Westerns aren’t a genre that you see often in video games. Perhaps this is a sign of the times we live in; the Wild West just isn’t a popular setting anymore. Back in the first half of the 20th century, Westerns dominated the cinema and the literary world, but since the Space Age, they’ve fallen out of vogue.
That hasn’t stopped many games from exploring the scene, however; in fact, one of my top games of last year, “Fistful of Frags,” used the slow and clunky weapons of the Old West to its advantage, crafting a careful, risk-rewarding multiplayer experience. So it can be done well. But when Rockstar, the developers of the legendary “Grand Theft Auto” series, tried to implant their open city formula to the setting in “Red Dead Redemption,” it was hailed by critics as a masterpiece, and as one of the definitive games of the last console generation.
I hope I don’t offend anyone when I say that I disagree with that sentiment.
The story is as stock Western as you can get: John Marston was once an outlaw, robbing banks and tearing up the American frontier. When he realized just how crazy his colleagues were, he and his love Abigail fled the gang and started up their own ranch. But when federal agents kidnap his family and demand that John hunt down his former brothers in arms, he must take up the saddle and go on a journey to end his outlaw life once and for all.
It is stock, but it doesn’t feel cliché. It feels more like a carefully crafted homage. Marston’s tale is a tragic one, taking him across lines that he doesn’t want to cross and ultimately revealing what lies at the end of a violent, outlaw lifestyle.
The world of “Red Dead Redemption” reinforces this with a sense of isolation. While many of the game’s mechanics are ripped wholesale from “Grand Theft Auto,” they’re placed in a world that feels significantly more alone than the bustling streets of Los Santos or Liberty City. Often, you’ll be riding through an empty desert, with a full moon in the sky and a coyote’s howl in the distance. It’s a more contemplative atmosphere than that of “GTA,” and that would be preferable if the game’s mechanics were up to snuff.
But they aren’t, unfortunately. Part of this may be my fickle PC-gamer mind, but the controls of “Red Dead Redemption” are terrible. Because aiming weapons on a console controller is impossible, the game relies on several crutches like auto-aim to help make it easier. But those crutches are unreliable, and it’s so hard not to feel aggravated when an enemy kills you because the controls decided against you shooting first. It takes a bit of control away from the player, and when it gets you killed, it makes you want to throw your controller through the television.
Most of the other activities aren’t much better. There are stock Western activities like Poker, cattle herding, and horse-breaking, which are fun to do, but they’re vastly overshadowed by things like fort assaults or dueling, which rely on those fiddly shooting controls. The end result is a world that gets a lot of things right, but still feels incredibly frustrating to play.
I wanted to like “Red Dead Redemption.” The world is beautifully atmospheric, and the story matches up with it perfectly. If only the shooting were as fun as exploring the world, then we’d have a real classic on our hands. But it remains an issue that will possibly haunt the game for the rest of its life.