The steam train gently chugs through the stunning desert vistas of the American west. You sit gazing out the window, with the world bearing down on your shoulders. Two old ladies discuss how the world is a changed place at the start of the 20th century, whilst a minister reassures his daughter that God is there for her. The train then comes to a stop in an old, wooden burgh and you disembark – with your fate ahead of you. This is how Red Dead Redemption started. From the first cutscene I was hooked.
Red Dead Redemption was Rockstar’s 2010 blockbuster and a pseudo-sequel to Red Dead Revolver for the PlayStation 2, and is widely considered both critically and commercially as one of the finest games to have ever been released. It was a classic Rockstar mix of a great narrative, incredible setting and gameplay that worked. Red Dead really took video games up a notch and it still stands as one of my favourite games of all time.
As familiar and as interesting as we find the Wild West, before Red Dead Redemption no game had really captured the feel of the place – either from its reality or film-created perspective. There’d been a few attempts, for sure, with Call of Juarez establishing itself as a sort of B-list series that produced decent games now and then. Red Dead not only blew it out of the water but redefined the entire sub-genre. The game’s map was vast and expansive, with plenty of wide open spaces under starry skies or hot desert days, as you would expect of the Wild West. Towns were small, and felt true to our notion of the very early 1900s. Armadillo was the classic wooden town built around two things: its saloon and the railway station. MacFarlane’s ranch was a few houses surrounded by beautiful plains. Blackwater was a town of people beginning to adapt to modernities such as the motor car and brick streets. Spending time in the world is as immersive as could be, and achingly beautiful besides. Spending time on horseback travelling the dirt paths was never a chore to me, as there was always something to see. There’s no other game that made you feel a part of the world more than Red Dead Redemption.
As immersive as the setting was, it would have been nothing if the gameplay didn’t match. Luckily at Rockstar they have some of the finest minds in the industry for creating a game that offers variety that is both fun and relative to the narrative they want to tell. The introduction of wildlife made the deserts and the plains far more interesting than if they had left them fauna-less. I can’t count the number of times I strayed off the beaten path hunting deer, and then spying something smaller to hunt, and then something else and ended up miles from my horse with little idea what I was setting out for in the first place. You’ll never forget the first time you’re mauled by a cougar near the Mexican border, or face-to-face with a bear in the snowy climes of Cochinay.
Despite the old-timey Western setting, the game played very fresh and fluid. The gunplay was better than in Rockstar’s previous major release Grand Theft Auto IV and so was the cover system. You could slow down time, using a technique called “Deadeye”, and could paint targets on opponents to make taking out multiple enemies like an ol’ gunslinger a breeze. Horse-riding was the main way of getting around the country, and it was dealt with well with the rhythm of your gallop matching your tapping of the A/X button. It all felt good, and worked with the Western vibe of the game.
Red Dead also dramatically expanded on the “random encounters” with NPCs that were introduced in GTA IV. Titled “Strangers & Freaks”, you would hardly make a journey from town to town during the main story without passing by an NPC who would flag you down looking for help, or with more sinister intentions. These not only provided side quests that would often be more interesting than some of the main ones, but also added a great depth of character to the world. The strange and twisted views of the people gave a dark humour to the game that charmed me to it all the more.
The side quests were great but the main story itself was one of the strongest I’ve ever experienced in a game and I still believe that the ending is the best conclusion to a video game there’s ever been. Red Dead followed John Marston, a grizzled man with a chequered past trying to absolve his sins to please the federal government and his conscience. His journey across the deserts always felt realistic, and the progression in the story was very natural to anyone familiar with Rockstar games’ typical path – going from small-time jobs for the common people to working for the top dogs on hugely significant tasks. Marston was a great character. Despite being rough around the edges, you always felt for him. He was doing this so he could go back to his family and live a normal life.