At the beginning of 2013, I finally got around to playing Red Dead Redemption. We had rented to game some months earlier, and though it looked interesting at the time, I was too engrossed in other games to really take notice. But rather than just forget about RDR completely, I instead picked it up on sale around the holidays. It became one of the best decisions I’d ever made.
I loved Red Dead Redemption. Like, loved loved it. I called it one of my most favorite games of the Xbox 360/PS3/Wii generation. I loved its sights, sounds, and gameplay. I loved being in the “Old West” as modernity encroached. I loved taking the reigns as John Marston, ye gruff seeker of right in the face of wrong. I loved the game despite some glaring flaws, particularly with its endgame. And ever since I put down the controller nearly three years ago to date, I’ve wanted to play the game again. But as with gaming, other games prevailed, and Red Dead was set on the backburner. Our “favorite” games challenge (big ups to the friendly purveyor of Murf Versus for planting that idea seed) that we set last month finally gave me the perfect opportunity to not only replay the game, but to somehow revisit it in a different way than I had before. How did things go in New Austin the second time round? Why, I’m so glad you asked!
Before even starting the game, I had to figure out just how I was going to play it differently. Read Dead Redemption, like other Rockstar titles, isn’t really a choose-your-own adventure game. There are no multiple endings or dialogue trees. It’s open world in the sense that you can explore the game however you’d like and take on quests and side quests at your leisure. But all paths taken lead to the same place. So I switched things up in two regards: I paid attention to the game’s “honor” system, and I played for achievements.
With these two objectives in mind, and taking a much more critical eye to the game, I was off as John Marston, the former gunslinger and gang member who’d been forced into a bad situation in order to save his family. Given my time limitations, I was worried that I wouldn’t make it through the whole game in just a month. But I’m happy to report that I managed to get through the main story and attained 90% completion. Not too shabby! The game was more beautiful than I remembered it. (Really, if Red Dead has just one thing going for it, it’s the lands of New Austin.) I was thrilled to be back on my horse, riding around the sparsely populated landscapes with supremely laid-back Western rhythms playing in the background. A more serene gaming experience that Red Dead you simply will not find.
Which was all well and good, but I had goals to reach! So let’s take the game’s “honor” system first. Red Dead isn’t a game with grand moral choices, but in it you can choose to be nice or mean to people. When I first played through it, I didn’t even think about Marston’s “honor” and how it affected the game. I was automatically nice to everyone because it seemed like the right way to be. So with the revisited playthrough, I started out on the right path and then started down the wrong path, accepting questionable jobs, going on shooting sprees, cheating at poker, and being a salty ol’ cuss.
As Martson’s honor rose, I noticed a couple things I hadn’t before. First was that the number of random encounters – mostly folks stuck on the side of the road needing help – seemed to increase. Soon Marston couldn’t go from town to town without a least one or two people requesting his help along the way. He also obtained a new costume (a duster jacket –nice!) and received discounted prices at shops. And people in town were generally cordial to Marston, greeting him with any number of pleasantries. It was all very…nice.
Being mean, on the other hand, was…interesting. I have to admit that I didn’t lower my honor enough to really see the “bad” Marston, but as it dropped, there was a noticeable difference in the way people greeted him, especially police officers. Random chatter about Marston when from “he’s a great guy!” to “I wouldn’t want to cross paths with him.” After committing a number of random violent acts, Marston ended up with a bounty on his head. (At one point I was gunning for a $1000 bounty, but only ended up with a measly $482.) So traveling across New Austin became a little more treacherous, as gangs of bounty hunters would pop up here and there. And Martson was also offered occasional jobs that involved stealing. That was something, I guess.
I remain somewhat interested in seeing what happens when Marston has zero honor, but based on what I experienced, the whole honor system didn’t lend anything to Marston’s story. The choice to be “good” Marston or “bad” Marston is really for the players only, and it’s not that interesting a mechanic, since all either choice really gets you are happy NPCs or grumpy NPCs. Eh. If you’re looking for a game where morals make a real difference in the way things turn out, look elsewhere.
As for achievements, I never pay attention to them in games. And I certainly didn’t the first time I played Red Dead. I tried my hand at taking a few steps towards some, like obtaining a certain amount of money or performing tasks in order to get some of Marston’s outfits or finding the “Strangers” scattered around, but all that played a very distant second fiddle to me getting through the main story. So here I wanted to see if achievement hunting brought anything extra to the game.
Well…it did, kind of. The big thing I got out of achievement hunting was that it allowed me to spend more time as and with John Marston. I like him, quite possibly more than any other character in a video game, ever. He’s rugged, mouthy, sincere, and a little bit silly. His personality really shined during the “Strangers” side quests, from being concerned about a sick young woman who believed that her faith would save her, to being sly and sarcastic towards an inventive soul who was in the midst of building a flying contraption. Despite the often lame tasks (mostly fetching things) that these strangers asked Marston to perform, I liked the fact that each new side quest gave me the opportunity to further explore the depths of New Austin. I even found a number of new places that I had missed before.
But, as great as some side questing was, the overall search for achievements reminded me of exactly why I hate searching for achievements: boredom and repetition, both of which easily lead to frustration. For example, there are achievements involving taking out gangs at a number of hideouts – the exact same hideouts at which you have to take out a number of gangs during the main story. Do I really want to go back to all the hideouts again just to shoot everyone in the same manner than I did before? Nope, not really. Not at all, in fact.
As another example, I mentioned an achievement involving money – $10,000 to be exact. Earn that much and you get an achievement. You do that by looting, winning at card and dice games, collecting bounties, and hunting animals and selling skins, meat, etc. Lather, rinse, repeat, over and over again. Okay, so maybe I’m just jealous because I’m terrible at poker, but after collecting a few bounties, that process could not have been more rote.
And as for hunting…well, that leads right to my second issue with Red Dead‘s achievements, as a number of them involve actions that I would never think to do, such as killing one of every animals in the game or killing and skinning 18 grizzly bears. Say what you will, but I’m not going to randomly kill stuff if it’s not actually attacking me. Hunting animals in games is not my thing. It’s not an action that comes naturally, no matter how much the game may say Marston enjoys it.
It wasn’t just the “kill animals” achievements that I left in the dust, but others like knocking a person out in every saloon in the game and earning a gold medal rank during a combat mission. Why start random fights in a game that has unpleasant melee controls to begin with? (I sure didn’t care for them, anyway.) It’d never occur to me to do that, even knowing the achievement exists. As for the gold medal thing, yes, the game ranks your combat during some missions, but you’d never know that unless you dug through the pause menus. There are no announcements made during that game about obtaining certain medals for your skills.
Alright, I know I’m getting a little nitpicky; I know that game achievements are often outlandish or unusual. But that’s exactly why I simply don’t care about them, and Red Dead reminded of just that. Again, if anything, they put off the inevitable end to Marston’s story, but like the side quests, they added nothing to it.
So after all this, does Red Dead Redemption remain a “favorite” game? Simply, yes. I can forgive the game of its many sins (and there are many) because I find John Marston and New Austin both incredibly compelling. Red Dead Redemption is quality fare that I could regularly and easily play through whenever I need a respite from all the rest of the standard fare.