Red Dead Redemption distinguished itself in a number of ways on the road to earning the nod as Game of the Year. Though easy, it does the game a disservice to explain away its success as nothing more than favorable response to the Western theme wrapped around the proven Grand Theft Auto formula. Yes, the romanticism of riding the range as a notorious gunslinger turned out to hold a powerful appeal, but so many parts contributed to creating that experience.
Red Dead eased us into its world like the greenhorns we were. The first few hours felt like a virtual dude ranch; we learned to ride horses, rope and break wild stallions, herd cattle, and shoot a six iron. While picking up these tools for frontier survival we also got acquainted with our main character, John Marsten. Through references we know he was a bad man but to some degree or other has turned over a new leaf, whether by coercion, or perhaps a genuine change of heart. His persona leaves much of that choice up to the way we handle his business over the course of the game.
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Throughout the adventure, Red Dead does an excellent job of keeping Marsten's main story arc at the forefront of the action. The relatively lengthy journey meanders a bit in places--notably bogging down in Mexico--but returns to form for a strong conclusion. It then does something few games do; delivering a true denouement that brings the game to a satisfying finish.
Not that the game need ever end. Like other open world games there's a lot to do in Red Dead Redemption and all of it fits naturally into the world. There are the basics like a variety of gambling games to play, more organic distractions such as hunting the various wildlife like deer and bears, and clever spontaneously occurring roadside encounters that help create the illusion of it being a living world. And when the mood strikes, grab a couple friends and hop online to "posse up" in this virtual Wild West. All these parts working together made Red Dead Redemption the Shacknews Game of the Year.