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Red Dead Redemption's epic trip to Mexico is still a masterpiece in sandbox storytelling

(Image credit: Rockstar)

I'm back playing the original Red Dead Redemption and have just been called "feck ugly" by a whisky-nosed Irishman. By this point, my rugged friend has been unreliable at best in his bid to help me battle some of the Old West's most formidable foes – but as I watch him mount his steed and disappear over the crest of a grassy hill on the outskirts of Nuevo Paraiso, I can't help feeling a wee bit sad. I will never see this man again. And so, when the plucky guitar chords and soft spoken lyrics of indie folk singer Jose Gonzalez's 'Far Away' kick into gear, my teary eyes empty faster than a thirsty horse's water trough. 

As I reach the summit of the same peak, the sky opens up before me. Clouds spread like cracks in porcelain, and the winding dirt tracks, valleys and riverways that stretch out ahead all lead to the same place: Mexico. Earlier this year, news that Rockstar reportedly canned GTA 4 and Red Dead Redemption remasters emerged, with the developer said to have chosen "not to proceed with the projects in mind" for reasons unknown. Having spoken to the GTA 4 community keeping Liberty City alive on PS3 in 2022, I was equally keen to revisit Red Dead Redemption and write about how well it stands up well over a decade since launch. In doing so, I expected to return refreshed and armed with mission-related anecdotes, and complimentary chatter regarding how well it fuses comedy with serious dialogue, how real and credible its world feels, and how cool its slant on the series' signature slow-motion Dead Eye targeting system still is today. 

All of this remains true, but away from its high-stakes shoot-outs and engrossing narrative, this set-piece is Red Dead Redemption at its very best. Moreover, despite it now being over 12 years old, that trek to Chuparosa is still one of the most gripping moments in any video game I've played to this day.

Home on the range

(Image credit: Rockstar)

'The journey' as a theme and concept plays such a big part in so many games, not least those that unfold within sprawling worlds. The moment you emerge from Vault 101 in Fallout 3, squinting in natural light for the very first time, is timeless and marks the start of the hero's journey into the post-apocalypse. BioShock's "Would You Kindly" exchange is another show-stopper that signifies the beginning of the end for Jack in Rapture. Joel and Ellie's thoughtful encounter with wildlife in the closing stretch of The Last of Us offers scant reprieve in the face of so, so much death. And Sable captures the buzz and fear of leaving home like few other open-world games before it. 

Here, John Marston's trip to Mexico marks a transition – both in story and character terms. The game's narrative moves from its first to second chapter, and literally shifts its action to an as yet undiscovered and unplundered section of the map. By this stage, Marston has been through a lot, he's killed many people and has watched many of his companions expire, but he's still got a long way to go. If Red Dead Redemption were a theatrical production, the journey to Mexico would be an intermission; a chance to catch your breath before the inevitable twists and turns of its second act. 

As we well know, Rockstar games are renowned for their official music licensing, but I can't think of a single melody more perfectly placed and executed than Jose Gonzalez's 'Far Away' here. 'Billie Jean' on that first scooter ride in Vice City, and Dr Dre's new music inside a casino penthouse party in GTA 5's The Contract come close, but neither hits the same heights. For me, that's partly because those songs fit those timelines, and while I've always found the anachronistic inclusion of the Arctic Monkeys and Nick Cave in period drama Peaky Blinders to be a wee bit jarring, for example, just hearing 'Far Away' in this context – filling the shoes of a troubled man roving the American Frontier on horseback – evokes imagery of campfire gatherings suited to the era.

Something to write home about

(Image credit: Rockstar)

"If GTA 4 set the table, then Red Dead Redemption served a hog roast, setting a new standard very few games have since surpassed even now."

Looking over your shoulder the entire time, you expect something big to happen en route to Chuparosa. An ambush, a firefight, a runaway train, something. But nothing happens. It's just you, your horse, and the wilderness. When we speak about journeys, Red Dead Redemption's ending is up there with the most shocking – but the fact that something far more sedentary can become the focus of discussion, I think, speaks volumes for the power and gravity of that interlude, and for the game's quieter moments generally, over and above its more obvious attention-grabbing ones. 

It's also worth remembering that Red Dead Redemption arrived just two years after GTA 4, the latter of which revolutionised the open-world sandbox genre in 2008, with some of the most realistic visuals we'd ever seen, and one of the most credible playgrounds we'd been allowed to explore. If GTA 4 set the table, then Red Dead Redemption served a hog roast, setting a new standard very few games have since surpassed even now. Red Dead Redemption 2 is undoubtedly one of the prettiest games of all time at this point, but its predecessor still holds up very well as a free-to-stream PS Plus Premium title in 2022 – one that I've thoroughly enjoyed re-sinking my teeth into. Having now moved onto its Undead Nightmare DLC, I reckon it's now time to let its hordes of cowboy zombies re-sink their teeth into me. 


Struggling to make yourself at home on the range? Check out our Red Dead Redemption 2 guide

Features Writer, GamesRadar+

Joe is a Features Writer at GamesRadar+. With over five years of experience working in specialist print and online journalism, Joe has written for a number of gaming, sport and entertainment publications including PC Gamer, Edge, Play and FourFourTwo. He is well-versed in all things Grand Theft Auto and spends much of his spare time swapping real-world Glasgow for GTA Online’s Los Santos. Joe is also a mental health advocate and has written a book about video games, mental health and their complex intersections. He is a regular expert contributor on both subjects for BBC radio. Many moons ago, he was a fully-qualified plumber which basically makes him Super Mario.