Yet it’s not the six-shooter action that is Red Dead Redemption’s biggest asset, but its incredibly compelling storyline and atmosphere. Basically, Rockstar knows, better than anyone else working in the open world genre, how to create characters and situations that resonate with what we’ve already seen in movies, but with an interesting new twist.
At its best, the writing and characterisation here is excellent. Fans of The Wild Bunch; of the Leone/Eastwood Man with no Name series; of the Django series; of Eastwood’s own westerns; of Deadwood; and of recent, gritty westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and The Proposition are in for a treat with this one, as it explores Western myths, revolution in Mexico, crime, honour, brotherhood and progress. Red Dead Redemption is first and foremost entertaining, but, like Grand Theft Auto IV before it, it’s a game with hidden depths.
Marston himself is a compelling character; a hardened killer, but a man with his own sense of justice that makes it surprisingly hard to play him, should you wish, as an out and out bad guy. You can steal a stagecoach or take up banditry in the backcountry, but the more you play, the less you want to. Instead, it’s actually the game’s less violent moments that stick in my memory; pleasant conversations with a female rancher; driving home a frightened herd through torrential rain; nostalgic dialogue with an ageing legend who stands for the best of the old ways.
The world, meanwhile, is every bit as rich in colour and detail as the pseudo New York of Liberty City. As well as the saloons, sheriff’s offices and gunsmiths you might expect from a Western, you’ll find newspapers full of recent activities – including some of yours – plus games of poker, blackjack and horseshoe-tossing to engage in. There are sets of clothes to collect, with each suit changing the way that others see you. Your acts boost or damage your reputation, for good or evil, and while the system doesn’t seem as sophisticated or as all-pervasive as the reputation systems in Fable II or inFamous, it all feeds into the sense that you’re not merely playing a game, but playing a part.
Of course, there are limitations and the odd moment where you can see the scenery wobble. Some events in towns, like sudden bandit attacks or customers attacking the local floozies, happen a little too frequently to be believed, and few of the background characters have anything more than a basic snippet of speech to utter as you walk nearby.
You can kill half the no-good outlaws in a dodgy town, flee on horseback with shots ringing out behind you, then return two minutes later without a word of anger on the streets. Maybe it’s a little too easy to accidentally hold up a stagecoach, and find yourself with a bounty on your head. All the same, these are minor flaws in a stunning experience. If they degrade your sense of immersion, it’s only for a minute before the next event kicks in.