There has been a lot of talk over the last few years about games as the interactive equivalent of movies or TV, and there's no question that we're getting closer to a stage where there's some substance to the claim.
Uncharted 2, for instance, wasn't just a great action game, but a more intelligent and expertly acted narrative than the vast majority of Hollywood blockbusters. Heavy Rain, while not perfect, gave us absorbing performances and real moments of emotion, just like a good cinematic thriller. Would you rather watch another dodgy Star Trek knock off on the box, or enjoy another run through Mass Effect 2? How about Clash of the Titans or God of War III? Splinter Cell: Conviction or the last season of 24?
If one company doesn't get enough credit for blurring the edges between film and game, then it's Rockstar. With GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas it started rifling through the great crime movies for inspiration, but there was always a sense that the cynicism, playfulness and anarchy that characterised the games prevented you from making any real emotional connection with the story. With GTA IV, however, Rockstar succeeded in creating a really gripping storyline and characters you didn't just laugh at, but actually felt for, not to mention a world you could actually believe in.
Now its San Diego studio has repeated the trick. Red Dead Redemption is a living, breathing, interactive Western. It's not some cheap pastiche of genre classics or a gritty shooter wrapped up in cowboy clothes, but a game imbued with the spirit of such genre greats as True Grit, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, The Wild Bunch, High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven. If you love them, you'll love this - it's as simple as that.
If you don't, then you'll still find Red Dead Redemption one of the most engaging open-world games in town. At the very least, this type of game needs to give you two things: a fascinating world you want to explore, and a range of interesting activities to do in it. Red Dead Redemption does a fantastic job with both.
The setting - a fictionalised version of the US border states circa 1911 - is a compelling combination of history and Western myth, delivering magnificent frontier scenery, rough and ready Western towns, Spanish-styled settlements, ghost towns, border forts and canyon hideouts that could have come straight from the films of John Ford, Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. The towns throng with human life, and the country with a range of predators, prey and vermin, some of whom you can hunt, and some of whom regard a man travelling on his own as prey.
It's a world with newspapers, costumes, homes to buy and rent and wild horses to capture and break in. It's a setting with a real sense of character, and in a game where you'll spend a lot of time riding from place to place on horseback, you'll get plenty of chance to appreciate it. It's a tribute to Rockstar's artistry that, even with multiple ways of travelling rapidly from place to place, you'll still find yourself riding between them to enjoy the view.
Nor is Red Dead Redemption short on things to do. Fundamentally this is a game of violent action, and you'll find that combat works better here than it ever did in GTA, with a working cover system and much tighter targeting controls. The slow motion "dead eye view" works a treat. Build up the gauge and you can basically pause the action for a second, line-up a series of shots, then take out three or four bad guys in an instant. That said, there's a lot more on offer besides blasting away with your six-shooter.
In fact, it's almost easier to list what you can't do. There are poker games, blackjack games, sharpshooting challenges and hunting activities. You'll find yourself herding cattle, racing carts and hunting bounties. Even within the action sequences there's plenty of variety. Rockstar promised us variants of every classic Western sequence going, and they've delivered. Whether you want to duel other gunslingers in the street, fire a shotgun from a speeding wagon, defend a village from overwhelming odds or attack a gang of bandits in a canyon, you'll find what you're looking for here.
The main missions are excellent, but Rockstar keeps you busy in between them with random encounters that you can engage with or ignore as you wish. Are you going to defend a lone man against brutal treasure hunters, or just ride on by? It's up to you. Around the towns, meanwhile, you'll find strangers, each with some minor task to perform that will boost your reputation for good, or reveal yourself as the stone-cold killer you are.
On these terms, then, Red Dead Redemption is up there with the best open world games. What elevates it, however, above the likes of Just Cause 2 or Saints Row 2, is that it also boasts a gripping story and a beautifully realised cast of characters. Your protagonist, Marston, is a complex man with a dark past, but not by any means a bad man. You can play him as a Niko Bellic-style anti-hero, but he has a warmth and a sense of justice that GTA's heroes have often lacked. The secondary characters, meanwhile, cover a range of western clichés, but each has some spark of humanity that makes them more than just a mechanic to get you from one mission to the next. And while Red Dead Redemption wears its big themes lighter than, say, Heavy Rain or Bioshock, it doesn't mean that they're not there.
If you've watched and thought about the likes of Once Upon a Time in America, The Searchers or Unforgiven, then you'll find many of the same concepts to ponder here, and while we're not going to claim that Red Dead Redemption is a work of the same sort of depth or power, we would say that it's another sign of video games moving in that kind of direction. Sure, you can just play the game for kicks, but if you're after something more you're going to find it.
Is it perfect? No. Some will find stretches of the game a little slow-moving, and there are times when the impression of a living, breathing world falls apart. Shooting from horseback can be finicky, and the enemy AI isn't particularly brilliant. Will any of these things actively spoil your enjoyment? Probably not. There's just too much good stuff here to get bogged down.
Rockstar's epic Western is an open-world masterpiece, rich in atmosphere and action-packed gameplay, and with plenty to enjoy on just about every level. The old-west setting is one of the most evocative and convincing of any game in this genre, and the combination of a strong storyline, good action sequences and a wide range of activities makes this a hard game to leave alone. It's a Western made by and for lovers of Westerns, but even if you couldn't give a monkeys about A Fistful of Dollars you'll get hours of entertainment from it.