If last generation’s defining games, the Grand Theft Auto series, feels like it’s past its best – a feeling that, I would suggest, is shared by Rockstar, given the reduced prominence of the franchise – what Red Dead Redemption did was prove that the formula itself is still full of life.
As much as I loved it, GTA IV was a very conservative entry, pulling back from the increasingly madcap antics that grew throughout the PS2 entries, and it received criticism for that. Red Dead, however, was a fresh start, and although it was similarly straight-faced, it had a maturity to its storytelling that I don’t think any game has matched. Here we had a fairly realistic period setting, largely populated by middle-aged characters, and all taking place under a solemn atmosphere as the pioneering Old West gave way to civilisation and the rule of law, leaving these characters robbed of their place in the world.
The game was full of moments showing this maturity, from the references not to modern pop culture but to things like Heart of Darkness; the clever, subtle use of music at key points in the story; the quite brilliant I Know You quest line; tough historical themes like the treatment of native Americans; and, of course, that ending. It’s supported by one of the most beautiful game engines I’ve ever seen, capable of staggeringly picturesque and surprisingly varied backdrops that were a pleasure to spend time in. I don’t find enough games nowadays that I’m tempted to jump right back into after finishing them, but that’s exactly what I did after spending 50 hours in this game world.
The fact that of all the games on this list, going back and watching some of my favourite moments on YouTube from Red Dead is genuinely eliciting an emotional reaction, feeling for John Marston and pining to go back into that beautiful world, is why it has to be my number one. It’s one of the handful of games that brings a smile to my face just thinking about existing in it, and I sincerely hope that its success will mean that it continues as Rockstar’s number one open-world adventure series.