There’s no denying that the mid-June news was a bit rough to handle – we’re all feeling let down, overlooked, despondent as glorious predictions were proved false, and in need of a ruddy good laugh.
I am, of course, talking about Rockstar’s complete and utter failure to announce an upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2 release (or Red Dead 3 if you want to be pedantic) at the E3 Expo!
Come on Rockstar, what are you playing at? What about the gorgeous leaked maps? The leaked info about the new game being set ten years before Red Dead Redemption? The supposed ex-employees coming out of the woodwork to dangle their juicy tidbits of insider knowledge in our faces?
Feeling the need for some good, old-fashioned escapism, along with the prospect of murderously shooting some bad guys, I decided that it was high time I pulled on Marston’s prairie-dusted boots again, and played Red Dead Redemption right from the start.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, Red Dead Redemption is set in 1911 on the American Frontier, and follows the exploits of sexy-voiced, ex-outlaw John Marston, who chucks it all in to become a family man with a ranch, a dog, a dodgy uncle and some cows. Just as life is looking up for him, his wife and son are kidnapped by a shite of a government agent who then forces Marston to hunt down his former gang mates, all still at large and being total pains in the arse.
A multi-award-winning game released in 2010 by Rockstar San Diego, Red Dead Redemption is widely considered to be the greatest of all time, and it’s easy to see why. It’s downright gorgeous. Travelling by horse through an open-world landscape of prairies, forests, rivers, settlements and towns, you can easily find yourself lost in the beauty of it all. You have fast-travel options, but hell, you just won’t want to use them because you might miss something – a stunning sunset over the snow-covered mountains, birds darting from the bushes as your horse races through, the odd cannibalistic hill-man, a lumbering bear intent on having you for breakfast. Even a nun having a nice wander through the frontier town of Armadillo.
The horse animation is the best I’ve ever seen; it’s graceful, realistic, and accompanied by the jangle of tack and the creak of the leather saddle. Hooves thud on dirt, clatter over groaning wooden bridges and clip-clop along Blackwater’s roads. And I defy you to watch Marston charging down a dirt track on a horse and think ‘it’s just an animation anchored to the centre of the screen’, because you won’t be able to, your brain just cannot hang onto that reality. You really are Marston, and you’re really racing down that dirt track towards your next adventure. The immersion is that fantastic.
And when it comes down to it, it’s replaying the game for a second or third time that allows you to enjoy this incredible attention to detail all the more.
Sure, the first time you play it’s all about the missions and the story progression, the wild gun-fights and the excitement, and Red Dead Redemption certainly has more than its fair share of action, adventure, drama and Wild West shenanigans. The game also has a moral system, so you can choose to be either a good guy or a proper son of a bitch and the other characters will treat you accordingly, depending on how much honour you have.
But the second time, it’s different. As you’re already familiar with the story, you can let yourself leisurely explore the wonders of the open world, listen to the fabulous music change dynamically to mirror your travels and enjoy the game at a much slower pace. Take the time to explore and you’ll find things like this; a random chap playing fetch with his dog at sunset. Because, you know, details.
You’ll still want to do the missions, of course, but now they’re really only a means to open up all the areas of the game and get your hands on all the sweet kit and kick-ass skills.
And, of course, with no time limit required to complete the game, you can also goof about.
Want to hide in a cornfield and surreptitiously watch a bloke take a whizz? Red Dead Redemption’s got you covered.
How about nicking a cart and putting your horse in the back because you want to give it a bit of a rest? No problem…
You’re also catered to if you just want to have a sneaky break and put your feet up for a while. Head to the local picture house and you might get to watch a film about the dangers of science, which ends in a scene with the Devil and a man with a spike up his bottom.
Quite entertaining, that one!
On a second run-through, you also get the chance to play things differently and see how they turn out. Among the many side missions and stranger missions in Red Dead Redemption, you’ll come across people who will ask you for help. One of these is a chap who get his horse rustled while he’s riding it because he’s an idiot, and it’s your job to chase down the thief and bring the horse back to him.
I’ve completed this many times, usually by shooting the thief or pulling him off the horse with a lasso. But this time I decided to hog-tie him, stick him on the back of the horse and return them both to the owner. If you do this with someone who has robbed a shop, the shop owner will kick them and spit on them for a while, but would this chap do the same?
Nope, it turned out that he just thanked me and rode off casually with the thief still squirming on the back of his horse. I kept running into him in town, still with the hog-tied rustler there, and the man would just doff his hat and say ‘Hello, Mr Marston!’. Here he is, looking like a nonchalant kidnapper:
Red Dead Redemption has been called ‘Grand Theft Auto in the Old West’, but I don’t think that’s fair. You can go to any old city like the ones in the GTA universe, see the sights and nick cars if you so desire, but what Red Dead Redemption gives you is the chance to experience life on the American frontier, not just with all its sweeping beauty and abundant wildlife, but also with the hardships and tragedy associated with those days. For example, while all the other animals in Red Dead Redemption respawn when they’re killed, the buffalo do not – once all twenty are gone they’re gone for good, echoing the plight of the American Bison which was hunted to near extinction in the 1880’s. Such is the detail that Rockstar put into this game.
On the brighter side there are abundant, yet subtle, references to numerous Spaghetti Westerns, and if you listen during a gunfight you might just hear the ‘Wilhelm Scream’, an infamous sound effect used in the films ‘Distant Drums’ and ‘The Charge At Feather River’ in the early 1950’s and employed as an in-joke in countless more recent movies.
All of these things come to light when you replay the game, and to me that’s what makes it so special. Tranquillity, humour, adventure, immersion – Red Dead Redemption has it all, and I’m happy to escape to it whenever I need to.
Oh, I made a friend there, too – I think he likes me. Sort of.
Disclaimer: All images showing Red Dead Redemption gameplay are crappy photos of my TV screen, because I don’t have any fancy image-capture software and my PS3 refuses to do screenshots. Sorry about that!