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Menus are thoughtfully integrated into the game's own style, load-times are near non-existent and the HUD is kept beautifully minimal.
Up-close it can be a little rough around the edges, but when it's dealing with the scale that's the game's penchant it's truly breathtaking.
Great voice-work is matched by a brilliantly atmospheric bespoke soundtrack that helps bring the West to life.
Rockstar's formula has been progressed enough to make this appeal even to non-fans of GTA, and there's an awesome amount of variety on display.
10 Lasting Appeal
The West keeps on giving well beyond the completion of the campaign – unlocking all of its secrets could well be a lifetime's work.
9.8 OVERALL Incredible
Take your horse to the edges of Plainview; survey the heat haze shimmering off the burnt yellow lands of Nuevo Paraiso, watch as a crow cuts through the blue skies above New Austin and look to the horizon for the snow-dipped forests of West Elizabeth. All this is yours in what's easily Rockstar's most generous open world game yet.
Red Dead Redemption's scale is beyond epic, and just as Liberty City emerged as the true star of Grand Theft Auto IV it's the expanse of the Wild West that shines brightest here. There's a richness to the vistas that's frequently breathtaking and a diversity to them that's equally impressive. From the oppressive marshland that surrounds the lawless outpost Thieves' Landing to the homely beauty of McFarlane's Ranch, the story of how the West was won is told just as much through the locales as it is the characters.
Left to die by his gang, John Marston is a man looking for revenge.
A conflict between the Old West and the burgeoning New America of the early 20th Century underpins Red Dead Redemption's story, and it's best embodied in the contrast between two of the game's key settings. Armadillo, an early home for the player, is a town that's typical of the great untamed – its saloon sees fights breaking out spontaneously while drunks waltz hazily through the streets and prostitutes prop up the alleyways. On the flip side there's Blackwater, where one of the very first automobiles in the West drives around its paved streets, and where sinister government agency The Bureau holds its base. It's also here that lead John Marston first departs, finding himself at the forefront of the struggle to bring order to the lawless lands.
Working against his will for The Bureau, he must track down old acquaintances and settle scores in a story that stretches beyond 20 hours for a single playthrough. He's an artefact of the Old West, as the scars on his face testify, and he's backed up by a supporting cast that's easily one of Rockstar's finest. There's the familiar ensemble of villains, allies and oddballs, fuelled by some wonderfully sparky writing – although one of the game's few disappointments is that the facial animation never does justice to the dialogue. It's forgiveable, though, as in the Wild West Rockstar seems to have found a perfect partner for its unique brand of comic and satirical drama.
Red Dead's cover system is similar to GTA's but is more refined.
Indeed, the setting is brilliantly suited to the cultural savvy that's long defined the GTA series and it's brave enough to be much more than a pastiche of Westerns past. By straddling itself between the traditional Western timeline and the start of the 20th Century proper, Redemption does much more than merely string together a list of genre cliches – the story's rich with the tension of the inevitability of Marston's violent past catching up with him, and more broadly with a considered foreshadowing of the America that's to come.
Marston's motives, though, are familiar – they're an echo of those that propelled Niko's tale in GTA IV, and they're not the only thing he shares with the East European immigrant. The run, gun and cover shooting returns near-wholesale from the 2008 game, though it's been streamlined and a few little tweaks help keep it fresh. Health now utilises a straight-up rechargeable system and the biggest addition comes in the shape of Dead Eye, which temporarily slows down time and allows players to mark enemies before they're downed in a lightning quick volley of gunfire. It stacks the odds firmly in Marston's favour, ensuring a gentle difficulty curve and allowing for a smoother difficulty curve that's helped along by some other key additions to Rockstar's open world formula.
In the Wild West, everyone is your enemy.
In answer to one of the criticisms levelled at GTA IV after launch, there's now a much wider variety in mission objectives. While there's still an emphasis on shooting, Marston's tale dictates some interesting diversions from the standard gunplay, most explicitly in the rural side of life in the West. While breaking in horses, herding cows and shooing crows away from corn crops doesn't sound like the most thrilling of activities, they make for a tranquil counterpoint to Marston's more gung-ho moments, something that's used to great effect come the story's devastating climax.
Mid-mission checkpoints make their way from the Episodes of Liberty City and they're particularly forgiving here. Rockstar also goes one further in trying to omit some of the frustrations that have crept into its games in the past – fail a mission one too many times and it's possible to skip it completely. There are other concessions too: there's not such an over-abundance of point-to-point missions and there's often an option to skip to the destination.
Do so and you risk missing out on Redemption's greatest feature; its open world. It is, in its own way, as bustling as GTA IV's thriving virtual metropolis - villages, farms and whole towns are liberally dotted across the land, and even the wilderness in between is populated by outlaws and lawmen that are all too willing to interrupt the player's travels. Getting from A to B more often than not involves stopping off at C to intervene in one of Red Dead Redemption's many random encounters, revolver in hand and ready to either deal out justice or capitalise on someone's ill fortune.
There's loads to do outside missions like taming horses, hunting and more.
Like the very best open world games it means that it's impossible not to be sidetracked when traversing the map. Wildlife is rich and plentiful; cattle roam New Austin, preyed upon by cackling coyotes, armadillos scuttle in the sand of Nuevo Paraiso while elks and hulking bears stalk the woods of West Elizabeth – and all of them and more besides are available for the hunt. Some of the wildlife is there for more than shooting; getting around is done near-exclusively on horseback (or, if you're unfortunate in your choice of getaway vehicle, on the back of an ass).
And while the Euphoria-enabled animation continues to impress on the player and other human characters, the horses are the real highlight. Artfully animated and joyous to ride, they join Epona and Agro in gaming's equestrian elite. It's possible to build a real attachment to them as well: one wild stallion we broke in and tamed at the story's outset stayed faithful to us for some 15 hours, and when it eventually keeled over of exhaustion it was a moment as powerful as any of the story's scripted twists and turns.
The law system works superbly and is more in-depth than that in GTA.
The diversions in Red Dead Redemption are plentiful, from helping strangers in ongoing quests that can span a handful of hours to whiling whole afternoons playing blackjack and poker or even just to stop to see what the game will throw at you, be that a random assault or theft in a town to a full on siege of one of the West's many forts.
How the player responds to such incidents is charted in Marston's honour and fame stats – good deeds will eventually lend legendary status across the West and its inhabitants will act accordingly with discounts in stores and a rapturous reception when arriving in town, while darker doings will lead to a bad reputation and if pushed far enough a spell behind bars. The wanted system in Red Dead Redemption is several steps removed from that of GTA IV – repeated offences now lead to a bigger bounty being placed on the player's head and until it's either paid off in cash or served out in prison, posses will hunt them down.
It's a much more nuanced system than what's gone before it – wear a bandana while committing a crime and you'll be granted some anonymity, while having a high honour or fame status means that petty crimes will often go unpunished. Such features give Red Dead Redemption's play more depth, and while it's never as explicit as San Andreas in its RPG trappings the amount of questing and light levelling lends it a feel that's quite similar.
Multiplayer is a hoot, playing alone or cooperatively with mates.
Single-player, then, is a triumph, and thankfully its successes are acknowledged elsewhere. Rockstar has learnt from the lessons of GTA IV's multiplayer and here it harnesses the open world in the online modes. Alongside multiplayer standards such as deathmatch and capture the flag – all serviceable, fun but never as spectacular as the toe-to-toe shootout that prefaces each of them – there's a Free Roam mode for up to 16 players, offering the entire map up for exploration and hijinx.
Time will tell if its multiplayer has the legs to last, although the tools are certainly there for an enjoyable experience. Furthermore, Rockstar seems keen to keep supporting it; new co-op levels are already being promised for free further down the line and if the generosity continues then Red Dead Redemption's shelf life could be extended indefinitely.
At the outset Red Dead Redemption promises to be GTA on horseback. Several hours later it goes on to fulfil that promise and then top it. This is so much more than a mere retooling of Rockstar's tried and tested open world formula – it's an artful take on a world long lost, an evocative paean to not only the Western genre but also to the beautiful expanse of the American landscape. Even better though is that under that remarkable feat is a game that's been refined and revitalised, setting the open world genre free and creating an experience that's quite likely to be one of this year's very best