There’s a moment which comes to all cowboys sooner or later. It might come while you’re wandering around the lonely plains by moonlight. It might come when you’re staring at a pile of bullet-riddled Pinkerton corpses. It might come the fifth time you kidnap an irritating NPC and chuck them on the railway tracks. It’s the moment you realise that you’ve got to stop. Red Dead Redemption 2 is over, son.
You’ve got pangs for a lot of things you didn’t used to pang for: feeling like you’re walking through the middle of a great American novel, bonding with horses, getting accidentally hammered on Kentucky bourbon in the middle of the afternoon. Fortunately, there are a lot of games which will scratch all the itches Red Dead did.
Death-or-glory gunfighting: Mafia 3
PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (2016)
The satisfaction of slinging one’s gun on Red Dead 2 comes from its inherent fiddliness. Cocking the hammer, feeling the bullet enter the chamber, squeezing the trigger, and taking out a nearby horse because you’re a real cowboy, and real cowboys don’t use aim assist.
Then again, a sense of realism isn’t really what makes Red Dead‘s gunplay satisfying; it’s when you get yourself into desperate against-the-odds firefights and have to go the full Butch and Sundance. One of the saving graces of the flawed 1968 period piece Mafia 3 was quite how easy it was to instigate an enormous barney among police, underworld enemies and passersby at the drop of a sawn-off shotgun. Try decking someone in the street before holing yourself up in a bar and fighting your way out with a revolver.
A gameworld to immerse yourself in: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (2016)
Red Dead‘s Arthur takes life at the pace of a post-Sunday lunch stroll rather than adopting the earnest shoulders-forward stomp of a fellwalker tackling the eastern ascent of Blencathra. Which can get a bit frustrating, but it does mean you’ve time to get lost in the rich, painterly vistas which surround you and the apparently endless opportunities for rambling afforded you by the vastness of the map, the day-night cycles and the way the weather can turn on you.
The Witcher 3 can match the variety and depth of Red Dead’s landscapes and adds a fantasy sheen; you’ll catch yourself stopping to look at the way the light falls through the trees at sunset. If pottering around small villages doing side-quests on a horse – a horse named Roach, no less – is your thing, then The Witcher 3 is essential.
Making really good friends with horses: Skyrim VR
PlayStation 4 (2017)
Generally, horse-based gaming experiences fall into two categories: games where you use a horse as a slightly differently shaped car (Call of Duty: Black Ops, Battlefield 1, The Last Of Us), and games where you trot lamely about trying not to knock things over (most Olympic games tie-ins). Where’s the heart? Where’s the poignancy of saying goodbye to that horse you start Red Dead with which, while basically functional and undeniably endearing, is only just mobile enough to hobble into the knackers’ yard and straight into a glue vat?
The only thing that’s going to get you close to that is a virtual reality experience like the 2018 rework of Skyrim, previously gaming’s premier horseplay platform. Look right into your horse’s eyes and feel it staring back into your soul. Then ditch it in the woods and steal someone else’s while they’re in a Mages’ Guild meeting. Laters.
PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (2016)
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a work of art, and for good reason. Developers Rockstar channelled American landscape painters of the 19th century to give the majestic West its due, studying the work of Albert Bierstadt, Frank Johnson and Charles Russell. That’s why it’s so easy to spend whole minutes at a time peering over a craggy cliff top, watching as light shifts and shimmers over the vast plains. We’d do it for much longer, but the wolves are usually gnawing on our vital organs by that point.
If you fancy finding yourself in the digital wilderness without the stress of watching for roaming red dots, then 2016’s Firewatch is the best alternative. The acclaimed adventure title (which has just received a Nintendo Switch release) is set in the Shoshone National Forest and features memorable illustrated graphics from Winchester-based artist Olly Moss. The striking palette of sun-drenched oranges and reds warm up a story of cold, contemplative truths.
Nintendo 3DS (2017)
Like a lot of the ‘immersive’ chores that litter Red Dead, cooking is as cumbersome as it is basically pointless. That’s a lot to do with how easy the gameplay is – the hopeless aiming of enemy gunfire means that health-replenishing meats are usually left to rot in your bag. Even becoming underweight, which the game warns you against, doesn’t have any significant impact on your character. And it’s just…. so… slow.
If it’s a console-based, samurai sword-less gastro game you want, then the seminal Cooking Mama 5: Bon Appétit! is the way to go (though you could opt for any in the series). The Nintendo 3DS title sees you complete a bunch of enjoyably unchallenging food-based mini-games – which is not quite as exciting as hunting and harvesting a legendary bear, we’ll admit, but it stamps your boring campfire cookout into the dirt.
A properly innovative storyline: Gone Home
PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS (2016)
With over 2,000 pages of script and 500,000 lines of dialogue, Red Dead’s plot is the most ambitious in gaming history. The unparalleled size and scope of the project meant that pacing was always going to be an issue, but Dutch’s Tahiti-based breakdown, Arthur’s final spluttering goodbye and Micah’s deeply satisfying demise all pluck the right chords (and we’re not even ready to talk about the horse scene, yet).
Watching Arthur and his cowboy mates trying to navigate a world which is rapidly moving on from their calloused, unreconstructed version of America as it is overtaken by modernity is heartbreaking in its own way too. That elegiac sense that you’re witnessing the passing of an old world is there in spades in The Last Of Us (get the PS4 remaster, by the way) in which grumpy bloke Joel has to smuggle teenage Ellie across a post-apocalyptic America laid waste by a zombie pandemic in the hope of finding a cure. It’s not exactly a knockabout buddy picture, but like Red Dead 2, it’s an epic, with emotional gut-punches that land no matter how many times you replay it.
But if you’re looking for a masterful plot that isn’t weight down by traditional video game orthodoxies, we’d suggest 2013’s Gone Home. It tells the story of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old who returns from travelling to find her family home mysteriously empty. As you search through the eerily silent house, this would-be thriller envelopes you in a deeply-affecting and understated domestic drama, made up of clues, photos and diary entries. It’s a brilliant short story truly brought to life.