Red Dead Redemption PS3 / Xbox 360

Red Dead Redemption PS3 / Xbox 360
The Wild West was once America's final frontier, and it remains one in gaming. While fantasy realms, futuristic metropolises, alien vistas and urban cityscapes populate gaming's universe, only a few brave developers have boarded a wagon train west.

But Rockstar (of the Grand Theft Auto Rockstars) is returning there after 2004's so-so third-person shooter, Red Dead Revolver. It's no understatement to say they've appropriately and magnificently redeemed themselves with Red Dead Redemption, a "spiritual sequel" that applies the company's open world-building know-how to their Western interests and added Deadwood grit, creating a sprawling rural environment that feels even more alive than Liberty City.

But these southwest border regions are more than just another living, breathing world filled with cowboys, farmers, bandits and Mexican revolutionaries. Rockstar has placed Red Dead Redemption in a particularly potent time period. The year is 1911 and the Old West is slowly dying in the face of modernity's relentless march ― the government is cracking down on the dusty frontier's lawlessness and the industrial revolution is bee-lining for the Pacific Ocean.

These a-changin' times are embodied by anti-hero John Marston, an outlaw-turned-vigilante loading up his six-shooter and setting off to corral the members of his old posse. He'd rather just lie low, of course, but federal agents have his family held hostage until he kills off his former gang.

This epic game boasts a 1,600-page script and bolsters its main storyline missions with seemingly endless side-quests (bounty hunting, stopping horse thieves and cattle rustlers, finding missing children) and assorted distractions (gambling, hunting, preventing lynchings and just riding about the dusty, cacti-covered plains on your horse).

It also claims a cool Spaghetti Western-inspired score by one of the dudes from Friends of Dean Martinez (along with a couple contributions from Jamie Lidell and Jose Gonzales) and their usual searing social commentary (the game opens on a steam train ride as a priest and some upper-class passengers disparage the local "savages").

As with GTAIV, there is a multiplayer component (death match begins with a Mexican standoff, natch), but it's the single-player game that will resonate throughout the gaming world and, hopefully, broader pop-culture.

Rockstar gets a lot of grief for their games' sex and violence, but look a little deeper and it's their anti-establishment attitude that truly riles the man's feathers. Just as GTA IV argued that the American dream wasn't all it was cracked up to be, so Red Dead Redemption posits that perhaps its past wasn't so hot either.

But it's not just about the dangers of romanticizing the past; the game also has something to say about the present because its subtext is about societal change and the often-messy transition from one era to the next.

Red Dead Redemption may start a gold rush of similarly themed games, but Rockstar can sleep soundly. They've already hit the mother lode. (Rockstar)