You play as John Marston -- an ex-outlaw now working for the government in pursuit of his former gang members. Despite his checkered past, Marston is a likable character with somewhat surprising values for a former lawbreaker. It helps that the actor who voices Marston does an engaging job, making the character believable and breathing life into the role. In fact, the voice acting in general is one of Red Dead's strengths.
Another strength is the beautiful landscape Rockstar has created. Vast desserts, rolling mountains and tree-filled forests are just some of the settings. The different terrains throughout the game give it a feel of authenticity that the developer is known for.
The world seems alive. You'll find numerous animals roaming the vast plains and small towns that feel authentic. Random events such as public hangings and animal attacks add to the unpredictable nature of the game.
Another Rockstar calling card is the implementation of the RAGE engine (Rockstar Advanced Game Engine), which they used in GTA IV. The engine's physics-based gameplay injects stark realism in the gunplay. Shooting a victim results in characters flailing in lifelike ways. Gunfire can knock enemies off horses in seemingly countless ways and even leave their lifeless bodies hanging from the reins while the horse continues to gallop.
Rockstar brings back its auto-aim mechanism from GTA IV. This allows the player to press the left trigger (L2) to automatically lock on to a target. The system makes taking out multiple enemies easier but it also robs the player of the satisfaction of knowing that they made that kill without assistance. This feature can be turned off, but the reticule used to aim in the game is so tiny that the assistance is vital in getting through the tougher parts of the campaign.
If picking off enemies one by one is not your thing, you can always opt for Dead Eye, a system that slows down time to allow the player to paint targets on multiple enemies and take them out simultaneously. A meter shows how much Dead Eye you have available and you can replinish it quickly by killing enemies in real time.
The mission structure is your standard open-world fare. There are main missions, side missions and enough distractions to have you playing for anywhere from 20 to 40 hours -- maybe more. There are numerous distractions -- from playing cards (porker, blackjack) to breaking in wild horses to name a couple. There are also a host of unlockable costumes -- some with added gameplay bonuses -- to unlock by completing a certain goals for each.
Your actions -- good and bad -- are tracked by the fame and honor system. Fame is gained by killing people, doing jobs, completing challenges and helping strangers. Honor provides feedback on what kind of actions you're taking. Kill a civilian and your honor will be affected negatively. Stop a robbery and your honor will get a positive boost. These actions will affect how the people in the game treat you. High honor will award you with discounts in stores and increased pay for jobs.
On the multiplayer side, Rockstar has also innovated. The main feature is Free Roam, a mode that opens the world to up to 16 players at a time. Players can form posses, attack computer-controlled gang hideouts or opt to play in one of the other multiplayer modes -- all within Free Roam. A leveling system adds incentive to keep coming back for more as mounts, titles and characters are unlocked.
Despite its intriguing setup, the multiplayer has its drawbacks. The auto-aim feature makes a return appearance and really detracts from the skill needed in competitive modes. Another negative is the lack of customization within the leveling up. Characters are unlocked but can not be altered in any way.
But that in no way is enough to diminish Red Dead's ambitious achievement. With its engaging story, believable characters and a solid multiplayer -- it's hard to argue that Rockstar's ode to the West isn't another smash hit in the developer's long list of blockbusters.