Red Dead Redemption is the game Grand Theft Auto always wanted to be. Developed by GTA masterminds Rockstar Games, this pseudo-sequel to 2004’s Red Dead Revolver—a functional if underwhelming third-person western saga—thrusts you into a roam-all-you-want Old West sandbox environment, allowing you the freedom to concentrate on the storyline’s primary missions or simply gallop about the vast plains, dusty deserts, and Mexican mountains, collecting rare herbs, hunting wild animals, and rescuing whatever damsel in distress you might happen upon along the way. Far less limiting than GTA’s urban metropolises, which—because so much of those cities’ interior spaces were inaccessible—always felt constructed out of paper houses, Red Dead Redemption’s settings are fully, thrillingly alive, their functioning ecosystems, sudden dramatic occurrences, and operative economy all helping to create a sense of participating in a universe that operates independent of (rather than revolves around) you. To spend time in this adventure’s locales is to feel a part of a wider world. And, consequently, to catch a glimpse at gaming’s immersive potential.
As with its GTA predecessors, Red Dead Redemption is at once upfront about its cinematic influences and yet not beholden to them, using its myriad frames of reference to produce something both familiar and unique. You platy as John Marston, a former outlaw who’s compelled in 1911 by the federal government—under threat to his family—to visit New Austin (a Texas stand-in) to track down and kill former criminal mate Bill Williamson. It’s a task that goes awry at outset, thus compelling you to get Marston back on his feet and prepare for a siege on Williams’s fort compound. If that basic setup sounds similar to countless classic and revisionist westerns, that’s no accident, as allusions abound throughout Red Dead Redemption’s lengthy campaign. As always, though, Rockstar doesn’t name-check so much as simply tip the cap to its favorite celluloid ancestors, from Once Upon a Time in the West (and its depiction of encroaching modernity sounding the old guard’s death knell) and The Wild Bunch (especially during the game’s later Mexican Civil War sequences) to, in the name of a budding oil community, There Will Be Blood.
Well-written and recounted through a mixture of decent (if too lengthy) cutscenes and plot-forwarding interactive sequences in which, during long rides out to destinations, you converse with comrades, the plot affords a sturdy backbone to the main action at hand. Nonetheless, it’s a secondary concern throughout, since the lasting thrill of Red Dead Redemption doesn’t come from completing assignments that move the story along so much as from simply wandering, investigating and exploring the vast landscape. While certain sections of the game’s enormous map aren’t reachable from the start, you begin with considerable terrain to traverse, most of which is done on horseback. That means of transportation has been so accurately replicated, both graphically and mechanically (riding steeds feels right), that entering into the game’s fiction proves easy and unavoidable, and makes the other fast-travel options—via stagecoach, or when you establish a campsite—seem impractical and illogical. Jumping around this world doesn’t make sense when galloping through it, discovering its many secrets, is the game’s most appealing aspect. And that fact becomes more pronounced when one delves into the Free Roam online multiplayer arena, which allows groups of 16 people to freely travel around the game’s entire environment together, completing challenges and missions (some from the single-player game, some unique to Free Roam) as adversaries or as a posse.
Main and peripheral side quests abound in Red Dead Redemption, but adding to the impression of being a small fish in a big pond are diverse random tasks that pop up as you trot along the trail. These mini-undertakings appear at random and must be dealt with immediately, thus generating constant unpredictability. Moreover, all have a distinct western authenticity: rescuing a man’s wife as she dangles by a noose from a hanging tree; tracking down a stolen stagecoach; partaking in a six-shooter duel; being held up by a gang of thieves. That’s on top of the tale’s priority missions, which also faithfully reproduce every possible Old West scenario a fan of oaters might desire, from cattle herding, breaking wild horses, hunting for sport and monetary gain, working as a bounty hunter, racing horse-drawn carriages, aiding snake-oil salesmen and sheriffs, and spending free time playing poker, blackjack, five-finger filet, or simply catching a movie at the local theater. There are so many varied things to do in Red Dead Redemption that, to an even greater extent than in GTA (which was always hampered by the tedium of driving, as well as lousy fighting controls), wasting time becomes the surest way to spend your time wisely.
While Marston exhibits scant traces of the wooden gait that afflicted GTA’s player proxies, combat—including a lock-on trick that makes blasting enemies too easy—is handled through simple, natural mechanics that’ll be familiar to fans of Rockstar’s prior sandbox efforts, save for a smart Dead Eye feature in which you can slow down time in order to target (and then gun down) multiple adversaries. Better still, your multifaceted abilities (running, riding, shooting, slashing, skinning) are in tune with the game’s underlying objectives, which aren’t to have one proceed along rails to a predetermined conclusion but, instead, to branch off into the world and do whatever one wants. Even minor challenges like gunning down bears to attain a higher sharpshooter rank are in harmony with both the setting and the free-reign nature of the action. Of course, immersion can only go so far without a beautifully rendered game world, and in this respect, Red Dead Redemption more than succeeds. Big Sky ranges and South of the Border countrysides are recreated with an eye toward not just graphical beauty, but audio atmospherics, the soundtrack animated by a chorus of wildlife chirps, squawks, and growls—and, most of all, the clackity-clack of beating horse hooves—that do much to further the game’s enveloping aesthetic realism.
Aside from an ugly drunken-Irishman stereotype named, um, Irish, Red Dead Redemption never significantly missteps, proving one of the finest examples yet of experiential gaming. Rather than just forcing one to partake in obligatory errands, Rockstar’s latest masterwork further refines and expands upon the notion that digital spaces are inherently more compelling when they afford players options to personalize their gaming experience in whichever way or order they choose. There are obvious limits to this endeavor in Red Dead Redemption, since at a certain point the game’s narrative must be dealt with if one wishes to reach all corners of the playable map. Far from a hindrance, however, that stipulation is ultimately a positive attribute, with the game’s narrative-centric missions lending a sense of balance, coherence and purpose to the overriding do-what-you-like framework. Which is to say, Red Dead Redemption’s open-world construction is its trump card, but it’s in the developer’s seamless incorporation of the required and the optional—both crafted with the same amazing attention to detail—that Red Dead Redemption truly affords a view of a new, future frontier.