Guns? Check. Spurs? Check. Cigarette smoking cowboy hat and duster wearing scarred up rangy looking take no shit from no one antihero sonofabitch protagonist? Check and triple check in this, Rockstar San Diego's latest uber hype-machine of an action adventure Western epic, Red Dead Redemption. A mouthful, right? Appropriate, since this behemoth of a playground (it really is on the massive side of big things) our developers have cooked up is bursting with... well, stuff. Lots of stuff. Allow me to break it down for you, erm, pard'ner.

The turn of the century, plus a decade (in the 1910's): America is holstering its revolvers, turning in its outlaws, learning that washing one's hands is indeed a good thing and making way for progress. Gone are the wild and savage Tribes of the red-skinned natives; in are telephone lines, model-Ts and Westward spreading government regulation. America is becoming a much smaller place, and room for the rough and tumble gunslingers of old is running out. Not good news for aforementioned antihero sonofabitch protagonist, John Marston. A man not altogether uncomfortable (though recently conscience-stricken) with his violent past and nature, he's visibly quite squirmy in this safer new America. While boasting a brand new leaf complete with ex-prostitute wife, adoring son and his quaint ranch with lots of potential, the Law is blind to this penitent man. They see a tool to help clean house, and what better way to fight fire than with cooler, gruffer, snappier-dressed fire? But to get John to cooperate, the authorities (U.S. marshals, as it were) take everything he holds dear and demand he hunt down and kill his ex-gang buddies, or else! And so, to keep his purdy (yet antagonistic and shrewd) wife and eager to please son safe, John hops on the nearest one way train to redemption... and lots of shooting, punching and stabbing things.

And you can shoot, punch, and stab just about anything in this game. After a brief set of mini-missions designed to familiarize you with the game's mechanics, prefaced with John getting mortally wounded and taken in by a local rancher's daughter the game world really opens up. Endless dusty trails, all kinds of desert appropriate plants, streams, tumbleweeds and dried out gullies to (toward the end of the adventure) thick forests and snow capped mountains are all here in beautifully rendered detail chock full of every kind of mangy varmint the location calls for. Snakes, many types of birds, rabbits and skunks all the way up to buffalo and grizzlies can be shot, stabbed and skinned in gory detail to earn a bit of cash on the side. Apparently, the denizens of Red Dead Redemption (shopkeepers, specifically) are hot for animal innards, as well as just skins... whatever. The detail in the environments, in town and out, not to mention the expansiveness of it all is staggering. The way the different animals behave around other critters, and you, is highly entertaining to watch, and when the game's impressive weather effects kick in you truly have a spectacle on your hands. There is nothing like herding cattle in a rainstorm, angry thunderheads flashing on the horizon, hooves kicking up mud and having to blast a gang of ambushing cattle rustlers with your trusty revolver. The game is full of moments like these all presented in pretty drool worthy graphical fidelity. The world Rockstar San Diego has created looks so convincing, you'll feel like you're going to need a hot bath to scrub off all virtual mud, dust and blood that was (not) caked on from every session.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Towns and small cities of every type pop up along the road where John can buy or rent property to re-up his ammo supply, change costumes and save his game, visit gun merchants, doctors and general stores to purchase a new horse or sell the animal skins and other vendor junk he's accrued along his journey. You can even visit the local saloon if you feel like getting hammered, which can easily lead to a good ol' fashioned barroom brawl. The seedier parts of some of these communities feature one or more of a selection of mini-games like five finger filet, liar's dice, or blackjack to name a few. While fun distractions and necessary to earning costume pieces and a one-hundred percent save file, these little interactions with the local scum and villainy aren't necessary to completing the game. In fact, you will notice as you engage the game in most of its more sandboxy elements, just about everything you do is a means to make more cash. Neither are the never ending random stranger in distress mini-encounters at all essential to completion that you repeatedly run into out on the road, which could include anything from stopping a horse thief and returning the animal to its relieved owner to shooting up a lynch mob and freeing the wrongly accused. It is worth mentioning that you always have a choice in the outcome; help or hinder? Shoot or save? Remember: anything can be shot, stabbed or punched and then stripped of valuables. Beware, though, the consequences. Bad deeds will decrease your overall Honor score, which can make witnesses in your immediate vicinity inimical toward you, or ride off in search of help. Let the messenger get far enough away, and you can bet the Law will be hot on your heels, and then it's either you, or them. Conversely, helping the unfortunates of Red Dead will raise your Honor levels and earn you discounted rates from local merchants or the occasional more esoteric reward. Morality aside, your actions will not go unnoticed and your fame will steadily rise. Stories of your wild exploits will be fleshed out in purchasable periodicals and folks won't mind having their horses "borrowed" by a famous gunslinger when the need arises.

Treasure hunting, big (and small) game hunting, mini games, gambling, side quests, built in challenges... there is a ton of stuff to keep you distracted from the main story. While well paced, decently voice acted and directed, this is where we begin to see Red Dead Redemption's formula take shape:

Ride out to a waypoint clearly marked on your mini-map. Meet up with quest giver. Watch a cut-scene.

Ride out to new waypoint with quest giver. Have a conversation on the way.

Arrive at waypoint. Notice the abundance of natural and man made cover generously distributed about the area. Watch a cut-scene. Take cover.

Shoot a bunch of bandits/banditos/outlaws/generally bad guys. Watch another cut-scene. Mission complete.

Normally, this would be a problem. In Red Dead's case it almost is. The elegant dead-eye system (a take on bullet time) and nifty combat physics make the shootouts highly addictive and somewhat dilute the sameness of the mission layouts. The gunplay is fabulous. I haven't had this much fun shooting guys since Golden Eye for the Nintendo 64! Watching the result of a well placed shot, be it in the leg, chest, arm or right between the eyes yields some really impressive procedural animations. You can be as accurate (or not) as you like and you'll most likely get a different effect every time.  Fun and rewarding the shootouts may be, but they tend to end too quickly and easily which leaves you with a phantom sense of disappointment post-battle. The controls outside of pulling the trigger are relatively tight: moving Marston around feels solid; he is a responsive character with some real weight to him, but try to get him into cover in a cluttered area and you can wind up with a wrestling match on your hands. The melee combat (what little there is) consists of John whipping out a bowie knife and flailing it like mad in the specified direction. It's hard to tell where you need to be in relation to your target to land a slash. Yes, the toe-to-toe in this game leaves something to be desired... however, hacking and gutting a mountain lion with your knife alone makes you feel a hundred feet tall, floaty close combat controls aside.

Despite the problems I found nagging at the back of my mind on my long adventure, I found myself glued to the screen. I could not, for the life of me, put the controller down. Red Dead feels like so much fluff at times... but it is fun fluff. The organic flow (or divergence) from meat and potatoes to fluffy peripheral is so natural, that you'll have shot and skinned 108 buffalo, picked a gazillion flowers (it is worth noting that, in my opinion, there is far too much flower picking in a game named after a gun) and turned in a handful of outlaws before you find yourself back on track. Samey gameplay and just above average story aside, Rockstar San Diego has created such an impressive beast of a world that I don't see "video game" when I look at it. Is this a good thing? I have no idea, but I sure had a lot of fun trying to figure that out.

- Fitz

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