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Red Dead Redemption took me to the brink of gratuitous violence. But it was the setting, people and heart rending decisions that I was left with, rather than blood and gore.
It took me a while to get round to playing Red Dead Redemption. The main thing that put me off was my experience with Grand Theft Auto IV - while I loved the openness of Paradise City I struggled with the linear nature of the missions. Don't get me wrong, I was really impressed but just couldn't quite find a way to really love it.
Red Dead Redemption was immediately different. The Wild West setting, wide open landscapes and slowly shifting daylight connected me to a world I wanted to explore, enjoy and spend time in.
John Marston was a more likeable character than Niko Bellic, or if not that, one that I thought I could better understand. He's from the same side of the tracks as Bellic, a varmint, killer, thief and drunk. But he's more obviously conflicted in his actions, and confused by the rapid changes to his world - the Wild West that is quickly being tamed by locomotive power and more modern times.
If Red Dead Redemption was a film, I don't think I could bear all these archetypal cliches, but as a game it works. Where storytelling and pacing sometimes wane, the experience as a whole is as immersive and open-ended as you could want.
As you progress, alongside a series of grizzled marshal, snake oil merchants, strong-headed woman and schizophrenic old timers, you step ever deeper into the world and are embroiled in it by your actions. The endgame may be fixed - a showdown with old Bill - but your journey towards that point is defined by how you want to play things.
The ethical lines blur even further until it is hard to distinguish right from wrong.
Things work along similar lines to Grand Theft Auto. There are the main missions that progress the story and develop both your character and community standing, then there are umpteen optional side quests where you can get lost for days. Red Dead Redemption lets you pick your own way through these various elements, but keeps the story rolling by a series of fixed points. It works well.
It is possible to charge through the game in around 15 hours, but those of a more inquiring nature will take much longer as they stop off to take in the breathtaking scenery, help towns folk, break in horses, collect bounties, play poker along with the daily grind of shooting and skinning all manner of critters in the wilderness. More obsessive players will want to explore every avenue before reaching the climax.
Other mechanics also mirror Grand Theft Auto, although the horses escape too close a comparison to GTA's car transport. Shooting has been made a little easier with the (downright unfair) Dead Eye Meter that turns even the most muddle thumbed gamer into a sharp shooter.
It's between the lines of the main story that you find Red Dead Redemption's heart. Rockstar have always been good at painting dark scenes and asking you to make of them what you will, but here the ethical lines blur even further until it is hard to distinguish right from wrong.
Red Dead Redemption is not a game for the whole family, but in a very good way.
The single-player is complemented by a strong Posse multi-player mode that lets up to eight people ride together and play organised games - or maybe just ride out into the wilderness as the sun goes down. Since release this has been augmented with strong downloadable modes. The best of these, Undead Nightmare, has been released as a stand along disc. It's a shame there isn't a local multi-player option (although the box indicates otherwise, but that's another story).
Red Dead Redemption is not a game for the whole family, but in a very good way. Although the violence sometimes feels gratuitous, it's actually an important part of the larger, and more mature, picture that the game is building.
I always left the game with memories of sunsets, conversations and difficult decisions rather than head-shots, showdowns or violence.
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