There’s no point having a sprawling landscape if you can't fill it with tons of shit to do in between the regular missions. GTAIV has the occasional stranger to help out in Liberty City. Just Cause 2 has a stack of things to blow up around Panau. And Far Cry 2 has, erm? <cough>. Anyway, Red Dead Redemption and its miles of dusty land between different towns and villages could’ve wound up a joyless trek to wander across. But, holy crap, there’s so much stuff to do here that you need never be bored.
Above: Just a sample of the madness you can cause here
Rockstar has not only delivered a kick-ass take on the Wild West era but they've done it with a finesse that satisfies every need of anyone who has ever fantasised about being a cowboy. Unless of course, your visions are based solely on Brokeback Mountain, in which case you may be disappointed. There’s cattle herding, duels, hunting, breaking in horses (not like that) and much, much more to keep you in the saddle for hours.
You play as John Marston - a former outlaw who’s being forced to hunt down his old gang members by shady government officials led by one Edgar Ross. How do you make a bad-ass do wet work for you? Kidnap his wife and kid. So he's fighting for the lives of his family, but let’s get a gripe out of the way early on; while Marston's cause is a worthy one, he doesn’t half go on about it. Every time he meets someone new he bangs on about his plight like a stuck record, which, in terms of story, leaves him fairly one-dimensional.
This might be unfair to say this as most lead characters these days are about as compelling as rock with a face painted on it. But when it comes to Rockstar and their previously soulful leads it’s worth a mention.
GTA: Wild West
It all plays out like GTA except in 1911. You're sent on an initial, straightforward mission to get you used to the controls and how to move around the huge landscape. The story then branches off into separate areas and you'll soon find yourself working with/for various characters - like the Mexican army or simple ranchers - in the search for information regarding the whereabouts of your old chums. Red Dead Redemption takes you through superb little towns and villages that you can buy stuff from, play games in or simply shoot every one up.
Above: Donning a bandana around your face will keep you annonymous
There's a morale system in place for John too; perform good deeds, like preventing a break-in or saving a woman from being kidnapped, and you'll increase your hero status. Take this path and you’ll find cheaper items in stores and the police turning a blind eye to the odd stolen horse. Alternatively, you can take the bad boy route by robbing everyone at gunpoint and holding up shops like a Wild West mad man and get a rep as a feared outlaw.
There are welcome distractions all over the place in Red Dead Redemption. Finish a mission and your end location will often be packed with stuff to do. Talk to a stranger for example and they’ll ask you to do them a favour. In one saloon we were asked to convince a guy’s wife to go back to him. You meet her at the station preparing to leave town and instead of talking things through you can either a) put a gun to her head and force her back or b) hog-tie and return her kicking and screaming. Nice.
There are also Wanted missions to take part in. Treasure hunts, which you'll be given maps and clues to find specific locations. And a wealth of specific games to gamble in. Like what? Like this...
In it to skin it
If you're not arsed about being caught up in these affairs you can always move between different areas of the map by setting up a campsite out in the wilderness and teleporting from one location to another.
Above: The only way to travel in the Wild West
You can even take a stagecoach, which acts in the same way as the cab in GTAIV, as you can make the driver go faster, slower, or skip to destination. But while this is handy for getting about you’re going to miss out on a whole host of visual treats in Red Dead Redemption.
Hop on a horse – or a donkey, if you like – and head out across the wilderness to be treated to one of the richest gaming worlds you’ve ever seen. It’s packed full of beautiful mountains, rivers, forests and a fully-functioning ecosystem.
Above: Surely the gun on his back would be better used in this situation
There are plants to pick that can be sold in towns and a zoo’s worth of wild animals including armadillos, wolves, goats and big ol’ grizzly bears. All of which can be shot, killed and skinned. We skinned more cadavers than Buffalo Bill and Dr Gunther von Hagens combined. One other sticky wicket is that John can’t swim, so don’t expect to swim the river across to Mexico.
Although there are loads of shops to visit across the world, we bust through the entire game without stopping at any that we weren’t forced into via a mission. It’s only on reflection that we realise that we managed to blast through the story without buying a single new weapon. You might think this is BS, but we honestly didn’t. Why? Well the refined Dead Eye mode (hold L2, LT and click right stick) makes even the weakest of weapons 20,000,000 times more potent because lining up headshots in slow-motion is a piece of piss. This doesn’t mean the action isn’t compelling. Not by a long-shot.
Above: Joining the Mexican army for a brief stint is pretty exciting
The siege on Fort Mercer, where you blow the doors off with a dynamite packed cart, assault the fools inside and finally man a cannon to protect your new base is amazing. A real rollercoaster of a mission that typifies the beautiful shooting mechanics of Red Dead Redemption, and puts it above GTAIV in terms of excitement during firefights.
It’s hard to put a finger on a single reason why Red Dead Redemption is so great. It doesn’t do one thing that will make you stand-up and applaud its uniqueness, but the whole package – the environment, the story, which we’re purposely not spoiling here, and the gunplay – all adds up to be a thing of beauty and an early and worthy contender for Game of the Year.
Is it better than...
Red Dead Revolver?
Yes. Obviously. Rockstar's initial attempt at Wild West fun still stands strong but the lack of open world freedom means that there's limited variety to proceedings in this last-gen classic.
Call of Juarez - Bound in Blood?
Yes. The sturdy FPS take on Western action provided a fairly decent run and gun affair but the story sucked a fat one as you were funnelled down one set-path after another.
No. But only just. It's highly subjective but personally we prefer pissing about in Banshees around Star Junction than riding a horse about. And the story of Niko is more involving and interesting than John Marston's.
Just for you Metacritic
Without a doubt, Red Dead Redemption has been worth the wait. The finesse of the final delivery and the richness of the world is awe-inspiring and will keep you thrilled from start to finish.