Red Dead Redemption (RDR) does depart from the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) formula in all sorts of other ways. For a start, while there are towns and ranches scattered across the game’s early 1900s Mexican border setting, the majority of the game takes place in the vast spaces between them; in the canyons, hills and scrubland of the wild frontier. The risk with this kind of setting is that it’s either devoid of life, or that it’s full of slightly dull, repetitive tasks to complete – an accusation often thrown at open-world games like Far Cry 2 or the first Just Cause.
RDR avoids this with a system of random events that occur just off the road or over the next ridge as you’re riding along from place to place. Whether it’s prisoners escaping from a marshal, a woman being attacked by coyotes or a would-be horse thief trying to catch you off your guard, there’s always something interesting going on, and if you don’t want to get involved, then you don’t have to. Inevitably, these random side missions repeat after a while, but not to the extent that you’ll grow tired of them.
Meanwhile, the open country is rich with critters, ranging from wolves, coyotes and wild horses to cougars, rabbits and deer. Some can be killed, skinned and sold for meat and fur, while others will gang up to attack you on horseback. The old West has never seemed wilder.
RDR also works surprisingly well as a straight action game. Marston is by trade a gunslinger, and his over-arching mission is to kill an old comrade who the government wants dead. His services are constantly on call from struggling lawmen, drunken crooks, pompous snake-oil salesmen and good-natured ranchers, and missions that don’t involve bloodshed are rare indeed. Well, we had our doubts about the gunplay in GTA and its two episodic add-ons, but RDR nails it. Finding and firing from cover works without a hitch, and there’s just enough assistance when aiming to make you feel like a bad-ass without leaving you feeling like the game is playing itself.
The various outlaws, treasure hunters, soldiers, brutes and miscellaneous varmints you’re up against aren’t the smartest adversaries around, but they can use cover and move about when necessary, and the game’s general tactic of challenging you with overwhelming numbers helps give it a fast-paced, action-packed feel. If you’ve seen a shoot-out situation in a Western, it’s probably here, from the classic duel to horseback chases to almighty blast-outs in decaying mansions, and the best of these make for incredible set pieces.
Best of all, RDR still finds room for a cool, slow-motion targeting system – the so-called, ‘Dead Eye’ view – where, with a click of the right thumbstick, you can line up several shots then execute them at once in a single burst. Sure, this sort of thing has been overdone in games from Max Payne onwards, but it’s such a good fit here for the gritty Western theme that it’s hard to complain. In fact, combined here with the excellent Euphoria character animation system, it makes for some spectacular scenes of Wild Bunch-style violence.