We don't know exactly when it happened, but at some point everyone forgot that cowboys are amazing. We haven't had a decent Western flick in ages, the last good game set in the Old West was probably Sunset Riders on the SNES, and apparently it's simply not the done thing to wander around central London dressed as a gunslinger unless you're under the age of six.
Fortunately, with Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar has given us a timely reminder that cowboys are effortlessly cool. The game's mysterious stranger, John Marston, combines the grit of Clint with a streak of humanity that makes spending several hours in his company an enormously involving experience. His mission is deeply personal - tracking down an old friend from his days as an outlaw and attempting to kill him. Marston's journey takes place in a vast expanse that encompasses a hefty chunk of classic Wild West America, plus a sizeable portion of Mexico as well.
While you'd expect one prairie to look very much like another, there's impressive variety between areas, ranging from red sand deserts to swampy riverside settlements.
Of course it should come as no surprise that Rockstar has nailed the sense of time and place - whether it's '70s New York in The Warriors, '80s Miami in Vice City or turn of the 20th century Western here, nobody else has quite the same eye for that mix of authenticity and caricature. Red Dead's world is rarely anything less than utterly convincing and, if anything, we found ourselves acting more sensibly than we would in GTA IV, simply because we were so involved in the fiction.
Interestingly, the story takes place at a time when the lawlessness of the region is rapidly becoming trampled by the onward march of civilisation - and that fact is lurking in the subtext of every cutscene. As a result, we found the approaching death of the Wild West an added pressure as you play - pretty soon Marston won't be able to get the vigilante justice he's looking for, so you're all the more keen to ensure that he settles his quarrel. These kinds of nuances can only be detected because the characters are both beautifully written and flawlessly performed.
Don't assume that because the West is on the way out you'll be missing out on classic Western action. Red Dead's missions are like a greatest hits of classic cowboy scenes. There's plenty of variety, so you'll be performing daring jailbreaks, riding runaway mine carts and leaping on to speeding steam trains. Central to all this action is an enormously satisfying shooting mechanic. Aiming is a combination of crisp free-aim and a snappy lock on system that allows you to dispatch enemies efficiently. There's a fine selection of weaponry to choose from and each one handles beautifully - we particularly like the pleasing crack as you unload a rifle or repeater and the classic Spaghetti Western ricochet sound during fraught shootouts.
By its very nature, Red Dead's world is much less densely populated and decorated than Liberty City. When you're riding between settlements, you will be blasting across miles of enormous barren scrubland. Fortunately, Rockstar has a couple of clever tricks to ensure you don't become bored while navigating the world. For a start, the game is extremely generous with fast travel options - you can essentially set a waypoint at any place you need to be or person you need to meet, and travel to them by setting up a small camp out in the countryside. Even within missions, if you're riding shotgun on a stagecoach, you'll get the option to doze off until you reach your destination.