+++ Best Setting for any game period
+++ Huge variety of tasks to do
++ Length to 100% feels just about right
++ Bullet Time works well
++ Outstanding graphics
++ Great Voice Acting
+ Final chapter is well executed
+ Solid Weapon Variety
+ Good, if somewhat flawed, Storyline
-- Entire Mexico chapter feels unnecessary and doesn't advance the plot at all
- No Dead Eye with the Gatling gun
- Almost every horse controls exactly the same
- Main game feels slightly short
- Badly in need of a "Survival Map" for animals
- Fairly predictable due to abusive amounts of Foreshadowing
As I've already said a Western is a great setting for a video game and a particularly underused one of late. There seem to be three game settings in general apart from fantasy games, Post Apocalyptic, Modern Apocalyptic, and Medieval with very little in between. Most people hate Post Apocalyptic with a passion at this point and Modern is tiresome when it comes to open world games, hence why Assassin's Creed is doing so well. Navigating a vast wilderness on horseback is extremely immersive and the impressive graphics simply enhance the experience.
While experiencing a Sunset in real life is nice enough you can only do it once a day and finding a vantage point in an urban setting is difficult to say the least, but in this game you'll see sunsets and sunrises every 15 minutes. Somehow Rockstar managed to avoid excessive bloom while still conveying the Sunset effectively. (the bloom in Final Fantasy XIII is occasionally unbearable by comparison) I'm fairly sure they also actually went to specific locations and modeled much of the game after them.
This game has 3 primary locations, Texas/New Mexico, Mexico, and the Great Plains/Rocky foothills. Texas is sort of what you think of when you think of the old west and naturally the first town is the same old Saloon, Sheriff's Office with a few stores and not very many buildings. The game is set around 1910 so it is just prior to the Great War and you get a substantial amount of weaponry from the American Civil War to the World War I eras. Every weapon has an authentic sound since samples were actually taken from the weapon being fired. The same effect was in Grand Theft Auto IV but you only had about 8 weapons in that, in this there are over 25 different weapons, each with a unique sound and many of them with various uses.
The game begins in Texas, wherein you find a kindly cowgirl who is impervious to marriage (this game actually treats women quite well, a shocker for a Rockstar game) and saves you from the man you must hunt down in order to save your family. Let me repeat that, Hunt down your old gang to save your family. Hunt down your old gang... That is the entire story and that particular line is said maybe 50 times throughout it, while the final chapter saves the story from being too terrible hearing Marston say the same thing over and over is a tad tiresome. Still, aside from the repetitive dialogue Marston is a good main character, not as good as Nico Bellic (and nowhere near the legendary CJ) but hardly terrible. Naturally you go on a wild goosechase to find your old friends so you can shoot them in the face (or lasso and hogtie one of them if you want).
While within the first chapter the story doesn't progress much you'll still enjoy yourself simply running around and doing various ambient challenges and exploring the lustrous countryside. This first area feels just about the right size, large enough that you think it's amazing but not so large that it takes forever to get places without fast traveling. I suppose if you played the entire game fast travelling as much as possible you could beat the main story in about 10 hours but it would be pretty damn awful, it's only at the very end and in Mexico that you'll find yourself fast traveling a lot.
Mexico is a really terrible chapter storylinewise, it has one good character for all of 3 missions prior to tossing you into some random conflict between a dictator and his replacement rebellious Che type who will undoubtedly also become a dictator. This sounds interesting enough if the game didn't bash you over the head with pessimism to the point that you already know that it must happen in a shitty way. But apart from all that there is about 2 minutes of actual interaction with the 2 gang members you're chasing and that's pretty much it. 2 minutes to advance the plot out of 5 hours spent doing nothing. That's not to say this part of the game is dull as gameplay but it is certainly dull in terms of the storyline, a slog to get to the more interesting point in the story.
The Final chapter is very well designed, and also extremely easy to navigate while having a diverse set of environments. The Rocky foothills is easily the best looking part of the game, with snow, Conifers, and white water rapids to entertain the eye, just before a grizzly bumrushes you. This game features hunting quite prominently while not really censoring much of it. While little else about the game is objectionable to a morality critic I'm surprised an Animal rights organization hasn't called for Rockstar to tone down their brutality. For my part I like it a lot and it's fairly entertaining.
Cougars and Bears are the hardest enemies in the game, as bullet time makes everything else fairly trivial. 30 men with guns in my general vicinity give me no trouble but a single bear up the ass or a cougar that leaps at you up on your horse and you get massacred. Of course they're still fairly easy to kill and death isn't too frequent regardless. While hunting down specific little nocturnal bastards like raccoons and skunks takes forever attempting to fight a bear or some cougars with a knife is exhilarating and the only time in which the game becomes more than a tad challenging. Though it is optional I would suggest the only way to play this game is to 100% it. The main story simply isn't interesting enough on it's own to drive you to keep playing, but continuous exploration and discovery is outstanding. Rockstar remains the king of sandbox games.
Final Score: 9/10