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Red Dead First Impressions: Not What I Expected

Like most of the editors here at GI, I have been looking forward to playing Red Dead Redemption for a long, long time. An open world spaghetti western from the developers of GTA is just too tantalizing to miss. I couldn’t wait to shoot people off the tops of buildings, tie damsels to train tracks, and horse-jack any frontier chump that happened to trot down the wrong dusty path.

If you haven’t played Red Dead yet, let me be clear: This game is awesome. It has all the depth I was hoping for, and I’ll be playing it nonstop for the foreseeable future. What I wasn’t expecting however, was what that gameplay would entail.

The first night I got Red Dead, I played for about three or four hours before I hung up my hat and went to bed. What amazed me about this play session (besides how gorgeous and massive the game is), is that I didn’t shoot anything the entire time – aside from a few pesky rabbits, that is. Instead of shooting up the frontier like John Wayne, I broke in some wild horses, wrangled cattle, accompanied Bonnie MacFarlane (the daughter of a rancher you'll meet early in the game) on a bandit-free wagon ride, and played a whole lot of poker – which didn’t once end in a shootout (I’ll go into more detail on Red Dead’s gambling in a later blog).

When I finally was confronted with my first criminals during a night watch mission – a pair of drunkards in a lazy fistfight – a flash of my pistol was enough to scare them off and collect my reward. If this was a GTA game, I would have already slaughtered a few dozen gang members, blown up a couple of cop cars, and – oh, I don’t know – torched a nursery full of babies or something equally ridiculous. Instead, I was living a quiet life on a ranch. Not only quiet, but an honest one, too.

I fully expected to play Red Dead like I was Billy the Kid – so how did I end up like Billy the Leave-Me-Alone-I’m-Trying-To-Pick-Wild-Flowers? For one, the game’s early missions keep you on the right side of the law. So far I haven’t been tasked with committing a single crime in Red Dead, and most of the time I’m actually working with the law to clean up crime. The missions you perform for Bonnie are even more righteous; the only delinquents you’ll run into are a few straying cattle.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ll be getting into plenty of large-scale firefights too, and I was pleasantly surprised at how satisfying the gun play is. But unlike the GTA games, these introductory missions established John Marston as a character I actually cared about, and wanted to do right by.

Along with the missions, Red Dead’s story has also had a significant impact on how I’ve been playing the game. Rockstar’s games are always rated M, but I’d say Red Dead is the first of their games that has actually felt mature to me, by being about more than just shooting things. Rockstar establishes John's principles early in the game (he politely declines a prostitute's advances, stating he's a happily married man), and he isn't afraid to talk about how much his family means to him. Although the game’s delivery feels a little forced at times (it doesn’t take John long to spill his heart out to Bonnie, even during the middle of a horse race), his goal of redeeming past mistakes and returning to his family has thus far curbed my penchant for creating chaos.

In fact, in the beginning I found myself being more forgiving than the law: One random event I came across involved a deputy chasing down two criminals who had ambushed and killed a man on a wagon (they even shot his horses, the savages!). I immediately rode off after them, but being a reformed criminal and all, I decided to take them back alive. It was considerably more work; after chasing them down and tying them up, I had to lug each of them back separately. Imagine my surprise when, after being paid by the deputy for my hard work, he simply turned around and shot them both on the ground, then limped away. My effort to do the right thing proved to be futile, but I was impressed nonetheless: Rockstar managed to instill a greater sense of morality in me than the law exhibited – which is often your main adversary in the developer’s usual offerings. Despite being set in the Wild West, I feel a lot more civilized playing Red Dead than any GTA game. I have, however, started shooting a lot more criminals – I'm civilized, not a saint.

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