Red Dead Redemption is Grand Theft Auto IV on horseback. To have assumed anything else would have been naive, and it is comforting to finally have this confirmed; for GTA IV is one of the greatest games released in the last few years with a gripping narrative, a cast of likeable characters, an authentic score and solid (if slightly flawed) gameplay.
There is no avoiding the comparison, or the conclusion. Most obviously, both games are third-person, sandbox action games developed by Rockstar. There are ample amounts of fetch quests at the outset of the campaign, designed to familiarise you with the controls and mechanics at play in the game. Missions are doled out by pivotal characters in a logical sequence, pushing you further out into the (brutal) landscape. There are various in-game vendors who sell weapons and consumbales. Also present are a variety of side quests from NPCs that are non-essential to the main story. You can also enjoy some mini-games which draw inspiration from the setting. Even the on-screen map is lifted from GTA IV. There are of course some subtle changes to the formula: health now regenerates if you hide from danger, there are (finally) mid-mission checkpoints and the cover mechanic is much tighter.
Does this mean that if you have played Grand Theft Auto IV you need not bother with Red Dead Redemption? Absolutely not. The story is truly compelling, and John Marston is proving to be even more endearing than Niko Belic. The combat is satisfying, with the refined Dead-Eye mechanic engineering some devastating kill shots. The soundtrack, while cliched, is thoroughly effective in capturing the grandeur of the Wild West. The missions you accept from non-essential NPCs, dubbed "Strangers," are also more interesting than those given by the random characters encountered in GTA IV. Plus, you don't see civilians attacked unprovoked by coyotes, cougars and other dangerous fauna in Liberty City.
There is of course something else distinctly different about Red Dead Redemption: the landscape. The harsh, bitter, expansive landscape. It is possibly the most captivating aspect of the game. Nothing matches the spectacle of traversing the arid desert, watching rabbits and foxes scurry in front of your speeding equine companion. As you look up to the ominous sky, you can hear a steam-powered locomotive approaching from the east. You spur your horse on, matching the speed of the train. Against the sounds of the machinery and the various creatures, you hear a distressed traveller begging for help. Do you stop to help them? It could be a ruse, a trap to steal your noble steed. They may have been swindled themselves. There is so much violence, desparation and intrigue across this great land that it demands to be played.
Grandiose travel experiences aside, some of the mini-games and side quests are real time sinks. I spent an hour and a half playing Texas Hold 'Em on Saturday. I'm also prone to dropping anything and everything when I see a wanted poster.
I'm really looking forward to testing the multiplayer suite with a posse of noble/nefarious cowboys. I am hoping that enough of you grab Red Dead Redemption so that we can deliver some Unbearable Dutch justice to gamers across the world. Who's in partners?