As we near its May 18 release date, the buzz behind Red Dead Redemption is growing. Could this be the gunslinger that finally establishes the Western as a viable video game genre? Rockstar hopes so, and it’s enlisted the help of its most talented designers, including Grand Theft Auto IV architect and Rockstar North producer Leslie Benzies, to make sure the game gallops out of the gate. After playing the first few hours of the game on Xbox 360, I can see why fans are waiting so eagerly in anticipation of the game and retailers are planning midnight game launches.

Red Dead Redemption kicks off with protagonist John Marston being escorted off a boat by two law enforcement agents. He’s not wearing bracelets, so he isn’t under arrest. However, the way they push him around and the stark contrast between their wardrobes indicates he’s not exactly viewed as a colleague. The agents are dressed in the finest garments from the east, but Marston’s scruffy beard and worn clothes point to a much different background. As the group moves away, workers are busy lifting a prototype automobile of the boat and onto the cobblestone streets of the city.

Without saying a word, the agents guide Marston to a nearby steam train and watch him board alone. As the train leaves the station, we get our first glimpse of the world of Red Dead Redemption. Rolling hills and forested areas give way to large expanses of grassy pastures and wind-swept prairies. As Marston sits silently on the train, a pair of old ladies gossip about the happenings of the day. A preacher shares his closed-minded worldview with the naïve young lady sitting next to him, flippantly denying the viability of the  technological marvels she brings up, like airplanes. The facial animation technology looks vastly improved from Grand Theft Auto IV, and the constantly shifting camera angles indicate that, as BioWare did with Mass Effect 2, Rockstar is taking a cinematic approach to cutscenes. 

The train pulls into Armadillo station, a dusty Texas-like border town that would look right at home in a Clint Eastwood movie. One main thoroughfare runs through the isolated village, which is home to a saloon, general store, doctor, silent movie theater, and sheriff’s office. Marston is here to find a guide in the saloon who can help him find Bill Williamson, one of the outlaws he used to run with. If Marston wants to see his family again, he must convince Old Bill to turn himself in and take responsibility for all their past bank heists and murders.

We find the bearded hillbilly guide entertaining the advances of one of the saloon’s scantily clad female employees. When Marston makes his presence known, the guide throws the lady off his lap; this isn’t his first visit to the whorehouse, and it won’t be his last. After exchanging pleasantries, they mount the two horses hitched in front of the saloon and set out.

Around dusk, we approach Fort Mercer, a former army base the bandits now call home. As we trot up to the structure, the guide sheepishly tells us he won’t go any farther. From here on out, it’s up to Marston to seal the deal. He calmly walks up to the door of the well-fortified base and calls out for Williamson. As expected, Bill’s not too keen on turning himself in. To drive home his point, Williamson leaves Marston a parting gift – a gunshot to the belly. As night sets in, the gang leaves Marston to bleed out alongside the dirt road outside the fort.

As buzzards circle overhead waiting for the life to drain from Marston, a pair of ranchers passing on a horse-drawn carriage notice him lying on the ground. The good Samaritans load him onto the carriage and ride away into the darkness.