Update: Red Dead Redemption is now Xbox One Backwards Compatible
With rumours swirling that Rockstar will resurrect the western series, gamespulp looks back at the original.
There’s an element of the truth when you hear people define Red Dead Redemption as ‘Grand Theft Horses’. On the surface, that’s precisely what the game is – a third-person open-world gun’n’ride, chock-a-block with mainline missions and side-quests. But look a little deeper and you’ll find a game much more mature and fine-tuned than any GTA that preceded it.
The story centres on John Marston – a cowboy in the rough Clint Eastwood mode, rather than the white-hatted John Wayne hero. He’s dragged back to the picturesque New Austin by two dirty feds who keep Marston’s wife from him while he plays their boot-boy, an unwilling killer for the government of the as-yet-not-entirely United States. But it acts as more than just a good excuse to ride around in horseback head-shotting outlaws – because John Marston is in his own dark path to become the man he wants to be.
He’s not a bad guy, you see. All that’s behind him, but to prove it to himself he’s tasked with offing his old gang in between herding cows with the feisty farmer’s daughter Bonnie McFarlane and whipping up a Mexican revolution. Think of every scene and every genre archetype you’ve ever seen in a western – the jaded sheriff, the comic relief drunk, the power-tripping dictator (charmingly pompous and literal snake-oil salesman Nigel West Dickens is a particular delight) – it’s all here, but because no other game has ever offered an experience like it, Red Dead Redemption feels far fresher than it has any right to be. Partly, this is due to the period setting – in 1901, the old west was all but dead, as the modern world caught up with itself. That ‘between times’ setting only enhances our romantic notions of losing a recognisable past for a brave new future.
There’s nothing quite like trotting along a dusty path, amber sun setting behind forested mountains, sleepy town nestled at it’s base. You tip your hat and shoot your six-gun before lassoing and hog-tying bounties and leaving them on the rail tracks. Red Dead Redemption, on some level, is like Batman: Arkham Asylum; the game so completely draws together a story, open-world universe and immersive game play that ensures you don’t just play at being the iconic hero, you become them. Rockstar succeed where it counts: They’ve made us feel like we’re actually cowboys.
Much of RDR’s success comes down to the developer’s obsession with quality. From the moment you hit start to play, you’re confronted with a lovingly crafted masterpiece, from sweet dialogue and a reactive incidental musical score to the distracting mini-games and refined level design. Even the multiplayer is thoughtful, and rather than feeling half-heartedly tacked-on to sell DLC (although it did) it plays like the true pre-cursor to GTA Online.
That multiplayer used the game’s world essentially as an open-world hub that allows you to join a posse, complete mini-quests or head into PVP. Frankly, entering certain areas of the map where other players are holed up can be way more tense than entering The Division’s Dark Zone 6 years later. There’s plenty of modes, and enough unlocks, from weapons to mounts to characters, to keep most players fully sated. If the online aspect has one problem, it’s the finicky opening every TDM – an old-fashioned stand-off, first to draw and shoot wins. But much like in the single-player game, its not always entirely clear to get that first shot off before taking a bullet to your chiselled jaw.
Beyond that, controlling Marston is tight, the control scheme typically intuitive. Firing a variety of weapons is solid, every bullet that strikes is satisfying, and the enemies ragdoll to their death fairly realistically. The environments, too, are inventive enough, and after a few hours players will know every acre of New Austin and beyond. You’ll also know when you’re safe to dart off the beaten path. All that makes Red Dead Redemption one of the best time-sinks in gaming.
But it’s not all easy riding. This is a western, after all.
Where Red Dead fails is directly related to that dedication, that deference, to recreating every western influence it can remember. By cramming so much in, you feel the game’s story start sagging shortly after the Mexican act begins. The story starts to eat itself, the missions and characters are, by and large, unmemorable and you begin to yearn for the return of familiar, if not entirely friendly, faces. But even that return is marred by a fair amount of filler quests. That’s not so bad, though, as the tone and pace feeds into one of the finest, touching endings you’re likely to see in a Rockstar game. Another (admittedly minor) issue: Navigating the rocky terrain can be an exercise in frustration as your daredevil horse refuses to lift it’s hooves an inch higher, forcing you to take the long way around. That’s forgivable, because the appealing scenery will keep your romantic heart fluttering.
Still, Red Dead Redemption is a beautiful game with standout moments: The ride into Mexico will give you as many chills as cantering down the mountain back to the homestead. And that final shootout will stay with you long after the credits roll and the song fades.