As a bleary-eyed John Marston rises to his feet, kicks dirt onto his small campsite fire and surveys the vast auburn plains and mesas of Nuevo Parasio at dawn, Rockstar elaborates on a development mantra: “There are no invisible walls. If you can see it, you can go there – and find something to do.”

I’m in the Sydney offices of Rockstar Games, walking through the latest build of Red Dead Redemption, an ambitious production from the studio behind the equally praiseworthy and controversial Grand Theft Auto series.

An indirect sequel to Wild West shooter Red Dead Revolver, Redemption is set twenty years later in the first decade of the twentieth century. But where Revolver was a Western of the spaghetti stripe, Redemption is post-Western. The gold rushes have dried up, manifest destiny has run its regrettable course and the steady pounding of industrialisation aggravates the hangover.

A Rooseveltian federal government is beginning to exert its authority over the semi-autonomous states of West Elizabeth and New Austin – regions that, in true Rockstar tradition, connive at real-world counterparts – but not down in Nuevo Parasio, a region south of the border, and one where rebellion is simmering just below the parched surface.

Marston’s hunt for the members of his former gang has brought him here. A partially reformed outlaw with a new family, Marston has been pressed into the service of the Bureau of Investigation. He is a conflicted anti-hero who operates without a badge and within the law’s grey areas – those where right and wrong are a matter of perspective, and where the end always justifies the means. It’s a position that also provides him with every opportunity to indulge the habits of his former lifestyle.

We break camp, saddle up and descend a dusty ridge, making for the nearby town of Chuparosa as the sun ascends behind an overcast sky. Redemption features a dynamic weather engine and a hastened day-night cycle, both of which shape particle effect emissions and cast the game world in different lights, ranging from whiskey-soaked sunsets to barren gray dawns.

As we follow a trail through today’s depressed vista, a distressed and bedraggled Nuevo Parasian, replete with sombrero and poncho, hails us down. Once we’re close enough he drops the charade and pounces, pulling us from the saddle and making off with our black stallion and a volley of insults as Marston scrambles to his feet.

Redemption’s gameworld is full of such random pseudo-scripted events that players will be able to engage in or ignore, adding excitement and danger to what would otherwise be tedious cross-country treks either on foot or on horseback.

Marston lets out a sharp whistle and our stallion rears and bucks, throwing the startled bandito to the ground before galloping back to us. Mounts have varying degrees of loyalty. This particular steed has been a fellow traveller of Marston’s on many a journey and proves responsive to his commands – a lesser acquainted animal may have ignored him and left him to make the long walk to Chuparosa under his own steam.

Of course, Marston could have taken aim at the fleeing highwayman but a poorly aimed shot may have hit a reliable horse.

Nor was it certain that this opportunistic Nuevo Parasian concealed malicious intentions. As Rockstar explains, he may have been in genuine distress and in a position reward Marston for his assistance – perhaps he was a local merchant able to offer a discount or was privy to the location of a unique firearm. Each in-game event presents Marston with a risk-reward situation.

Indeed, on the outskirts of Chuparosa, we came upon two wagons being held up by outlaws. Taking aim from horseback, Marston picks off two of the gang before dismounting.

Redemption reprises Revolver’s “Dead Eye” mechanism, a kind of “bullet-time” mode that uses a diminishing quotient and allows Marston to paint up enemies with targets before switching back to real-time and dispatching his foes with a rapid-fire volley.

In this instance, the rescued freighter offers Marston his pickings of the second wagon which has broken down. As the event concludes, Marston gains both honour and fame, thus introducing Redemption’s interrelated notoriety system.

Marston’s actions, good or bad, impact on how the game’s NPCs relate to him. Honour measures the nature of his actions; fame how widely his actions are reported. High honour and high fame will afford everything from discounts at stores to Marston’s solicitation for missions by townsfolk. But fame is a double-barrelled shotgun: Aspiring gunslingers and friends of the departed will line up to challenge the great John Marston in every saloon he visits.

As we turn to enter Chuparosa, we see a familiar face: The erstwhile bandito whom we encountered earlier in the morning appears to have successfully stolen a mount more befitting his amateur status, but the mule is proving unresponsive to his directions. As it turns out, a coyote is nipping at its legs.

The game has a large and robust ecosystem that very much has a life of its own – coyotes will attack goats, hares and, clearly, mules – but one that also impacts on, and responds to, the player’s actions. Gunfire will send the animals scattering. Vultures will wheel above the aftermath of a gunfight, armadillo will dart across trails and the game’s more northern reaches are home to bears, wolves and cougars.

Coyotes such as this one will size up their prey and, if they like their chances, will work together to bring it down. Unless they’re desperate or in large numbers, they’re unlikely to go after a man on horseback, but should Marston find himself on foot, he’ll become more familiar with the appetites of North America’s wildlife.

Fast becoming comic relief, our bandito is thrown from his mount for the second time. As the mule bucks and bolts with the coyote in pursuit, we turn to enter Chuparosa, a plaster and terracotta settlement crumbling as fast as its residents can build.

The town’s large non-player populace go about their full daily routines and interact with one another in Spanish: We pause briefly to watch a blacksmith creating horseshoes. At dusk, he’ll store his tools and make for the saloon – whose lascivious harlots already coo at us from the balcony – to drink, fight and play poker. Should we care to, we could watch him carry out his small existence. All good and well, but for our money, there’s folks as need killin’.

Beside the blacksmith’s outdoor work area is a local merchant. Redemption is much more item-intensive than previous Rockstar games. In addition to a large arsenal, players can buy everything from clothes to improved campsites. We buy both. Incidentally, campsites also serve as a save-point.

Rockstar San Diego built the RAGE engine, used in Grand Theft Auto 4, with Redemption in mind: The tarpaulin covering the merchant’s store flutters in the breeze, the sun, finally peeking through a cloud-streaked sky, refracts around its supporting poles and tethering ropes.

A more permanent nearby structure is the sheriff’s office. As we approach, the sheriff himself steps out onto the porch and lights up a cigarette, giving passersby the beady eye as his deputy nails a Wanted poster to the crumbing plaster wall. Marston rips the poster from the wall to accept a dead or alive bounty for an outlaw at nearby Campo Miranda.

We part briefly with the abject poverty of Chuparosa, saddle up, and ride north. The journey away from the town is marked by as many events as our arrival: On the side of the trail, a firing squad executes three criminals who slump into shallow desert graves.

Campo Miranda is a shack nestled in the shadow of a mesa. We approach quietly and using a Rolling Block Rifle at range pick off two of the outlaw gang before they can return fire. Within moments our target bursts from a side door, and leaving his posse to cover his exit, makes a wild bid for freedom. We train the rifle on him. Taken dead, then.

Where possible, taking a bounty alive will increase the reward. Nonetheless, searching through the target’s body yields up a treasure map. These aren’t the maps of grandpa’s atlas: Redemption’s treasure maps are drawn with varying degrees of abstraction and this one is a hastily-jotted likeness of the treasure’s burial area. This one vaguely describes a rocky archway with an arrow pointing to the treasure’s concealed location.

However, our return to Chuparosa conveniently affords us a demonstration of what it means to take someone alive. Freshly escaped from a turn of the century paddy wagon are three convicts jostling over a lawman. After dispatching two, Marston rides down the third, lassos and hogties him, and returns him to the wounded officer, who rewards us before rewarding the opportunistic escapee with a gut shot from his six shooter. No one can yet accuse Rockstar of shying away from violent resolutions.

Back in a torch lit Chuparosa, Marston turns in proof of bounty before turning to investigate an increasingly agitated gathering. As mentioned earlier, revolution stirs in Nuevo Parasio and the passionate diatribe is beginning to incite rebellion in the town’s residents as armed lawmen close in.

Disguising his face behind the bandana bought earlier, Marston takes the unusual and unlikely course of turning his guns on the approaching lawmen. Thus is the final function on demonstration revealed: the Wanted system. As the panicked townsfolk disperse, Marston flees. “Wanted” in large red letters appears in the top right corner of the screen, as does a red blot on the minimap indicating the search area.

As we gallop from town, the search area widens. Stay beyond it, and the red “Wanted” bar diminishes, fail to do so, and the search continues. We remove the bandana and our low Wanted level quickly reduces to none, but the words remain. A bounty of $50 has now been placed on Marston’s head. Should Marston continue to commit known crimes, the bounty will increase and bounty hunters will begin to seek him out. Now he must pay or seek pardon.

Marston’s hasty flight has brought him to a rocky archway much like that depicted in the treasure map found on the corpse of the bounty. A quick reconnaissance of the area affords Marston gold bullion and another treasure map. Rockstar have placed great importance on the organic revelation of adventure: treasure hunts beget more treasure maps; so too with bounties. Particular activities that the player chooses to participate in will create more opportunities to do the same.

In time, the Wanted Marston comes upon a small town. Outside, behind a ramshackle barricade, the local sheriff is engaged in a shoot out with outlaws who have taken the site over. Inside, their leader holds the sheriff’s deputy hostage. With a mind for a letter of pardon, Marston agrees to assist the sheriff and sets to clearing out the holed-up gang.

In short, the battle is heated. Marston clears his way to the gates, shooting bandits and, occasionally, the Molotov cocktails they hold, setting them alight. Allied combatants are coded to perform flanking manoeuvres and provide covering fire. A shotgun-wielding padre bursts from the church only to be swallowed up in a hail of gunfire. In a small house to the rear of the village, Marston encounters the ring leader, using the deputy as a human shield. Using Dead Eye, Marston sinks a lead ball in the bandit’s forehead and in so doing secures his lawful pardon.

Rockstar closed the presentation by skipping forward in the game’s narrative to a cerise dusk setting deeper in Nuevo Parasio. Marston – having now aligned himself with revolutionaries in what has become open conflict with the ruling dynasty – is tasked with breaching the gate of an occupied fort by riding a stagecoach full of TNT directly into it.

As the revolutionaries set themselves upon the garrison, Marston seeks out a member of his former gang. Following his rendezvous, Marston mans a cannon on the parapet – as if only to demonstrate the Euphoria physics engine’s mechanics – and demonstrate it, it does. As Nuevo Parasio’s royalist cavalry rides on the fort, both in formation and on wagons, Marston unleashes the not-at-all ironic ‘last argument of kings’ upon them.

Indeed, Red Dead Redemption is replete with cliché – as any Western, post or otherwise, ought to be. Rather than an action title, it’s an open adventure game that encourages a natural and tangential play-style without the burden of constant reference to menus. Rich, eventful and set in an environment larger than Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 4, Redemption looks set to occupy many gamers’ hours come the 30th of April.

---

Our thanks to Rockstar Australia and Take Two Interactive NZ for making this preview possible.