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  • Adam Tye

Red Dead Reheated


A poster for Red Dead Redemption with a scarlet red background.. A stern cowboy is point a double-barrelled shotgun in the direction of the lens. Next to him is the title of the game" "Rockstar Presents Red Dead Redemption'.

(The following review is based on experience with the 2023 rerelease of Red Dead Redemption on the Nintendo Switch)


Time was, I did not like Westerns. That is, until the age of 14, when Red Dead Redemption showed me why I was wrong. An open world action game in the style of the Grand Theft Auto series, set within the dying days of the old west, Red Dead Redemption highlighted all the things I thought I disliked about the genre and slowly convinced me that they were integral parts of the experience. It gave life and appeal to grime and dirt, and imbued the miserable landscape of the old west with a calm mystique. It’s often remarked that the game features long stretches of riding through nowhere, and the game gets away with it precisely because that ‘nothing’ is so evocative and memorable. I think there were other games during my youth that I liked more, but Red Dead is the one that crawled inside my head and quietly set up camp. So much so that I remember on multiple occasions walking home in summer under a piercing blue sky, looking up and thinking “now that’s a Red Dead sky.”


Returning to that original feels more timely than ever in the wake of the game’s controversial new rerelease. This is a seemingly untouched version of the 2010 package, with only a smattering of new anti-aliasing features to show for the passing of time. Less a remaster, and more like Rockstar’s reheated leftovers, graciously dolled out a decade too late, with a hefty price tag to boot. There’s no wizardry at play here to mask the blemishes - no touch-ups that bring it in line with how we remember it. There is only the game, and whether it holds our attention thirteen years later: an eternity in video game time.


There’s obviously little doubting that Red Dead’s serene atmosphere has aged in the interim, though it’s a surprise to see how extensive the damage is. Textures are often muddy; the aliasing muddies and warps the horizon as though you are staring into an unnatural, distant heatwave; the towns, which once felt alive and bustling, now feel sparse and underpopulated (thisbecomes particularly apparent during the Mexican Civil War sequence, which is seemingly being fought between fifteen people). Even the desert landscapes - those vast planes which I spent so much time admiring - now seem flat in comparison to its more varied sequel. I remember booting up Red Dead 2 and lamenting how green and grassy that game was. At the time, it felt like a betrayal of the original’s dusty vistas. Now I play the first game and wonder where all the trees have gone.


But for all that technology has since progressed, and other games have taken the game’s naturalistic ambitions and run with them (see: the two recent Legend of Zelda titles), there is still something disarming about the stillness of Red Dead Redemption. A far cry away from Grand Theft Auto’s bustling streets and radio chatter, Red Dead’s open world is one of wide-deserts, statuesque cacti, and snarling wolves. Each patch of land could have easily merged together into a blur, if not for the specifics of the wildlife that burn into your brain. A couple of trips back and forth between locations and a simple turn in the road starts to feel like home.


And amidst this specifically crafted wilderness, there are sparks of life. The fictional state of New Austin may be a dead landscape filled with low-polygon grass, but keep your eye out and it isn’t hard to spot armadillos scuttling underfoot. Rescue a wagon rider from bandits and you’ll be gifted a treasure map - the first in a chain that takes you across the world. Peek into Pike’s Basin and you’ll find gang members hiding amongst the winding cliffs. The sedateness of Red Dead masks an awful lot of movement, and the peacefulness of riding is just as often undercut by an uncertain sense of menace. Red Dead’s world doesn’t want to kill you, but it could if it wanted to, and that danger is underscored by the game’s sound design: odd gunshots piercing the silence, coyotes wailing in the distance, and Woody Jackson’s excellent score: famous for its horns and guitar work, but just as memorable for the anxious strings that shuffle about as you ride. This not a survival horror - far from it - but the combination of features is uneasy. Whether it’s enemies, predators, or the land itself, playing Red Dead feels like you are being watched.


This (literal) sandbox is hung upon an expansive story that is told sharply. John Marston’s mission to hunt down his old gang members and free his family from government imprisonment crosses two countries and dozens of characters, but the storytelling never takes its eyes off what is most important: Marston himself.


John Marston on a horse - one hand on the reigns, the other pointing a revolver off-screen. He is wearing a cowboy hat. The background is a desert landscape with a large rock monument just before the horizon. The sky is blue with white clouds.

It takes no time at all to get a grip on this character: his decency, his intolerance for authority, and his skill with violence. This characterisation is never ham-fisted, either, and much of his traits are conveyed in subtle, rewarding ways. I particularly enjoyed watching how awkwardly John slips into his family dynamic at the end of the game, once he has completed his mission and returned to the farm; this hardened killer gently flirting and parenting with complete earnestness. He’s emblematic of how much more sincerely Rockstar treats their Red Dead stories, in contrast to the snarkier and more grating satire of Grand Theft Auto.


It’s easy to understand John Marston, and easier still to like him, which is a blessing in every aspect but one: the open-world gameplay we control him in. His character isn’t always a pleasant one, but there’s a nobility in Marston and his goals which maps less cleanly onto any negative action the player may undertake. As mentioned earlier, the game falls in line with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, and so all manner of unshackled behaviour is open to the player. All the tools of combat are at your disposal as and when you want them, meaning that daylight robbery and civilian murder are very much on the table. This is a game where you are free to lasso hapless wanderers and tie them to the rail-tracks, just to see what happens.


Why a player might want to do this is their own business (my money is usually on curiosity). The problem is that it is hard to imagine a reason why John Marston would want to do this. For all that his character is well-built, he often clashes with the aims of the gameplay - its freedom, and even the needs of the mission-based structure. The story pads a lot of game time by returning to characters over and over for endless requests of their choosing, but the arbitrary nature of their chores often rob John of his agency. There’s only so many times he can threaten to shoot a procrastinating snake-oil salesman before I wonder why he hasn’t yet. Instead, he puts up with a lot of nonsense, and usually for no better reason than that the game requires him to. It’s a clash between the needs of the character and the needs of the game that would be better contextualised with the sequel’s protagonist, Arthur Morgan, whose shades of nastiness and need for survival better couch the player’s potential behaviour.


Ultimately, the issue is a minor one, and it’s a testament to the strength of both the writing and Robb Wiethoff’s terrific, gravelly performance that I was dissuaded from choosing the dishonourable route, even on a replay. Better yet, Marston grounds a game that could easily exceed its grasp, keeping the story’s many side-characters from pulling the narrative too far off its crucial path. Cutscenes are plentiful, but have a recognisable rhythm, never usually exceeding two to three minutes, and Rockstar use these constraints to keep the momentum up.


In returning to Red Dead, it is hard not to compare it to its sequel - the broad strokes of which I will save for another time. However, worth bringing up now is how much more immediate this title feels to play than its successor. The weapon constraints and lengthy looting animations introduced in 2018 are greatly reduced, and the result is a game which feels far more responsive. It works wonderfully on the Switch, whose portability has always favoured snappier gameplay. The irony is that this paired down approach might make the original more engrossing and immersive on a minute-to-minute level than its hyper-budgeted sequel.


Such is emblematic of the differences between the two. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a cowboy simulator, with an emphasis on minutiae and survival. Red Dead Remption, on the other hand, is a Western simulator. It is the era as gleamed from the silver screen, filled with grit, blood, and mythmaking. It took everything about the Old West that appeared slow and creaky, and brought everything exciting up to the surface. Eating beans round a campfire is for the cowboys; Red Dead Redemption is for the gunslingers. You want a gateway drug for an entire genre? Boy, does Rockstar have the game for you.


Other notes:

  • The Switch version does do an admirable job of running the original game, but boy could that game be buggy. Throughout my runtime I clipped through the environment, walked through a horse during a cutscene, and found myself locked into an endless run to get back in the saddle after my trusty steed had long since plowed away down the hill. The coup de gras was during the epilogue mission, where the game finally collapsed under its own weight; locking out the d-pad, disabling fast travel, and causing an npc to partially exit out of a cutscene and start firing bullets out of his elbows. All of these could be fixed by waiting or reloading the scene, so they are definitely more funny than anything else.

  • It’s pretty funny and ironic how a game thematically built on freedom against civilisation also encourages you to follow roads on a minimap so that your horse goes faster, rather than getting you to tear off at will across the landscape.

  • Mission satisfaction on the whole is fairly mixed. I don’t mind the whack-a-mole shooting as much as most, but it definitely lacks the variety and cinematic bravado of the sequel, whilst any attempts at variety are usually…pretty boring (cue ‘Nam flashbacks to every cattle-herding mission).


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