The failure of the videogame Western has often been that they’re mostly just action games reskinned with trappings borrowed from movies. In other words, take Call Of Duty, throw in some hats and six-shooters, and voilà, a Western. Is Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption just a reskinned Grand Theft Auto IV? That’d be a gross oversimplification, although because both approach story and setting with similarly grand detail, it would be an easy mistake to make.
Rockstar’s character-based urban opus certainly provides the structure for Redemption. This is a similar collection of multi-threaded story missions and open-world sandbox exploration. (With actual sand!) The landscape is lovely and harsh, often accented with only the barest musical score. Rockstar got the horses and the geography right, and galloping around hunting wolves and helping (or waylaying) innocents feels substantially different from performing relatively equivalent actions in GTA.
The established Rockstar pattern of “random” small character encounters feels more appropriate here than in an urban environment. Naturally, when a sparsely populated society is in a state of growth and flux, everyone needs something. This West is sometimes more crowded than lonesome, however. The hard-packed trails can positively teem with horse traffic. But Rockstar has nonetheless tuned the game to play at a pace appropriate to the West. Compared to the pace of modern games, Redemption moves at a leisurely, refreshing canter. (Unfortunately, the underlying tech isn’t as well-tuned. Small bugs and bits of odd character behavior are prevalent.)
The story arc ably tracks the shape of the evolving West and toys with Western stereotypes. Redemption sets its action at the tension point where one era is fading into another. “Businessmen are the new cowboys,” one character observes. Technology and “civilization” are reshaping the frontier and threatening to edge out the hardscrabble men and women who first braved it. Westerns often trod that ground; think Peckinpah films like The Wild Bunch and The Ballad Of Cable Hogue. But as in those films, blood and betrayal are of equal import.
Hero John Marston is introduced looking like a tough, taciturn Eastwood/Bronson derivative. But he’s much more human than that, and he’ll suffer as much as the most put-upon screen gunslinger ever did. Redemption isn’t shy about slapping him (and us) around, but it softens the blows by wrapping them in the first goddamned good action Western that gaming has seen.