So Rockstar is finally making a new cowboy game. Huzzah! Regardless of whether it’s called Red Dead Redemption 2, Red Dead 3 (hey, Revolver counts… kinda) or Red Dead: Zombie John Marston’s Revenge, it’ll undoubtedly be a wonderful virtual Western. But can it hope to fully match its illustrious predecessor? After all, John’s epic open world had a seismic impact on the sandbox genre; penning a beautifully sombre note to the dying throes of the Old West across a map that ticked off every great frontier trope.
Judging by that leaked Red Dead map, it looks like Rockstar’s next cowboy classic could be a prequel to Redemption, a decision which makes total thematic sense. Spoiler: Marston dies in 1911, his untimely demise marking the end of the era of the outlaw as civilization (and the automobile) slaughter the days of swinging saloon doors and XXX whiskey. There ain’t a whole lot left to say about the final days of the American Frontier.
That’s why it’s so important the next Red Dead finds its own voice, and crucially, its own distinct era. Luckily, there’s plenty left to say about the Old West’s 19th century heyday; an era defined by the American Gold Rush and a sense of pioneering discovery. That and, y’know, dudes in ponchos blasting the crap out of each other at high noon.
This feels like the ideal setting for the next Red Dead. Picture a map dotted with unexplored markers; each icon representing an undiscovered patch of wilderness for your aspiring frontiersman to colonise. Capture an oil deposit. Mine the land. Make a tonne of dollars. Uh… beat a distraught preacher to death with a bowling pin, then suggest he slurp up your milkshake.
Considering Rockstar’s well documented obsession with stuffing movie references into its works, would you really be surprised if Red Dead 3 went all Daniel Plainview on us and centred on competing oil barons who are violently vying for petroleum deposits? Say, with an empire-building system like the one in GTA: Vice City Stories?
If the carbonite cool developer set the game slightly later in the 19th century, though, one huge advantage quickly roars into view… you could play as a young John Marston! In RDR, much is made of John’s wayward past. Throughout his teens and early twenties, the charismatic cowboy was a key cog in a savage gang. He and his outlaw buddies - like Bill Williamson and Dutch van der Linde - murdered, stole and pillaged, which sounds like an ideal setup for a campaign built around old timey gang wars and multi-tiered, GTA 5 inspired bank robberies.
Roll back the clock even further, and there’s scope to play as Marston’s Scottish-American pop - a man John described as someone who, “if you ever spoke to him, you’d think he only ate haggis and wore a kilt.” According to Red Dead canon, Marston Snr popped his clogs in 1881 (possibly in a bar brawl), yet even if he met an undignified end, my inner Highlander can’t help but dig the idea of playing an immigrant cowboy with a slight Scottish accent.
Either that, or let me play as Bonnie MacFarlane’s mother. Dear lord did her daughter ever kick all the cowboy keester last time out.
The second image Rockstar leaked this week features seven figures strutting confidently forward against a sweltering Western sunset. This is most likely a playful nod to John Sturges’ 1960 masterpiece The Magnificent Seven, and/or a hint that Rockstar is yet again pursuing a campaign built around multiple playable protagonists. Considering switching between three career criminals in GTA 5 was such a sociopathic treat, the idea of controlling a young Marston and the rest of his bloodthirsty posse is downright mouth-watering.
The notion of a story centred on a gang of playable outlaws also gives Rockstar (be it North or San Diego) the opportunity to incorporate more online elements into the next Red Dead. Redemption’s multiplayer was an overlooked gem, and saddling up with another seven partners in the game’s eight player posses was fantastic. Now imagine all that mischievous, yet random online blasting translated into a fully-fledged, focused, narrative-driven campaign that supports drop-in/drop-out co-op for every mission. And no, that’s not a six shooter in my pocket.
And what’s to say those seven figures necessarily all have to be outlaws? Red Dead Revolver already produced a charmingly hodgepodge playable cast - a lineup that spanned demented generals to stealthy Native Americans warriors - so there’s no need to limit the next game’s stars to mere cowboys. How about splitting the roster between outlaws and peacekeepers? One mission you hold up a bank with Marston’s gang, the next you investigate the robbery as local marshals - with a sprinkling of LA Noire’s crime scene conundrums thrown in for good measure.
Perhaps this is all just fanciful thinking, and Red Dead 3/Red Dead Redemption 2 will ‘merely’ be a prettied up twist on Rockstar San Diego’s (now six-year-old) seminal sandbox. The last game sold north of 14 million copies - I wouldn’t blame the studio for making more of the same. Yet if the next Red Dead wants to make the same lasting impact as its incredible predecessor, it will need to stand on its own two spurs.
Oh, and if Rockstar wants to throw in a mission where you have to push a DeLorean up to 88-mph with a runaway locomotive, that’d be just swell.