The original Red Dead game, Red Dead Revolver didnâ€™t exactly set the sales charts alight, last generation. But things have changed. Rockstar has built on the solid reputation of its GTA games, perfected an open-world engine that allows for fabulous detail and fully fleshed-out characters, so applying those solid foundations to a Wild West game is a pretty good move.
Red Dead Redemption takes up the story of John Marston, a bad guy turned good, a man who wants to comfortably bury his miscreant past before it catches up with him and puts his family and friends in danger.
Unfortunately in order to set his house straight, Marston must take on former friends and gang-mates and either talk them round or put them in the ground.
Rockstarâ€™s cowboys are grim, gritty and if you had the benefit of smell-o-vision, probably stink to high heaven. Marston looks like he lost a fight with the X-Menâ€™s Wolverine, sporting more than a few cougar scars and dressed like heâ€™s been riding the trail in the same clothes for years on end.
He has a good heart, and like all Rockstarâ€™s leading game characters, though he goes about his business in a bloody fashion from time to time, heâ€™s someone you canâ€™t help sympathising with.
The game performs the usual Rockstar trademark slow-burn of an introduction before hooking you in firmly to the gameâ€™s central storyline. Things donâ€™t exactly go sparklingly well for Marston when he first hits the flyblown town of Armadillo, but thanks to a mysterious female ranch boss and the local Sherriff, Marstonâ€™s fortunes slowly turn around.
Red Dead Redemption basically lets you play in the vast sandbox of the wild west. Set in 1910, as the country is slowly shrinking thanks to the railroads and tiny towns slowly morph into bustling cities, the last vestiges of lawlessness and chaos still feature strongly and a man like Marston, handy with guns and a natural in the saddle, is never far from trouble.
Brief tutorials show you the basics of movement, the tricky business of riding a horse and later the essentials of firing pistols and rifles. During your initial hours in the game itâ€™s very hard not to be completely overawed by the visuals. Stunning sunsets, dusty towns and the wild west teeming with activity shows that the Rage engine is certainly not showing its age.
Special mention should go to the way the game simulates horse riding. Horses are tricky beasts, just like the real thing and driving them too hard will often see you eating dirt as youâ€™re pitched unceremoniously out of the saddle if youâ€™re too harsh with the spurs. In time, your chosen mount will start to respect you a little more â€“ and soon youâ€™ll be able to ride in a variety of styles from a gentle trot to a full gallop.
Horses arenâ€™t the only thing you have to master either. Gigs and wagons can also be driven, and given that itâ€™s 1910 there are even cranky old automobiles to get to grips with (if you can find them).
Marstonâ€™s story interweaves perfectly with the other characters in the game and youâ€™re never far from being reminded that you often need their help as much as they need yours. Anyone familiar with the Grand Theft Auto series will understand just how important Rockstarâ€™s writers feel their supporting cast is, and how much of the gameâ€™s eventual outcome depends on your actions throughout the main single player quest.
Deliciously though, youâ€™re not punished unfairly if you feel like being a little light-fingered here and there, or if you fancy lowering yourself to looting dead bodies for cash and other goodies. As long as youâ€™re stealthy about what you do, you can get away with a surprising amount before you come to the attention of the local law enforcement, who will step in if you step too far over the thin blue (beige) line.
Red Dead Redemption feels more like a sprawling RPG than an action game because there are so many little touches and tasks to do, and plenty of scope for improving your skills and character attributes. You can gamble, womanise, cheat, steal, shoot and rob if you choose â€“ or you can be a paragon of virtue. We often hear a lot about how games let you play the character the way you want to, but in Red Dead Redemptionâ€™s case, itâ€™s absolutely true.
Again, like GTA, missions and tasks stack up around your vast in-game map and characters of interest are highlighted, allowing you to pick and choose missions as you see fit. Secondary missions and jobs crop up from time to time, everything from a spot of hunting (which is more fun than it really ought to be!) to night watchman duties can be performed for extra cash or unlockables.
Combat in the game is beautifully handled. I had misgivings about the on-foot shooting sections of Red Dead Redemption because in the Grand Theft Auto series, these were often some of the trickiest and most frustrating parts of the game. RDR has a superb cover mechanic, and the weapons work exactly as youâ€™d expect turn-of-the-20th-century weapons to work. A keen eye, and plenty of ammo are key to your survival in instances where youâ€™re required to shoot your way out of trouble.
The single player storyline is complemented by superb Multiplayer action. Taking cues from GTA IVâ€™s seamless and satisfying online gameplay, Red Dead Redemption offers so many options for multiplayer that itâ€™s almost impossible to choose a favourite and itâ€™s certainy impossible to pick faults in something that works so well.
You can divide your time between player-vs-player shoot-outs and quick draws, or team up with a bunch of friends to form a posse, taking on some of the more interesting tasks in the game in co-op mode. Thereâ€™s very little lag and the game performs equally well in single and multiplayer so even if youâ€™re normally the solo gaming type, you really ought to give Red Dead Redemption a try online, itâ€™s absolutely superb.
Rockstar San Diego may have been mired in controversy during the gameâ€™s development, with various staff highlighting the working conditions and long hours at the teamâ€™s headquarters, but the fruits of their labour should see them all receiving fat bonuses and universal acclaim if thereâ€™s any justice. Itâ€™s difficult to make this review sound like anything other than â€œyet another Rockstar love-inâ€ but they are exceptionally good at what they do, and the teams at Rockstar San Diego and Rockstar North are at the top of their game, producing some of the best interactive experiences of this generation.
In a year already packed with fantastic gaming experiences despite only being half-way through, Red Dead Redemption should definitely feature highly in anyoneâ€™s Game of the Year list. Thoroughly enjoyable, superbly atmospheric and deliciously detailed, it performs the enviable task of giving Rockstar yet another solid IP to produce a series of games from. As I said in the Lead and Gold review, there arenâ€™t nearly enough wild-west themed games â€“ but now we have one thatâ€™s set the standard, and set it impossibly high for anyone else to follow. Thoroughly recommended, in fact youâ€™d be insane to miss it if you own an Xbox 360.