While Rockstar North was deep into the development of Grand Theft Auto IV, their sister developer Rockstar San Diego started work on its own new open-world project: Red Dead Redemption. Based loosely on the PS2 game Red Dead Revolver, Redemption was originally slated for a Playstation 2 and Xbox release, only to later be released on Playstation 3 and 360.
Our hero John Marston is an old dog, and the fictitious county of New Austen is full of new tricks; the frontier is dying and technology, politics, even the oil industry are moving in. A former outlaw, Marston just wants to settle down with his family; the government however has other plans. His wife and son are held ransom by the Bureau of Investigation (the organization that will later become the FBI), and the only way to get them back is for John to take down the remaining members of his old gang.
No other game has given players such freedom in the Wild West. Whether you want to play the hero or the outlaw, Red Dead Redemption gives you the choice. Rob a poor shopkeeper, or prevent some other crook from doing the same. Steal a horse, or purchase it fair and square. You can ride for hours and never stop seeing something new. The landscape is dotted with an assortment of wildlife, friendly travelers looking to chat, and not so friendly travelers looking to kill you and take all that you have.
New Austen has more than its fair share of breathtaking vistas, glorious sunrises and stormy skies flashing with lightning; but nothing compares with the sight that players are met with as they enter Mexico for the first time.
The most memorable moment in the game is not a loud and bombastic one; in fact it is quite the opposite. Having amassed a small task force (and a large machine gun) and raided your old gang’s stronghold, you find that your old friend Bill Williamson has fled south. You board a ferry and broad the river that separates the two countries, your only companion an Irish drunkard very creatively nicknamed “Irish” who claims to have connections in Mexico. Your luck being as it is, not even halfway across the river you find yourself attacked by bandits from the river banks. After an explosive couple of minutes you reach the shore and are quickly abandoned by your “friend” Irish, known in Mexico as “El Rato”. Marston is alone once again.
As the morning sun slowly rises it begins to reveal your first glimpse of Mexico around you, the red sand and brown foliage in stark contrast with the pale blue sky.
As you mount your horse and start climbing the steep hill before you, the morning sun rises in the east and ‘Far Away’ by Jose Gonzales begins to play. Few games, if any, use music the way that Red Dead Redemption does; the acoustic folk strings and Gonzales’ distinct voice cut through the sounds of nature and you have a moment of quiet contemplation before the storm of what’s to come as you ride into Mexico.
Too often in games we are asked to move from one task to the next, never stopping to breath, never stopping to collect ourselves. What makes this moment so special is that even in a fast-paced action game like Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar San Diego gives us a chance to stop and truly think about our actions.
In a lineup of dreary grey shooters, Red Dead Redemption was a counter-example of the genre; proof that you can still tell a serious story with moments of heartfelt beauty. The transition from one console generation to the next allowed the game to not only push the series far beyond its predecessor, but to become one of the most visually stunning games of the generation. An absolutely beautiful homage to the Old West and evidence that Rockstar can be subtle as well as bombastic, Red Dead Redemption deserves its place as one of the defining games of the last generation and one of the best portrayals of the Old West in the history of the medium.
The border crossing into Mexico is where the game crosses its own border – what was simply a well-made open-world game is transformed into a pinnacle of the entire medium by a simple 4-minute scene, a well-chosen piece of music and the utter visual beauty of the world.