Wandering on horseback through an arid chunk of Western frontier, your eyes scan the horizon. It's a view made up almost entirely of rocky cliffs, sparse foliage, and a whole lot of dirt. Then you notice an unusual rock formation in the distance. You've never been here before, but it looks somehow familiar. The realization hits you: That towering rock is identical to the one shown on the treasure map you've been carrying since at least three towns back. You pull open the map and take note of where the hand-drawn arrow is pointing, and a few moments later you've dug up a shiny bar of gold to pay off that bounty on your head.
That potential for exploration is one example of the way first appearances can be deceiving in Red Dead: Redemption. When you first lay eyes on the game's open-world setting, you may feel like you're in for a desolate journey. Part of that is the game's convincing visuals, which depict the rolling clouds, high plateaus, and sweeping hills of the Old West with an impressive fidelity. Though easy on the eyes, there's a good chance those long, dusty trails might have you thinking you'll have some lonely travels as you trek from one town to the next. But spend more than a few moments in this frontier, and you'll realize the world of Red Dead: Redemption is anything but an empty desert.
As you unravel the story of reformed criminal John Marston, you'll make your way through three distinct locales--two set in the American West and one in northern Mexico. Though the vast majority of the game's setting is made up of these aforementioned rural areas, a number of towns and outposts dot the landscape. The weather-faded city of Chuparosa, Mexico, is one such town. In this sun-drenched pueblo of wood and clay buildings, you'll find a population of blacksmiths, goatherds, and simple villagers going about their daily lives. A merchant offers you a practical way to spend the gold you've earned from successful missions, while a cantina offers you the chance to double, triple, or simply squander it away through gambling.
Towns like this feature traditional Wild West elements, right on down to the Wanted posters you'd expect to find plastered on local buildings. But in Redemption, Wanted posters aren't merely sheets of paper with an ugly face on them--they're a chance to do good in the world and earn some cash for it. These posters act as side missions, giving you the description and last known whereabouts of infamous criminals. If you decide to go after these criminals, you can choose to either take them out with your turn-of-the-century armory of repeating Winchester rifles, six-shooters, and shotguns, or earn a bigger reward by lassoing them to the ground and returning them alive. (Putting a bullet or two in them to slow them down is purely optional.)
Quests like these will boost your honor--a gauge of how noble or vile your actions have been--but they're not the only way to affect how well regarded you are in the world. Over the course of your travels, you'll encounter dynamic situations that pop up throughout the open landscape. You might run into an officer seeking out two prisoners who have just escaped from his caravan, giving you the chance to chase them down or simply keep moving. You might witness some bandits shaking down a couple of travelers, and you can either save them or watch their fortunes unfold as you ride away. Other situations are less cut-and-dried in regard to what the right decision is, like when you're riding along and see a blindfolded prisoner about to be executed by a squad of soldiers.
As your honor increases or depletes, townsfolk will begin to react to you differently. You'll receive admiration and accolades if you've decided to take the noble route, and the local sheriffs will even look the other way if you commit a minor crime. (Normally, you'd become a wanted man and have to pay off your bounty or do a favor for the local authorities to receive a pardon.) But if you've gone the bad-guy route, people will cower or glare, while criminals who are aware of your notoriety will offer you the chance to work with them in some of their unsavory pursuits.
No matter how good or bad of a person you are, you'll still need to get your hands dirty from time to time. While the game is set at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when the Wild West was becoming increasingly less wild, there's still a certain element of lawlessness to the world around you, so shoot-outs and violent eruptions are a common occurrence. They can be as simple as a scuffle out in the desert between you and a handful of bandits, where a few well-aimed revolver shots can leave you victorious. But they can also be as elaborate as one story mission in particular that has you charging a fort with a wagon full of explosives, taking on snipers camping in towers, and using a cannon to ward off waves of incoming reinforcements.
Based on what we've seen so far, the world of Red Dead: Redemption looks thoroughly engaging. Far from Grand Theft Auto with a Western paint job, it has the makings of a unique game whose look and gameplay feel authentic to that era in American history. We'll see how the full game comes together when it's released on April 27.