Sunday, June 30, 2013

My Month In Games: June 2013

Red Dead Redemption - PS3

I have to say that I'm amazed at how much I enjoyed this game given that A) I generally don't care for westerns, and B) I'm sort of over the whole Grand Theft Auto thing.  Yet that's exactly what this game is: Grand Theft Auto in the old west.  Before I get into the game, however, let me first tell you a bit more about my feelings toward westerns and the GTA series.

I'll admit that I haven't even seen many westerns in my day.  I've never actually sat through any of the Clint Eastwood classics, and I have only dim memories of more modern films like Young Guns and Tombstone.  I have never seen a full episode of HBO's Deadwood and I only started (but did not finish) The Magnificent Seven, a film based on my all time favorite film, Seven Samurai.  I think that my main problem with westerns is that they often feel slow paced.  The gunfighting and the gruff characters can be entertaining, but the storylines often limp along, and many of them feel too similar in their setting and execution.

"Right, do any of you guys know which movie we're supposed to be in?"
As far as GTA games go, well my complaints about them are many.  However, I will first say that I consider Grand Theft Auto III to be one of the greatest games ever created.  Over the years much has been said elsewhere about what a good time that game is and its tremendous influence on the modern gaming landscape - and I wholeheartedly agree.  I was blown away by GTA III but I've been less and less impressed with each ensuing sequel.  I get that they're supposed to be "crime simulators", but stepping into the shoes of a criminal can kind of be a drag.  Yes, I've gunned down an army of dim-witted digital policemen and run over countless innocent civilians while playing GTA over the years.  Hell, I've even nailed a prostitute in a dark alley before beating her to death and taking my money back!  I admit that it's somewhat entertaining to play a game as a complete psychopath, but in the end it's just hard for me to identify with, and root for the characters in the GTA series.  On top of that I find the combat to be simplistic (lock on, fire, repeat), the driving to be tedious, and the missions to be too similar.  I give the series credit for creating cool, immersive worlds, but the formula has become stale for me.  That's not to say that I won't give GTA V a chance when it comes out later this year, but I digress...

Still, while there are many key elements from both westerns and the Grand Theft Auto series that make it into Red Dead Redemption, they actually come together to make a rather satisfying stew!  To begin with, this game is gorgeous.  I know that many films set in the old west use shots of unspoiled settings to recall the natural beauty of the American frontier and this game is no different.  From snowy mountains and dense forests, to lakesides and desert dunes, the landscapes are stunning and the incredible graphics really drew me in.  Also, I loved the feeling of space and openness that this game conveys.  Compared to the densely populated cities of GTA that are filled to the brim with obstacles, traveling through the many landscapes on horseback was a joy.  It's very freeing to know that if you overshoot your target you need only pull up on the reigns to turn your trusty steed around and not have to worry about getting thrown in the slammer for accidentally clipping a cop car as you perform an illegal U-turn.  The combat is one area of the game that left something to be desired.  It's just too much like GTA to be satisfying.  Lock on to your target and press fire, that's all there is to it.  Sure, you technically can free aim, but the aiming reticule is so tiny that it makes for a far more frustrating proposition.  Even the "Dead Eye" feature that slows down time only serves to make the already simple combat mechanics that much easier.

My absolute favorite part of the game was its presentation of the main character, John Marston.  He's gruff and ornery (like any good cowboy should be) but he also has a good heart and sharp wits.  Unlike the two-bit criminals of the GTA series, John Marston is someone I actually felt like rooting for.  Yes, there are parts of the story that drag from time to time, but nearly every mission gives you some small insight into the man that is John Marston, and I absolutely came to care about him through the course of the game.  I cared about him so much in fact, that I was able to completely look past the tedium of the combat and the sameness of many of the missions.  I also want to give a shout to the music of Red Dead Redemption.  It is, quite simply, one of the best original scores I've heard in a long time.  Better than most games out there, and even better than many current films, regardless of genre.

In the end I give credit to Red Dead Redemption for tweaking the GTA formula in some very satisfying ways.  John Marston is a great character who lives in a beautifully realized world that doesn't constrain you with too many real life rules.  Rockstar Games knows how to work a vibe and they do it in spectacular fashion with this title.

Grade: B+

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