Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar's rootin' tootin' trip to the Wild West is a journey well worth taking

Ever since Grand Theft Auto III first exploded onto the PlayStation 2 back in October 2001, developers have leapt at the opportunity to create their own sandbox games thanks to the computing power offered by today's high-spec consoles. Free-roaming videogames where the gamer can essentially do whatever they want, whenever they want within the confines of an open-world, are now commonplace across pretty much all platforms. But few of them have ever lived up to those Rockstar Games has conjured up for its Grand Theft Auto series.

Now Rockstar is back with another open world for you to explore, only this time it's not the world of fast cars and gangsters, but rather the lawless frontier of the Wild West that gamers can live for themselves. This isn't an entirely new landscape for the company to explore, as it had previously picked up and re-worked the previously dropped Capcom title Red Dead Revolver some six years ago. While the finished game certainly boasted the kind of third-person action, immersive storytelling and endless cinematic homage's gamers had come to expect from Rockstar, it ultimately felt a little like the marriage of two different games, and as such it ended up promising far more than it could deliver. But now, six years and one hardware generation later, the Rockstar San Diego team are back with a follow-up game that really delivers the goods.

Out for blood
A sequel in pretty much name and genre only, Red Dead Redemption casts the player as John Marston, a former outlaw left for dead by his old gang and subsequently tasked by sinister government organisation The Bureau to bring his former colleagues to justice - dead or alive. In essence, it's the same 'stranger in a strange land looking for revenge' plot that lay at the heart of Rockstar's earlier Grand Theft Auto VI. But even if the basic setup fails to provide any particularly new twists, as soon as you start playing you realise just how much more scope this game offers than its car-stealing contemporary.

For my money, the main story and characters offered up this time are far more appealing than those of GTA IV. While I do feel that we've yet to discover a world as cohesive and engaging as that of GTA: Vice City, Red Dead Redemption comes very close, mixing familiar genre tropes and memorable characters (refreshingly, not all Rockstar's standard lineup of grotesques - although there are plenty of those as well) with a truly sympathetic hero and surprisingly mature and thoughtful storyline.

Wide open plains
Fittingly given its frontier setting, Red Dead Redemption is a truly epic game. In many ways, it's comparable with GTA: San Andreas, with the open world taking in a variety of locales and individual habitations. But, curiously, while the game's setting means that there are fewer towns to explore, the world surrounding it never feels as empty as that of San Andreas. In large part this is thanks to the variety in the areas you play through - from snowy mountains to massive plains and mist-shrouded marshland, no Western setting is left untouched, and remarkably it all links together in a way that feels incredibly organic.

It also helps that the world itself is teeming with life. Whether you travel along dusty trails, rocky paths or take off into the wilds, you're constantly aware of the wild life around you. Wild horses, buffalo, deer, birds and beavers provide some of the more pleasing sights, while cougars, wolves, snakes and bears provide additional threats as you navigate the world. And this fantastic ecosystem isn't just there to bring the world to life either. Each and every animal can be killed and skinned, providing the player with items to barter at the various towns you encounter.

The landscape isn't devoid of human life either, with masses of side-missions for the player to enjoy. Very rare is any journey through this game world that won't end up with you diverting from your original objective to go and help a lawman recapture a couple of escaped convicts, or escort a young lady back to town after she has become stranded in the wilderness. And unlike GTA IV, there's an impressively amount of variety in them. Repetition still occurs, but between all of the other fun you'll be having, it doesn't feel anything like as obvious as it did in the latest GTA outing.

Saddle up!
All of which would be for nought if the game wasn't fun to play, but Rockstar San Diego delivers in this respect as well. In terms of controls, Red Dead Redemption's third-person action is very similar to that of GTA IV, although given how much the game relies on solving problems with a gun, combat has been tweaked slightly, with the run and gun while diving for cover action never feeling smoother and more response than ever before. The shooting mechanic is also aided immensely by the decision to bring back the Dead Eye function from the original Red Dead Revolver. This handy mode slows down the action, allowing the user to target specific body parts or a selection of different enemies, before cutting back to regular time and unleashing a hail of bullets in quick succession.

Of course, navigating the vast world would be hellish if it was all on foot. But this being the Wild West you soon end up with an equine chum who will be your primary mode of transport. Horses have a rather patchy history in videogames, but those offered up by Red Dead Redemption stand proudly alongside The Legend of Zelda's Epona, albeit benefiting from the kind of truly astonishing cutting-edge animation and superb handling model that the latest generation of games consoles can deliver.

I do have a couple of niggles regarding the control scheme while on horseback (okay, I never expected a horse to be quite as responsive as one of GTA's cars, but the decision to put the 'brake' on one of the right shoulder buttons rather than a face button sometimes leads to a little confusion in the heat of combat), but on the whole they're a joy to ride. So much so that even though there's an option to make a camp in the wilderness and jump straight to any waypoint you've highlighted on the map, you're more than likely to control the ride yourself simply because it's so much fun. And you end up developing quite a bond with them as well, especially those that you break in yourself, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when one is taken down from under you by a rampaging cougar or pesky pack of wolves.

Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in f' me
The inclusion of Honour and Fame stats also ensures that the game allows the player a certain amount of autonomy over how they approach the world they inhabit. If you want, you can ride around shooting everybody you see and looting corpses as you go (an optional bandana helps maintain a little anonymity), but you'll soon find yourself in trouble with the local authorities and having to bribe lawmen or pay off you bounty to get the heat off your back.

It's all tremendously enjoyable stuff, which extends the life of the game immeasurably. In addition to everything mentioned above, there are also various character ratings (Hunter, Survivalist, etc.) that encourage the usual run of travelling around trying to find a certain number of specific items or kill a certain number of animals using a specific method (killing two cougars with just your knife is a real bugger). And thanks to the diversity these offer, they never feel quite as numbing as the 'Find the Crates'-type of bonus missions that those seeking a perfect 100 per cent score are usually forced to endure.

A real thoroughbred
The game also provides a selection of obligatory online multiplayer modes. These include the traditional deathmatch and capture the flag games, plus a Free Roam mode allowing 16 players the chance to explore the entire game world and create all kinds of mayhem. It's doubtful that they'll ever challenge the likes of Modern Warfare 2 for online dominance, but they're still fun to play and the obvious progression from GTA IV's multiplayer angle shows that Rockstar is keen to learn from past endeavours and adapt its game world to create genuinely exciting and innovative multiplayer experiences in a sandbox setting.

But the multiplayer ultimately plays second fiddle to what is a tremendous single-player experience. One of the best this reviewer has had since Batman: Arkham Asylum first made its debut. For my money, the characters, story and game world make for a much more enjoyable and lasting experience than the one offered up by GTA IV (even with its extra DLC episodes), one that I'm still enjoying despite having finished the main storyline. Red Dead Redemption is the kind of game I can imagine coming back to time and time again over the next few years, as I wait for a true sequel to materialise. I only hope that Rockstar doesn't make me wait another six years this time around.

Xbox 360 (version tested), PS3, Rockstar Games, £50 approx, On sale now