Genre: Action Adventure
Format reviewed: PlayStation 3
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
How Rockstar made the Wild West cool again.
The most publicly notable part of Red Dead Redemption’s journey to completion is the fact it was announced in a largely different form alongside the PS3’s messy unveiling during E3 2005. It was informally referred to as a sequel to 2004’s Red Dead Revolver, some aspects of which made it into the far more ambitious sequel, notably the Dead Eye slow-motion combat mechanic.
The goal was to capture the essence of Westerns on a pure wish fulfilment level, creating an open world backdrop that could enable every archetypal experience that a fan of that genre could ask for. Part pastiche and part expansion of Rockstar’s existing sensibilities with creating open worlds – the latter skill honed by the preceding title GTA IV – the New York Times claimed that Red Dead cost almost $100 million to make, an investment far outstripping most of Rockstar’s industry contemporaries.
It was a gigantic risk, really, considering that the Western had more or less remained dormant within videogames (and the wider cultural landscape) for many years – the original Red Dead Revolver only sold 3 million copies. No small number, of course, but a follow-up of Red Dead’s scale had to do a lot better to justify that size of investment. It did. With 13 million copies sold, Red Dead asserted Rockstar’s dominance of the open world genre beyond GTA.
A great open world has an effect on the player beyond spectacle and size. To consume hours of your time while you explore with no goal, enjoying the sunsets, creating gameplay moments of your own across snowy mountains and wildlife-populated deserts, Red Dead Redemption’s sandbox was simply years ahead of its competitors. While Rockstar’s output is contentious among some as to whether the publisher’s games deserve such extraordinary levels of praise, its ambition with Red Dead to create an open world that permits every kind of Wild West fantasy goes far beyond what even its own GTA series had previously accomplished.
Here, we have a gigantic world with its own ecosystem, random events and RPG-infused depth to unravel. John Marston’s story is technically set on the American/Mexican border, yet it compresses elements of the wider American wilderness into one massive summary of its most visually diverse areas. Travelling across the world by horseback, your knowledge of each region is formed by recognising occasional landmarks and rock formations – no stretch of land feels wasted. It’s the interactivity with this impressively constructed locale that makes Red Dead so compelling, however, and ahead of its time within a genre that is still mostly restrained in the way you can affect the surrounding world.
Being able to hunt anything, board every train, start a shootout in saloons, duel with strangers, anger wild creatures and lasso any NPC gives you constant impetus to remain in this world, to play with the possibilities outside of the story missions. This is balanced by a smart morality system that declares you an outlaw or champion based on your actions – consequences, to bring weight to the chaos.
The environment feels handcrafted, rather than big for the sake of it. Let’s say you’re out in the middle of a desert and you’ve narrowly survived an encounter with wolves, just as the golden sun sets behind a wounded John Marston with his horse in the distance; you own that moment. That set of circumstances and bizarre sequence of events may never happen again, yet Red Dead Redemption is astonishing in that it’ll throw many more as dramatic in your direction – and they will all belong to you, too.
Yet the factor that underlines the success of those moments comes in the portrayal of John Marston himself, as a sad-eyed, sympathetic and tragic figure being manipulated into erasing his past mistakes by a force of questionable morality. Rockstar’s scriptwriting is industry-best, and it’s the multidimensional depiction of Marston, as well as those who he encounters, that offers a whole other layer of investment for the player that a typical narrative-driven game couldn’t hope to replicate.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Red Dead Redemption represents a high point in sandbox-based game design, storytelling and contemporising the Western for today’s audience. Inspired by Unforgiven and many other cinematic sources, it’s the high point of Rockstar’s ongoing efforts to deconstruct America’s cultural identity, as well as a videogame built on so many sophisticated systems that it always offers a compelling reason to come back.
Rockstar is about to release Grand Theft Auto V, which will exceed the size and detail of Red Dead’s world considerably. Yet it’s the amazing effort to create a convincing period piece that will always set Red Dead apart from the company’s equally compelling sister series – this isn’t simply GTA with a Western theme slapped on. It’s part homage to a cornerstone of popular culture, part reinvention of a genre that Rockstar itself pioneered, and a distinctive work that’ll remain influential for years to come.
Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop