A poorly told story snakes through a truly breathtaking game world.
That is where Red Dead Redemption ultimately succeeds though. This is a world where you can ignore the story and wander aimlessly for hours on end doing your own thing, your own way, wherever you want to. It succeeds in building a framework for an endless amount of player driven experiences, something I haven't come across in such a cohesive fashion since 2006′s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I can ride off into the desert brush on the wild horse I just broke, take out my rifle and then shoot a coyote. I can then skin it and sell the hide in the nearest town. Once I'm done with that, I can check out the adobe ruins to the north where I run into bandits, who I can then run from or simply riddle with bullets. The possibilities are endless.
This is also where Red Dead Redemption ultimately fails as well. In focusing so heavily on this framework for great player driven stories, Rockstar San Diego has ignored the very basic foundation of a good single-player storyline: introducing a main character that the player cares about. Sure, John Marston is appropriately gruff, hard-edged, and violent enough to serve as a strong main character in a typical western adventure, but the primary foil for much of his adventure is something the player is never introduced to until the game is almost over – his family. You're expected to care about the fact that his family has been kidnapped by the United States government in exchange for Marston hunting down the remnants of the gang he once rode with without ever being introduced to that family in the beginning of the game. The player can't care about a wife and son they've never met. They have no visual, auditory, and emotional structure to latch onto and therefore the player doesn't have the ability to empathize with John Marston. He simply fails as a lead character on a very fundamental level.
That leaves the player's freedom to stand on its own, which of course it does just fine for what it is, but as a selling point it's ultimately hit or miss and really boils down to personal preference. If you enjoy the structure and guidance of a linear storyline this freedom will do little for you and Red Dead Redemption will feel like a mediocre dramatic western that you swear you've seen somewhere else before. If you enjoy open-world adventures games where anything goes, Red Dead Redemption will likely you keep you entertained for a good twenty or thirty hours, provided you intersperse your random wanderings with John's forgettable journey.
Fantastic visual presentation combines excellent art design with technically proficient graphic design; large, boundless world to explore filled with lots of cool things to do; hunting the game's two dozen or so wild animals species is an absolute blast; saving prostitutes from psychotic johns never gets old; the game makes you want to ignore the fast travel system and ride to every destination on your horse.
John Marston's story is predictable and forgettable, and for most players will only serve to prepare them for the real meat of the game: wandering around doing random stuff to random people in random places; bounty system used for keeping you in legal check can be obtuse and unforgiving for players using the casual aiming option; Seth and Nigel West Dickens will make you want to put a revolver to your TV.
There's almost as many glitches, bugs, and rough edges in this game as there are things to do; certain storyline duels will leave you frustrated without any guidance from the game; the last fourth of the game drags down the rest of it with its slow and tedious mission design; the game spends twenty hours talking about Marston's family and then gives you two hours near the end to care about them.