Done Playing: Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360)

I’m not a huge cowboy fan but I appreciate the change of pace from the typical bro-love of space marines and Earth toned fantasy characters every now and again. Red Dead Revolver came along at just the right boiling point in 2004 and although there have been plenty of titles to marry a controller with the Wild West, none have ever done it as well as Red Dead Redemption.

Set at a boiling point of its own, John Marston heads back West at the behest of an expanding government agency that’s blackmailed him into a corner. A former bandit on the path of redemption (cue title card) he enters the fictional world of New Austin just as modern civilization catches up. Horse paths are well worn, wagons and wannabe gunslingers race back and forth while townsfolk talk of new technology and the Capital’s looming shadow. I expected to be all alone out in in the wild and seeing a lot of similar sun-baked terrain but given the setting and the talent of the environment artists there’s only a lull in the scenery when it’s well planned.

read this whole thing I wrote or just watch the beauty unfold above

The atmosphere is what continually impressed. The rippling heat, the stark shadows cast over the terrain at noontime and the glowing blue-white hue of a full moon night. But the storms! Oh, how amazing storms are in this game! It’s the kind of powerful display I wish every storm could be like in real life. Flashes light up the sky and the individual raindrops falling in front of you while the peeling thunder always sounds imposing; so much so that it sometimes spooks your horse. Little details like the shimmery puddles that last through the day or the extra-bright sunshine following a storm really show an attention to detail and mood that very few games can match.

The wildlife is another highlight that keeps the vast barren spaces alive and imposing. Dozens of creatures roam the world, some only at certain times of day, and many of them easily provoked and more powerful than you might expect. The press materials promised a realistic food chain but I never saw much animal-on-animal action. Rather, it was a random hunter whose approaching gunfire almost always had my pistol at the ready. I could go on for days about this amazing, unpredictable and gorgeous world but I’ll suffice to say that it’s the one thing that pulls this game above the ‘Grand Theft Horse’ expectations and makes it truly special.

That’s not to say the gameplay or story are a disappointment. Without all the terrible, modern pop culture to cull from, Redemption’s story is pretty basic and, given the setting, even the most despicable actions are easily justified. Many of the missions involve random strangers you’ll meet and some unfold over the course of the game without a single bullet being fired, others are wrapped up after hunting down specific plantlife or animals. ‘Random acts of Honor’ pop up regularly as you explore the world and let you decide how to deal with fleeing convicts, stagecoach hijackers, kidnappers, and assorted ruffians. For as forward-thinking as all that stuff is you’ll still be gunning your way through a large chunk of the Wild West’s population. The writing does a good job of explaining John’s motivations no matter how many times you hear it repeated but in the end the story stuff feels too much like Grand Theft Auto.

That would’ve been a selling point in 2002 but here it was almost the last thing I wanted to do. It starts out strong with story missions that see you wrangling wild horses and herding cattle but soon enough it falls back on cover-based, slow-mo enhanced gunfights against armies on obvious setpieces. Rockstar has definitely pushed way out ahead of GTA4 but this isn’t quite the new standard in open world gaming. Maybe that’s why there’s so much ambient, ancillary stuff to do. I’ve already put in over 80 hours and I’d guess less than 1/4 of that was spent on the story, even less in Multiplayer. So come for the experience of an honest-to-god Wild West wonderland and stick around for the quality storytelling. Just be sure to wander well away from the familiar mission structure as often as you can.

From the Archives