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.