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Big Sky Country: Red Dead Redemption dreams big and nearly delivers 

One of the most frustrating things about designing a world is that someone will always come along and criticize it. The days are too long. The nights aren’t long enough. Weather patterns are erratic. The trees lack variety.

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One of the most frustrating things about designing a world is that someone will always come along and criticize it. The days are too long. The nights aren't long enough. Weather patterns are erratic. The trees lack variety. Can't I play any poker game other than Hold 'Em? Why do the telephone poles look old and weathered when they've been newly installed? And what kind of cougar stalks somebody who has been firing a rifle for the past five minutes?

The designers of Red Dead Redemption have undertaken videogaming's most ambitious virtual world to date - an outdoor, open-ended Old West circa 1911. And while the game aims to simulate an actual environment, it also makes necessary concessions to videogame flow. The landscape is divided into several distinct climates, ranging from tumbleweed dry to boggy swamps, each within a few minutes ride from one another and all encircled by trains like a giant theme park.

For such a big space, Redemption's West is stuffed with incidents. Aside from missions designed to introduce players to cowboy skills and regional infrastructure, there's a whole storyline of revenge and, yup, redemption. Many of the game's activities draw players deeper into the landscape, asking them to hunt for flowers and animals, or scrutinize the geography for clues that are scrawled on treasure maps. It's not uncommon to run into people during rides into the middle of nowhere. And everyone calls each other "friend," like a public radio fund drive where instead of money, they ask for help hunting coyotes.

It's so vast and teeming that Redemption has the same problem as the real world - it's easy to be overwhelmed and eventually numbed. Before long a sort of virtual ennui sets in. The solution for boredom in the real world is simple: change. From one moment to the next, people have different desires. They age. They migrate. They modify the world around them. But players in Redemption can change very little. There are a few speeds of horses and several varieties of guns. As far as character traits go, players can elect to become outlaws or honorable citizens. They can't choose their dialogue at all. What Red Dead Redemption lacks is an avatar that is as expansive as its landscape. Maybe the most frustrating thing about designing a world is that people need to live in it.

THE GOOD: Occasionally I would come upon crates floating in mid air and horses embedded in cliffs, but for the most part this West is wildly beautiful. Sunsets wash the entire sky. Cliffs and coulees twist the plains into dusty convolutions. Rodents and rattlesnakes slide through the sagebrush, while wolves and bears stalk the hills unafraid.

THE BAD: The self-serious philosophizing that bogged down Grand Theft Auto IV reappears here, though at least Redemption's theme of retribution vs. redemption is easier to stomach. But the stilted writing is unforgivable, such as this line from early in the game: "Dear oh dear, Mr. Marsten! What dreadful novel did you get that romanticized drivel out of?" Probably the same novel that provided the game's dialogue.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Red Dead Redemption is a great big wild and western world without much room for growth.

Red Dead Redemption

★★★✩✩

Rated Mature; Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

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