Open world games tend to be hit or miss, depending on a lot of different factors. The more prevalent factors are the amount of content filling the world, the purpose of opening up the world in the first place, as well as its overall design. Because of the fact that many games haven't utilised the space they've been given well, many gamers have slowly become sceptical when the term 'open world' is used in promotional material for seemingly grand games.
Despite this, there are masterfully crafted gems to be found, and you don't even have to look very hard to find them. In a recent entry in this very series, we mentioned the world of CD Projekt Red's The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and in this entry, we're moving on from a fantasy realm into the more realistic setting of Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption and its sequel.
There's no doubt in anyone's mind at this point that Rockstar knows how to build an open-world game. We've been blown away by the studio's work in the genre since the millennium shift, with the developer unleashing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the numbered instalments IV and V, as well as the game that turned the clock back a good long while yet kept the life of crime as its focus - Red Dead Redemption.
Red Dead Redemption's announcement was met with some scepticism from fans who had become accustomed to the modern setting, contemporary weapons, the vehicles, as well as the light yet serious tone of the GTA series. The scepticism, however, was proven to be misplaced, as Rockstar would come to show that it could tackle any narrative, tone, era or setting. The sceptics were soon blown away by the depth of Red Dead Redemption and those who had gone into it with an open mind were not disappointed.
Red Dead Redemption took a turn away from the somewhat comical undertone of the GTA series that fans had grown used to, offering a heartwrenching narrative about a lifelong outlaw trying to set things right after making a deal with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Along the journey across the plains of the US-inspired continent and later over the border into Mexico, the player would control the regretful, righteous John Marston on his way to redemption in the eyes of the state and his family. Not only was John, his family, strangers who would become friends, and his former gang led by the idealistic yet morally corrupt Dutch Van der Linde, incredibly well portrayed, but all of the characters were so well-written that they felt like actual people and added to the emotional narrative.
As with the case of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Red Dead Redemption filled its world with optional yet story-linked side objectives that were spread out across a world you had the option to fully explore. The design of the map of Red Dead Redemption was truly grand, unlike most games that came out during that time. The world was varied, stunningly beautiful with groundbreaking graphics that hold up somewhat to this day. No location was unimportant and the so-called stranger missions added to the game immensely. These, as well as the secrets spread across the world, added an additional incentive to explore and some optional mission arcs even spanned the entire game. Another addition, which was less utilised at the time, was random encounters. These were unexpected, unscripted scenarios that could appear as one traversed the map. Because each addition gave substance to the game, its grand narrative never got halted by exploration.
After close to a decade of eager fans waiting patiently for a sequel, Red Dead Redemption 2 released in November of 2018, to the delight of fans and critics alike.
Red Dead Redemption 2 followed the life of a new protagonist, Arthur Morgan, and was set in the midst of the Van der Linde gang's outlaw escapades. This meant that players who were new to the series could get just as immersed as those who had played the first game eight years earlier. The series veterans would, however, come to learn more about the personalities of the other gang members and the reasons for the strained relationships between them. Apart from this, we learned more about John Marston, his wife Abigail and his son Jack, and their life in and escape from gang life.
Much like the original, Red Dead Redemption 2 pushed boundaries, both technical and story-related, with its phenomenal narrative and equally grand world design. Many aspects stayed the same at their core but were elevated and upgraded with the passing of time and evolving of technology in those intervening eight years, and, as one could imagine, technology had come a long way. One could argue that the two games were groundbreaking in the exactly the same way because even though most core aspects had stayed the same, Red Dead Redemption 2 ended up making a similar impact to the one made by its predecessor.
The setting was, on Rockstar's part, incredibly smart. It introduced characters anew, making for a game that all could play, prompting first-timers to revisit the original while also pulling on the heartstrings of old-timers by showing Marston's growth and the process of his redemption (despite the protagonist being someone else the second time around). The environments were exceptionally detailed and absolutely beautiful, and the scenarios that were bound to happen, as well as the optional ones, made exploring a joy rather than a chore.
Rockstar is surely one of if not the most capable studio in the world when it comes to tackling open-world design, and Red Dead Redemption, as well as its 2018 sequel, stand as two of the best examples we can think of. The fact that they practically bookend the decade is a great opportunity to reflect on just how far we've come since 2010, and the distance between these two great games has us excited about the kinds of open-world experiences we might be having come 2030.