Rockstar Redeemed

I finished Red Dead Redemption yesterday, and wow, Rockstar’s outdone itself on that one. I loved GTA IV and its expansions, but Red Dead was more mature, more beautiful, more poignant, and something that I want to see more of. Free-roaming games of this type are wasted on yet another modern crime spree, and I hope that this is enough of a success to see more interesting historical periods mined for their gaming goodness.

It’s stunningly beautiful at times, as striking as any of the great vistas thrown up in the open-world games this generation. Towards the end I saw a sunrise over the water at the town of Blackwater and had to stop and admire the view, and there are countless little places to sit on your horse and do so – the hints of the landmarks of Mexico that are visible from Rio Bravo, the view across all of Cholla Springs from the cliffs of Hennigan’s Stead, taking in the entirety of the plains from the summit of Nekoti Rock. I’ve loved the imagery of the Old West since the days when I’d visit Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom and Blackgang Chine right up until I discovered Sergio Leone, and Red Dead evokes it all as knowingly as GTA does the same with modern pop culture.

Up until the end – there won’t be any overt plot spoilers here, but I may allude to certain things – I’d been enjoying the story, but as it reached its finale it really turned into something special. The end of a certain stranger’s quest that runs through the game was the point where Rockstar upped its game, in my opinion, and from then on it turned from what was essentially a GTA story into the tale of redemption that the name was hinting at, while touching on themes of destiny and civilisation. Marston was a brilliant protagonist who you grow to care about, and the change of pace for the final act, although I’m sure some will dislike it, formed an important bookend and provided an emotional anchor for the finale proper.

And when I say ‘mature’, I don’t just mean blood, sex and bad language. The lawless Old West arguably fits the GTA template better than the heavily policed modern day; there’s none of Niko complaining about his inescapable life of crime and poverty as he sits there with $1 million in his pocket because, unless you go out of your way, you’re probably not ending the game with more than a couple grand in cash. Similarly, there’s less dissonance between Marston’s character and his actions when you decide to ‘play’ the character because he’s a former gang member being forced to do these things in a lawless world rather than someone who claims to want out but has an unfortunate habit of accepting hits from mob leaders for money anyway.

In short, Red Dead is a magnificent game. I think it’s a better game than GTA in every respect, raising the bar on the game that owns this sub-genre and plucking a game series from obscurity – really, does this have any relation to the distinctly average Red Dead Revolver at all? – and deserving praise just as much. I just hope it’s successful enough to spawn some follow-ups because I’m excited to see what’s next.

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