Review: Red Dead Redemption

I can’t quit playing this game. No, seriously, you can’t quit out of missions and that is just one of the many problems that plague this game. I could waste a lot of time and space to complaining about how bad I personally think it is, the amount of bugs that rampant, or lament on the gaming media that gave this thing a perfect score, but that wouldn’t really be that beneficial to anyone. Instead, I will use this game to highlight some of the biggest failings in current game design.

Focus on the Core

I’m not sure what the developers thought their focus was meant to be, but apparently they didn’t realize it was horse riding. You can tell that it is by the amount of missions you have that are literally, “Ride to X town”. There is no problem in that by itself, but it should be the most fun thing about the game. The player should want to ride the horse for no other reason than to ride. This is not the case. The controls are passable, but they encourage you to not use them in half the riding missions. When you are with another rider, you just hold down the button and it will keep to the AI’s pace. You hardly even have to control the direction during much of this. Rockstar is essentially saying that they know the horse riding is nowhere near the quality of Shadow of the Colosseus (one of the best ever), so rather than try and fix it, they will just mask it. If a game’s core is weak, it is going to have trouble supporting the rest of the content.

Story Should Enhance the Game

Rockstar games always seem to be about these epic stories, as if that is the only reason for the product to exist. The gameplay reflects this. So many of the missions seem to be solely there to advance the storyline. This would be acceptable if we did some interesting things, but generally it is poorly written dialogue used while they force the player across the map. In fact, I can’t believe how bad the dialogue is in some parts that it actually made the experience worse. One example that jumps out is near the start of the game, John Marston meets up with Bonnie MacFarlane and she challenges him to a race. She does this by saying that a city boy like him would have trouble keeping up. Have you seen what he looks like? Maybe it was supposed to be sarcastic, but it totally failed. This type of talk happens throughout the game.

I recently read a great quote from Jason Rohrer, “Game Designers are obsessed with the money shot”, and this is very applicable to Red Dead. You can see all the designers on the team are fancying themselves as film directors, possibly too much so. They are more interested in making it look good than they are in making it play good. This was great a decade ago, but with the level of quality other companies are achieving in this area today, they are on a bad path. They really need to start focusing on what the player is supposed to be doing.

Interesting Decisions

Probably the biggest failing in this game is the fact that they break one of the cardinal rules of game design. In general, a player should have to react to the game every 5 – 10 seconds. Riding from one location to another, with nothing in between does not give the player any interesting decisions. Red Dead Redemption wants to give the feeling of the Old West, including all the dull boring things, such as the environment. There is way too much time where you have very little to do. You go out hunting in the vast areas of emptiness, where at most you can pick some herbs. Boring.

In addition to this, there doesn’t seem to be any real reward to any of this. There is an economic system in the game, but I haven’t found any use for it. I don’t need to buy any weapons as I can just scavenge the dead for it. Buying horses doesn’t seem to improve the horse I ride. The mini-games are in just to make the game seem more robust, but again, why do I need money? It really only seems to be in there to give the player a purpose to skinning animals, without which, there would be no real game here. You gain Fame and Honor, but again, it is negligible in its overall effect in the game.

Conclusion

I admit that I am fairly harsh towards most games that I play, especially the big budget ones. Part of the reason is that there really isn’t a good reason why a team that has had several years with hundreds of workers to screw up on the basics. If they try something new, then I will give them a bit more leeway, but Red Dead Redemption is a sequel to a very common genre. We can all do better if we remember what it is we are supposed to be doing, designing games.

3 thoughts on “Review: Red Dead Redemption

  1. Interesting; I loved the game. Curiously though, it (as most games are) was saved by my imagination and internal motivations.

    I’ll start this by saying, I’m not a typical game player. So in general, I agree with what you’ve said. Just, it doesn’t apply to me.

    I am skipping most of the dialogue. When I’m running through the wilderness at night, and I see a coyote, I pretend I have to kill it for food or I’ll die when the sun rises. I like moseying down the trails at not maximum speed, admiring the vistas. I buy the items and play the games not because I think they are useful, but but because it aligns with the character that I’m role-playing.

    It’s a great annoyance to me that your horse magically appears when you whistle; I’d like to get stuck in the wild once in a while.

    It’s all about role playing for me. As you say, the dialogue is terrible. But to me, John Marston is exactly the kind of guy who’d relax with some five-finger-fillet while his horse is watering up. And for me, this is a far better reason to do it than for the money.

    I guess, the big failing of this game for me is that it’s not enough simulation. It tries to pull itself along by its confused story, when really, creating more dynamic and living factors in the world would have been a more player-centric use of development time.

    Aah well.

  2. Interesting that you threw up a reference to Shadow of the Collosus in your review, as you would likely agree it too breaks the “Cardinal Rule of Game Design” you mentioned about something happening every 5-10 seconds (Additionally, the horse controls being good are a contested point). With that in mind, I would argue that that level of instant gratification is perhaps not as Cardinal a sin as you might believe. While my experience with the game was brief, I found the long riding segments to be an enjoyable, if relaxed endeavor in and of themselves, often punctuated by some psuedo-random event like some bounty hunters (Or conversely, people with bounties)

    Other than that you, you nailed a couple good points.

  3. Thanks for reading.

    I agree about the Shadow of the Colossus breaking the rule, but it was sort of necessary to make the boss battles feel more epic. I think that is the one major difference between Shadow of the Colossus and Red Dead Redemption’s riding. I know in SoC that my boring little trot on the horse is going to lead me to a very challenging boss, so it is a bit of a breather. In RDR I ride and end up having some boring time waster, like “Catch that runaway caravan!!” It’s all about the payoff 😉

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