The sun is setting in Mexico. In the small border town of Chuparosa, this is the time of day where things start to get rough. The drunkards, whores, and gamblers begin to emerge and even spill out into the street with their sinful escapades. On a nearby porch, an old gunslinger silently gazes toward the town entrance. This is when John Marston rides in, weary after a long firefight up the nearby San Luis river. After being accosted by three combative Mexicans, he guns them down in the blink of an eye before calmly holstering his revolver and joining an already in-progress game of Texas Hold ’em.
These are the kind of romanticized western situations players encounter regularly throughout Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s answer to the, at the time, virtually unexplored open world sandbox that gamers always knew the wild west could be. Throughout the game’s 20+ hours, I consistently found myself impressed at the compelling world Rockstar has crafted. From this perspective it is their masterstroke as a developer. Though the Grand Theft Auto series has always delivered on its premise of letting players loose in an open world city, this is the first experience I’ve had with a Rockstar title that felt truly authentic. It is something that every gamer should experience.
Arguably even more impressive than Rockstar’s atmospheric world design in Red Dead Redemption is its character development. While Grand Theft Auto IV had memorable characters, I often found myself losing track of who was who and at times questioned why Niko was even dealing with them in the first place. That wasn’t the case in Red Dead Redemption where every main character stuck with me right from their introduction, even when some of them never surfaced again after their story arcs were complete. Characters like Landon Ricketts, Luisa Fortuna, and Bonnie MacFarlane are intriguing from the beginning and are continually fleshed out as the overall narrative progresses. But none can stand up to main protagonist John Marston, the outlaw turned family man that even Clint Eastwood would worship. With dry wit, singular purpose, poise, and even class, Marston is one of the most fascinating, entertaining and badass characters I have ever controlled in a video game, and the direction his story takes, especially as it reaches its shocking climax, is rightly the stuff of legend.
In addition to its world building and character depth, Rockstar outdid its previous efforts in the gameplay department as well. Gunplay retains the auto lock marksmanship pioneered in Grand Theft Auto IV, but everything from drawing a weapon to popping in and out of cover is much more snappy and satisfying than Rockstar’s previous efforts. The game’s horse controls also work beautifully and feel like controlling a living, breathing animal should, a major departure from GTA IV’s vision-blurring driving mechanics. Best of all, the game’s longer missions are much less frustrating thanks to the implementation of the checkpoint system first introduced in GTA IV’s DLCs. This was my biggest complaint with GTA IV’s main game where complicated missions that should have been the game’s high points turned into needless battles of attrition and frustration.
The only area in which I feel that Red Dead Redemption suffers is through its open world exploration, which ironically was probably the biggest contributor to its success. Though initial treks out into the open desert on horseback are invigorating, you’ll quickly find that there is very little to do of note outside of the game’s main mission structure. While John Marston can shoot birds out of the sky, search the terrain for special plant collectables, track bandits or clear fortresses, I found very few of these activities consistently entertaining. Riding around the frontier is simply much less eventful than piloting a speeding car through the bustling streets of Liberty City, which quickly makes backtracking to quest-givers after each mission a dull chore. Thankfully, Rockstar allows for fast-traveling, but not without forcing players into the game’s annoying campfire system that requires Marston to first set up camp in the game world before traveling to a waypoint when the whole process should just take a couple of clicks. While I did find this issue detracted from the experience somewhat, it by no means makes Red Dead Redemption an experience any gamer should miss. The characters are undoubtedly Rockstar’s best to date, the combat is responsive and fluid, the missions are varied, the story is well-penned and John Marston himself is nothing short of captivating. Even if you aren’t a fan of the typical Rockstar mission structure from Grand Theft Auto, you owe it to yourself to give this one a shot.