So, just as Niko Bellic spent much of GTA 4 attempting to find Darko Brevic, much of Red Dead Redemption will find Marston looking for Bill Williamson - and once again, this quest will force our hero to work alongside a whole host of slippery characters. In the first mission I was shown, Marston was helping a snivelling Mexican officer by the name of DeSanta - a weasely type who unfortunately has connections that Marston might be able to use. In this instance, DeSanta and his men are attempting to take back a stronghold that's been captured by Mexican rebels, a situation that requires you to battle your way up a winding slope and through to a heavily-defended outpost.
As you might expect, this assignment offered a great chance to get a feel for RDR's combat mechanics. As you might expect, there are a certain amount of similarities to GTA 4: there's a simple lock-on system for a start, and you're forced to make liberal use of a cover button, mapped to the left bumper (on the 360 version, at any rate). Gunplay feels fierce and chunky, but obviously your weapons have a slower rate of fire here than on the uzi-loving streets of Liberty City. As a result, individual bullets seem a bit more lethal, a feeling that is reinforced by the impact you get when you hit someone in a particular part of their body. While holding the left trigger will automatically lock you on to the nearest enemy, moving the right stick will allow you to manually tweak your aim. Guide the target over a man's arm, and you can cripple him; aim for his head, and you can pretty much guarantee and instant (and permanent) lights-out when you pull the trigger.
This first mission also demonstrated the game's sense of scale. As the Rockstar rep who was playing battled his way up hill, the whole game world stretched out around him. The fight itself took the form of a sort of marathon of violence, with Marston sprinting from cover to cover, opening up on Mexican rebels with his six shooter and a range of rifles - all of which can be selected using a simple radial menu. As the combat raged on and a dramatic Ennio Morricone-like score boomed over the soundtrack, Marston eventually reached a plateau in front of the fort. As the last of the rebels was finished off - with one man being shoved over the edge of a ravine - we were able to take a moment to admire the vista. From our raised vantage point we could see down to the camp where the mission began, while the surrounding landscape of Nuevo Paraiso stretched out all around us. It all looked terribly enticing, a world ripe for exploration and exploitation.
The second mission offered a slightly more intimate slice of action, and it also happened to be the first time that I got to take control of Marston for myself. This time things kicked off with a visit to a rugged-looking sheriff, a man who seemed to be well aware of John's past. A brief cutscene played in which the lawman detailed one of the problematic issues - or rather the problematic people - who were dogging his patch. Marston begrudgingly agreed to help, over the course of a gruff conversation that once again underlined Rockstar's commitment to production value. The scene itself wasn't a particularly spectacular event - it was essentially just two men having a short chat - but the gravelly voice acting of both characters worked as an excellent primer for the mission that was to follow.
The mission itself was relatively simple: ride out to the hiding spot of a local ne'er-do-well, and then either kill him or take him alive. The first part of this job gave me a good chance to get to know my horse. As you might expect from a Western-themed game, nags play a major role in getting from A to B, so it's no surprise to see that Rockstar has put a lot of effort into the equine NPCs. Put simply, the horses are brilliant: their movements look impressively realistic, they handle in such a way that makes you feel like you're actually riding something rather than the horse-shaped-car effect you'll often get in other games. They're smart, too. At the touch of the Y button you can whistle to call your ride over from wherever you left it, and when you're riding with an ally, as is the case in this mission, your steed will automatically match the pace of the people with whom you're riding. This last feature will be particularly appreciated by anyone who ever crashed their motorbike whilst trying to maintain a conversation in The Lost and Damned.