I’m always a bit skeptical when games score as highly as Red Dead Redemption did on Metacritic, especially because I was not a huge fan of the critically lauded Grand Theft Auto IV. To add to my doubt, RDR is by the exact same studio that brought the world GTA.

So maybe my expectations, despite the game getting nearly perfect ratings, were lowered. In some ways, the game was exactly what I imagined it to be. In others, it completely exceeded what I expected.

There’s something intangible about the game that I absolutely loved. A feeling that I got, riding my tamed black stallion across the beautiful Western landscape, finding treasure, fending off cougars, and eventually stopping in town to sleep for the night or buy some bait for hunting. It’s one of the few games where the sandbox is a lot of fun to play in (as opposed to feeling like an environment to simply be admired or – worse – a hindrance to the fun gameplay you really want to do). There was nothing I enjoyed more than just riding around the vast landscape, occasionally skinning a coyote. This is the part of the game that took me by surprise and made me want to come back and play it night after night.

The rest of the game is what I expected from Rockstar. The storytelling is uneven, the characters exaggerated and hard to sympathize with, and the missions along the main storyline begin to blur together. There are sometimes lengthy bits of exposition that reveal no new insights into character and the main player character, John Marsten, chastises others for things that I did just a few minutes later. What’s more, most of the story is focused on John doing the vicious dirty work for less-than-savory characters in exchange for little or no information. And then, at the beginning of the next mission, John will complain about how he’s not really getting anything out of the deal!

These next two paragraphs are where I spoil the ending to this game in order to talk about how it is a brilliant piece of storytelling. There is a point near the end of the game, after Dutch dies, when I expected the game to end. It was the culmination of everything I had done so far in the game and most games would have ended the game with me returning to my ranch and reuniting with my family. But RDR doesn’t do that. Instead, the next few missions are a careful and beautiful means of pulling the player into the end of the game in an emotional way that hasn’t been matched by many games I’ve played.

The rancher missions are such a departure and so satisfying in an odd way. I felt like I had earned them, like after all the senseless killing and scheming and deception, I had earned the right to simply buy some cattle or teach my son to hunt or scare those damn crows from the corn silo. It felt like coming home. And yet, at the same time, it felt unnerving. There was no doubt that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and when it did, it is both completely gut-wrenching and totally inevitable. The final Stranger mission is a nice denouement and, if I could condense the rest of the game to about 1/20th of its size, the game tells a really nice story.

Unfortunately, story-wise, I was forced to play through the rest of the game to get to the ending. Fortunately, I had fun doing it. When the credits rolled, the stats told me that I had played the game for a little over 2 days and 1 hour, and I wouldn’t say that I regretted a single minute of it.