You're free to ride past these strangers, but there are certainly gains to be had if you stop and see what's going on. Still, you'll do well to be a bit cautious with these strangers; they don't call this The Wild West for nothing. At one point I saw the player encounter a traveller who was being robbed at gun point by a small gang. He could choose to help the robbers for a share of the spoils, or help the victim by gunning down the attackers. During the demo I saw Marston chose to play the nice guy and was rewarded appropriately, but on another occasion, things didn't go so smoothly: as he was riding through the scrublands, a man approached him on foot, begging for help; as soon as he slowed down, the newcomer pulled him from the saddle and attempted to steal his horse. Luckily the nag in question had developed a bond with Marston; at the touch of a button our hero issues a shrill whistle, at which point the horse threw off the would-be hijacker. This trick looks amazingly satisfying to pull off, and I can't wait to give it a go for myself.
Back to the mission. When Marston eventually finds the men he's looking for, a choice arises. Should he try to take them dead, or alive? The former is naturally the easy route, but the latter results in better rewards. In addition to hard cash, your behaviour in Red Dead Redemption can earn you two further assets: Fame and Honour. The first stat can only ever increase, and is representative of how well-known you are within the game world, while the latter is essentially a kind of karma system. Your honour level will affect the way people perceive you, so if you go around acting like a mean ol' varmint, you can expect to get challenged to the occasional street duel. This preview is largely concerned with the "extra curricular" activities in the game, but naturally there's a massive set of story-driven core missions too - and it's not yet clear how the honour level will affect the course of this narrative.
In any case, today Marston opts for the quick-profit route. After spotting the Wanted men and their entourage of surrounding goons, our hero opens up with a long-range rifle. Shooting is handled via a free-aim system, with a cover mechanic that automatically makes use of nearby scenery (including dead horses, if you're a really Desperate Dan), while an extra layer of grim realism is added by the in-game physics. Redemption uses a mixture of Rockstar's own tech and the Euphoria engine, and it looks great. Slain enemies slump to the floor when they take a hit to the belly; shoot a man as he rides a horse, and he may keel over in the saddle, his horse bolting off with a newly-dead rider on his back. There's more detail to the violence here than in GTA 4: target people's arms and they'll clutch the injured limb in pain; put a bullet in their leg, and they'll limp about or even crawl on the ground like the pathetic worms they are.
My appointment only allows for a short glimpse at the game, but the demo has gone smoothly, so we have some extra time to kill. My hosts decide to play through the Wanted mission for a second time, deciding to do the job in a different way - and this leads to a cool alternative outcome.
As I mentioned, during the first attempt Marston went in guns blazing - using a rifle to cripple one of the men, and the Dead Eye system to take out several other threats (here the action shifts into slow-motion while the player paints targets on the foes you want to hit; when reality resumes, you'll unload your pistols as directed). Once everyone was dead the player loaded the valuable corpses onto the back of his horse, then headed off in the direction of the nearest prison wagon - a sort of mobile prison stationed out in the wilderness. Now, on the second run-through, the demonstrator decides to capture his targets using a lasso - a special item that lets you take prisoners alive. This is certainly the trickier way to handle the mission, since even wounding your quarry results in a lower reward, but naturally Rockstar's agent is well-versed in the game's controls. Before long he's hog-tied the two men, and slung them onto his stallion.
During the first demo, Marston was rewarded with money and a small increase to his Fame score. That's all very well and good, but it is the second trip that proves to be really interesting. As the player hands over the two prisoners to the lawman, he receives a larger cash reward, and a stonking great bonus to his Honour. Then, as he begins to walk away, the lawman speaks, his words steeped in a thick Mexican accent. "Thank you Senor!" he says "These men will never see the light of day again!" And with that, he shoots the two men in the head.
For me, this unpredictability is one of the most exciting aspects of Red Dead Redemption. I've only spent a short while with the game, but already it feels as if Rockstar is really running with the chaotic, anything-can-happen nature of Liberty City. The game world is going to be absolutely massive, and the Mexican area will be just one of three separate geographical regions, but it's not just this that lends the game an epic quality. There are loads of things I saw during the showcase that I've not had time to detail here: the group of soldiers who were executing someone just outside a town, and the officer who threatened Marston when he sauntered over to watch; the hand-drawn treasure maps that require you to decipher simple sketches of notable in-game landmarks; the way that each horse has different characteristics, and the sickening feeling you get when one of these creatures gets shot and slips to the ground.
And on top of all this, we've got Marston himself, and the narrative that's wrapped around him. True to form, Rockstar is keeping tight-lipped about this, but from what we know so far it sounds promising - the tale of a former outlaw who is forced into hunting down an old comrade, thanks to pressure from a sinister government agency. The story is set towards the end of the Old West, at the start of the Twentieth Century, and considering the Mexican influence - and the presence of a gatling gun in one of the released trailers - it looks like Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch has been a major influence. Let's hope so, because that's easily one of the best Westerns ever made. While we've had a few decent cowboy games over the past decade, it's fair to say that we're still waiting for the definitive article. Can Rockstar deliver the game we've all been waiting for? We'll have to see, but for now I'm filing this one under "Most Wanted".
Red Dead Redemption will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 on April 30 2010.