From just a few hours with Red Dead Redemption 2, I went from executing a train robbery, to riding on my steed across the vastness of the Western landscape, to infiltrating a rival gang’s camp and brutally taking them out. I went from roaming through the wilderness and taking in its serene beauty, to riding alongside the rest of my gang through the snowy mountains, to viciously engaging with the law and avoiding imprisonment at their hands.
These moments from Red Dead Redemption 2 very much feel like “Rockstar” moments. These are the types of moments that trailers for their past titles, such as Grand Theft Auto V, have highlighted to hone in on the fact that their games aim to feel larger than life, and delivering the types of action and spectacle that we see on the big screen and the films that Rockstar has always turned to for inspiration.
And yet those moments, as action-packed and exciting as they are, were just a smaller part of the fact that Red Dead Redemption 2‘s focus is turned even more toward its finer details. As I entered a small town as Arthur Morgan and went to the nearby general store, I was able to browse the shelves and interact with almost every individual object, item, or knick-knack that caught my eye, and able to examine it in fine detail, even down to reading the labels. At the conclusion of the previously-mentioned train robbery when looking for bonds and money to score, I saw Arthur rummage through cabinets and spending some time looking at the ornate decorations and items strewn about, when just a minute before this, he was hopping across train cars and taking down gunmen left and right. After riding my horse into the next town and stopping to take a break, I could examine my rifle, clean it with gun oil and a cloth, and make sure it was ready for the next engagement ahead.
These moments, as small and inconsequential as they may seem compared to the larger story being told, were really what made Red Dead Redemption 2‘s world and setting feel unlike anything that I’ve played before. As a game that’s been worked on by Rockstar for nearly 7-8 years — basically since the release of Red Dead Redemption in 2010 — the time and attention to detail put into its world and setting by the studio are on an unprecedented level. With the force of all of Rockstar’s teams behind it from around the world, the studio has called it their most “ambitious” project leading up to its release, and that might just be underselling it. Based on what I’ve played from the game so far, the level of interactivity, mechanics, and systems available to players make Red Dead Redemption 2 as close as we can get to the living, breathing Western world that Rockstar is aiming to deliver, and I can’t wait to explore more of it.
In a preview with Rockstar Games in New York City, we were able to see about two hours of Red Dead Redemption 2. With the demo split between seeing some of the game’s early story-driven moments, and then getting to interact and play the game for ourselves, this not only gave us a sense of the overall scope of Red Dead Redemption 2, but also provided a hands-on feel for its deeper mechanics, gameplay systems, combat, and the environment. In short: it’s a game of a scope that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen before from an open-world game, even coming from the studio that (arguably) set the genre’s foundations with Grand Theft Auto III way back in 2001.
The scope for Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t necessarily tied to the “size” of the world, but instead its depth. From the short amount that we played of the game, relatively-speaking, I have no doubts that the Western world that Red Dead Redemption 2 is bringing to life will probably be massive. As recent trailers and screenshots for the game have highlighted several environments that players will explore throughout the game, such as the swamplands of St. Denis and the snow-capped mountains of Mount Hagen, there already seem to be a larger variety of different topographies, climates, and locations compared to Red Dead Redemption.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, that scale almost pales in comparison to Rockstar’s dedication to making its world feel just about as real as the turn-of-the-century West can get. This includes everything from Arthur being able to take baths and shave, to being able to customize your guns, down to the metal inlays in the barrel and stock of each weapon. As Rockstar emphasized during our demo, the studio isn’t necessarily aiming to make the game’s world all about physical size and area, but about expanding the ways and methods that players can interact with the game’s excruciatingly-detailed world, and how their actions and decisions will influence it.
That interaction all starts with Arthur Morgan, the game’s main protagonist, and how players will decide to take on the role of the senior member of the Van der Linde gang, and Dutch’s right-hand man. Having been a part of the gang since childhood, the outlaw life is all that Arthur has known, and most of the trailers leading up to Red Dead Redemption 2 have shown that Arthur isn’t exactly much of a “pleasant” person to be around. However, as Rockstar pointed out to us during the demo, the reason behind this is that Arthur essentially owes his life to Dutch and the gang, and he’s fiercely protective of them as a result. How fiercely his loyalty lies, however, is left up to the player to decide throughout the course of the story.
From what’s been shown of the story so far, Red Dead Redemption 2 will take place over a decade prior to the events of Red Dead Redemption; where John Marston’s story chronicled the imminent “end of the Wild West,” Arthur Morgan’s story follows the Van der Linde gang at the height of their notoriety, and is the so-called “beginning of the end” for this volatile period in the American West, according to Rockstar. While playing as Morgan, his role in the game will be to guide the gang through their journey across the West and evading the law on their tail, while also helping the gang set up camp across various locations, and aiding them to gather food and other supplies to maintain morale.
In the story sections that we played of Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s already clear that Arthur’s relationships with the members of the Van der Linde gang will play a crucial role across the whole game, on larger and more personal levels. Right at the beginning of the demo, those relationships came into play as Arthur and the gang were preparing to rob a train under the ownership of the oil tycoon Leviticus Cornwall, which started with Arthur assisting Bill Williamson to blow up the train tracks and derail the car. Naturally, after that plan went awry, Arthur and several other members of the gang instead raced to the top of the nearby mountain path to hop on top of the train. In the midst of the action, we saw that Arthur can issue commands to the fellow gang members as they pushed towards the conductor car, making the action feel that much more involved when executing the heist alongside his other fellow gang members.
While these relationships definitely had their use in these action-heavy segments of the demo, the interactions that Arthur has with the other members of the gang also play out in more narratively-driven ways. While trekking through the mountains with John and Bill in a later story section that we played, I had the option to talk to Bill along the way to learn more about the rival gang camp that we were about to ambush. Staying silent would have been a completely viable option as well, but having those type of options speaks to the ways that Red Dead Redemption 2 is aiming for a more dynamic and natural way for players to interact with its world and characters.
One of the biggest ways that Rockstar accomplishes this in Red Dead Redemption 2 is by integrating a new “Focus” ability for Arthur to interact with virtually any object, person, or animal that he comes across. By holding the L2 button (as we played the game on PS4 Pro) without a weapon holstered, Arthur can choose from a variety of ways to engage with oncoming travelers, shopkeepers, and other NPCs in the environment, whether that’s to greet them, antagonize them (likely resulting in a violent conflict), rob them, and more.
Even having only played the game for a brief amount of time, seeing the level of interaction with the NPCs in Red Dead Redemption 2 already showed what I think will be one of its most fascinating elements. With so many options now opened up to engage with the characters throughout the world, it gave me a thrill that, by and large, any NPC in Red Dead Redemption 2 could potentially give players something new to draw from the world. As Rockstar noted, characters in the game have their own set schedules and paths, which could lead to players finding some NPCs at specific locations at certain times of the day. When the Van der Linde gang sets up camp, some of Arthur’s gang members can even appear randomly at nearby towns or locations, such as when we heard Arthur got into a fist fight with some locals at the saloon, only for Bill and Javier to show up and lend a hand.
Many of these interactions with the game’s NPCs will likely result in finding new missions and quests, such as a late night trip to a nearby saloon, where one character wanted me to go out on a mission and take photographs with an early 1900s-era flash camera. Other interactions can get hostile, such as another instance where I tried to rob an incoming traveler on horseback, only to see him still watching me — warily, gun drawn — as I rode on past him. And yet, some of these interactions can be completely unexpected, or even downright hilarious. In what was easily the funniest moment of our demo, I had Arthur greet a fellow traveler, only to see his horse get startled, kick the man in the head, and end up leaving him dead on the road; this left an audible gasp from myself and the Rockstar reps with us during the demo, only to bust out laughing after.
Aside from the direct ways that you can interact with characters in Red Dead Redemption 2, there are an even wider range of ways that Rockstar is truly aiming for players to really “live” inside this world by playing as Arthur. This comes down to factors such as eating, sleeping, taking Arthur to the local town barber for a haircut and a shave (if you want his hair or beard longer, you’ll have to wait until it grows out), and even down to whether Arthur enters a town armed or unarmed. Naturally, holding your weapon while striding through a town will have its citizens on edge and wary of your actions, while holstering your weapon will make for more civil engagements. As one of the Rockstar reps mentioned as we entered a town, this even extends to the way that you enter a new location on horseback — a calm trot into town will go over much better than charging headlong into town and (potentially) running over an innocent civilian.
With so many different facets to the gameplay and interacting with the environment, the number of systems and mechanics at play in Red Dead Redemption 2 is staggering, and in some instances can even sound a little overwhelming. However, after having hands-on time with the game and first-hand experience with these mechanics, these touches truly feel like meaningful ways to make Red Dead Redemption 2 feel alive and dynamic, for the players that really want to go deeper into it. As Rockstar emphasized to us during the demo, these more survival-driven mechanics aren’t meant to feel like “chores” that the player has to do — they’re optional — but instead to develop that idea that Arthur is truly a part of this world and more than just a vehicle for players to explore what it has to offer.
Just like Arthur himself is meant to feel like a living character for players to embrace and play their role as, the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 feels ripe for exploration and unexpected sights to behold. While roaming across the landscape on horseback, I saw majestic mountain passes and calming rivers full of opportunities to hunt and fish, especially as wildlife like deer and rabbits strode by. Just before that, I had Arthur and his horse perched on the top of a hill, only to see that a storm was brewing out in the distance, watching as clouds and mist rolled over the mountains. Standing there for a few minutes, the result of the passing rains ended up being a brilliant rainbow out on the horizon, something that even caught the Rockstar reps with us during the demo by surprise.
Throughout these two hours with Red Dead Redemption 2, we certainly got many questions answered about what is arguably the most anticipated game of the year. The story, action, and spectacle that we saw from the game (so far) shows that Rockstar Games is firing on all cylinders to deliver what I’m already confident to say is going to be an unforgettable experience, combined with its world that is full of detail and immersion. The degree to which Rockstar is crafting the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 to its full potential is simply incredible, and I can’t wait to see what more that it has to offer. Thankfully, there’s just a few more weeks left until we can all ride out West and discover it for ourselves.
Red Dead Redemption 2 will release for PS4 and Xbox One on October 26th, 2018. If you have yet to pick up a copy of the game, there’s still time to pre-order it on Amazon before it arrives later this month.
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