoles to be able to play RDR (among other console exclusives).
Three years later, I've finally played Red Dead Redemption, and as seems to be the case with nearly every critically-hyped mainstream game, I wasn't very impressed with it. Sure, RDR is a decently enjoyable experience with some good qualities in its favor, but it came far short of living up to its grand hype. The introductory area and missions were all quite good and really drew me into its world and atmosphere, but after a while the gameplay grew stale, boring, and tedious, while certain aspects of its overall design proved downright disappointing or outright frustrating.
The only things that RDR has going for it is that its shooting mechanics are functional, it has a great setting and atmosphere, and it has some very well-written and well-acted characters with cinematic-looking cutscenes. Most of the gameplay is competent and functional, but most of it also becomes incredibly repetitive and pointless the longer you play. The actual story is really not that good and bored me to death for the bulk of its slog through Mexico and West Elizabeth, regions that accommodate nearly two-thirds of the game's story.
The story in RDR is of John Marston, a former outlaw and gang member trying to put aside his life of crime and put down the men with whom he used to ride. When the government takes his wife and son hostage, John is left with no choice but to hunt down and kill his former gang members in order to ensure the safety of his family. Approximately 90% of the main missions consist of you tracking down the gang's leaders, and most of the time those missions are just you doing trivial, pointless favors for other characters to get them to assist you.
This format works well enough in the very beginning, when John is shot and left for dead outside of Fort Mercer by Bill Williamson, since that encounter with Williamson gives you a concrete reason to care about your goals, and a face to associate with your bounty target. Later on, however, when you're going after Javier Escuella and Dutch van der Linde, you really have no idea who these people are, and have no personal reason (as a player) to go after them, because they're just names -- a checklist towards completing the game. The act of pursuing them is simply not that interesting or exciting because there's no real weight behind it.
After a dozen quests helping other people, when it comes time for the showdown with Williamson at Fort Mercer, he somehow manages to escape in the chaos, requiring that you follow him to Mexico. That becomes the recurring pattern for RDR's missions: spend seemingly forever doing random favors for other people, all building towards a confrontation with your bounty target, only for them to escape and trigger a new string of favors to be completed elsewhere, before restarting the whole process with a new bounty target. The pacing is quite boring and meandering because it rarely feels like you're actually making progress towards your goals.
This pattern becomes particularly unbearable during the middle chunk of the game when you're in Mexico, when literally every mission is just an impediment to your own progress. While trying to catch up to Williamson and Escuella, you become involved in the Mexican civil war and end up basically fighting the entire war before anyone'll help you find Williamson or Escuella. It's during this time that we have to put up with John's wavering characterization, as he continues to be everyone else's bitch while making pointless, empty threats. After it's already been established that John has own Robin Hood-esque moral code, he's suddenly burning down villages and helping round up sex slaves for the Mexican dictator.
What makes the missions in Mexico even more unbearable is that they showcase how static and unresponsive the game's world actually is to your actions. Consider that the game forces you to do missions for both sides of the Mexican civil war -- burning down entire villages of rebels and murdering soldiers of the Mexican army -- and no one seems to care. After finishing one mission where I'd killed no less than 30 soldiers, I rode a short distance to the next outpost with a strong military presence, and was greeted with warm welcomes. The reason for all this inconsistency is because all of the main missions happen in an instanced version of the world -- nothing actually integrates with the ordinary gameplay.
Further exemplifying this detachment is the game's weird morality system. John Marston is generally a well-realized and likable protagonist; he has a fine balance of modesty and badass swagger, and he has that "chaotic good" personality that always makes for a pleasantly complex character. But while John has a set personality, you're also free to play as honorably or as dishonorably as you want -- you can be a thieving murderous bandit or a noble saint if you like, but no matter how you choose to role-play John Marston, odds are you'll eventually run into some moment in a cutscene or a main mission (where you have no control or choice) where John's actions will seemingly contradict your own playstyle.
Then you've got the numerous continuity errors that exist specifically because the missions don't integrate with the actual game world. At one point I did a mission where an entire ranch was slaughtered and I had to rescue the handful of survivors; after finishing that mission, I immediately went to another quest-giver who took us to that same ranch, less than five in-game hours later, and the entire ranch was completely repopulated. In another instance, I did a quest where I helped a ranch round up a herd of cattle before a heavy storm hit -- the mission ended in dark and stormy weather. I finished the mission and went to trigger the next mission in the series on the same ranch, and suddenly it was bright and sunny, and the rancher's father had apparently been missing for hours.
The mission structure gets to be pretty repetitive after a while, too. They're fairly varied and interesting in the beginning, giving you good enough reason to care about what you're doing, but once you get into Mexico they all start to follow the exact same pattern: you pick up the mission, you ride with an NPC to the destination, you kill some bad guys, then you ride to the next destination. They get to be quite boring and tedious once you realize you're going to spend most of the time with your hands off the controls watching cutscenes or listening to prolonged dialogue sequences while you ride shotgun in a wagon, only to be placed in a combat situation that plays virtually identically to every other combat situation in the game.
Missions are made even less satisfying by the fact that they tell you every little thing to do at every step of the way. There's so much hand-holding that there's absolutely no problem solving to be had, no satisfaction to be had from finding a solution on your own. When you start a quest, a marker shows up on your mini-map telling you where to go and a floating tutorial message tells you exactly what to do. When you do that, another map-marker and floating tutorial message pops up telling you exactly what to do next. Even at times when you have the ultimate goal to catch a fleeing suspect down a linear mining tunnel, the game pops up with markers telling you to climb obvious ladders.
There's absolutely no room for creativity within missions. The final mission for the Mexican portion of the game has you mounting an assault on the colonel's private villa, and the game forces you to take the linear path directly up to the front gate. When I tried exploring to the right of the path, I was met with a locked door and eventually failed the mission because I strayed too far from my allies. I then went around the ridge to the left and snuck up behind the gatling gunner near the front gate, took him out, and proceeded to mow everyone else down from behind. Once I'd done that, however, the game spawned a second "wave" of enemies on my flank, literally from out of nowhere, who killed me instantly. In a situation where I found a clever solution to a mission, I was actually punished for it and forced to go right up the middle, the only way the game was intended to be played.
Side-missions with strangers are much more interesting, although not always as involved. Sometimes they're as simple as traveling to a location, talking to an NPC, and then returning to the original NPC, or othertimes they require you to collect a bunch of plants or animal trophies and then return. But the actual content of these side-missions makes them worthwhile on their own; having an elderly woman outside a chapel tell you she's waiting for her beloved to show up for their wedding, only to find that he's been dead for decades, or tracking down a string of missing townsfolk only to find they've been kidnapped by cannibals. These side-missions are genuinely interesting to see through to their conclusions and go off into some dark, unexpected directions, but unfortunately there are only 19 of them and many of them aren't very long or complicated.
The random events that happen when you're out exploring the world, on the other hand, are boring as hell and offer zero variety whatsoever. They're fun at first because they make the world seem more dynamic and lived-in, but after a little while you realize they're all the exact same situation. Any time a lone stranger is out in the wilderness on foot asking for a ride, you can bet he'll pull you off your horse and try to ride off with it. Anytime a lone stranger approaches you on horseback, it'll be to help save his wife from hanging by a lynch mob. You can only stop for these people so many times before it gets boring and repetitive, and after a short while you stop helping random strangers completely.
The only real variety to be had in the gameplay is to play any of the game's various minigames, from five finger fillet to horseshoes to blackjack to Texas hold em to horse wrangling to liar's dice to street dueling to arm wrestling, but more than likely you'll only do any of these minigames once or twice before becoming bored with them. There's no real point to any of it except to earn money, and even if you're playing in hardcore mode, you'll accumulate more than enough money to buy anything you could ever need. Even if you're trying to earn money, why bother spending 20 minutes playing Texas hold 'em to win $50 when, in the same town, you can do a repeatable three-minute mission that will net you $60-80?
At random times, the game is incredibly finicky about bestowing the player with bullshit deaths. After finishing the mission to assault the colonel's villa, the game dropped me back outside the main gate while the auto-save icon displayed in the upper left corner. I whistled for my horse, and while waiting for it arrive and while the auto-save was still happening, a random NPC shot me in the back and killed me. "What the fuck," I said, reloaded the save (which fortunately went through) and returned to those exact same NPCs. They were not hostile, and didn't react after I whistled numerous times for my horse. So it seems the game glitched out and decided to kill me for no good reason whatsoever.
On another occasion, I was doing a mission for the Mexican army to burn down a village. First death: I accidentally shot a Mexican soldier, and less than two seconds later every single Mexican soldier turned and shot me. Second death: I approached the mission and encountered a random event with a guy being held at gunpoint; I shot the gunmen, lost honor, and was immediately killed by an unseen third guy. Third death: got to mission and got shot to death by a woman who didn't appear to be hostile. Fourth death: a stupid mistake on my part not using cover correctly. Fifth death: I finished the mission by burning a boat from a pier, and when I went to turn in place, John ran a small circle, fell into four feet of water, and died instantly. Sixth death: approached the mission and triggered a random event with a guy at a campfire asking me for food, and he shot me dead while I was waiting to figure out if I should be pressing a button to give him food or drawing my weapon in self-defense.
In another situation, I was out in the northern wilderness in densely packed trees. Up in the distance I spotted some horses by a campfire, so I took out my scoped rifle intending to scope out the situation to see if these were likely bandits who'd kill me on sight. Despite being about 100 yards away and virtually undetectable through the thick trees, the very act of aiming my weapon on them made them immediately hostile and aware of my location. So I went into combat mode, rode closer to their location, and was killed when the game glitched out by having Marston attempt to have sexual intercourse with a tree while I was attempting to take cover behind it.
I was playing in hardcore mode, you see, because in these kinds of open world games I always worry about the game becoming so easy that the sense of challenge and accomplishment disappears midway through. Reading comments on forums, it sounded like the game would inevitably become far too easy on normal mode, so I took the challenge and played in hardcore mode, which leaves very little room for error and leaves you quite vulnerable to being one-shot. But except for the combat, hardcore mode isn't all that difficult, despite the numerous changes implemented in the economy -- I still found myself rolling in money and constantly at a full supply of ammunition. I really wish hardcore mode emphasized survival more and forced you to manage your money and equipment more closely.
In terms of combat, about 60% of the game consists of cover-based shooting, maybe 30% consists of horse-mounted combat, and the last 10% consists of rail shooting sequences, and none of it is really all that good. The combat is functional and the Dead Eye system that allows you to enter slow-motion to mark targets before firing off a quick succession of shots is pretty fun, but there's not much depth or variety to the combat once you get into it.
With the cover-based shooting, for instance, nearly every single encounter plays out the same way: you press R1 to take cover behind a wall or obstacle, wait for enemies to pop their heads above their own cover, then shoot them in the face. If you get hit in the process, you wait behind cover long enough for health to regenerate automatically, then get back to shooting. It's a lot like playing whack-a-mole with guns, or doing a straightforward shooting gallery at a carnival arcade. Enemy AI is pretty basic, too -- they don't ever try to flank you or flush you from cover with grenades (or in this case, small sticks of dynamite) -- they just sit there like cannon fodder waiting to die. Hardcore mode doesn't even make it that challenging, it just makes it more tedious.
Horseback combat can be particularly frustrating in hardcore mode, when you consider that sometimes enemies can move faster than you can turn your aim. It's difficult to aim in general when both you and the target are moving at high speeds in alternating directions, and even harder to control the speed and direction of your house at the same time, so the lack of snap-to-target auto-aiming in hardcore mode nearly demands the use of Dead Eye. Horseback combat was practically unbearable until I'd learned to rely on Dead Eye and chewing tobacco, at least until I got a shotgun that didn't require as much frustratingly-precise aim. And gatling gun combat, my god, don't even get me started on the gatling gun. I hated every time I had to mount up on one of those things.
As an open-world game, you're generally free to go off exploring anywhere you like, but there's rarely any reward for doing so. You might find an interesting side-mission, but it's more than likely that you won't, seeing as many of them have a number of pre-requisites in order even to be available to find. Otherwise, with the exception of the fun and well-done buried treasure challenges, all you're ever likely to experience is pointless random encounters with wild animals or other human beings. There's no rewarding loot to be found, except for the rare chest containing $20 (which isn't worth the time investment), and whenever you find a small outpost, odds are you won't be able to interact with anyone or anything, anyway. All you ever do is look at your mini-map for icons, because if there isn't an icon you're basically not going to find anything worthwhile.
Other than that, my complaints are relatively small. It's way too bright at night; I can easily see all the way to the horizon, and wish there were more of a contrast in visibility and gameplay when playing at night. I wish the game had a better journal system for keeping track of quests and why map markers are important; I had to stop playing a week, and when I came back I struggled to get back into things because I'd progressed missions or picked up quests and forgotten what was going on in the meantime. I wish there were more of a survival aspect, like having to manage health with consumables and rest instead of having auto-regenning health and a more functional purpose for picking plants or hunting animals. I wish saving were easier and didn't advance the game ahead six hours. I wish I'd stop getting $20 bounties for accidentally bumping into an idiot bystander while trying to make a sharp turn on my horse.
The one thing that made the boring slogfest through the midsection of the game worthwhile was its ending. The actual story up until the point when you finally put Dutch van der Linde to rest and reunite with your family is not that inspiring and not that engaging, feeling entirely like stretched-out filler content. But it was such a refreshing change of pace near the end of the game to settle back into simple ranching missions, like the ones you did early on with Bonnie MacFarlane, where character development is the ultimate goal and you actually care about John Marston. After spending ~30 hours murdering literally a thousand different people, it was nice to see that there was a family man underneath John's cold exterior, and nice to get some time to enjoy an actual resolution to a story instead of immediately cutting to credits once you've beaten the final boss.
Which then makes the dramatic "twist" ending much more poignant when John dies after the government betrays their promise. I always like it when main characters die, and the way in which it happens -- opening the barn door, seeing a dozen guys with guns all aimed at you, going into Dead Eye, realizing that everything is futile, but making one last desperate effort to take as many with you as you die -- was impressive. I'd grown such an attachment to John Marston, having played as him for 30 hours, that I was truly saddened by his death and felt a strong absence when the perspective shifted over to his son, Jack, three years later. I wanted revenge for John's death as much as Jack did, and that made the final side-mission "Remember My Family" truly resonate, even in its anticlimactic simplicity.
But at the same time, it's really disappointing that, after three whole years have passed, there's no real change in the game world. After becoming Jack in 1914, I set off to familiar locations looking for familiar characters, wondering what all had happened elsewhere in the meantime, and found no sign whatsoever of anything at all -- I couldn't even find any familiar characters, and there were no new buildings, characters, or missions. The only way to learn about any of the change that's occurred over the past three years is to read the newspaper -- it's a big missed potential not to see any actual change in person, and makes the world feel even more static and lifeless.
I've not played any of Rockstar's other games, so I can't say how RDR compares to the likes of Grand Theft Auto -- all I can do is compare it to other open-world games that I've played. Compared to some other open-world games, RDR has pointless exploration, pointless random encounters, a pointless economy, and non-existent survival mechanics. Very little that you do in this sandbox is of any consequence, and when you consider the game's stale, repetitive combat and its stale, repetitive mission structure, you end up with a game that doesn't impress all that much. The setting and characters are reason enough to play RDR, but the overall game is not nearly as good as people made it out to be.