I’m going to state this to get it out of the way. Red Dead Redemption is my favourite game of all time. I recently said this to a friend of mine, who said “It won’t be as good if you go back and play it”. The pedantic bastard that I am would not let this lie, so I fired up the PS3, found my slightly battered copy of the game, and settled down over a week to play what I remember being one of the finest games of all time.
Now, this isn’t a review or anything. Most people who’ve wanted to play it will have done so 5 years ago. It’s an explanation of what I found when I lifted the haze of nostalgia and allowed myself to see if a game could stand on it’s own merit.
Fortunately, it was even better than I remember.
You play as John Marston, a family man with a troubled past, tasked by corrupt U.S. authorities to hunt down his former gang members, one by one. Along the way, you meet some of the most fascinating characters who inhabit this barren Texas borderland. There’s crazed, sadistic madmen who enjoy nothing more than digging up graveyards for fun. Ranch owners who’s longing and drive to do what’s right for their family is almost painful. Snake oil salesmen who would leave you in a ditch for naught more than a buck. This is one of the finest supporting casts I’ve ever seen, enriching the world to a point where you want to find out everything about their backstories. Fortunately, Rockstar were savvy enough to pull back & just leave enough hinted at to keep you satisfied.
The gameplay is incredible. People who are much more qualified than me might go on about the issue of ‘Ludonarrative dissonance’, a conflict between the gameplay and story in a video game. A prime example would be something like Bioshock, where you’re mowing down scores of enemies, but they’ll be a cutscene where your character kills a guy then has a crisis of conscience about it. Red Dead avoids this amazingly well by making the character just enough of a bastard to make killing people a part of who he is, and none of the deaths you inflict seem cheap or done for shock value. I did still laugh at my horse getting run over by a train though, I must admit. The gameplay is, for the most part, heavily influenced by Grand Theft Auto, with many similar mechanics being used throughout. Just substitute a car for a horse and you’re good to go. It uses a brilliant shooting mechanism called ‘dead-eye’ too, where time slows and you mark where to shoot people on their bodies. To say it’s satisfying is quite an understatement, and the developers clearly agree, implementing it in their latest offering, GTA V.
The most simple point I can put across as to how good this game remains is how I felt while playing it. You know that feeling you get playing games. That sense of awe, the wide-eyed childish wonder of delving into the world. None of that has been lost, and I knew everything that was going to happen. Deaths hit just as hard, and meandering through the desert in moonlight was just as incredible the second time around. It also has my favourite last scene of anything, with the shot just before the credits being so awesome I stood up and yelled “YES!” at the top of my lungs. There’s another moment in this game which is so breathtaking, I actually put the controller down and just stared in awe. About half way through the game, Marston tracks his quarry to Mexico. After a particularly hard-fought mission, your adrenaline’s pumping, you’re stimulated, and ready to take the hunt south of the border. As you ride over the river, a guitar swells up and before you realise it, the soundtrack has entered with a song, gently encouraging you to ride. Everything about this moment is perfect. It’s one of the rare times in video games where such a moment of serenity is more impactful than mowing down a roomful of enemies. It’s utterly stunning.
If anyone has not played this game yet, I strongly recommend you do so. With Rockstar recently announcing they have plans for all existing I.P., hope remains that we could see a sequel to this, something I’d be ecstatic about. If not though, it doesn’t matter, it holds up as one of the shining examples of how to tell a story in gaming. This was a fascinating experiment for me. It allowed me to see if a game I tell people is one of my favorites will hold up after a few years cooling off period. In the case of Red Dead Redemption, the answer is an emphatic yes. Losing myself in the world of John Marston was just as easy the second time around.
Oh, and the DLC has zombies.