A man is forced by the government to accept a difficult task . A powerful man, who was formerly a popular leader but is now considered a criminal, must be eliminated. Getting close to the target will require a long, arduous expedition to a highly fortified compound. The government must not be connected in any way to the mission. Sound familiar?
No, the target's name is not Kurtz in Red Dead Redemption. But it might as well be. Rockstar has once again taken inspiration from a masterpiece of cinema. In the same way that the Grand Theft Auto series is strongly linked to works by Singleton, Scorsese, De Palma, and Kurosawa, Red Dead Redemption pays homage to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
On the surface, RDR appears to be based on classic Westerns. The game is set in the American frontier at the beginning of the 20th century. There are plenty of references to films directed by John Ford, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, and Sam Peckinpah. The driving forces behind the game's narrative, however, are questions about duty versus honor, confrontations with enemies who may not truly be opposed to what your character represents, and most importantly, the achievement of spiritual redemption by completing a psychologically harrowing journey. Western films often address these themes as well, of course, but without any ambiguity or ambivalence. It's always crystal clear who is good, who is evil, and what is right and what is wrong in these films. In contrast, RDR and AN deliberately obscure their moral viewpoint on the actions of their characters.
Anybody familiar with Apocalypse Now will recognize that many aspects of RDR's story are directly analogous to events in AN. While the characters and motivations of John Marston and Final Boss (no spoilers here) are never as fully developed as those of Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz--due to both Rockstar's avoidance of Metal Gear Solid-length cutscenes and the limitations of the videogame medium--all of AN's key plot points are present in the game. There's even a minor reference to the sniper execution scene in Full Metal Jacket that helps reinforce RDR's connections to AN. All of this adds up to a rich and compelling story arc, especially considering RDR is a videogame.
Story and influences aside, the bigger question is whether or not Red Dead Redemption is fun to play. The answer is YES. The graphics, especially the environmental effects, are outstanding. There's a good chance you will find yourself just sitting on a horse admiring a spectacular sunset or taking in the dramatic view from a mesa or hilltop and not doing anything else. The controls are easy to learn and quickly become intuitive. Finally, as is the norm with Rockstar, the game's world is gigantic and full of missions, mini-games, and random encounters. A few minor things feel a bit unfinished, such as some missions that involve long journeys without characters saying anything, or unrefined (it's left to the player to figure out how the inventory management system works while playing) but there aren't any glaring flaws overall. Well worth picking up.
A note about the John Hillcoat DVD
The 30-minute movie on the bonus DVD uses footage from cut scenes that mostly occur early in the game. Don't watch the movie before playing unless you want a "Preview of Coming Attractions." Also, the movie can be streamed or downloaded from Rockstar's website.