I'm not a fan of the Grand Theft Auto games, largely for their story and character content but also for the fact that if you drop me into a sandbox world where I don't care much about the story I tend to just wander about a bit then get bored. I had no intention of even checking it out until a friend told me it was a free roaming open-world game. Red Dead Redemption makes my list purely because of its world.
Content-wise RDR falls down in a few places. Spending such a large amount of time in the world naturally sees you repeating many incidental encounters (though it was a long time before I simply started shooting first when faced with another ambush), and I could have done with a lot more in terms of 'ambient challenges'. But the story is the focus of the game that Rockstar wanted to make. It's just a pity that almost everything about the story feels like a wasted opportunity.
John Marston is supposedly a fearsome man with a violent past, and although admittedly he's trying to get away from that, circumstances put him in a situation that calls upon his particular expertise. The problem is that he never really gets to show it. Marston is pushed around from pillar to post by a succession of completely despicable characters, whom you feel Marston ought to put a bullet through without a second thought. He goes along with whatever busywork they need doing - often at odds with his own character - in the service of his own ultimate goal. So the storyline betrays the character you're initially very excited about being in the shoes of, and keeps you rolling along with a series of repetitive 'Go here, kill these guys' missions. Indeed, in my desire to unlock the third and final area of the map I decided to plough through a large chunk of the Nuevo Paraiso missions in one sitting, which nearly put me off the game for good (I can see how it would become tiresome for anyone playing the game for the story, rather than despite it).
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is the climax of the story, because it's so good, and kind of shames the laziness of everything that has gone before it. Rockstar bravely lets the player settle into an almost idyllic civilian life, completely cranking down the pace of the action, which makes the end of Marston's story all the more affecting when it comes.
All that sounds like a game-killer, and quite honestly it would be were the game not so completely captivating in every other way.
I'm a sucker for a Western, you see, and RDR gave me the opportunity to exist in an incredibly well-realised chunk of the Old West. I poured close to 50 hours into a game I could have burned through in less than 20, simply because I spent so much time enjoying the scenery, the hunting and gathering, and the hugely fun and rewarding treasure hunts (I remarked many times that they could keep adding treasure maps to the game as downloadable content and I'd lap them up). I only pushed the story forward in order to open up more areas to explore. It's a genuinely beautiful game - I'd pull up my horse and spend time watching the sun set behind the mesas of Nuevo Paraiso (the game's Monument Valley analogue), or just spend hours of gametime walking about in the wilderness, swinging the camera around for the best views (and looking out for the game's fearsome cougars).
Mechanically the game is rock solid (pun probably intended). The guns feel weighty and have a great action, and the horse riding is a whole lot of fun. Hunting bears in a stormy forest at night became an experience on a par with the best survival horror. Add to that a very well considered multiplayer component and you have a gameworld that's a pleasure to drop in and spend a significant amount of time with.
So, a Rockstar open-world sandbox game with a fairly rubbish story and unlikeable cast managed to become one of my favourites of the year. I really am a sucker for a Western.