Red Dead Redemption
From the makers of Grand Theft Auto comes Grand Theft Auto cowboy - a glib statement perhaps, but one that we've seen wheeled out on several occasions. Is Red Dead Redemption really just GTA with horses, rusty old six shooters and stetsons though, or is there more to it than that?
Arguably, video games haven't really come all that close to paying the Western the kind of service that it deserves, and although Red Dead Revolver, Gun and Call of Juarez came close, none of them enabled you to live out the pure, unadulterated cowboy fantasy like Red Dead Redemption does. And that's the crux of what makes Red Dead Redemption the game that it is - a unique understanding of the Western and all that it encapsulates. From Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch via the 70's Clint Eastwood movies to the resurgence the genre has enjoyed more recently with the likes of Deadwood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Red Dead Redemption references them all in its own way, but goes one further to earn a status worthy of any slice of Wild West cinema you might care to think of.
Arriving in the wild plains of New Austin, John Marston is an ex-outlaw looking to go straight. He's a man with a muddy past looking for (you guessed it) redemption. To begin with the story is a bit of a slow burner, and you'll be doing oddjobs for Bonnie MacFarlane on her family's ranch before going on to ride with the local law enforcement in Armadillo. Gradually you'll become entwined in Red Dead's narrative web as things get more and more dark and desolate, and you run into morally void characters that thrive on the lawlessness of the wild west.
Rockstar's pedigree in building immense and detailed open-worlds shines through once again in Redemption, and like GTA IV before it, the narrative is second to none, but the environment is what makes the game so completely absorbing. From its vast wilderness bustling with wildlife to the pockets of civilisation where you can knock back bourbon, play poker, instigate a bar brawl or have a pistol duel out in the dust, Red Dead Redemption's New Austin and Mexico frontiers are positively crammed with activity. Simply riding from one mission to the next is fraught with risk, although you can catch a stagecoach if you'd rather sit back and enjoy the scenery - but then where's the fun in that? We loved the tension of knowing that a bear or cougar could tear our head off at any moment or we could encounter a group of bandits or a damsel in distress while riding horseback out in the wilds.
Rescuing drug addled strangers, completing challenges, exploring the mysterious disappearance and grisly murders of Armadillo's residents or just shooting and skinning the plentiful fauna like a true frontiersman are all optional distractions that add an extra layer of immersion to life in Red Dead's incredible sandbox. There are a few glitches to contend with now and again, but they're easily forgivable given the sheer scale and scope of what's on offer. To say that they take anything away from Rockstar's achievement would be churlish and none of the glitches we came across were particularly ruinous anyway, although we've noticed on YouTube that some pretty hilarious ones have been popping up for certain players.
Besides, you'll be far too busy being engulfed by both Red Dead Redemption's engaging narrative and its endless, sprawling plains to care about glitches. You'll be selling animal pelts, picking herbs and admiring the sun rise and set, transforming the hue of the land as it shimmers in and out of view. Did we mention that Redemption is not just spectacular to play but also achingly beautiful to look at? No? Well, if the screenshots and videos haven't already convinced you, then take it from us - it is, and glitches do nothing to tarnish the game's lustre. Red Dead also benefits from the Euphoria physics engine that was utilised to such great effect in GTA IV, so as you'd expect, characters react in a realistic manner. Shooting a bandit from his saddle or lassoing and hog tying a wanted man to return him alive for hard-earned bounty and chunk of fame and honour is always gratifying, as is the sight of a fallen bandit being dragged through the dirt by his own horse.
Killing in Red Dead is impossible to avoid, and as such Marston's moral compass is constantly guided by honour and his actions are rewarded with fame. Gunning down marshals and innocents in cold blood will naturally earn you negative honour and the infamy as a murderer while helping folks and performing good deeds will cement your status as a gentleman (press B to tip your hat and say howdy to the ladies) and notorious legend of the west. How you play the game is entirely up to you, so if for instance, like us you'd prefer to keep your horse for the entire game then you can. If on the other hand, you'd rather kill, skin and sell on his meat and hide for cold, hard currency, then you can do that too. You sicko.
Hunting wildlife and helping strangers are just sidelines that will always attract your attention, but Red Dead Redemption's story is expertly told, and will keep you hooked for the 15-20 hours or so that it lasts. Peeling the onion layers from John Marston's elusive character is compelling and you'll want to learn everything there is to know about his chequered past. We don't want to give anything away by revealing spoilers, but Red Dead Redemption's narrative is a masterclass in storytelling in any medium and outstrips most movies for sweeping scale and epic drama.
Outside of the core story, you're free to do whatever you like and there's more than a modicum of the RPG in the mix to add a hint of extra depth, so your moral choices are joined by stamina upgrades if you gain the loyalty of your steed, new outfits, looting, campsites that you can set up and enhance with all manner of accoutrements... the list goes on. Breaking wild horses, horse riding, cattle herding, bringing in wanted men for bounties, and night watch shifts on the MacFarlane ranch are other tasks that'll keep you occupied and help you earn all-important cash for you to spend on attire, weapons and other items like chewing tobacco, apples or treasure maps.
If the single-player aspect is the main draw in Red Dead, then multiplayer is not only a supplementary additive, but yet another forte in Redemption's extensive arsenal. Boasting a multitude of fantastic game modes well worth delving into, the real fun here is in forming up an eight-player posse and heading out on a hunt or engaging in a duel with other players. We just sincerely hope that Red Dead's multiplayer attracts the kind of attention that it so clearly deserves. Nothing beats kicking off a multiplayer gun battle whilst stood in a Mexican standoff, or simply riding around the desert and townships in free-roam with your posse in tow. Like everything else in Red Dead Redemption, it's absolutely brilliant and superbly presented.
Unreservedly grand and spectacular, only GTA IV comes anywhere near to matching Red Dead Redemption in terms of sheer scope and depth of character. It's an astounding achievement that's both completely immersive and eminently playable in equal measure. Gunslinging is hugely enjoyable and meaty too, thanks to a tight aiming mechanic and cover system. Deadeye returns from Red Dead Revolver, so you can slow time and paint red crosses all over your targets before unleashing a furious volley of bullets. Handling horses and carts is also fantastically implemented, with a decent sense of weight conveying the feeling of actually controlling a galloping stallion, although there are times when the horse riding can get a bit tired and even a bit annoying.
Some of the frustrations we had with GTA IV still persist in Red Dead Redemption, but then it's hard to feel resentment when every square inch of its intricate world is impeccably detailed and every one of its characters, both core and peripheral are so well-drawn and voiced. Despite the game's occasional tics and irritants, you'll find yourself irresistibly pulled into Red Dead's bleak world of liars, thieves, ladies, whores and double-crossing low lives, causing hours upon hours to drift by unchecked.
Red Dead Redemption is perhaps not only the best game Rockstar has made thus far, but it's one of the best games we've ever played - an unreserved work of genius. It has its flaws and is by no means perfect, but Red Dead Redemption is to the Western what GTA is to the crime genre and should be held up as a definitive example of how open-world games are supposed to be made.