For years it seemed as if no-one in Hollywood could make a successful pirates movie. Sure, if you looked back to the 1930s there was Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and a whole bunch of other swashbucklers – but in the second half of the Twentieth Century? Nothing but duds. From Roman Polanski’s Pirates to Cutthroat Island, via numerous versions of Treasure Island, no-one managed to nail the formula, to deliver the quintessential pirate blockbuster. There seemed to be no hope for the genre… and then along came Gore Verbinski with Pirates of the Caribbean. It tore up the box office, won millions of fans and reinvigorated Johnny Depp’s career. Jack Sparrow became a global icon: go to any fancy dress party and you’ll find someone who looks like Russell Brand on a killing spree… only without the suspect trouser stains.
Why do I say all this? Because Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption is the Pirates of the Caribbean of cowboy games.
It’s true. We’ve had a few decent rootin’ tootin’ howdy-em-ups over the years – Gun, Call of Juarez, the original Red Dead Revolver – but none of these efforts ever felt like the genuine article. Perhaps more importantly, from an industry perspective at least, they never seemed to win the heart of the gaming public. With the release of Red Dead Redemption I think things are going to change. The words “Grand Theft Auto” may be absent from the title, but Rockstar’s pedigree is well known even among non-gamers – and on top of that, the release is being backed by a massive marketing campaign. More pertinently, the game itself is absolutely spectacular.
The sheer quality of Red Dead Redemption is evident right from the word go. After a moody intro sequence, former outlaw John Marston steps off a steam train and into the dusty town of Armadillo. Within seconds of the player assuming control, a drunk staggers out of the local saloon and falls flat on his face. In the grand scheme of things it’s a tiny, insignificant moment, but to a certain extent it says a lot about the game as a whole. It’s a nice little detail for starters, one that recalls the flavour and tone of countless Western movies. On a more technical level, it’s also beautifully animated. It might seem strange for me to enthuse about a digital drunkard falling over, but when the guy tumbles to the dirt, it just feels right. This is a game where people fall over a lot, usually just after you’ve put a bullet or three between their eyes, and stuff like this matters.
A lot of people are probably wondering whether Red Dead Redemption is simply GTA IV with horses and funny hats. There’s some truth to this idea: for all the improvements to the engine and game design – and there are many – the basic framework is very familiar. There’s the usual downtrodden protagonist – a violent but principled underdog, surrounded by thugs and oddball scoundrels. There are the quest-dispensing NPCs, laden with dodgy-sounding promises, and there’s the near limitless array of side quests and distractions. Once again there’s also a huge open world playground to explore, but this time it really is open.
Since 2008, GTA IV’s Liberty City has been the high water mark for sandbox game environments. The combined plains of Red Dead Redemption’s New Austin and Mexico form a very different world, but there’s no denying that they trump their urban predecessor on several fronts. Your surroundings are astonishingly beautiful at times, and when you ride to the top of a high crest of land you may find yourself pausing for a moment just to admire the sweeping grandeur of it all – the forests, deserts and canyons, and the pockets of human presence: a wooden shanty town in the distance, or a lone steam train crawling across the horizon. John Marston may be the (anti)hero of the story, but there’s no doubt that the world itself is the star of the show.