Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption needs little introduction. The sequel to the 2004 title, Red Dead Revolver, the 12.5 million selling open world PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 Western was launched in May 2010 to near-unanimous critical acclaim. And understandably so – the game is exceptionally well executed.
Set in a fictional Western United States borderlands and Mexico during the final decade of the American frontier, the player takes the role of gunslinger John Marston, a former outlaw whose wife and child are taken hostage by the federal government. To guarantee their safe return – and to be given amnesty for his former crimes – Marston is forced into becoming a bounty hunter, and given a mission to bring three members of his former gang to justice. And so plays out a serpentine Western in which Marston makes serious moral choices about how to go about the business of tracking down his prior friends.
There are many standout features of Red Dead Redemption, the most immediate being its breathtakingly atmospheric setting: It looks simply phenomenal. At the time of the game's release, it was perhaps the most realistic-looking video game yet seen. Its washed-out lighting, dusty trails, meticulously created frontier towns, and magnificent high plains desert vistas all help Red Dead Redemption look every bit like a classic Western movie.
"Its washed-out lighting, dusty trails, meticulously created frontier towns, and magnificent high plains desert vistas all help Red Dead Redemption look every bit like a classic Western movie."
The game essentially combines missions and cutscenes into one over-arching storyline that sees Marston traveling around the game's vast environment on horseback. On his travels he meets numerous characters and gets embroiled in a host of adventures and shootouts as he tracks down his quarry. The game's cast is exceptionally well voice acted, and combined with terrific visual characterizations deliver an experience filled with memorable moments and set pieces, including a thrilling train sequence, becoming embroiled in the Mexican revolution, and, of course, plenty of duels and shootouts. In between those are moments of introspection, with characters talking about the end of the Wild West, and how change is coming to their part of the world – and the losses that will come with it.
Indeed, Red Dead Redemption's historically transitional setting makes it particularly interesting in regards to its detailing. While the trappings of the old Wild West are very evident in this game, there are hints everywhere of the impending invasion of the modern world. Early phone and electricity lines are seen strung along dusty roads, and towards the end of the game, the arrival of an automobile feels almost jarring and out of place. This was a time of change, and John Marston essentially represents the last of a dying breed. Or does he? That's something the game opens up for discussion in its controversial ending that I won't spoil here.
A special mention also has to go to the music. Much of it is dynamically generated, and it sounds like something that Ennio Morricone would have produced were he asked to score the game. It helps enrich the game's atmosphere, and imbue an almost melancholic feel to the proceedings.
As a complete experience, Red Dead Redemption still ranks as one of the finest open world games so far seen. From its superbly crafted storyline and characterizations through its thoughtful, challenging, and highly entertaining gameplay to its exceptional audio-visuals, it's an epic tale that makes you really care about its characters and the choices they make. That's a rare thing for a video game – and a testament to the sheer quality of the game's writing and presentation.
Red Dead Redemption is the open-world piece of historical fiction that actually works. You can chuckle at the frequency with which the randomly-generated events occur (oh look, that guy is getting hanged again), but then a mountain lion jumps out of the brush and scares the hell out of you. As Jaz mentioned, Red Dead Redemption is alive in its beauty and details.
Grand Theft Auto V is the bigger and louder of the two, and will likely go down as more popular when all is said and done, but Red Dead Redemption is smarter, replacing the mostly inane political humor of GTA with a sense of the macabre. Put it this way: There are a lot of crazy people out there on the open frontier. And as Jaz pointed out, the signs of a changing world are everywhere, heightening the sense of unease.
Ultimately, few games capture the feeling of riding the open country as well as Red Dead Redemption. There's a reason that every open-world game with a horse is inevitably compared to Red Dead Redemption, including the recently released Witcher 3. The winding roads, rolling scrubland, and breathtaking vistas have a character to them all their own. After five years, they continue to grip our imagination.
If any game deserves a remastered version, it's this one.