When I first meet John Marston he's resting in the wilderness, beneath an open sky. The day is just beginning, and there's work to be done. The former outlaw rises from his spot besides the remains of a campfire, and walks over to where his horse is diligently waiting; moments later they are racing across the plains. A coyote appears, chasing the horse's heels. Marston calmly steers his ride in a wide arc, levels his pistol, and shoots the critter dead. Welcome to Mexico. Welcome to Red Dead Redemption.
Technically, this is a sequel - or at the very least a follow-up - to 2004's Red Dead Revolver - but aside from the return of the Dead Eye aiming system (think bullet time, but with Stetsons) this could almost be an entirely different license. There's a new storyline, a new anti-hero and a brand new structure. While the first game was a comparatively restricted third-person adventure, a half-finished project that Rockstar inherited from Capcom, Redemption is quite clearly a rootin', tootin' relative of the Grand Theft Auto gang. True, there may be no cars to steal, and fewer pedestrians to "accidentally" mow down, but the open world is still arguably the star of the show: an enormous playground in which you can live out your cowboy fantasies. And as we've come to expect from Rockstar's sandbox ventures, there's a huge amount to see and do.
For a start, the aforementioned coyote is just one of the creatures that you'll encounter out on the frontier strip. There's a whole miniature eco-system at work here: If you shoot someone and leave their corpse out in the open, vultures will show up to tuck into your handiwork. Slow the pace down as you gallop from point A to B, and you might spot a few rabbits hopping about. If you want to earn yourself a bit of cash, you can hunt the poor bunnies and skin them. If you're feeling really adventurous, you can go all Cormac McCarthy and try to tame a wild horse. This will take some effort (and some form of "mechanism" that the developer has yet to reveal), but if you succeed you'll have a loyal nag that responds to your beck and call. As we'll discuss later, this can be extremely useful.
For today's adventure, however, Marston is more concerned with human beings than with animals. He begins by riding to a nearby town, where the NPCs are going about their business. Everyone here has their own routine, and if you're got a spare moment you can watch them as they go about their activities.
During the day you'll find most people milling about the marketplace. You'll see people chopping up chickens and preparing other foodstuffs, as well as running various stalls where you can re-supply. Two items stand out during the live gameplay demo I'm watching: the bandana lets you hide your identity, which in turn allows you to commit major crimes (Marston can't just go on an undisguised rampage, presumably as this would interfere with the plot), while the advanced campsite will give you some form of bonus when you stop for a rest. It seems that you can camp and save the game wherever there's a path of flat, open ground, and doing this will helpfully spawn a horse if you've managed to lose your ride. It's hard to see what else you could need from these rests, but apparently the advanced campsite will be well worth the investment - and there'll be a visible difference to your impromptu home, too.
Retail therapy may be the key activity during the day, but in the evening the market empties as people retire to the nearby cantina. Here players can drink, get into fights over women or play poker. You can't cheat, sadly, but you can start gunfights if you're unhappy about the way a game is going. One Rockstar rep tells me that he managed to snatch back all his money after murdering his opponents - but he was also gunned down before he made it out of the cantina.
Right now, Marston isn't in the mood for shopping or poker. He heads over to the sheriff's building, where an elderly man is hammering up a Wanted poster, detailing the crimes of two notorious bandits. Our hero tears down the notice and leaves town. There are bounties to be had, and he intends to collect. Now, the GTA games usually make it fairly explicit about where you need to go for a mission, but things aren't so simple here in the Old West. The notice tells Marston where his targets were last seen, but once you reach this area you'll have to scour your surroundings until you spot the men you're looking for. Before any of this happens, you'll have to actually get to your destination - an undertaking that's fairly dangerous in its own right. While a railroad and stagecoach system will allow for a certain degree of fast travel (presumably a bit like the taxi system in GTA 4), you'll be spending plenty of time in the saddle. As you ride across the land you'll encounter random NPCs and events.