Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?
HIGH It’s still one of the greatest games ever made…
LOW …in a barebones port.
WTF I recommend The Bravados if you haven’t seen it. Super underrated western.
I love westerns. It’s a genre of film I’ve become quite acquainted with in all its different forms and subgenres (neo-westerns, spaghetti westerns — even acid westerns) and one I’ll continue to seek.
In the time I’ve spent playing through the latest port of Rocksar’s seminal Red Dead Redemption, I’ve watched films like John Ford’s Stagecoach and the Coen Brothers’ True Grit in an effort to absorb the Wild West in many different ways, putting myself in the right headspace to review a game as massive and as important as the original Red Dead.
The truth is, however, I didn’t need to do all that to confirm what I already felt back in 2010 when I first played it. Red Dead Redemption was — and still is — a masterpiece. This latest port to PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch offers clear evidence lot of that, nostalgia be damned.
Taking place in a fictionalized version of the American West, RDR is a third-person action-adventure in which players control John Marston. He’s a former outlaw, now forced to work under the watchful eye of an investigation bureau in an effort to wrangle up former members of the infamous Van Der Linde gang, John’s former posse. It’s an interesting setup as John’s mission is one of desperation — the bureau employing him has his family held hostage to ensure his cooperation.
Gameplay consists of both linear missions involving combat or open-world exploration. Story missions usually see John riding his horse to various destinations, getting into firefights and performing a few narrative-centric odd jobs like making deliveries or wrangling cattle.
Traveling on horseback is satisfying and the world still feels lively, even more than 13 years later, and one of the greatest parts of RDR is how often I found myself distracted by different things on the map.
For example, early on I was heading to a story mission in town, when I noticed a rabbit on the road. Seeing as I had to start one of the hunting challenges which involved killing five rabbits, I chased it, shot it, and found myself by an NPC. This character told me to talk to another NPC about some sort of business opportunity. On the way there, I noticed a mythical jackalope. After killing it, I realized I had to get back to the main story mission I intended to complete, but during my return, I was held up and my horse got stolen — I now had to chase after the bandit.
It may seem like I’m rambling, but I can’t overstate how much I loved moments like these. These mini-stories offer something that very few open-world games get right. Rather than simply offering some boring checklist or arbitrary collectibles, I’m given a world that feels like it’s made up of different moving parts. Animals react realistically to each other, random people in the town or on the frontier are doing their own thing, and I have a choice in how I interact with it all.
That choice also plays into Red Dead Redemption’s honor system. If the player acts honorably (helping NPCs with issues, returning stolen goods, incapacitating enemies via non-lethal means), the world will take notice in different ways, such as shopkeepers offering discounts on goods or gang members starting to get more violent. The same is true for the inverse as well, allowing players to make a choice in how they approach the world, and how the world will relate to them.
Of course, it’s not as deep or as extensive as the systems in 2018’s Red Dead Redemption II, but it’s fascinating to see how unique Rockstar’s approach to an open world of this size was in 2010 and still is in 2023.
Mechanically, it holds up well and the gunplay still feels satisfying. The Dead-Eye mechanic that allows John to slow down time and target things remains great and is useful for hunting or taking down multiple enemies. Sure, it’s still an Xbox 360-era game visually, though the locked 30fps and 4K resolution make playing smoother, but one can’t really complain in that regard.
Narratively, the campaign is exceptional, taking players on a journey to the titular ‘redemption’ that John Marston seeks as he’s forced into violence again after creating a quiet life for himself and his family. In a way, it mirrors Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, in which the main character Will Munny is a retired outlaw seeking a bounty.
At the risk of making this review sound like nothing more than me flexing my Western film fandom, I did try to see what other references I could pull from this playthrough. Other than a few aesthetic choices (Marshall Johnson looks really similar to James Coburn in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid), clear homages (certain parts of Woody Jackson’s score are definitely inspired by Ennio Morricone’s oeuvre of spaghetti western compositions) and some thematic throughlines found across the genre as a whole, RDR sets itself apart from most other westerns. Rather than feeling like a collection of too-familiar elements, Rockstar developed their own revisionist western — a subgenre that deconstructs classic tropes of the American West.
In that way, Red Dead Redemption’s story is a full realization of that. It’s a darker and more cynical take on the West, showing the ugliness of what life was like back then. Lawmen are corrupt, there’s danger at every corner and prejudices run rampant. The land is desolate and the people inhabiting it are desperate, which is all summed up really well in a line of dialogue. While riding to a story mission, John speaks to another character, stating that “Men are formed, then they’re born.” The world is changing rapidly and those who don’t change their ways are victims of that great change.
While the narrative and gameplay do hold up exceptionally well after my dozen or so hours of playing, there’s a major caveat with the package — this is a straight port of a 13-year-old game for PlayStation 4 (not even a native PS5 port) and Nintendo Switch. Xbox Series players already have the original 360 titles in backwards compatibility mode (with a full 4K upscale) and PC players are once again left in the dust.
It’s a shame that the package is so barebones without any major enhancements like a 60fps patch or touched-up visuals. The resolution bump is nice and Switch players get a portable version, but other than that it’s hard to justify the package to those who already have access to either an Xbox Series console or even an Xbox One X.
Also included is the standalone expansion, Undead Nightmare. This alternate storyline has players controlling Marston in a zombie-infested version of the RDR map. What’s great about this DLC is that players can jump straight into it from the main menu without having to play the main campaign. It’s a great (and sizable) addition to the package, as it offers some levity and horror schlock in contrast to the main story’s more serious tone. While it’s a bummer that the original multiplayer isn’t included, at least players are getting two games’ worth of content here. Still, don’t expect much in the way of new.
Regardless of the feature-light port and general sparseness of the package, Red Dead Redemption still earns its place as one of the finest games ever made. Even if its follow-up improved upon everything, this was a joyful blast to the past, reminding me that all greatness starts somewhere. For those looking to live out another cowboy fantasy before Rockstar decides to release Red Dead Redemption III, they can certainly do worse than this.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Disclosures: This game is published and developed by Rockstar Studios. It is available on Switch and PS4. This copy was obtained via the publisher and was reviewed on PS5. Approximately 15 hours were spent in single-player and the game was not completed but the game was completed before in an earlier release on Xbox 360/PS3. There is no multiplayer.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M for Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, and Use of Drugs. According to the site: This is an “open-world” action-adventure game in which players assume the role of John Marston, a reformed criminal on a mission to capture the remnants of his old outlaw gang. Players roam Wild West environments and perform various missions for criminal figures and law enforcement: destroying bridges, helping individuals in distress, delivering packages of drugs (e.g., opium), capturing outlaws, and eliminating rival figures. Players use shotguns, pistols, and rifles to kill enemies in realistic gun battles. Players can engage in melee-style hand-to-hand combat and trigger slow-motion effects by shooting enemies at close-range or by targeted shooting (i.e., aiming for body parts). Blood often spurts out of characters when shot; head shots and knife attacks result in much larger sprays. In one sequence, a bloodied and mutilated corpse can be seen hanging from the rafters of a barn. Players have the ability to shoot pedestrians in the game; however, a “Wanted Level”-penalty system discourages these acts by triggering a law enforcement response. The game contains a scene in which two characters have sex on a table; there is a brief instance of female nudity. One sequence depicts a man injecting himself with a syringe filled with cocaine. Language such as “f**k,” “c*nt,” and ‘sh*t” can be heard in the dialogue.
Colorblind Modes: Colorblind modes are not present in the options menu.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are subtitles and visual cues throughout the game and subtitle size can be adjusted. Enemy positions are always on the minimap, as well as other important things that should be known to the player. Audio cues are not necessary for gameplay. This is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: The controls cannot be remapped.