Arguably Rockstar's finest effort to date, Red Dead Redemption is a game that does an exquisite job of capturing the iconic essence of the Wild West, presenting one of the most engaging and enjoyable open-world climates in recent memory with the dusty plains of New Austin.

In the 15 hours it took me to clear Red Dead Redemption's expansive core campaign, the thing I found myself most surprised by was how consistently likable rough-and-tumble protagonist John Marston remained throughout. He's a stark contrast to Red Harlow, the star of 2004's Red Dead Revolver; that character was built in the mould of Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" and rarely spouted an unnecessary syllable. Marston, on the other hand, shares more in common with Unforgiven's tragic hero Bill Munney: he's a family man who is unceremoniously thrust back into a past life he can't leave behind. He's one of a dying breed of sunset riders who are facing extinction and are doomed to go out in a hail of gunfire.

From the start of Redemption's bullet-riddled narrative, Marston operates from the familiar gray moral zone native to all of Rockstar's leading men. Forced to confront his past in order to save his future, Marston's sweeping transition from bounty hunter to unlikely freedom fighter to, finally, grizzled relic in an endangered era makes for a captivating arc, and paints Marston as one of the more sympathetic antiheroes in recent memory. Marston's confrontation with an America that doesn't want nor need him brings to mind Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic, but his desire to find a peaceful place for himself and his family makes Redemption's yarn something familiar yet utterly unique. It kept me earnestly interested in the jaded cowboy's quest for restitution long past the main story's conclusion.

In typical Rockstar fashion, Redemption plays host to a motley crew of liars, outlaws, substance abusers, and would-be revolutionaries; each is a riff on classic Spaghetti Western tropes, but they're well-rounded and interesting enough that they never feel contrived. Portrayed with cinematic precision, these saints and sinners breathe life into Redemption's vast landscapes; they're also excellent counterpoints to Marston's lone wolf persona, serving as memorable foils and friends in the process. And even though Marston's salvation frequently takes a backseat to the varied quandaries of these frontiersmen (and women), they're engaging enough to make players want to see their stories through to their just end.

As diverse and memorable as Redemption's cast is, however, it's the game's expansive open-world of New Austin that lifts the experience well above the latest crop of open-world sandboxes; it's also the main reason why the "Grand Theft Cowpoke" comparisons are both irrelevant and inadequate.

Swapping cars for tumbleweeds and skyscrapers for open ranges, Redemption's frontier landscape effortlessly evolves from dusty plain to painted desert and back again, with all manner of rustlers, bandits, ranchers, and a menagerie of region-specific fauna breathing life into the land.

Red DEad Redemption

I often passed on the option to quick-travel from camp or ride in a stagecoach taxi in favor of heading out on a trusty steed, as the genuine thrill of clopping through Redemption's rich scenery offers up as much promise as the youthful portrait of America that it paints; from ad hoc hunting sessions to playing judge, jury, and oftentimes executioner to any number of randomly generated disputes, there is a lot to discover and do in the wild frontier. Helping matters is the fact that Red Dead Redemption is, by all measures, Rockstar's best looking game to date; the game's masterfully crafted and stunningly detailed environments are beautiful to look at, and thankfully don't share Liberty City's brown, muddy "realism" filter.

But what makes the trek across Redemption's tumultuous terrain work so well is undoubtedly the game's equine element. Horseback riding is expertly implemented, and brings an indisputable facet of authenticity to the title on par with so many silver screen serials and dime-store novels. It's from atop horseback that players will spend the majority of Marston's journey, and the satisfaction that comes with mastering a mount is well worth the strife that might come with first climbing into the saddle. Shooting while riding, for instance, or heading up your first cattle drive may take some practice, but the genuine thrill that these iconic activities offer make them both worthwhile and satisfying when they finally "click".

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