First things first - you want to know how this open-world Western compares to Rockstar's other open-world game, right? Fair enough.
Is this Grand Theft Horse? No, that's an insulting comparison that doesn't begin to describe Red Dead's beauty. Is this a better game than GTA? Technically, atmospherically, visually: absolutely. Narratively? Too subjective to call. Will you enjoy it more than GTA IV? That depends on how much you like the setting.
We're under no illusions that urban sells. Given the choice, people would rather shoot Uzis nd drive cars than gallop through canyons on a horse. True, Red Dead does its best to lure in the GTA demographic with the promise of bloody shoot-outs, animal-skinning, and Deadwood-grade swearing, but its biggest strength lies in how faithful it is to frontier life, and of course, the incredible landscapes that spill out from both sides of the US/Mexico border. You won't find any 'teetee bars' here...
Stay for the scenery
While the three distinct areas you play within are stunning to look at, Red Dead never outdoes other PS3-lookers, like Uncharted 2 or Killzone 2, in terms of sheer sharpness and obvious beauty. There's no equivalent, for example, of the snow in the crashed-train section of Uncharted 2. There are scenes that stop you in your tracks and demand to be appreciated. For us, the biggest wow moment came half way through the main story, when we found ourselves on an isolated fort in the Mexican portion of the map, Neuvo Paraiso.
As we looked out from the top turret, the sunset bathed the whole canyon a brilliant shade of orange, accentuating the curves of the gorge below and highlighting the monolithic rocks that punctuated the valley below. Vultures flew overhead, picking at the spoils of our recent fire-fight, and the people in the fort went about their business. It was a perfect snapshot of what Red Dead is about: being the best, most atmospheric game it can be. That moment alone puts the concrete detail of Liberty City in the shade.
What impresses more, though, is that the world feels alive. And we're not just talking about the town folk reacting to you, or the incidental events as you ride through the environment (like robberies, posses tracking down criminals, or men hunting). There's wildlife everywhere, and although not the fully-fledged eco-system the developers were hinting at pre-release, it all feels like a natural extension of the scenery. Some you see - like armadillos darting between bushes in the Mexican desert, or bears lumbering through the woodlands in the northern territories - and some you hear, like crickets or crows overhead. The environments may seem like expanses of loneliness, but they're teaming with life.
And yet, strangely, Red Dead's enormous scope and beautiful world is also its biggest enemy. To get the most out of it, to experience the fascinating story of John Marsden, you need to finish the main story. The pay-off at the end is worth the price of admission alone, but to get there you have to complete roughly 15-20 hours worth of missions, watch hundreds of typically well-scripted cut-scenes featuring characters that are both distinct and likeable, and not get lured away by all the treats the world tempts you with.
Can you ride past a man being chased by coyotes and not stop to help him? Can you resist the urge of checking 'just one more location' for a spot of buried gold? Can you gallop past a Grizzly bear without stopping to shoot it down and skin it for Trophies? Nine times out of ten, the answer is 'no'.