Red Dead Redemption may be set in the wilderness of the Old West, but among the tumbleweeds, cacti, and ghost towns, there's a surprising amount of life. Wild horses roam, prostitutes vie for customers in the saloons of New Austin, and gangs of outlaws battle for control. The farms, towns, and hamlets all have their own character, and as you travel through the countryside, the flora, fauna, and people change with you as you make your way from the Mexican mesas to the bear-hunting grounds of the north.
If you stay in one place and wait for night to fall, the whole picture changes too. Small campfires spring up around the wilderness, providing refuge for all manner of ne'er-do-wells and simple travellers, and the wildlife changes, with nocturnal creatures coming out to play. The same thing is true of the weather: violent thunderstorms can break out, changing the complexion of the land and the behaviour of pretty much everything living off it.
The breadth of the living world in Red Dead Redemption is something to marvel at. Wander into the saloon of an evening, and you can have a drink, listen to some music, and see the locals carousing with the resident ladies of the night. Hang around for a little while, and fights will sporadically break out; it's not uncommon for the local hoodlums to set upon one of the aforementioned ladies of easy virtue. You can just ignore these fights and let them run their course, or you can step in and hand out some old-fashioned justice through whichever weapons you have to hand. Killing troublemakers once they've kicked off won't earn you the attention of the local law enforcement, thankfully--you simply get credit for the kill and have the privilege of looting the body of the fallen miscreant.
This sort of encounter was typical of the first few hours we had with Red Dead Redemption. Riding through the wilderness, a distressed-looking fellow flagged us down at the side of the road, asking for help. Assuming this was a side quest in waiting, we pulled our trusty steed up and trotted over to him, only to be pulled off our horse and onto the receiving end of some rather unpleasant language. Thankfully a bullet to the back of his head solved the problem of the stolen horse, but the sorry episode served to underline how rough and vibrant New Austin is.
However, it's not all violence and bloodshed. During our first few hours, we were also taught in one of the game's very early storyline missions how to herd cattle and then wild horses. This was more fun than you might imagine; the game was fairly forgiving as we attempted to drive the cattle around the place, and it provided a nice break from the darkness and violence that pervades much of the rest of the game. After the mechanic is introduced, you eventually get a lasso through the next mission, in which you need to corral and break some wild horses. After lassoing the horse in question, you need to get off your horse and jump onto the wild beast. This triggers a balancing minigame where you have to work hard to not get thrown off. Thankfully, after around a minute of this, the horse is deemed to be broken and is then yours to keep.
Not all horses are created equal, though--the game features a huge range of different breeds roaming its wilds and available at various shops throughout the world. Different horses have varying stamina and top speeds, so you can pick whichever suits your needs, but you can have only one at any given time. Or, if you're feeling particularly coldhearted, you can just shoot the poor filly, skin her, and then flog her flesh and hide to the nearest merchant. The West is an unforgiving place.
The skinning process itself is fairly gruesome, especially for larger animals. The sounds in particular may unsettle the stomach, as may the blood spattering the screen as you see John struggle with his blade. If none of that does, then the sound of flies buzzing around the pink and skinless corpse on the floor shouldn't trouble you either. Killing and skinning the variety of creatures roaming the world also earns you respect as you work through the game's challenges. Killing a bird in flight, for instance, opens up the first level of a sharp-shooting challenge. Kill a few more, and level two opens up (along with a small but significant fame reward), which involves finding and shooting rabbits. Progressing through the various challenges (we also found hunting and flower-picking ones in our time with the game) earns you fame and access to new missions and items.
The game also features a number of out-of-game rewards. We unlocked only one during our few hours with the game--in a gunfight, we managed to take a non-player character's hat off (deliberately, of course) and were rewarded with a nice sombrero for our avatar. For more in-game rewards, there are a range of different activities to undertake. There are 15 in-game outfits to unlock, buy, or find, sometimes through long multistage processes. Among them is a sharp suit that allows you to cheat at poker, another that lets you pass yourself off as a gang member, and many others with bonuses we didn't get far enough through the game to see.
There are more-scripted side missions you can take up as well. These take the form of, among other things, wanted posters and random strangers asking for your help. Wanted posters are fairly simple affairs; bills are posted with bounties and information on the whereabouts of various criminals. Most of the criminals we tracked down had gangs around them, which made taking them down that much harder. If you try to take the criminal in question alive, your job is even harder, as his compadres have a habit of riding after you as you attempt to lug his trussed body back to town on the back of your steed, and they take potshots at you as you attempt to escape.
The stranger-based quests are slightly more interesting. The nature of the missions you get depends on your standing in the world--the more well known you are, the more missions will open up, for instance--and how honourable you are seen to be. A couple of the ones we picked led to mysterious bloody patches of ground, with hints of a greater subplot involving cannibalistic outlaws. The same mechanic that opens these up also leads to duels in the streets of the various towns you find yourself wandering through.
The duelling mechanic is an interesting one. Draw first, and you'll find yourself on the receiving end of attention from the law, but draw too late, and you'll find yourself taking an unscheduled dirt nap. Thankfully, the Dead Eye slow-mo mechanic works in these situations, making the early duels relatively easy to win. However, there is more to Red Dead Redemption than exterminating wildlife, protecting the virtue of filles de joie, and hauling bad guys in to the local sheriff's office. The main plotline progresses at a relatively leisurely pace as John recovers from his wounds and attempts to ingratiate himself with various locals who need his help.
Among the more interesting characters we met was the local snake-oil merchant, who needs you to help him hoodwink some locals into buying his products in exchange for help. His highfalutin ways may not be to John's taste--as he makes evident with a number of caustic comments in conversation--but the nature of the encounter and the mission help to break up the brutality of much of the rest of the game.
Brutality is never too far away, however. In one mission slightly later on, you get reports of a gang of outlaws causing mayhem, including graphic descriptions of murder and rape. Chasing them down, you scout their position by following circling vultures and coming across camps of slaughtered travellers. Eventually you reach a farm to discover some survivors--including some deeply traumatised women--as well as some who were not so fortunate. One of those less fortunate whom you briefly see naked and hanging from some rafters is an indicator of how few punches Red Dead Redemption pulls.
Red Dead Redemption is out on May 18 in North America and May 21 in Europe and Australia. Some texture pop-in and non-rendering objects were something of a blemish in the build we saw, as were a couple of technical issues that made a few missions a little harder than they needed to be. Hopefully Rockstar will use the time between now and then to sort out a few of the game's lingering technical issues, and we'll be cleaning up the West in a few short weeks.