Red Dead Redemption originally released in May of 2010 to not only critical acclaim, but an element of surprise. Coming out of the Rockstar stable as a successor to a little known gunfighting game Red Dead Revolver, many weren’t expecting an open world Western epic that mused on the passing of the wild frontier as much as it had you blasting bandits in the desert. Not only was there an impressively big open world to explore, but you could do it as a posse online too, prompting far too many hours spent shooting each others horses and generally dicking around rather than focussing on the challenges. Of course, it spawned the prequel that arrived in 2018 and that’s a master class in story telling and going into insane levels of detail in a game; yet many have hungered for a re-ride around the New Austin landscape and now there’s the chance. Of course, some might be thinking “it’s only from 2010, just dust off an old copy”… we’ve actually gone through two console generations in that time, so digging out an old PS3 to play it on is getting harder. Others may also wonder why it’s not a full remaster and only coming to the PS4 and Switch, and that’s a harder one to answer (though rumours are it’s fan backlash on the GTA Trilogy remasters that shelved a deeper reworking). It shouldn’t stop those wanting to relive John Marston’s epic tale of redemption picking it up though because it’s held up exceptionally well.
As a recap, Red Dead Redemption has you in the dusty cowboy boots of John Marston – an ex-member of the Van Der Linde Gang coerced by the US Government into helping them track and kill notorious outlaw Bill Williamson. Being a former comrade of Bill’s, John is best placed to understand where he is and how to defeat him, though the initial encounter doesn’t go well and John’s left for dead after a bloody confrontation. Fortunately, he’s saved by local rancher’s daughter Bonnie MacFarlane and given a second chance to build up an attacking force capable of overwhelming Williamson’s defences. Gaining the services of those he encounters is Marston’s main goal, and that means plenty of busy work doing errands and solving problems for shysters, lawmen, drunks and ne’er do wells; and on occasion upstanding citizens. Trailing his quarry sees John head from the Southern U.S. into Mexico, then back out to the East Coast and up to the Northern frontier, before finally completing his task and being allowed to go home. It’s a superb tale of (surprise!) redemption that’s absorbing from beginning to end, and even 13 years later doesn’t feel like it’s dated. Quality writing and pacing clearly never age, the twists and turns are as impactful as they were first time around, and the characters memorable for their oddities and strong definition. On top of the core story there’s the Undead Nightmare expansion which delivers on all the alternate reality zombie shooting goodness that was the rage in 2011, and Hardcore mode remains an option that makes everything that much more difficult. Disappointingly for some, the online elements have been fully removed, presumably because RDR2 is still active in that space (though barely).
If you’ve played the game before then there’s virtually no difference in how it works – the bulk of the time you’ll be riding around the map on your trusty steed looking for mission markers, and getting involved in various heists and scrapes. New Austin still has a significant sense of scale and the distance between key locations lends itself to that feeling of isolation and loneliness. It’s not reduced at all when you head across the border or up North with the changes in scenery and culture bringing a distinct feel to each region, and emphasising how “big” this adventure is. Whilst the overall landscape is just a footnote compared to the prequel, it’s still magnificent to gallop across the plains or canter through the main street of Armadillo, though arguably it’s in the built up areas that Red Dead Redemption shows its age a little more. For the most part you’re out in the wilderness and the work that Double Eleven have done to port the game across to PS4 and Switch is pretty impressive. Playing in backward compatibility on PS5 it runs in full 4K at a rock steady 30 fps, and before you baulk and think it should be achieving higher frame rates than that… there’s no need. The presentation here is more akin to one of preservation rather than retooling, and with gameplay remaining the same as it did on its original launch it means it feels the same. That slight clunkiness to Marston’s movements and the focus on precision in the gunfights is part and parcel of the overall experience, and exactly what you’d get playing an older version. What you do notice however is how well the assets have held up over time. The characters might not be as smooth as today, but the detail is there, and it’s present in the world too – from the animals, to the buildings and even the shadows cast at various times of the day. It does exactly the job it needs to which is give the player a sense of place and time.
Now that you know this is strictly a port with no changes to the fundamental game outside bundling an add-on and including some GOTY goodies, where can I take the review? There’s really no point in going over old ground on how the shooting mechanics work, the mission structures, etc.; that’s all been done to death multiple times over the years. What I can say is that playing again after over decade has certainly made me think differently about what’s on screen, and how the whole piece is probably more impressive now than it was then, as well as it being a particularly rough tale of futility. Firstly, and maybe I also thought it in 2010, there’s no mistaking this was built as a re-skinned Grand Theft Auto. From the minimap to the visible prompts in minigames, the weapon wheel, saving at houses, buying property and even the sounds made by messages popping up… it’s all so familiar. That’s partly a good thing as it makes it easier to settle into and understand how it all works, as well as having a signature Rockstar feel. It’s also clear they learnt a lot from GTA IV in the use of a more serious tone and style. Red Dead Redemption is not a game that has fun with the setting or makes light of the situation, it’s deadly serious throughout. That’s not to say humour doesn’t come across, mostly it’s from the characters John meets in bizarre circumstances, and the distinction of personalities and their portrayal is top tier. Where other titles (including Rockstar’s own back catalogue) have gone for big star names, here it’s about authenticity and actors that can bring the heart and soul of the NPC to life. You might never have heard of the person that voiced Nigel West Dickens, yet I’ll warrant you’ve never forgotten that character, or Irish, or Bonnie, or Marshal Johnson. Each and every one feels like they belong, and that includes the many random NPCs encountered across the lands too.
Expanding on the Strangers and Freaks was a superb move as these side quests brought depth and variety to the grim reality of John’s manhunt, and are the parts that were mostly giving players some light respite. Not always though and it’s in these darker missions that you can find yourself choosing to be more outlaw than lawman and really crafting an image for Marston. The persistent morality meter (or honor) impacts the way the other characters will interact with you, from shopkeepers to those on the street, and taking it too far into the negative can yield some tougher gameplay. The fact that a system exists that changes the way the main character interacts with people and can largely go undiscovered is a wonder – if you have too low an honor rating, John insults instead of greeting. Because most players warm to him, there’s an innate need to be an upstanding citizen and play things out in the style of gaining redemption and being the archetypal antihero, meaning many never see his bad side and the perks that come with that. Whichever rating you aim for though won’t prevent encounters with the Devil, or at least someone who’s presumed to be Him, and simply the way these seemingly random events are woven into the course of the story bring additional depth, as well as foreshadowing. There’s a darkness continually following you around and it can’t be escaped – joy and happiness are never a part of John’s life whilst you’re in control of him, nor do they seem to be something his family get to have either, and there’s a cycle of violence that they can’t escape. It’s this underlying thread that pulls on the edges of your mind as you’re experiencing everything unravel and I find it exceptionally clever that you’re compelled to keep pushing towards what is clearly going to be a tragic ending that’s out of your control.
Maybe that feeling of having the weight of the world on Marston’s shoulders is what brings you to keep pushing on with the hope of sloughing it away, and the use of sections of travel to leave you with your own thoughts is a trick we’ve seen repeated a few times since. There’s a part where you enter Mexico after a frantic battle and are riding to the nearest settlement. There’s nothing but you, the night sky and the wilderness, when suddenly the melancholy chords of Far Away by José González kick in and it put me in mind of what Hideo Kojima did at several points in Death Stranding. That pause in the action with an emotionally binding song playing over pretty much nothing but mundanity breaks up the action and gives pause for reflection, as well as cementing itself in the players subconscious as an audio cue for whenever you hear that track outside the game. That alone reminded me of just how influential Red Dead Redemption was and why it’s crucial that we should be able to keep on playing the most important games of various console generations. Spend any time with the game and you’ll find loads of elements that you’ve seen pop up in tens if not hundreds of other titles in the past 13 years, yet very few have tried to emulate exactly what Rockstar pulled off with this, whether that’s down to confidence, budgets or time. Sure, I’d have loved this to be a remake in the RDR2 engine, or even DLC for that game given the map is already there, though that’s not to be… at least for now. What I have been very happy with is experiencing it as a whole again and finding out that I’ve not been wearing rose tinted glasses, it really is as damn fine as I remember it.
A PS4 review copy of Red Dead Redemption was provided by Rockstar Games PR team, and it’s available now digitally on PS4 and Switch for around £40, with physical copies coming on 13th October. The Xbox and PC versions are also still available on their respective storefronts.
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