This is the first western I've played since Wild Gunman on the NES (check out the avatar), and also my first game review. I had no interest in Red Dead Redemption until recently, but it turned out to be one of the best gaming experiences this year. The gameplay is excellent from start to finish. The the atmosphere, level design, menus, and shooting in RDR are Rockstar's finest work to date.
While very similar, Red Dead Redemption is not just GTA with horses. Rockstar took things that worked well with the GTA franchise and improved them, such as the open-world mission structure, map, mini map, and tutorials. Riding horses is easy after a few minutes of practice, and they are awesome. They look and move exactly like real horses do. Shoot an enemy's horse in the face and watch it dive face first into the ground, sending the enemy flying through the air. When traveling with a NPC to an objective, you can hold down the X button and your horse will match the other horse's speed. Your horse will also stay on the road while you are aiming a gun. If you get bored riding to missions, there are plenty of animals to shoot at.
I played the entire single player and online free roam using the expert targeting system, and I strongly recommend using it. If you do, it's some of the best combat in all 3rd person shooters. It also adds some much needed difficulty to the missions. Missions follow the GTA formula where you go to a place, shoot it up, and return, but there is so much variety to it and the combat is so good I doubt you will even care. There is only one mission in the game I didn't enjoy, because I kept crashing the wagon or going the wrong way. I will say the enemy AI can sometimes make some really dumb decisions. After wounding them, sometimes they will run at you and then duck behind cover with their back against you. It's pretty funny to witness. The racing missions are a complete joke cause they are so easy. I don't want to spoil anything so I'll just say RDR is one of my favorite stories told by Rockstar, the other one being Vice City. It took me about 14 hours to complete the main missions, but there are tons of side missions that have surprisingly good stories to them. Some distraction games include poker, blackjack, five finger fillet, arm wrestling, horseshoes, and liar's dice. My personal favorites are liar's dice and poker.
The online is also great, but this is where most of the bugs are. PvP matches are good, but nearly everyone uses auto-aim in them. Free Roam is where I spent most of my online time. In Free Roam, it's basically the single player enjoyed with up to 16 other people. You can form posses and hunt down other players, hunt, or do some co-op and shoot up a gang hideout. The gang hideouts during Free Roam are awesome and a great way to earn xp. You get a bonus for pulling off kills within a short period of time, and a bonus 100xp for using expert aim. While the online is a blast, it is not perfect. Major bugs that I've encountered more than once include players and horses turning invisible, enemies (that need to be killed in order to finish the mission!) getting stuck in inside mountains, and server issues that will occasionally disconnect you from the game. These are equally frustrating and will hopefully be fixed soon, since every other aspect of the game is incredibly well polished.
This paragraph is little, but very important. There is no loading when traveling across the map. Whenever the game does take you to a loading screen, it is almost always a short load time. Guessing, I would say usually under 20 seconds for initial startup, and under 8 for story-based missions. This is a huge technical feat, and is greatly appreciated. I hope San Diego Studios and Guerrilla games take note, because it makes great games even better.
You can tell Rocktstar spent a lot of money making this game, and from a gamers standpoint it shows. Nearly every aspect of the game is very well polished and it even gets the little things right. The menu style and world map are the best I've used in my 18 years of gaming. Look past the bugs and you will find a masterpiece. Red Dead Redemption is a leap forward for the videogame industry and I highly recommend it to anyone over the age of 15. We will almost certainly see a direct sequel to Red Dead Redemption if it gets the support it deserves. This is easily one of my favorite games this year. If you have any questions feel free to ask in the comment section.
As for my grading technique I start at zero and the more it impresses me, the higher the score I'll give it. The game has to earn it's review points. This may result in lower than average scores. Overall score is graded based on my overall experience with the game, not an average of the other scores. I will use the same technique in all future reviews. (if I decide to do more)