Red Dead Redemption is a servant of two masters. Its gameplay sticks closely to GTA's familiar sandbox formula, and its narrative leans heavily on anti-hero storytelling tropes borrowed from Western film directors like Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone.
The game serves neither of these masters especially well. It is not a mature Western in the vein of aging-reluctant-gunfighter films like Ride the High Country or Unforgiven; nor do its sandbox elements behave as well as they should.
Marsten's inexhaustible willingness to run errands for anyone who asks (including the dumbest, greediest, and shadiest characters imaginable) strains credulity for the sake of giving the player things to do. Assembling the team Marston needs to get inside Fort Mercer feels less like event-driven storytelling than a cobbled together series of fetch quests, rail shooting and racing games.
An endless string of knife-wielding thugs threaten prostitutes on the streets, no matter how many of them I kill. Dead men don't stay dead, and cougars spring out of nowhere to attack, even after I've slayed a dozen of their identical mates. All gang hideouts appear to have shared the same decorator.
And none of this really matters. Not much anyway. It doesn't matter because all the formal narrative stuff in RDR - John Marston, government agents, Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella - it's all just a frame. The good stuff, the important stuff, lives inside that frame, and it's very good stuff.
The GTA template is easily seen in RDR, but Rockstar has filled its new sandbox with rich atmosphere and an iconic landscape rendered with extraordinary attention to detail. GTA IV impressed with its skewed fidelity to New York City, but RDR's take on the American West transcends it and approaches visual poetry. The lighting alone is worth a studious blog post. I've grown so fond of riding my horse at sunrise and sunset that I've timed my sleep/saves to make the most of them.
Landscape is mythos in Westerns. RDR's pictorialism and environmental ambiance convey a sense of place more effectively than any game I've played. Its evocative, understated soundtrack amplifies the visuals, and its score echoes Ennio Morricone without aping him. If I hadn't recently written here about the excesses of hyperbole, I might have tossed in a few superlatives about Bill Elm and Woody Jackson's original music for RDR. I'll just say it's terrific and leave it at that.
Things happen when you ride the range in this game. Sometimes these moments feel meaningful. Other times they feel like jarring inconsistencies. Occasionally it's both.
A cougar attacked near Benedict Point and nearly killed me. I recovered and was quickly attacked by another. Luckily for me, two riders happened by and shot the animal before he attacked me again. Weakened and out of medicine, it occurred to me that I might have a better chance on my horse. No sooner had I mounted up than a cougar attacked. My horse fell, and I tumbled off. I quickly fired several shots killing the cougar, but when I turned around I discovered my horse lying dead on the ground. The honey-colored stallion Bonnie gave me after the round-up. I felt heartbroken.
Nervous about more cougar attacks, I needed to act quickly. I decided, with some reservations, to do what most hunters would probably do: skin the horse and make use of the supplies. So I sadly bent down to get the job done...and the game intruded. "You stink!!" Marston disgustedly exclaimed as blood splattered (yet again) on the virtual camera lens.
No, Mr. Marston, my horse does not stink, and I resent you treating him like the skunk you skinned an hour earlier. The distance between player and avatar in RDR is fluid.
One more story. I rescued a prostitute from a man threatening to kill her (while everyone else ignored her cries for help). Afterward she thanked me. A moment later I unthinkingly drew my gun, and she screamed and ran madly into the wilderness. Hoping to ease her fears, I pursued her on foot for nearly 10 minutes, but could never close the distance between us. As far as I know, she's still running.
Sometimes I see the wizard behind the curtain in RDR. Other times he sees me.