With high noon duels, lawless frontiers, and gruff leading men, the Western genre seemingly has all the essential pieces to make a smooth transition into video games. But as past six-shooters like Dead Man’s Hand, Call of Juarez, Gun, and Red Dead Revolver found out, dressing your scruffy hero in a duster and giving him a revolver isn’t enough to captivate audiences accustomed to firing rocket-propelled grenades and light machine guns. For Rockstar’s first full-fledged effort in the genre (the company purchased Red Dead Revolver from Capcom), it decided to do what it does best – explore the topic at hand with an immersive open world.

Red Dead Redemption is set during the birth of the 20th century, where the expansion-minded federal government is moving swiftly to domesticate the untamed frontier. With railroads and telegram lines connecting previously isolated communities, the new cowboys are exploitative businessmen and aggressive legislators aiming to expand their power bases. To keep this development moving along unabated, the feds have created the Agency, a new branch of law enforcement determined to rid the outer territories of the violent gangs running rampant.

John Marston used to be one of those outlaws; he’s got the scars and practiced trigger finger to prove it. But after his gang left him for dead during a robbery gone awry, Marston embraced the quiet life, settling on a ranch, taking a wife, and having his first child. Like his spiritual predecessor, Grand Theft Auto IV protagonist Niko Bellic, Marston eventually discovers that running from his past doesn’t mean he can escape it. Using evidence of his past transgressions against him, the Agency makes a persuasive proposition: Hunt down the last living members his former gang, or kiss family life goodbye. Marston begrudgingly grabs his six-shooter and heads out in search of his long-lost brothers in arms.

While Red Dead Redemption’s setup reads like a Clint Eastwood script, the gameplay construct is pulled straight from Grand Theft Auto. In order to track down and confront his wayward outlaw friends, Marston has to consort with an unsavory cast of snake oil salesmen, drunks, grave robbers, washed up gunslingers, dissidents, and corrupt politicians. Assistance doesn’t come easy, as Marston must complete fetch quests and rack up kill counts to earn their trust before they divulge any useful information. Those who tired of the errand boy mission structure of Grand Theft Auto IV won’t find any solace in Red Dead – to get what he needs, Marston helps peddle cure-all tonics, aids in finding a lost treasure, puts in time herding cattle on the ranch, and rescues kidnapped citizens. The game is at its best when it embraces gunpowder-centric missions that only a Western era game can deliver; my favorites include assaulting a gang stronghold with a posse of regulators, protecting a supply train on horseback, and fighting up a treacherous mountainside to locate an enemy camp.

Given the limitations of the era’s weaponry, Red Dead’s gunplay is surprisingly exciting. Each weapon – from six-shooters and repeaters to sniper rifles and Gatling guns – has a distinct feel, and the hit detection system couples with Natural Motion’s Euphoria animation technology to create visceral shootouts. Shotgun blasts blow enemies violently backward, sniper shots to the shoulder spin bandits around, and if you nail a fleeing enemy in the leg, he’ll feebly crawl toward the nearest cover. When large groups of bandits descend on your position, you can activate the slow-motion Dead Eye ability to paint a large swath of enemies and watch in awe as Marston effortlessly puts them all in an early grave. Less practiced gunslingers can stick with the friendly snap-to auto-aim mechanic borrowed from GTA IV, but if you want to up the challenge, I suggest turning it off.