As a huge fan of Westerns and Grand Theft Auto, it’s an understatement to say that Red Dead Redemption is in my wheelhouse. Each time Rockstar swings by the office to give us a glimpse my enthusiasm increases, so it was with great anticipation that I took hold of the revolver for our first hands-on session.

For those of you late to the party, Red Dead Redemption is Rockstar’s first fully realized foray into the Wild West. While the company best known for Grand Theft Auto picked up the publishing rights from Capcom for Red Dead Revolver and fine-tuned it for release, Redemption has been built from the ground up with an open-world experience in mind.

The story follows John Marston, an outlaw who has a change of heart when he gets severely injured during a heist and his fellow outlaws leave him for dead. After living three years on the straight and narrow, a shady government law enforcement group that plays by its own rules gives Marston an ultimatum – hunt down his old posse or sacrifice his wife and son instead.

Wild, Riled West
Red Dead’s Open Expanses Are Anything But Empty

Riding the vast prairies in between townships sounds boring, but you’ll rarely be left alone on the plains. Marston comes across ambient activities that offer the chance to earn extra money, find treasures, collect animal skins, or shoot some men behaving badly at nearly every bend in the dusty road. In our short time riding through the wilderness, we helped a farmer save his kidnapped daughter from a gang of rapey bandits, hunted a pack of wolves for their pelts, engaged in a sharpshooting challenge by shooting vultures, and helped recover a man’s stolen stagecoach. The towns also offer a host of random activities. Locals will bet you money on a friendly competition of five-finger fillet or Texas Hold ‘Em, and you may have to stop a druken saloon patron from roughing up a lady of the night. The NPCs also react naturally to the random chaos you can cause in the world. After we roughed up a man who looked at us funny in the Armadillo saloon, he returned later with a gun and opened fire on us right in the bar.

Before the Rockstar team lets us dive into the game, they show off a new scenario that finds Marston working in tandem with the Mexican army. In previous missions we’ve seen him enlist the help of the rebels, so it’s clear Marston isn’t above playing opposing sides against each other to further his cause. In this case, the goal is to infiltrate the rebel stronghold atop a nearby red rock cliff.

As the small band of Mexican soldiers takes cover behind a few wooden crates, rebel snipers stationed on the ridge above open fire. As Marston picks off enemies with his rifle one by one, we watch them tumble to their deaths off the side of the cliff. Once the snipers are neutralized, Marston and a squad of about a dozen soldiers shoot their way up the side of the cliff. Marston uses all of the weapons at his disposal, emptying his six-shooter into enemies with the slow-motion Dead Eye painting mechanic, throwing Molotov cocktails (which Rockstar dubs Fire Bottles) at large groups of rebels, and pulling off brutal gut shot executions when the fighting gets up close and personal.

As the sun sets, a smoky haze falls over the battlefield and I take a moment to appreciate the amazing vista where this fight is taking place. The impressive desert setting looks like it’s ripped straight out of an Albert Bierstadt painting. Gorgeous landscapes like this aren’t uncommon in Red Dead – every location I’ve seen thus far is equally awe-inspiring.

Shifting back to the fight, the Mexican army finally overruns the encampment. Marston reconvenes with the head of the operation, and in the background we witness the army executing the remaining rebels by shooting them off the cliff. No Geneva Convention? No problem.