Success can grow to be a burden, and as the creators of the GTA series – as much a cultural phenomenon as a game – Rockstar have had to work hard to ensure Red Dead Redemption is taken on its own merit and not be dismissed as simply Grand Theft Equine.
When you define the sandbox genre for the best part of a decade however, throwing out the template would be a fool’s game, so let’s get the inevitable comparisons out of the way early. Thematically, Redemption is a better fit for Rockstar’s brand of open-world violence than GTA has ever been. Your aggressive actions as a player are far more consistent with a lawless era in which disputes were settled with a bullet to the head than Vircetti’s or Bellic’s city-sized genocides and few could argue that any design principle was ever more suited to the frontier spirit than a Rockstar sandbox. From the very outset, stepping into the spurred boots of John Marston feels reassuringly right.
Reformed gangster Marston is forced to redeem himself from a life of plundering and murdering by, well, plundering and murdering once more, only this time for the government, or more specifically the proto-FBI bureau that are holding his wife and child hostage until he wipes out the remaining members of his former outlaw gang. The premise is simple enough but the story is handled extremely well, driving events with assured and effective pacing.
Redemption is much more than a Wild West skin for GTA, with many of the early hours of the game relatively combat-free, spent instead carrying out cowboy duties such as cattle herding, warding off rustlers and rounding up and breaking in new horses, all with unique gameplay elements that help acclimatise you with Redemption’s masterfully constructed world. In these early hours it’s easy to warm to Marston, and if being an affable well-mannered farmhand was the route to redemption he would have little to worry about, but it’s not long before the search for your old friend Bill Williamson (a friend with a bad habit of leaving bullets in your side) leads you to more deadly encounters.