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Why Red Dead Redemption was worth buying a console to play

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This may come as a shock, so I hope you’re sitting down or at least standing in the vicinity of a fainting couch: I prefer playing games on PC over consoles. This doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of living room boxes over the years: I’ve had plenty. But they’ve gone relatively unused except for the occasional loaned game or party game.

On two occasions I bought a console specifically to play a certain game. The first was the N64, which I bought to play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The the second was a (refurbished) Xbox 360 for Red Dead Redemption. Since we’re on the brink of what appears to be the formal announcement of a new Red Dead game, here’s why buying a console just for Red Dead was completely worth it. 

You could shoot people in the middle of a poker game

I feel like my little list could begin and end right here. I’m not even joking: legitimately, this is the main reason Red Dead was so great. In the middle of a poker game, if things weren’t going your way, you could drop your cards, stand up, and hose everyone at the table down. Bad beat? Bluff called? Just plain bored? There’s simply no better way before or since to be a sore loser in a game than by fanning your six shooter over that card table. Beats the hell out of spamming ‘Wow’ in Hearthstone.

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Treasure hunts

The open worlds of today’s games are overstuffed with icons showing you exactly where you need to go. NPCs, lacking confidence in your ability to follow simple directions, reach directly into your pants to mark locations on your map. Exploration can feel a little like a guided tour with all the local attractions jammed into your minimap and glowing arrows gouging a path to your goal because god forbid you spend even ten seconds looking around for your objective.

Red Dead’s treasure hunts were a breath of fresh (though dusty) air. The treasure maps were hand-drawn on a scrap of faded, yellowing paper. Maybe the map would show a few boulders, a fence, a church, a path, or some rock formation, plus an X marking the spot. But that was it. Once you had the scrap of map, you were on your own to figure out where the hell you were supposed to go.

This led to hours of exploration. Sometimes the drawing would look familiar and you’d desperately try to remember where you saw a certain stone formation, and ride around for ages hoping to spot it again. There were also eureka moments when you spotted something on the horizon that you knew you’d seen on a treasure map. And, even when you found the landmark, there was still plenty of searching to find the exact spot the treasure was buried.
I honestly can’t remember what the treasure even was, because searching for it was the actual reward. It was a wonderful excuse to simply explore the world, a hand-drawn mystery that kept you on the lookout during your travels.

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Rockstar showed some subtlety for a change

I’m not talking about the violence of Red Dead: there were plenty of way over-the-top gunfights where you’d leave entire armies of enemies dead. As a bit of world-building, though, RDR was far more subtle with its themes than the obnoxiously blatant and transparent commentary on American culture in the GTA games. 

Rather than capturing a certain city or state, the world of RDR comprised of all of North America, from Canada to Mexico, and it presented a world in transition. The wild west was fading, technology was arriving, and its effects could be seen in the more modern towns like Blackwater, which had streetlamps, telephone lines, uniformed policemen, and even an automobile. The further you headed west, the less and less evidence you saw of the rapidly approaching future.

As Marston you’re something of a throwback, an aging cowboy whose world is quickly being overwritten. At the same time, your dark and bloody outlaw past, the very thing that is becoming obsolete, makes you the perfect tool for the mission of hunting down and exterminating your old partners. It’s not exactly new territory, the reformed criminal being forced back into a life of violence and murder, but it’s handled with a much lighter touch than, say, Michael constantly screaming about being dragged back into crime in GTA 5.

There wasn’t any crafting in it

You could hunt and skin animals, and even pick flowers and herbs, but this was just for challenges, side-missions, or to sell for cash. You didn’t have to, like, make a wallet out of bear skins or a bandolier out of buffalo butts or anything. Imagine that! An open world game with no crafting! Beautiful.

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That song when you ride to that place

When you ride your horse into Mexico for the first time, José González’s Far Away begins playing. I don’t know if it was just my personal experience or if it happened for everyone the same way, but for me this ride took place as the sun was setting and there were no interruptions: no random NPCs stopping me, no attacks from animals, nothing but me riding into a crimson sunset with the end of the song perfectly timed with my arrival. A great gaming moment, calming and contemplative among the carnage. I’m rarely emotionally moved while playing games, and I wasn’t moved here either because I’m super tough and macho. But it was really pleasant.

Another good song by González is Stay in the Shade.

You got to give someone a tutorial

I know the game has been out for ages, but I’ll still avoid spoilers here. Toward the end of RDR you begin teaching another character how to do the things you’ve learned through your journey. It was odd, at first, and I initially wondered “Why am standing here watching an AI-controlled NPC learning how to do basic shit? Don’t I have better things to be doing, like murdering a room full of people because I didn’t get that flush draw?” But I eventually realized I was acting as a tutorial for this other character, which was an interesting reversal and actually a bit of a bonding experience.

This, by the way, was all part of an extended ending to the game that wasn’t a real surprise, but it was so drawn out it became extremely tense simply waiting for the other cowboy boot to drop.

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I’m always thirsty for Westerns

Since LucasArt’s FPS Outlaws (opens in new tab), I’ve had a hunger for good western games, and there have been a few here and there. Overall, though, it feels like a neglected genre, and I was willing to buy a console just to play one. It’s one reason why post-apocalyptic games are so compelling, I imagine: they represent a sort of future Wild West. Everyone is filthy and scrounging, there’s rampant lawlessness, there’s guns on hips and rifles slung over shoulders, and there are tiny pockets of civilization among an otherwise barren wasteland. Plus, you can shoot someone down over the slightest offense (like not getting a flush draw).

That’s why the prospect of a new western game, especially in the Red Dead series, has me excited, but let me be perfectly clear: while buying a console just to play Redemption was absolutely worth it, I ain’t doing it again. No matter how good the new game might eventually look, my Xbox 360, gently deteriorating under a layer of dust in my entertainment center, will not be joined by its younger cousin.

Rockstar has proven it can make games for the PC with Max Payne 3 and GTA 5, even if it they a bit of extra time, so there's no reason not to deliver their cowboys to our desktops. If the next Red Dead doesn’t come to PC, I’ll just dress Trevor up in leather chaps, head to a patch of dirt in Grand Senora Desert, shoot at some coyotes, and call it a day.

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.