Red Dead Redemption: 8 years on, still awe inspiring

I remember playing Red Dead Redemption a couple of years after it was released. Everyone kept telling me how awesome it was and that I should have started playing it already. I was not as enthusiastic, however. It’s just cowboys, I thought. It’s just more Western stuff, stuff I had gotten bored of a long time back. However, I was a huge fan of Rockstar, the company that made this game, along with some of my all-time favorite franchises such as GTA and Max Payne. So I listened to my friends. Easily one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.

Red Dead Redemption was an open world masterpiece. This game would become the benchmark upon which all other future open world games would be compared against. Before we discuss the game itself, there is a fascinating story behind the development of the series that must be spoken of. Technically speaking, the first game of the series was Red Dead Revolver. The game was produced by Capcom and Angel Studios, who announced the campy, light hearted arcade game in 2002. However, Capcom decided to pull the plug on the project a year later.

This would not spell doom for the franchise, however. In fact, looking back, it looks like a classic rebirth. Rockstar’s parent company, Take Two, acquired Angel Studios for a cool 28 million dollars, and by extension, acquired the intellectual license to Red Dead Revolver.

Angel Studios, known as Rockstar San Diego from the point of the acquisition, was tasked with finishing the Red Dead Revolver game. The game was no longer as campy and arcade oriented as it was under Capcom. Instead, Rockstar’s mature storytelling, humor and gore was quite prominently featured in the game. It was still an arcade game, but now it had a mature story. The game has not aged well, however. The story feels unevenly paced and the voice acting is inconsistent. Most characters, the protagonist Red Harlow included, were fairly two dimensional.

One of the innovations Red Dead Revolver made was the “deadeye” mechanic. This would be seen in the next game as well, where a player presses a button to slow down time, and mark multiple characters to shoot and kill them instantly after getting out of the mode. This mode would be one of the things that makes the Western experience of Red Dead Redemption so salivating. I mean, who doesn’t want to be Clint Eastwood?

Highway robbery and horsin around – the Red Dead way.

Rockstar would put the franchise on the backburner until 2010, when they released the next and the most famous game of the series so far, Red Dead Redemption. The game was released for Xbox 360 and PS3 and was an ambitious open world project, in contrast to the earlier game. This would be a huge challenge for Rockstar as even though they had lots of open world experience from GTA, it would be a much bigger map than any of the GTA games that had been released at the time. Suffice to say, Rockstar pulled it off.

The game was a massive success, both critically and commercially. The story of the game was Rockstar at its finest: nuanced, gritty, mature and yet, humorous. The shooting mechanics had been greatly improved from Rockstar’s previous release, GTA IV. The world itself was bigger, better, and filled with more content than any Rockstar game at that point. There were multiple horses to choose from, each with its own stats, and who doesn’t like the option of many horses?

Red Harlow, the protagonist of the previous game, was ditched in favor of John Marston. Marston is a much more complex character than Harlow could ever be. An avid family man, Marston was trying to go back to being a civilian and just living out his life, but blackmailed by the Feds, he had to go back to a life of killing. That would be his penance for running with Dutch’s gang. I will not spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t played it, but in my opinion, Red Dead Redemption has one of the most satisfying, gut wrenching, heart breaking yet bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen in any game.

Screenshot from the remastered Xbox One version.

8 years on, I still get chills thinking about the brilliance of the story, the ending and the multi-dimensional characters. Almost every character in the game is an accurate representation of what could be expected of the Wild West: unpredictable, treacherous and morally ambiguous. Help could come from unexpected sources, and it’s just as likely that a trusted friend would stab you in the back.

Finally, the open world of the game is what makes it the genre-defining masterpiece it became. Before Red Dead Redemption, Just Cause had made an absolutely massive open world, but it was nowhere near as filled with stories, characters and intrigue. The game world of Red Dead Redemption was so full of content that you could be doing side quests for hours before you even start the main questline.

This massive open world, along with its dozens of hours of content, gave the game its uniqueness. Even back in 2010, the market was over-saturated with open world games. Red Dead Redemption gave the player the chance to fulfill their Western fantasies. Want to collect bounties? Just go talk with the sheriff. Card games more to your liking? Play poker at salons. Want to hogtie some injun and pull him around on top of or drag behind your horse? Nothing in the game world stopping is you (aside from pretty effective law enforcement, of course). Hell, bored of the good ol’ US of A? Just cross the border, go to Mexico and overthrow the government, or side with them against the rebels. Humans too boring? Hunt wildlife with your trusty steed. The best thing about this game, for me, is the freedom a player has in the game world. It’s not just a shooter with a good story, it’s an open world game that feels truly endless, at least for quite some time. A true Western role player game that also had a heck of a story. Considering the platforms it was released on and their technical limitations, that’s certainly something a company would be proud of.

Undead Nightmare should have had undead horses. Undead Night-mares. Geddit?

Red Dead Redemption was so well set in its ability to deliver a fantastic open world experience that a semi-sequel, Red Dead Undead, felt like a seamless transition into zombies and monsters. Even that had a story that, in its depth, can rival the best that Hollywood has to offer. – enough to put The Walking Dead to shame.

Red Dead Redemption is what reignited the love of cowboys and Westerns in my generation. It is such a good game that it almost feels unreal that we could get a game like this, something that was unimaginable even a few years before the game’s release. Possibly the greatest Western game of all time, and certainly one of the greatest open world games. I look forward to Red Dead Redemption’s sequel, coming out later this year, to topple its predecessor in terms of quality. Much easier said than done – it will be extremely difficult for RDR 2 to live up to the hype.

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