As you ride the train west from the northern city of Blackwater, you have no idea what's waiting for you in the frontier town of Armadillo at the end of Red Dead Redemption's intro sequence. Conversations between other passengers clue you in to the state of the nation, and a quick look out of the window tells you that the territories are as untamed as they are beautiful. But it's not until you step off the train in the well-worn boots of protagonist John Marston and have to sidestep a drunk staggering out of the saloon that you realize how alive the world feels, and how much fun you're going to have exploring it. Similarities with recent Grand Theft Auto games are immediately apparent in the controls and the HUD, though both have been improved in subtle but important ways. Those basics, in conjunction with excellent gameplay, a great story, and a sizable multiplayer suite make Red Dead Redemption something very special.
6262923NoneShooting from mounts and wagons works every bit as well as shooting on foot.
When you arrive in Armadillo for the first time, you're a small fish in an extremely large pond. None of the townsfolk have ever heard of John Marston, and they're too busy believably going about their business to pay you much attention unless you bump into them. The gameworld stretches for miles in every direction beyond the confines of the modest town, and if it weren't for a number of mandatory missions that deftly familiarize you with the controls and gameplay mechanics early on, the prospect of venturing out into the wilderness could be daunting. Marston is a deeply flawed but very likable protagonist, and therefore it doesn't take long for him to start making friends in the New Austin territory. One of them, a ranch owner whom you meet early in the game, gives you both a place to stay (which doubles as a place to save your progress) and a horse to call your own, and it's at this point that you're more or less free to do as you please. Marston's lengthy and occasionally surprising story is linear for the most part, but it's told through missions that don't always need to be completed in a specific order, and you're free to ignore them for a time if you'd rather just explore the giant Wild West sandbox you're playing in.
Whether you're galloping between locations where there are missions available or just trotting around aimlessly, Red Dead Redemption's world is a far easier one to get sidetracked in than most. That's because in addition to the dozens of excellent and varied story missions, there are countless optional undertakings to enjoy--most of which offer some tangible reward in the form of money, weapons, or reputation. While you're in town, you might choose to gamble at card and dice tables or tear a wanted poster from the wall and do some bounty hunting, for example. And when you're in the middle of nowhere, opportunities for gunfights and the like have a habit of presenting themselves or even forcing themselves upon you. Random strangers in need of help can show up at any time, and while it's a little jarring to find two or three strangers in the same predicament back-to-back, most of their requests are varied and fun for the short time that they take to complete. You might be called upon to retrieve a stolen wagon, to collect herbs, or even to rescue someone being hanged from a tree. There's no penalty for ignoring strangers, but when you help them you collect a small reward and become a little more famous in the process.
When accompanying other characters, you can easily match your speed to theirs.
Fame is interesting in Red Dead Redemption, because it's measured alongside but independently of your honor. Regardless of whether you're doing good deeds or bad, becoming increasingly famous is inevitable as you progress through the game. How people react when they recognize you is determined by your honor, though, which can be positive or negative. If you spend your time acting dishonorably, townsfolk might be terrified of you, but if you're considered a hero, they'll go out of their way to greet you and might even applaud as you ride into town. Either way, there are pros and cons to becoming something of a public figure. People won't bother to report you when you steal a horse if you're famous, and any bounty hunters or posses that come after you when there's a price on your head will take twice as long to try again after failing the first time, for example. On the flip side, as you make a name for yourself you become a target for gunslingers who are looking to make names for themselves, and so you're challenged to duels that play out entirely using the game's slow-motion "dead eye" mechanic.
In duels, even though speed is a factor, dead eye affords you an opportunity to place your shots precisely. The head is the most obvious target, but occasionally you might be required to (or wish to) win a duel without actually killing your opponent. With practice, you can shoot a gun out of an enemy's hand as he makes his move, which is especially satisfying and makes you more famous than killing someone outright. Dead eye can be used in much the same way during regular play, but a slowly replenishing meter limits how often you can trigger it, and given how effective the lock-on targeting system is, you're unlikely to need it much. With the exception of sniper rifles, you can lock on to enemies from a great distance with any weapon. Then, once you're locked on, you can tweak your aim to target a specific part of your enemy. Nudge your aim up just a touch, and there's a good chance you'll get a one-hit-kill headshot. (You do that so often that it's likely to become a reflex every time you raise your weapon). However, you don't always want to kill your enemies, because, for example, once you learn to use a lasso, you have the option to bring bounties in alive. It's more challenging, but it also doubles your reward, and it's extremely satisfying to shoot a criminal in the leg so that he falls to ground and can only try to crawl away, hog-tie and slump him over the back of your horse, and then deliver him to the local sheriff.
Breaking a wild horse isn't nearly as hard as it looks, even in the middle of the night.
You can also use your lasso to rope wild horses, which is a fun way to upgrade or just replace the mount that you spend so much time with. After catching a wild horse, you wait for just the right moment to mount it and then, via a simple minigame in which you maintain your balance as the horse tries to buck you, you break it. Initially, you might want to change your horse just to get a color that you like (there are lots to choose from), but it's also fun to keep a lookout for rare breeds, because they not only look a little more impressive but are also noticeably quicker. Regardless of what kind of horse you ride (including those that are pulling carts and wagons), the responsive controls work in the same way and make it easy to adjust your speed from a walk to a trot, canter, or gallop. You also have the option to match your speed with that of any character you're riding alongside, which is incredibly useful.
As you spend more time with the same horse, it rewards your loyalty by increasing the length of its energy bar, which determines how long it can sprint at full speed. You shouldn't become too attached to your mounts, though, because Red Dead Redemption's world is both a dangerous place and one in which horses occasionally behave unpredictably. There's nothing wrong with a horse walking around a little when you climb off it, but if you leave it close to a deep river, you run the risk of losing it if--as we witnessed on one occasion--it stupidly steps in, because, like you, horses can't swim. Horses also have a habit of not staying put when you tie them to a hitching post, so you then need to whistle for them to come to you from wherever they've ended up or run the risk of inadvertently stealing someone else's identical mount. Other, more avoidable ways to lose a horse include its getting shot by enemies or attacked by wild animals, though the controls for shooting from the saddle are good enough that you really have only yourself to blame if that happens.
Red Dead Redemption's varied wildlife adds a great deal to the world and also makes it a dangerous place to let your guard down. Crows, hawks, eagles, and vultures fly overhead; armadillos, raccoons, deer, and skunks try to stay out of your way; and cougars, coyotes, wolves, and even snakes can be dangerous if they see you before you see them. All of these species and lots more inevitably cross your path, and whether they're solitary creatures or hunting as a pack, their behavior is always believable. Furthermore, all of these animals can be hunted and then--via an animation that sees blood spattering on the screen--harvested for their skins, meat, and other valuable body parts. Beavers, boars, bobcats, bears, buffalo, bighorn--all have something to offer, and all pose a slightly different challenge.