The Western is a genre as transcendental as romance, and as quintessentially American as apple pie and hand guns. It is also the rock against which many a game has broken itself. Why then, from a genre as seemingly simplistic and intrinsically rooted in the struggle of good versus evil (the stuffing of many a good game), has it historically been so seemingly difficult to construct a great game?
Red Dead Redemption succeeds where so many others have failed; by focusing on what makes Western movies so unique: setting and character. As with a good Western film, there is much more to it than that, but those are the important bits. The gunplay, the gambling and the jingle-jangle-jingling of your spurs are all there, and certainly add their spice to the pie, but there are plenty of games in which you can shoot things and gamble - and some do it better. Where Red Dead Redemption shines is in creating a uniquely-Western sandbox (literally) for you to trot around in and giving you plenty of genre-true (if not realistic) experiences.
Redemption is set in the fictional state (territory?) of New Austin, some time in the previous century (for those of you who are vague on your American history, this was some time after the invention of the horseless carriage, but prior to the invention of the internet). You are John Marston, and your character begins the game by literally riding into town on the train from "back east" to seek revenge for wrongs done against your family, although your true intentions are as mysterious as your past. Both will unfold in due course and I will not spoil them here.
As a player, you begin the game by setting the controller on the table and watching John Marston watch the scenery roll by out the window of the train car while his fellow passengers rattle off a litany of exposition. This opening cinematic is well-produced by every standard, and yet, for a game that's so much fun to play, it serves as a frustrating introduction. One can't help but feel, as Marston himself must feel, that the true adventure is just outside the glass, if only the train would get to where it's going and let us off ...
Once you're let loose, however, you'll quickly forget the initial moments of tedium. There is so much to see and do in Red Dead Redemption, you'll quickly become absorbed in poking at the edges, looking for where the lines are drawn. In fact, as excellently written and voiced as the game's main story cinematics may be, and as engrossing as the main story missions generally are, you'll probably spend as much time avoiding them in favor of the sandbox experience, as you will seeking them out in order to progress the story.
It's well-understood that no game can accurately present the realities of even the most basic real-life situation, and it would be catastrophically insensitive to suggest that Red Dead Redemption is in even the most generous use of the term an "Old West Simulator," but the game captures the look and feel of the Old West so completely that it's hard to escape the comparison. Even if all that is presented within can be safely accused of being truer to the stereotypical Old West, as portrayed in countless films, than the "actual" Old West, as settled by many who gave their lives in the attempt, it is nevertheless such a joy to inhabit these spaces and partake in the cementing of the stereotype that it hardly matters.