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Critics, Players Go Wild for West in ‘Red Dead Redemption’—USA Today
May, 26 2010

Mike Snider

The Old West is new again — in a video game.

Since its release last week, Red Dead Redemption ($60, for PS3 and Xbox 360, rated M for ages 17-up), from the creators of Grand Theft Auto, has corralled impressive critical reviews. The game's average rating of 95 on approaches that of 2008's GTA IV (98), considered one of the best video games ever.

It's an unlikely success story, particularly as the dusty Western genre has faded into the landscape in the entertainment world because of a lack of interest and a dearth of projects.

GAME HUNTERS: More with Rockstar Games' Dan Houser

"A lot of people were expecting this not to be as successful because of the setting," says Jesse Divnich, an analyst with Electronic Entertainment Design and Research.

Developed at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, Redemption is the fifth-best-rated Xbox 360 game of all time and has a shot at blockbuster status. "It's going to be one of the best-selling titles of the year," Divnich says, "and it's doing just as well in Europe as in North America."

In an attempt to round up an even bigger audience, Rockstar commissioned a 20- to 30-minute film about Redemption from The Road director John Hillcoat that will be broadcast Saturday night on Fox (check and for time).

Selected because the studio admired The Road and Hillcoat's The Proposition, the director had access to cinematic cut scenes as well as self-directed gameplay footage. "I wanted to have an introduction not only to the character but to the natural world, taking him through a variety of landscapes."

Redemption "is so expansive," Hillcoat says. "It goes from snowy mountains to an arid, dry desert." He used "early scenes where you get a handle of who this guy is, where he comes from. He is an outlaw who used to ride with this gang, and now he has come back to make amends."

In the game, main character John Marston is introduced during a cinematic opening that shows him escorted onto a train by two lawmen. The year is 1911. He arrives in the fictitious city of Armadillo, a growing outpost in the Texas-fashioned territory of New Austin, where bandits whom Marston is supposed to confront have holed up.

Eventually, players learn that federal agents have kidnapped Marston's wife and son, and they won't be released until Marston hunts down his former gang members. That quest allows plenty of room for players to explore territory straight out of The Searchers. "It is full of archetypal Western characters and situations," says Hillcoat, specifically noting influences from Sergio Leone's spaghetti Western films and their accompanying soundtracks by composer Ennio Morricone.

You can shoot and skin varmints, ride stagecoaches, help local lawmen fight crime, go on your own crime spree or simply ride your horse into the sunset. "I am actually very surprised at how dynamic and alive the world is that they created," says player John Lorish, 31, of Pittsburgh. "I love how side quests and strange interactions can occur at any time and point in the game, and it's up to the player to proceed how they wish."

Players can also form posses and explore Redemption in an online multiplayer mode.

Five years ago, Rockstar Games decided to migrate its pioneering Grand Theft Auto-style open world game to the Wild West. "We are always looking for interesting things to make games about — and in particular for subjects that, although popular in the rest of culture, have not been successfully made into games," says Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser, who also helped write the 1,600-page script for the game.

"Everyone assured us the Wild West was dead and of no interest to people anymore," Houser says. "So that gave us particular faith that something new and interesting could be forged out of this apparently dead subject matter."