My son asks me periodically what my favorite videogame of all time is. In the past, Halo and God of War (both as trilogies) and Batman: Arkham Asylum have occupied the top spot, depending on my mood when he asked me. But the last time he asked, I said Red Dead Redemption.
RDR is ostensibly a distant sequel to Red Dead Revolver, which I reviewed a long time ago here, but it’s really a sequel only in titular branding. The earlier game was an arcadish shooter in a small world, with a whisper-thin story (and hideous voice acting). The new game is so much more.
RDR is from developer Rockstar Games, the makers of the Grand Theft Auto series, and players often sum it up as “GTA in the old west.” Like GTA, it’s a sandbox game, an open world in which you play a character who can go anywhere and do damn near anything.
In GTA, you play a criminal in a modern metropolis, and you can kill people and steal vehicles and pick up hookers and road race and annoy the cops and go for a swim, and you can just explore the city, listening to various well-produced radio stations in your car. All of which makes for great gameplay, and Rockstar provides a lot more than than that, using their incredible urban setting and colorful characters to tell a really awesome story (in GTA IV, at least, the latest and only one I’ve played).
In Red Dead Redemption, you play John Marston, an ex-outlaw whose family has been taken hostage by federal officials to force him to track down his old comrades and bring them to justice. John is an appealing character, a man trying to just live and let live and forget the past, forced back into the world of violence. Through him, his actions, and the overall narrative of the game, Rockstar asks if a man can ever really escape his past, or do all his sins come back at him however he might try to avoid them.
The other characters in the game are all engaging and eccentric, lots of fun to interact with. The voices and character designs and animations are incredible, loaded with expression and personality. Marston and the others all come to life as video game characters rarely do, and you come to really care about what happens to them.
The story is evocative, epic, and sometimes moving. Like Lonesome Dove or The Wild Bunch, it is set in the twilight of the old west (in this case 1911), and is as much the story of the end of an age as it is the story of a man. It’s also spiced with Rockstar’s trademark satire and social commentary, from the anti-semitic conspiracy grumblings of a shopkeeper who’d be right at home with today’s Tea Party, to a twittish academic’s reflexive dismissal of Native American intellect that’s right in front of him, to the casual racism of God-fearing white women on a train, RDR is smart and literary and even topical.
But the greatest pleasure of this game is its world. You don’t play there, you live there. I loved the city of Grand Theft Auto IV, a huge living model of New York where you could enjoy a shoot-out or just walk the streets in a rainstorm admiring the neon reflecting off wet asphalt. But RDR‘s west is vast and gorgeous and vital in a way that transcends anything done before in an open world game.
RDR gives us a living landscape, with big dynamic skies and endless expanses of prairie, with rugged mountains and falls of snow, with blisteringly hot red rock canyons and swampy river towns. I can play the game for hours with no other goal but to be in that landscape, riding along and watching the quality of the light, the shifting cloudscapes, the splash of rain. You can fast travel between places in the game, but I never do, opting instead to be John Marston making his way from here to there, living on the land.
And you’re never really alone, even in the wilds. RDR has an active ecology. Flocks of crows will break from the tall grass at your approach. Raccoons make crepuscular raids on garbage piles in town. Buffalo will stampede out of your way. And you’ll be reminded that, out in the wild, man’s not the top of the food chain. The cry of a cougar somewhere nearby will come to make you afraid.
And this ecology doesn’t exist only as mobile bits of scenery, or even just monsters to fight. It exists separate from you, the player. Wolves will pounce on rattlesnakes then play with the bodies, owls will swoop down and eat rabbits, coyotes will take down a deer.
One of my favorite small moments occurred while I was riding across the plains, and I saw some people camped around a fire. You can stop in and join groups like that, and they’ll share food and stories with you. In this case, I didn’t have the option to do that, though, because a grizzly bear wandered over the hill, saw the campers, and charged into their midst to kill them all. It was savage and random and wonderful.
I could go on and on about the pleasures of this game. The unexpected enjoyment of hanging out in bunkhouses playing poker or in saloons playing liars’ dice. The thrill of racing cross country with a hogtied bandit across your saddle as his brethren charge after you in hot pursuit. The golden burn of an incandescent sunrise. The satisfaction of humiliating a wannabe gunslinger by shooting his hat off and the pistol from his hand in a draw.
Yep. Red Dead Redemption is an incredible game. Watch this at high resolution to see some of its incredible visuals and hear a great song by Jose Gonzalez: