Reviewing a game like Red Dead Redemption is no easy task. Reviewing a open sandbox game is a bit like reviewing a road trip. You start the car, pull out of the driveway and everything that happens between home and your destination is an experience. Compounded in the equation is the fact that Red Dead is set in the American Wild West, a period in history and lore that I’m especially fond of. Reviewing “the West” would be a bit like trying to tell John Wayne he needs to have “more grit”. These are things you simply don’t do.

So, if the game is defined by your experience of playing it, in a classical setting, what you’re really reviewing is mechanics and gameplay, which is fine, but doesn’t really cover the meat of the issues. I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that I can extol all the awesome virtues of this game, but you’re really going to have to play it to get that authentic feel for it.

Where I think RDR shines the most is probably in it’s environment and landscape design. This game is absolutely stunning. Beautiful landscapes, dotted with trees and underbrush, cactus. Hills and valleys that range from scorching hot desert floor to snow capped mountains. A weather system that progresses not just from day to night but from rain to shine, cloudy, foggy, and all back again. The wildlife also needs to be mentioned in the same discussion. While some of it will do it’s best to try and eat you, creatures ranging from rabbits and skunks to larger elk and horses roam free and wild and can be easily hunted, ignored, or just appreciated as part of the landscape.

There have been several instances where I’ve been roaming about the country-side, looking for some plant or animal to complete a challenge and I stop at the top of a hill and watch the sun come up. No, I’m not kidding. It’s seriously that impressive. Whoever designed that system at Rockstar needs to be given a raise, a corner office and a huge ass bonus.

An extension of the environments and the wildlife are the horses. Now, I’m not a “country guy”, I don’t own a ranch, or cattle or a large hat, but I appreciate the beauty of an animal like a horse. Rockstar certainly paid attention to detail in terms of our four-legged friends. The physics and appearance of the horses is nearly flawless. The horse AI (now that’s a phrase you don’t hear too often) is a tad jumpy and tends to wonder away from you while you’re busy doing something, but that’s hardly an issue. If I unloaded a shotgun into a group of bad guys I’d kind of expect my horse to back up a little, it’s at least a natural reaction.

Speaking of unloading shotguns, the core shooting and moving mechanics are also pretty solid. RDR uses a basic Gears of War style cover system, with a combination of zoom and lock-on firing mechanics. You can use the left-bumper to lock onto a target and you’ll stay pretty well aimed at them unless you jerk the cross-hairs in another direction. The trick is scoring headshots. Since the auto-lock feature targets the middle of an enemy, there’s a fine art to “nudging” the aim slightly further north to dispatch enemies with more efficiency. There’s also the compulsory “bullet-time” mode called Dead Eye which, while you may cringe at the thought of another bullet-time effect, actually seems perfectly in-tune with the game. A seasoned gun fighter from the old west is actually the perfect person that I’d expect to have expert and controlled aim in the blink of an eye. Slowing down time, picking your shots and then accelerating time again while the shots are fired fulfills every guys internal “cowboy” appreciation meter.

The story is also finely crafted and although it has some minor annoyances here and there, is for the most part very compelling and quite enjoyable. I sped through the majority of it rather quickly and with the exception of some minor grinding missions (collect 10 specific flowers?) the missions were well spaced and moved the main storyline along rather nicely. Again, some minor repetitive “go here and get X” sorts of things, but those are practically a staple of most open world games. I did however, really enjoy the gang hideout missions. Essentially, you’re heading into a well know hostile area, filled with gang members who don’t really welcome trespassers, and your job is simply to clear them out. These missions are fun little “horde-mode” style frag fests and can be completed over and over again should you not be able to get enough enjoyment out of blasting 50+ bandits hold up in a missionary the first time.

Characters themselves are well acted, well written and with the exception of Bonny McFarland saying “Mr. Marston” over and over again, are an excellent addition to the story. I was actually quite proud of Rockstar for not making our main character, John Marston, into a womanizing, whore-house visiting cattle rustler. Actually, the opportunity isn’t even available. When you’re in a town and a lady of the night walks by, your character says something to the effect of “No thank you, I’m a married man”. Given Rockstar’s history with that sort of topic, especially in the GTA series, I had expected the worst (or at least similar) and I was pleasantly surprised.

That brings us to the quirks. If you know anything about me at all it’s that I love to point out any little tiny negative I can get my hands on. Honestly, I had to try really hard with this one. It’s been a long long time since I’ve played a game this good.

One small annoyance was the cover system I had previously mentioned. You’re introduced to it after a couple missions and you’re told to use it but there seems to be a lack of “grab” related to it. In Gears of War or any of the hundreds of games to use a similar cover system, pressing the button near a box “sucks” you into that box, and you use it as a wall. In RDR, you need to be directly next to the object, basically already taking cover behind it. The only real advantage to using it is to toggle in and out of aiming without getting killed. Releasing the object/wall/etc is also rather tricky, sometimes it works, sometimes you jump to the next closest object, sometimes you turn around awkwardly or even start to run. Personally I think this is more a problem with games using a single button to do too many things rather than a cover-system problem, but it exists and is worth mentioning.

Also, as I mentioned before, the horses tend to be a bit tricky in tight spaces, as you’d imagine they might be, but they’re also tricky around objects in the wild. I’ve had instances where, cantering slowly towards the hitching post results in jumping over it and the reverse as well, coming in at full speed only to have you horse hit a fence like a ton of bricks rather than jumping over (which is something that’s controlled automatically). Then there are a few occasional graphics glitches. The game is loading so many models and textures when you’re out roaming the country side that occasionally you’ll get weird things like birds that spawn with the model of a rabbit. I’ve even seen videos of flying people and donkey-women.

Trust me though, if those are all I could come up with for complaints, this one is solidly in “Game of the Year” territory. It’s the kind of game you pick up regardless of your interest in the genre. Everything from the visuals to the game play to the little touches like the soundtrack and weather systems are well polished and nearly perfected, and we haven’t even talked about the multiplayer yet. I won’t bore you with the details, but it’s fun. A lot of fun. It’s slightly harder to get into when playing in a public game, but when you get a couple of your friends together and clean out a bandit hideout, it’s near co-op perfection.

You know I don’t normally assign scores or anything, but this is seriously an A++ game. 99/100, 5-stars. It’s good. Go get it!