The Western genre is one thatís sadly underexplored in modern gaming, with very few efforts having been made to delve into the potential fun that could be drawn from such a rich and historic setting. Some have tried, like Call of Juarez and Gun, which have come close in their own ways while failing to really capture the essence and spirit of the genre, though the latter certainly came close. Rockstarís own heavily flawed Red Dead Revolver was another such effort, and should not be mistaken in any way with Red Dead Redemption, its recently released sequel-in-name-only. This latest sandbox-style exploration of the greatest themes of Westerns is a testament to a developer thoroughly skilled not only with the open world approach but also the ability to tell a great story.
The tale of Red Dead Redemption revolves around John Marston, a scarred-up former outlaw. Having seen the error of his ways, Marston attempted to walk the straight and narrow as a rancher and father. But this being a Western, Marston discovers that you canít escape your past, as the federal government exercises its newfound powers to force him to right some wrongs. Hiding away his wife and son, the feds tell him his debt to society will be repaid if and only if he agrees to find and take on some of his former gang members. Grudgingly, Marston picks up his knife and his six-shooter and hits the dusty and lonesome trail once more.
Itís a wild and wooly tale, carrying Marston through all manner of adventures and tragedy as heís forced by the government to strap on his side-iron, wandering through a world thatís on the verge of passing him by. The Wild West as presented here is one thatís witnessing the advent of automobiles and the extension of federal government over frontier living, something that threatens to make Marston a relic before long. Itís an interesting dynamic that is rarely shoved in the playerís face, instead hanging around the fringes without detracting from the wonderful genre-heavy gameplay. Sure enough, Marston explores nearly every genre trope there is, from backroom poker games in musty saloons to dusty street duel showdowns, from snowy peaks to dusty plains, from chasing down horse thieves to assisting with civil war on the outer edges of Mexico.
All of this is done in whatís being touted as one of the biggest open-world environments ever, and as you ride your horse of choice between cacti, over tumbleweeds and through endless plains, youíll believe it. With its wide-open feel and endless horizon, Red Dead Redemption perfectly conveys what a Western really needs: that you have the entire frontier ahead of you. While there are plenty of straight spaces Ė arguably necessary for really letting you to get your steed up to full, thundering gallop Ė they never feel like filler, and always like an organic part of the landscape. In fact, with plenty of mesas, streams, valleys, ghost towns, caves, old mining camps and everything from lush forests to snow-capped mountains, thereís no shortage of land to wander and a constant sense that something new to see is right around the corner.
As wide and open and free as the landscape may be, there truly is always something or other to do, as Red Dead Redemption packs a jaw-dropping quantity of sheer stuff to keep you occupied as you dash from one end of the West to the other in pursuit of your quarry. The barroom games are surprisingly great fun, allowing you to play (and cheat at) poker, blackjack, arm-wrestling, and liarís dice, to name a few. Much cash can be lost and won there, though if gambling isnít your thing, you can make a surprisingly decent living simply living off the land. The countryside is teeming with wildlife, from boars to buffalo to birds and bears, and every single living thing can be hunted, killed and skinned. The gory rewards for doing so can then be sold to general stores (though why thereís a strong market for skunk meat, I have no idea), netting you a healthy profit in exchange for some patience and some bullets. If thatís not enough, you can also collect the many varied types of plant life you come across, which too can be sold. Both hunting and plant gathering are also part of the gameís internal system of tiered challenges, which provide you with set goals to achieve new ďlevelsĒ within said challenges, eventually leading to new abilities, clothing and other rewards. These can range from hunting goals, like killing a certain number of cougars with a knife or downing bears with one shot, to sharpshooting goals, like shooting the hats off a certain number of peopleís still-intact heads. Simply working through these handful of challenge sets (which, in their upper levels, can be quite time-consuming) is addictive in itself, and provides no shortage of things to do while youíre out and about. If youíd rather have hard-and-fast jobs, you can also periodically pull down wanted posters and chase down bandits, walk a nighttime patrol, or help break horses. And if thatís not enough, you can even hunt down items of clothing to cobble together specific outfits that each confer specific bonuses, or simply to satisfy your sense of completionism. Itís a game with a lot to do, and all of it fun.
This wealth of sheer stuff doesnít even include the well-written side missions, nor does it factor in the frequent random events that help bring the dusty roads and plains to life. Itís quite common to be traveling from town to town to come across someone who needs something from you, whether itís a bet to see who can shoot the most birds in a minute, or damsel in distress, or even a train robbery that needs thwarting. Escaped prisoners may need rounding up, horse thieves need to be killed or lassoed back to face their victims, or a hanging needs to be stopped. These things help to offer what Gun really lacked, and that is the sense that the land is a place that isnít inert but rather very alive, and that it moves on and on and on, whether youíre there or not. It also helps to enhance the many, many hours youíll spend wandering the countryside, and beefs up whatís already a pretty meaty experience.
Of course, no good Western would be worth much if it flubbed the use of guns and weapons, and itís something that Red Dead Redemption handles nearly perfectly. From pistols to shotguns and sniper rifles, Marston has access to a formidable arsenal, which can be upgraded as time goes on and as one accumulates more and more money through hunting, plant gathering, missions and jobs. The aim can be snapped to your foes very simply, and headshots are a simple matter of loosing your grip somewhat to make use of Free Aim. If youíre having any trouble or find yourself overwhelmed with foes, you can also kick in Dead Aim, which slows time to a crawl and lets you paint targets onto your foes with relative ease. While this replenishes slowly, you can refill the meter with chewing tobacco, moonshine, or a few well-placed headshots. Itís surpassingly satisfying and makes you feel at all times that you, as Marston, are a badass among badasses. And of course, thereís the lasso, which is far, far too much fun. While itís ostensibly to be used to break horses, whether itís for yourself or on hire for others, itís most entertainingly used to capture and drag bad guys. If you want a much healthier profit from your wanted bounty, you lasso and hogtie your foe, slap Ďem on the back of your horse, and fight off his friends as you ride to town, guns blazing. Or, if someone in town looks at you cross-eyed, lasso the fellow and drag him to his death. At times entertaining, at times perverse, and often perversely entertaining. It can also be entertainingly perverse, especially when a gentleman who you soundly beat in a barroom brawl wonít leave you alone, and you choose to hogtie him and quietly drop him onto the train tracks.
All this doesnít even include the Sergio Leone-style music, the pitch-perfect voice acting, and of course, the fantastic multiplayer opportunities which tack on considerable longevity in and of themselves. The only negative spots here, really, include the occasional strange bug, such as stats pages that inform you that you have played roughly 8,762 hours of poker, or that youíve killed some 80,000 cougars. Thereís also the occasional point where you have to reset after your horse becomes firmly lodged in the earth or building, but these are relatively minor complaints in a game with such depth and breadth.
Thereís much to be said about Red Dead Redemption, virtually all of it good. Only a handful of bugs and clipping peccadilloes mar what is otherwise a truly outstanding experience. While many will rush to call this ďGrand Theft Equine,Ē itís a mostly unfair reference to Rockstarís well-established open-world standard-bearer, as Red Dead easily stands on its own as a unique and thrilling experience. From the hard-nosed and often goofy plot to the endless quantity of activities and random events, this is a finely tuned experience that only seems to get better the more you play it. Whatís more, itís as good a bang for your gaming buck as youíll find these days: even 40 hours in, there still remains much to do. Itís safe to say that although Gun was the best Western game on the market, Red Dead Redemption elevates that bar to impossible heights, and it will be astoundingly difficult to imagine how it could ever be topped.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)