I first played Red Dead Redemption years ago but never finished it. I didn't even play beyond the first "chapter" prior to this playthrough. I have no reason for this, it's just how it goes. As stated in my RDR2 "review," I played a ton of RDO and obviously played through the story of RDR2 as well. I figured it was time to go BACK to this classic and go through it to see how the story really holds up (AND how the gameplay holds up).
The Story of John Marston
While RDR2 is a story of Dutch through the eyes of Arthur, RDR plays it more straight with the main character. This is your story and everyone that appears (even characters who appear in RDR2) is a side character tangential to your actual story. This game starts out with a great cutscene of John heading out West. It's incredibly cinematic and interesting, and quite frankly plays very differently than the tone of RDR2. It's almost light-hearted in a strange way. That tone continues throughout the first area with some really zany characters (Seth, West Dickens) but also gives a tinge of the seriousness of RDR2. Many characters you meet don't do much beyond moving the story along in pretty uninteresting ways. Coming from the RDR2 storyline, this story feels very familiar. Not just the characters, but the beats of the story feel similar. Playing this after RDR2 makes you feel like this game is pointless, but more than that, it reveals how unoriginal RDR2's story actually is. It's basically this game retold with new characters in a way.
Though I'm sure this was amazing gameplay in 2010 when it came out, it doesn't quite hold up to modern games. This game reeks of "early" Rockstar missions. It's non-linear, but also a bit weird in how the story unfolds. So many of the missions are completely inane. You're going to be herding animals (multiple times), you're going to be racing (multiple times), you're also going to be having silly gunfights behind indestructable cover. There are really only about three types of missions and you repeat them over and over. The game isn't super long, but it's long enough that it becomes a chore and not fun. What makes things a little easier in this game compared to RDR2 is that the map is MUCH smaller. You can easily ride around without much effort, or you can fast travel from anywhere to any waypoint (which is amazing if you get sick of riding around like I did). The map oddly feels more lively than it did in RDR2 and Mexico was quite cool.
I don't normally talk about controls for a game, but since this is an older game, I think it's worth mentioning. They're bad. The horses are so poorly controlled and there are no repercussions for running into things. It's as if your horse and all obstacles are indestructable, merely there to decorate the scene but not be interactive in any way. I can give it a break for being an old game from the 360 era, but it doesn't make it any easier to swallow in the modern era. Particularly because GTA IV had amazing physics and it came out 2 years earlier. This game is a reskinned GTA with less action. If RDR2 was "similar to" GTA, RDR is exactly like it in too many ways. But like San Andreas era and not GTA IV era. It's not good.
But Is It Good?
I've said a ton of negative things and I stand by them. But I also think this has to be skewed a bit negative to outweigh the barrage of positive reviews this game has had. Maybe a way of lowering your expectations before you play it. This game IS good, though. I mean, if you like GTA, especially San Andreas era GTA, you will like this game. It plays so similarly, but with a Western skin. It's incredibly cinematic in all cutscenes and the main storyline actually IS interesting. There have been graphics updates for Xbox One and Series to make it look better (though it still looks.. old). Even with the clunky controls, it feels similar enough to RDR2's controls that you'll still feel at home. It's a good game, especially for the time. Plus, you can play black jack, poker, and other little games if you get tired of roping and shooting.
Plus, Nuevo Paraiso is a refreshing area to play with an interesting story of playing both sides to come out on top.
RDR First or RDR2 First?
I still think RDR2 should come first. The story flows right into RDR and helps to make some sense of what would otherwise be thrown at you with no context in RDR. RDR2 is a great prequel and should be understood first and I will die on that hill. Just make sure you switch to RDO after you finish the story of RDR2.