By any measure, Red Dead Redemption can be considered a sun-bleached classic. Released in 2010 to critical acclaim and promptly topping the charts, Rockstar Games’ wild west tale of bloodshed and betrayal delighted players around the world with its sprawling landscape, epic scope, and sheer ambition. Mostly.
Me? I couldn’t get into it.
I was never quite sure why the game and I failed to connect when those around me were clearly enjoying themselves. I found myself drumming my fingers during its dialogue, staring mystified at the bewildering array of dots littering my map and wondering which of them might lead me to the fun everyone else was having. Eventually, I gave up and put the disc back in its case for eight long years.
I never quite left New Austin behind, though. Red Dead Redemption was always there, lurking in my sizeable Pile o’ Shame, and every so often I’d spot it on the shelf and feel bad. When the sequel was announced and the internet came down with what sociologists would technically term “a case of the screaming habdabs,” I became convinced I needed to give the original a second chance. Finally, in the midst of a suitably sweltering heatwave, I decided the time had come to re-tread the desert sands and work out, once and for all, what all the fuss was about.
I also decided I was going to write it all down. Sorry, I probably should have mentioned that first.
Right from the outset, this is a beautiful game, and the art directors’ credits are rightfully first to fade up as John Marston, the stoic mystery man whose boots I’ll be filling, makes his way to the train station. The scene of him and his strangely-dressed companions hasn’t held up quite as well, and there’s an awkward moment where they turn and gaze straight through one another while parting ways, but that’s last-gen gaming for you.
Marston feels like a deliberate anachronism, a doodled cowboy come to life with a holster at his side and a broad-brimmed hat atop his grizzled face. Flanked as he is by a couple of bank managers and with an ominous music sting accompanying his reveal, at first glimpse, you’re hard-pushed to know whether you’re looking at the hero or the villain of the piece.
Luckily, John chooses to board a train that turns out to be hauling pure exposition. From the prim and gossiping women over his shoulder, we get a crash course in the prevailing racism of the time. Via young Jenny, we learn that we can expect to see motor cars puttering about. The local governor gets name-dropped, too, so I’m sure we’ll be meeting him in person at some point. I bet he’s lovely.
My first horse ride is a smoother experience than I remember, and at first I assume that taming a decade of video game stallions must have acclimatized me – then I realize that most of those games were probably taking their cues from Red Dead. Will I feel so kindly disposed to my mount’s quirks during a high-speed chase, though? We’ll see.
It’s interesting that Marston claims to be married moments after we’re introduced to the Ladies of Negotiable Affection that populate the town. Michael in Grand Theft Auto V was married, notionally, but this is the only Rockstar protagonist I can think of who seems like he might be serious about fidelity. If so, it may add an interesting moral compass to my decisions – unless he’s lying and his wife’s secretly died of consumption or something.
When I arrive at Fort Mercer to challenge Bill Williamson, his cohorts pop-up over the parapets like so many rifle range targets and I straighten up in my chair, ready for what is obviously going to be a gun combat tutorial. I know how this sort of thing plays out – I can already imagine their noisy, ineffective gunfire, designed to miss me while I drag my crosshair back and forth to get a feel for the controls. I expect button prompts, but I don’t get so much as a tooltip before Marston is dropped like a sack of potatoes. It’s a really effective moment, and I’m amazed I don’t remember it.
The ranch I wake up at is more familiar to my time-worn brain, at least, though when a farm-hand rounds the corner I instinctively try to talk with her as if we’re in an RPG. I’ve forgotten that non-player characters here are effectively mobile scenery to be shunted and shoved, although that soon becomes self-evident when I go jogging after my savior, Bonnie, only to accidentally knock her flying by mistake. Not a great start to the job.
The story seems content to unfurl itself with a languid ease, and as I go trotting around the countryside on coyote patrol it’s easy to forget that I’m not really exploring what I’d think of as “the Old West.” It’s 1911, after all, a mere three years until mankind will embroil itself in the Great War and allegedly invent loot boxes. I suspect I’m being deliberately charmed by the olde-worlde sincerity of the ranch and its owners so I’ll understand what’s at stake down the line, and the second time around I find it easier to settle into the gentle rhythm of the game’s early missions.
If there are rough edges to be found this early on, they’re mostly to do with gameplay. I find my “dead-eye” ability just fine – bronco bullet time, effectively – but can I recharge it? How do I know when it’s about to run out? And could someone not have warned me about over-spurring my horse during a race before I wound up snacking on the gravel pathways of Cholla Springs? I’m left to discover many of the basics for myself.
I normally like to stick with one quest-giver until they’ve nothing more for me to do, but when Bonnie dumps me in the town of Armadillo, I decide to stop by and see the local sheriff. Along the way, I’m taunted by properties I can’t buy and poker games for which I lack the ante. As I skulk through the streets, jobless and penniless, I’m forced to wonder: will I ever learn what Bonnie was doing out by Fort Mercer in the first place?
I’m in the company of the town marshal. We’ve just been discussing the duty of a sheriff to his town’s safety when weighed against the greater cause of justice, and now we’re chasing a man dressed like Papa Lazarou. I’m finding him quite hard to take seriously.
Learning to take cover in the ensuing firefight is something I’m expecting – a similar system debuted in Grand Theft Auto IV. Picking the pockets of the dead, though, that’s new to me. Niko Bellic’s enemies sprinkle brightly-colored money and loot around the landscape as they die, but John Marston’s fallen foes must be located, approached, and – if necessary – put out of their misery. Slower, more considered, more deliberate – the difference between the two protagonists.
Having dealt with the troublemakers, I’m only half-aware that I’m being told how to teleport back to town. I elect not to, retrieving my horse and taking a thoughtful canter down the dusty desert roads. Barely have I made it to the outskirts of Armadillo when a firefight breaks out around me, but by the time I’ve parked my horse, it’s over. Just another day in the west.
Woefully short on funds, I resolve to try my luck at the poker table – it’ll be Texas hold ’em because it’s always Texas hold ’em. (Just once I’d like to sit in a disreputable back room filled with surly strangers and play a rousing game of Top Trumps.) I’m caught short yet again, though. There’s no one present at the table, and when I swagger up and try to interact with it, half-a-dozen stony faces spectacularly fail to materialize. Red Dead is not about to play fast and loose with the rules of its world just because I expect immediate mini-game gratification. If I want to gamble, I can either sleep – not that I can afford to rent a room – or make my own amusement until the sun sets. I’m an inhabitant of this world, and not its reason for existing.
I decide to see what else Armadillo has to offer. Almost at once I’m called upon to save a harassed harlot from some ne’er-do-well, and before long I’ve played The Knife Game from Aliens, picked some flowers, taken a bounty, met a dowser, skinned a horse, received a treasure map and been shot stone dead by an ambush disguised as a damsel in distress.
I’m impressed by how many encounters seem to happen spontaneously in the world, rather than being dots on a map. I’m also struck by many of the mechanics I wasn’t expecting to find, like looting corpses and skinning animals, that are still so central to many of the games we’re playing today. While I suspect I’d struggle to return to GTA IV in a world where GTA V exists, Red Dead barely feels like it’s aged, and it’s remarkable how many of its choices (like horse auto-pilot and the percussive snatches of music) are just now showing up in other flagship titles like Breath of the Wild.
Tracking down my bounty out by a river seems to unleash wave after wave of aggressors, and when I finally stagger back to MacFarlane Ranch, I decide it’s high time to carry on with the main plot via Bonnie’s latest mission. Out of nowhere, the previously taciturn John unloads his backstory onto the skeptical rancher, spilling the beans on his wife, child and his on-again/off-again relationship with the bandit he’s come to kill. It’s a tale he’ll repeat time and time again, and I still don’t know if it’s true. I don’t completely trust John Marston not to be a liar, even if he’s mostly lying to himself.
Taking a breather from cattle-herding and breaking in horses, I find myself confronting a grizzled old prospector whose hovel my dowsing co-conspirator has taken a fancy to. I’m offered a choice – I can either take the property by force, or I can tuck my tail between my legs and come back when I’ve got the $200 he’s demanding. When I consider John’s personality and the honor my good deeds have accrued so far, I realize just how much I’m enjoying being able to choose to be a nice guy in a Rockstar game for once. Marston’s a killer, but he’s not a criminal – not if I don’t want him to be.
At this point, I take stock of everything I’ve accomplished so far, and it feels as though I’ve barely scratched the surface – like there’s a long way to go before the training wheels come off. While I’m hardly genre-savvy when it comes to Westerns, I have to believe there’s a steam train robbery and a bank heist waiting for me somewhere down the line – but I potter about the desert, a law-abiding family man and jobbing ranch-hand, and I can’t for the life of me imagine how the story’s going to carry me there.
I think I want to find out, though.
I remembered hating Nigel West Dickens. I remembered hating his prattling dialogue the tenth time I heard it, hating his wheedling Winnie-the-Pooh voice, and most of all I remember hating his gaudily-painted wagon. Steering it felt like trying to shepherd a recalcitrant supermarket cart across the American frontier after too many glasses of pinot, and when I repeatedly got snagged on cacti and rocks only to be swarmed by the bandits who were chasing us back to town, it was here that the game and I parted back in 2010.
This time around, my first attempt also ends in dismal failure as I struggle to deal with the terrain, the bandits and the time limit of my charge’s declining health. Upon discovering that my dead-eye meter hasn’t refilled ready for a second attempt, I pause and take a moment to ponder the universe, the nature of mortality, and how easily the neighbors will be able to hear me swearing at a fictional cowboy.
Instead, I decide to run away. Whipping the horses into a frenzy and ignoring West Dickens’ protestations, I hammer the A button and fly back to Armadillo as fast as my fingers will carry me, never once returning fire. Brilliantly, my newfound cowardice works. I’m over my stumbling block, and I find myself with all-new adventures before me. My own personal “Red Dead redemption” just took place.
I’m still being surprised. My latest steed and I are trekking off the beaten path when a large, black shape cuts across its flank. A bear? I whip out my carbine, launch into dead-eye mode, and swing the camera around to see I’ve had a close shave with a wild boar. It seems content to thunder past without a fight, and I relax, but only slightly. Now I’m wondering if there will be bears.
It’s the unpredictability that’s attractive. The GTA series mimics cities, and I know what to expect from those – I don’t need to start a fire to infer the existence of fire engines, for example, because it wouldn’t feel like a city without them. Here, Rockstar has an entire continent and a great swathe of history from which it can cherry-pick my next chance encounter. There might be bears. For all I know, there might be Sasquatch.
Equally unpredictable are the strangers I’m encountering out in the wild. Only one has provided me with the expected cash reward for being a Good Samaritan. Others have resulted in only melancholy vignettes – a forgotten grave, a smear of blood, a young woman left to die beneath the stars. Many are strange, but most feel fundamentally more decent than their Liberty City counterparts. Survival, not success, is the most many of them can hope for out here.
Elsewhere, the narrative has accelerated from a trot to a canter. Through a handful of quirky new allies, Marston is finally making tangible progress towards Fort Mercer and his quarry. I harbor no illusions that I’m anywhere near the final showdown – not with so much map left unexplored – but I’m impressed at how deftly the conflict has escalated mission-by-mission.
Sunday is over, so it’s a confrontation that will have to wait for another day – but there will be another day. Whatever part of Red Dead Redemption’s appeal I missed the first time around seems to have fallen into place after an eight-year cooldown. I like this game. There are times when I like it a lot, plenty of occasions when it’s still able to impress despite its advancing years, and I’m glad to have given it a second chance.
I do still have one lingering doubt, though: now that I’m hooked, will I be able to bring John Marston’s journey to an end before Red Dead Redemption 2 moseys on into town? Suddenly, October 26 really doesn’t seem that far away…
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