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Red Dead Redemption

The call of the wild.

Look at a map of North America and you're staring into the last four hundred years of the country's history, the layout of the states revealing hints of a westward expansion that was first fiddly and hard-won, then swift and careless. On the eastern side of the continent, the shapes are strange and irregular, each kink in a border as likely to be the result of a land dispute as it is a river or mountain range that had to be worked around. Look west, however, and someone's ditched the niceties and broken out a ruler, carving the territory up in straight lines as much as possible, dividing the wilderness sight-unseen. As time passed, this unexplored chessboard of empty deserts and dusty canyons became home to a hesitant scattering of frontier-posts and shantytowns, populated by hopeless cases and gun-toting weirdoes. The lost and damned, in other words: a promising landscape for videogames, and a perfect setting for one developer in particular.

And yet there are surprisingly few good games about the Old West. Certainly, the 8-bit anticlassic Custer's Revenge got things off to a shaky start, but to this date, the decent titles - the phenomenal Stranger's Wrath, and the largely serviceable Gun, for example - can be counted on the fingers of one hand, even if you happen to have lost a few digits whittlin'. Red Dead Revolver, Rockstar's first foray into the genre, was competent and occasionally brilliant, but, picked up half-completed from Capcom, it was something of a development mongrel. With the sequel, however, the House of Liberty has a chance to build the title from scratch, and hopefully, in the process, provide a cowboy game that captures the atmosphere you want when you head out west - the tension, the shootouts, and the brooding, dusty menace - in a way that so far, bizarrely, only Oddworld has been truly able to do.

Five Finger Fillet - requirements: your hand, a tabletop, and a knife - makes for particularly nasty mini-game.

If Revolver was a Spaghetti Western, Redemption is a grim-faced Butch Cassidy, moving the clock forward to the turn of the 20th Century, and exploring the nasty derailing that ensued when the frontier culture collided head-on with the modern world. It's a tantalising agenda, and one that colours every aspect of the game, as protagonist John Marston, once a bandit, now trying to get by as an honest man, finds himself roped into helping the Bureau, the government agency created to tame the west, when they give him what Rockstar's coyly referring to as a "terrifying ultimatum".

Hopefully, that ultimatum's a little more involving than, "Either the beard goes or I do." But, however the mystery eventually unfolds, Rockstar's already created another of its signature leads: a brutal victim, trapped between their own wishes and the plans of others, or, if you prefer, caught within the promise of the sandbox environment, and the quiet tyranny of the missions layered on top.

Vultures move in swiftly after a shootout.

Rockstar's playing the Western genre straight, then, and building on it much the way you'd expect it to, with the open range transformed into an open world split across three massive areas, divided into Frontiers, Plains, and Mexico. The result is a plot of land which, taken as a whole, is significantly bigger than GTAIV's Liberty City. But while the developer is keen to underline the size of Redemption's stomping grounds, it's the wildness of it that is initially most startling, and the first indication comes with the lead character. Marston, all gun-belts, Stetson, and itchy trigger fingers, is a peculiarly haunted presence, his eyes darting back and forth whenever idling, as if he's nervous and perhaps slightly paranoid about the space into which he's been dumped.

And, flung into the game for a quick developer playthough, he has every reason to be. Frontier is a vast expanse of dunes and bluffs, golden mountains rising on the horizon, and tumbleweeds rolling through the foreground. With a huge draw-distance and a creepy soundtrack in place, there's a palpable sense of isolation, but Redemption's world is far from empty, the wilderness between towns alive with creeping wildlife (for the first time in an open-world title, Rockstar's pouring critters into the sandbox, with an elaborate ecology that fights and feeds all by itself) and packed full of entirely unpredictable encounters with the locals.