I have to stop saying that I don't like open world games, because developers just seem to keep getting better at making them. On a growing list that includes Just Cause 2, Crackdown and Saint's Row 2, I must now grudgingly add Red Dead Redemption as a game that has managed to simultaneously create a dynamic living world and a place where I want to spend my gaming time.
I am officially packing away my "blight on the industry" handle for Rockstar and replacing it with "talented developer that can be really annoying at times." At least, until they do something new to earn my ire. I put the over-under at about three weeks for that to happen. But, for now, I must simply hang my head and admit, "My name is Sean, and I kinda love Red Dead Redemption."
Why? Stellar voice acting. Smartly written characterizations. Seemingly endless things to do. Strong gameplay mechanics. Impressive world building. An unrelenting sense of place. This is the kind of game where you may just find yourself bleary eyed with controller in hand at two in the morning having spent the past hour saying to yourself, "just this one last thing, and I can put it down for the night."
I am admittedly only eight hours into the game so far, but I've only spent maybe a quarter of that time actively pursuing the story. I keep intending to move forward, but then on the way to town to pick up the next mission I inevitably encounter settlers beset by bandits, a shootout between lawmen and highwaymen, some enterprising businessman with an interesting proposition or ten thousand other things that take me off the beaten path and demand my attention. For what should seem like a sparse landscape, the world of Red Dead Redemption feels incredibly alive, and in many ways more real than Rockstar's premiere franchise.
Maybe it's a cultural uncanny valley, but because I have only a limited preconception of what the Old West should be like, I can more easily adopt this interpretation. The hard boiled world is not one without morality or law, but a world where justice feels as equally accessible as exploitation. As opposed to Liberty City, where running over pedestrians in the street is just a part of daily business, actions feel like they have weight. The Fame and Honor system both help to create a sense of identity that is not only meaningful but manageable. I am who I make myself.
All I know is that when I'm walking the dusty street of some Western frontier town, a lawman at my side, to break up trouble at the saloon as the amber sun sets across a distant mesa, I am fulfilling some secreted away fantasy I didn't even quite know I had. This is not a caricature or parody of Old West's finest cinema and literature, as I had feared it might be. It is an homage built with loving attention.
Far from a perfect game, certainly some mini-games and side quests hold up far better than others -- herding cattle is even less fun than it sounds, for example -- but on the whole there's little excuse to spend too much time doing things you hate when there is so much room to explore and get wrapped in the world. Maybe it's because I am going into this game with so few expectations, but pleasantly surprised fails to cover it. This is simply one of the best expressions of what an open world game can be to date.
I certainly did not go into RDR expecting to fall in love, to the point of even vocally hoping I'd hate it. But, I am a big enough man to admit when I am wrong. Now, you'll have to excuse me as I still have the rest of this humble pie to finish, and by God it is bitter.