A day with Red Dead Redemption

A little while ago, Red Dead Redemption publisher Rockstar approached us with an unusual offer: would we like to spend an entire day playing through the first several hours of its Wild West take on Grand Theft Auto’s free-roaming havoc? Of course, we couldn’t turn that down, especially not once we learned we were only one of a few outlets to be given the opportunity.

Above: Yeah, suck it, everyone else!

So here’s the quick summary: Redemption plays a lot like a sequel to GTA IV, building on GTA’s ideas, controls and gameplay while adding a lot that’s completely unique. And, of course, where GTA offers one enormous, dense city, Redemption gives you vast stretches of wilderness, punctuated by little towns, animals and strangers in need of your assistance. And there’s shooting. A lot of shooting. But let’s start from the beginning…

Welcome to Armadillo, punk

Like Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption gets off to a slow start. Taking place in the early years of the 20th century, it begins with outlaw-turned-would-be bounty hunter John Marston catching a train, which takes him out west to the Texas-like territory of New Austin. Along the way, we’re treated to the conversations of the primly smug cityfolk traveling with him, with their naively racist banter about how “the savages” might have lost their land, but they’re better off having gained the keys to Heaven.

Above: Being able to make the ride like this would have made it far more interesting

After arriving in the little town of Armadillo, we’re given control of Marston for the first time, and set off with a guide hired to take Marston to a fort where one of his old gang comrades (and new targets), Bill Williamson, has holed up with a small army of men with guns.

This is also our first time freely controlling a horse on Redemption’s wide-open plains, and after a while we find out that they can be finicky bastards. Redemption’s horses aren’t cars, obviously, so they don’t control as smoothly, but they also aren’t quite as agile as the steeds in, say, Assassin’s Creed II. They usually have to be moving forward to turn around properly, meaning you’ll have to get used to making wide turns, and you’ll have to spur them repeatedly in order for them to maintain their speed. Not too much, though, as they’ll buck you off if you deplete their stamina meter (displayed to the left of Marston’s health) too much. On the upside, though, a horse is always within easy reach; so long as the last one you rode isn’t dead, you can whistle for one anywhere on the map, at which point one will immediately come running. (So while you’re free to horsejack people, it’s rarely necessary.)

For now, though, we’re able to use one of Redemption’s handiest tricks: if you’re following someone somewhere on horseback, you can just hold down a button to keep pace with them (although you’ll still need to steer).

Above: Tougher than it looks

After the two reach the fort, Marston confronts Williams while standing outside the gates. When Williamson refuses to be arrested quietly (and makes fun of Marston’s penchant for using big words, to boot), Marston takes the smartest course of action you possibly can when half a dozen men are training rifles on you: He says “Well…” and draws his pistol, at which point he’s immediately shot down like a dog.

It doesn’t end there, of course; after nightfall, a couple of shadowy figures load Marston’s unconscious ass into a buggy and drive off into the night. It’s here that the real story begins. Or at least, the run-up to the real story.

Paying your debts

Days later, Marston wakes up in a little shack, at which point he learns that his life was saved by Bonnie MacFarlane, a tough young woman (and a dead ringer for Red Dead Revolver’s Annie Stoakes) who runs a massive, town-like ranch along with her hulking bear of a father. To help repay her kindness (and the money she spent on his recovery), Marston agrees to help her out with a few jobs around the ranch.

It’s here, surprisingly, that we learn to shoot, specifically at a group of rabbits who are busy eating their way through Bonnie’s garden. Targeting works almost exactly like it does in GTA IV, although your aim doesn’t always lock on quite as reliably, and hitting moving targets by simply aiming manually is damn near impossible. Once we’d gotten our bearings, however, the rabbits were toast.

Taking on missions for Bonnie also introduced us to a bunch of interesting new activities and abilities, like herding cattle. More than once, we were tasked with guiding a herd to safety, which means riding behind them to scare them in a specific direction. Every so often, a straggler would break off and try to run away, meaning we’d have to follow it and guide it back to the herd. This was kind of a pain in the ass, but at least we didn’t have to do it very often.

Above: Just pretend the guy being lassoed is a cow/wild horse

Far more interesting was riding out to the ranch’s outskirts to capture a few wild horses, a task for which we were given a lasso (which we’d end up using a lot later on). It turns out that trying to correctly aim a lasso at a galloping horse while struggling to keep pace with it on your own horse is really tough, especially at first. And once you’ve successfully looped your rope around a horse’s neck, remembering to hold down the aiming trigger while dismounting and approaching it takes a little getting used to. By comparison, the actual “breaking” of the horses, which consists of moving the analog stick to keep your balance while they buck around, was easy.

Bonnie’s ranch holds a few other activities, too, like horse racing, following a watchdog around at night to catch rustlers, or just pulling down wanted posters to take on bounty-hunter missions. A little nosing around also found an open poker game, and a guy we could play horseshoes against for money. But the ranch is just one small part of a much larger world, and eventually we got a chance to drive a stagecoach (which is sort of like riding a horse, but bigger and faster) back to the town of Armadillo.

Mikel Reparaz
After graduating from college in 2000 with a BA in journalism, I worked for five years as a copy editor, page designer and videogame-review columnist at a couple of mid-sized newspapers you've never heard of. My column eventually got me a freelancing gig with GMR magazine, which folded a few months later. I was hired on full-time by GamesRadar in late 2005, and have since been paid actual money to write silly articles about lovable blobs.