Six-shooters, riding into the sunset and a steely-eyed lone hero walking slowly to the twang of Ennio Morricone-style music in the background — these are the things that come to mind when you think of Westerns.
Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption knows this, but it also sports an acute awareness of time and culture. It finds a way to romanticize the days of the “Wild West” while ominously reminding us of the era’s mortality. It’s not content to simply be a Western for the gaming set, but a comprehensive, compelling ode to a bygone time.
The experience starts with John Marston, an outlaw who has been forced to leave behind his attempt at living a peaceful life. Instead, he is hunting down the members of his old gang.
Marston, like most Rockstar protagonists, comes across as morally flexible. He’s a man rooted in his own sense of right and wrong, but he’s certainly no stranger to foul deeds, either. This helps the player rationalize some of the things Marston is asked to do in his quest for vengeance, like setting fire to people’s homes.
A deft touch from Rockstar is the time period. The story actually takes place in 1911, so Marston’s world is one where cowboys, desperados and other elements of Wild West lore are slowly dying out.
Like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto games, I enjoyed how Marston’s assortment of missions and characters served as a sensory tour of the Old West in its final days.
Among the people who’ll give you tasks are a snake oil salesman, an aging gunfighter, a drunken Irish weapons expert and federal government agents. Each character you meet is stuffed with personality and intricate dialogue, pulling off the difficult task of having you actually care about them.
Among the missions include the liberation of Mexico, planning an Gatling-gun assault on an outlaw-filled fort and serving as a mole for one of the snake oil salesman’s pitches.
Mixed in with all the branching storylines are a multitude of side missions and tasks, which give the game a strange time-killing power, the kind that can wipe out days off and weekends in just a few sittings.
You’ll round up cattle and herd sheep. You can play poker, though my poker-playing friends have said the AI is a little strange. You can search for bounties, or rescue (or raid) stagecoaches. You’ll take part in a minigame where you learn how to break horses. I once got fooled into delivering opium for a racist Englishman and ended up shooting him for his trouble.
It’s the kind of openness we’ve seen before in the GTA games, but there’s also the added element of honor and fame. The more good deeds you do, the more people praise and acknowledge you. But if you decide to walk the path of the heartless gunslinger, people will fear you, and bounty hunters will come looking to gun you down.
Another thing Red Dead Redemption holds over its GTA brethren is how it handles dueling eras through its massive, open-world map.
In one part of the map, you have vestiges of the Old West in fictional towns named Armadillo, which come with your standard run-down saloon, dirt roads and rickety sheriff’s office. At the other end is Blackwater, boasting paved roads, formidable government buildings and very early models of automobiles.
Then you head south to Mexico, where sparse, open-air homes and cantinas clash with the mansion used as a staging ground for crooked military officials.
The entire game is visually captivating, mostly because its wide open spaces are a contrast to the claustrophobic, busy cityscapes Rockstar is used to producing. You can actually enjoy the long horserides to town, and even hunt animals for meat and skin.
What you can’t do is swim, which is just strange. It’s not that the game won’t let you enter water — it’s that falling into water instantly extinguishes your life.
However, that’s also the only time I felt my life was in real danger. Auto-assist targeting turns Marston into a horse-riding Jack Bauer, capable of wiping out throngs with just a six-shooter and rifle. There’s always plenty of bullets, and the cover system works well enough so you don’t have to worry about getting overwhelmed by the enemy.
I enjoyed the online offerings, such as rounding up a posse and getting to wreak havoc, but I got most of my enjoyment simply diving into the story. Single player takes about 15 to 20 hours to complete, and you’re rewarded with a cool twist at the end.
It would have been easy to dismiss Red Dead Redemption as simply GTA on horseback, but there’s a historic richness to this title that isn’t enjoyed by Rockstar’s previous efforts. And in paying proper respect to that history, it provides plenty to think about for future games.
Red Dead Redemption
Xbox 360, PS3
Rated M for Mature