The game starts out with a healthy dose of cinematics and a few tutorial missions--passing along the basics of gunplay, horseback riding and such--after which the sprawling area of New Austin essentially becomes your personal playground.
At that point, it's up to the player to decide if they want to continue main story, go exploring, hunt down bounties, play poker, decipher some treasure maps and search out hidden treasure, assist the random strangers that periodically ask for help, hunt wildlife and sell their pelts/meat, search out (and subsequently sell) some of the rare plants in the wilderness, go see an old-timey movie or clear bandits out of their hideouts.
And let's not forget about the ability to jump into a multiplayer match--an option that's available immediately upon booting the game, but something I've yet to sample. BOOM video 5034
Personally, I spent my a good chunk of my first few hours in New Austin at the poker table, leaving only to hunt down the lucrative bounties for the cash I needed to resume playing poker. Eventually, I went on a few more story missions--unlocking a few more mini-games and odd jobs in the process, along with the lasso one needs to wrangle horses and capture bounties alive--and then got caught up in treasure hunting.
The only problems I've come across playing the Xbox 360 version (I've yet to sample the PlayStation 3 edition) have been mostly technical--nothing that breaks the game, just things that spoil the illusion, so to speak. I've seen stage coaches bouncing in place, corpses spasming in circles, wagons pop into existence in the distance and the building I was in temporarily disappear while I looted a body for gold.
I've also died just because I walked into water and failed a mission because I was supposed to protect a certain someone and didn't realize it--annoyances that, thus far, have been thankfully easy to work around. In the case of the mission I failed because that certain someone died, I was able to restart just prior to that sequence.
Safe to say, there's a lot to do in the old west, even just within the first few hours of the first main area--the story eventually expands to two other main areas. Now, if you'll kindly excuse me, I believe I have some rootin' and tootin' outlaw antics to get to.
Developed by Rockstar San Diego, Red Dead Redemption is now available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in North America. The game hits Europe on May 21.