If you were annoyed by the structure of GTA IV, whereby every NPC seemed to offer Niko help – but only after three or four missions of dogsbodying – you may find a similar sense of frustration with Red Dead. Stick with it: the characters you meet are excellently drawn, as a rule, and brilliantly voiced without exception. The over-arching story, meanwhile, takes its cues from several classic Westerns – particularly Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch – but it also finds a powerful tone of its own. Be warned, however, that it's just as bleak as GTA IV, perhaps even a little darker. Personally, I lap this stuff up – and besides, what did you want from a Western? This isn't Blazing Saddles, you know.
The barebones campaign can be completed in about 15 hours or so, but in practice it'll be almost impossible to stick to the story without being led astray by some form of distraction – and really you should take your time to investigate every deviation from the straight and narrow path. Mission design is generally of a very high standard, though I occasionally got the sense that too many quests descended into a prolonged battle against an endless stream of bandits or some other enemy. That's not to say that shooting people isn't fun: gunplay feels beefy and satisfying, and a distinct improvement over GTA IV. There's also a very useful bullet-time system, Dead Eye, that comes in handy when the going gets tough in the later stages of the story. Again, the Euphoria physics engine has a big hand in making the combat work, and I dare say that the game sets a new standard for the art of making virtual men slump into a broken, blood-stained heap.
So yes, the action rocks bells. But I still can't help but feel that, for me, it's the less familiar elements that help to make Red Dead Redemption the best game of 2010 thus far. There's an early mission where you have to herd cattle with your horse in the middle of a storm, and if you cock things up you'll have to watch as the cows plunge over a cliff to their deaths. It's very, very odd – and yet even this failure feels remarkably fresh. At other times it's just the rich atmosphere that wins you over – a random encounter with a laudanum addicted girl in the wilderness, or even just the feeling you get as you ride across the land in the pissing rain.
On top of all this, there's also the ripe promise of multiplayer. It feels a bit cruel to relegate such a big slice of the game to a fleeting mention – that much-hated journalistic cliché of the "multiplayer paragraph at the end" – but unfortunately I don't have any other option. I've not had a chance to try out the final review build, but I did get to try a preview build a few weeks ago, and it had an awful lot of promise – allowing up to 16 players to ride and fight across the entire world, or to take part in team-based and free-for-all contests. GTA IV's multiplayer managed to carve out a strong user base, and if Red Dead sells the four million copies analysts expect it to by the end of the summer, then history may well repeat itself.
Only time will tell, of course. Perhaps I'm wrong, and the gaming masses don't want to rush out and embrace Red Dead Redemption in the way they did with GTA IV. If they don't, it'll be a crying shame and perhaps the final proof that cowboy games just don't work. But I don't think that's going to happen. I think this game is going to do the business, big time. I certainly hope it does, because to be frank, it's a magnificent piece of work that everybody should play. John Marston may not quite be the next Jack Sparrow, but in the realm of cowboy games, Red Dead Redemption is clearly the genuine article.