“Are you gonna get Red Dead Redemption?” they said. I said I didn’t know; I knew the game was a reboot of sorts for the franchise, but having never played the original (Red Dead Revolver) that didn’t mean too much to me. There was a lot of talk about how this new installment in the series would be taking a lot of cues from Grand Theft Auto 4 (the Best Game Ever™) to the point where the proper title was eventually replaced with Grand Theft Auto But With Horses for the sake of convenience.

And that was really my hangup; I wasn’t sure if I could love a GTA game sans the A. I enjoy those types of games because even after the game proper is long since finished, it’s fun for me to drive around the city and just play. I couldn’t picture doing that on a horse (or really any other means of transportation). Honestly, the earlier the game’s setting, the less interesting I find the driving experience. The Godfather or The Sabotuer are both good examples of games that are just not modern enough to make the driving element engaging to me.

So I didn’t buy Red Dead Redemption. My recent changes in both mindset (don’t buy every game) and cashflow (inconsistent) have prevented that, so far. However, when I got a “we miss you; free rental!” call from the local video store (yeah, we have those!), I knew what I had to do. Three days should be enough time to get to know a game, right?

I think it was somewhere around hour ten when the truth really hit me. This isn’t just Grand Theft Auto But With Horses; this is a real, bona fide Grand Theft Auto game that just happens to be set in a world before the automobile was ubiquitous. Everything else – the mission structure, the tone, the general story, the gameplay, the feeling – fits seamlessly into the GTA framework (I sincerely hope to come across at least one ancestor of a current GTA character), and when you start to think of this game as an endeavor on the same level with such a behemoth it becomes that much more impressive.

Suffice it to say, Red Dead Redemption is a very good game that I had a lot of fun with in my limited exposure to it. There are a few nitpicks, the biggest being that it’s difficult to tell friends from enemies which wreaks havoc on your reputation; the auto aim isn’t particularly picky about who it points your barrel at and then suddenly you’re WANTED and all hell breaks loose. I still can’t figure out the fast travel system, if there even is one. Something about setting up camp and then jumping from there to a previous settlement, which I never experienced.

In typical Rockstar fashion, though, the pros far outweigh the cons. Visuals and design are solid, and audio continues to be a strong point just as it has in the GTA series. With no radio the music instead is sparse and appropriately Western, mellow when appropriate but becoming more frantic during shootouts and other dramatic sequences. Voice acting is superb, especially in the case of main protagonist John Marston. He reminds me very much of Timothy Olyphant’s character in FX’s Justified.

Unsurprisingly, gameplay is nearly identical to Grand Theft Auto IV, with a few notable exceptions. The new(?) DeadEye system (which effectively lets you slow time to pick off a number of targets) is an absolute joy to use and may stand out as the defining mechanic of RDR combat versus GTA combat; I don’t foresee it working in the context of a more modern setting but it’s very appropriate here.

Most exciting though, is that we’re finally seeing a game from Rockstar with no health meters! RDR has gone the way of many modern shooters in that you still have a finite amount of health, but as your condition becomes more critical the screen turns red. If you can find cover, the reverse happens after a few moments. It makes for a much less stressful experience and unlike DeadEye, I hope this propagates to all future GTA games.

In short, Red Dead Redemption is both a great game by itself and, if you’d like, a worthy entry in the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Three days was enough to get to scratch the surface but I definitely look forward to spending more time together in the future.