As a result of the emphasis on travel and exploration, there are times when you feel as if you're playing a cowboy cousin of Fallout 3 or perhaps Fable 2. Hints of RPG have been creeping into the GTA series for some time now, and here the feeling of genre-blending is even more pronounced. As you ride from place to place you'll frequently run into other travellers, and if you pause to meet them these encounters will usually turn into an impromptu mini-quest (help the lawmen capture a missing prisoner; rescue someone from a lynch mob) or in what essentially amounts to a random battle. Even if the action doesn't find you, there's plenty of stuff to occupy yourself with: animals to hunt and skin, wild horses to be caught and tamed and cryptic treasure maps that consist of simple hand-drawn sketches depicting notable bits of scenery.
In town there are yet more distractions: as you progress through your adventures people will start to recognise you, and before long you'll have people openly challenging you to duels in the street. At the less violent end of the spectrum there are gambling opportunities – arm-wrestling contests, blackjack and a very decent simulation of Texas Hold ‘em, to name but a few. If you manage to find yourself an elegant suit to wear, you can also cheat at some of these games – but if you do, you may wind up in hot water. There's something particularly satisfying about cheating, getting caught, and then blowing away your enraged rival after he's challenged you to a gunfight in the street. Each of these mini-games has their own simple set of mechanics, and they all work extremely fluidly.
When you're not engaged in some form of mission or activity – legal or otherwise – you'll probably be travelling from A to B. The horse-steering controls take a bit of getting used to, since your mount behaves like an autonomous creature rather than, say, a car with legs. Handbrake turns don't exist in this world, and instead you have to learn to anticipate where you want your beast to go next, slowing your horse well before encountering any sharp changes of direction. At the same time, there's a neat system that requires the player to monitor their horse's stamina: spur her too hard and she'll whinney and grumble; keep pushing, and she'll eventually buck you off. On the other hand, the longer you remain with one horse the closer your in-game bond will grow, boosting the animal's stamina.
In all probability, you'll find a similar bond developing in real life. In GTA IV you changed cars every five minutes or so, but here I ended up sticking with the same horse throughout the entire game – I grew that attached to the caramel nag I caught and tamed in the wild. By tapping up on the d-pad you can magically call your horse to your current location, and at times I would jeopardise a mission by pausing to swap from a beast I'd been forced to use to my loyal and trusty Binky (an unusual name, I know, but it stuck).
Speaking of missions, you'll notice that I've barely mentioned the campaign so far. This is partly due to the fact that I don't want to go into spoilers, but it's also because, for me, I initially found the stuff surrounding the campaign to be more interesting than the central narrative. Over time, this faded and I got deeply sucked into Marston's plight, but I'll admit that initially I found the story to be a bit slow. In the game's defence, the plot is clearly intended to work this way: in the beginning Marston is a stranger to us, reluctant to confide his situation even to the most helpful of NPCs, but eventually the truth begins to seep out – and as the story builds, so too does the weight behind the major plot beats.