Rockstar calling it a “Rockstar world” rather than an “open world” wasn’t hubris, it turns out…
It’s been five years since Rockstar’s last magnum opus, the Hall-of-Fame-worthy Grand Theft Auto 5 released in 2013, and eight since it made the video game Western viable again with 2010’s Red Dead Redemption. On October 26, Rockstar will make you wait a tad longer to see its next attempt at pushing the open-world genre forward by rolling the opening credits on Red Dead Redemption 2 against a backdrop of a hellish high-mountain snowstorm.
“Nobody’s following us through a storm like this one!” bellows Dutch, the leader of the 20-odd-person Van der Linde gang as they take shelter in a mountaintop camp, evading the pursuers who’ve run them out of the prosperous American West in 1899 following a disastrous job in Blackwater. And so it falls to Dutch and your own Arthur Morgan to venture out into the Grizzly Mountain wilds to find food for the physically and mentally run-down group. “Get yourselves warm,” Dutch tells them. Stay strong. Stay with me. We ain’t done yet!”
You can both shoot the hats off of your targets, and get your own lid blown off as well.
Yes, there’s a stunning world waiting to be explored here, but you’ll have to make your way down off the bitter cold of the mountain to get to it. Naturally, the quest to find supplies goes awry after reuniting with Micah, a fellow Van der Linde member who was out looking for a handful of missing members. We came to a farm, and after Micah cautiously approached, a firefight broke out (naturally). It turned out that folks from the rival O’Driscoll gang were inside. It’s your first taste of gunplay in Red Dead 2, and it turns out that you can both shoot the hats off of your targets, and get your own lid blown off as well. In a laudable touch, the importance of your headwear is not lost in Rockstar’s world; your original hat (but not any subsequent one you buy) is not only accessible in your stash at any time if it’s not on your head, but it’ll also be tagged with an icon on your mini-map if it’s not in your possession, so that you might find it more quickly.
After getting jumped by a bad guy hiding in the barn, I had the choice to take him out or spare him following our fistfight. I chose the choke-him-to-death option, moving my morality meter a bit towards the evil end of the scale, and promptly searched the house to find a solid stash of supplies. Holding down the Square button (it’ll be X on Xbox One) when you’re near something that might have multiple objects to sift through, such as a cabinet, will have Arthur automatically rummage through everything nearby. I left the house with some oatcakes, canned food, and a pack of premium cigarettes – one of which I lit up outside (net effect: stamina up, health core meter down).
There was also a woman hiding inside, Sadie Adler, and after a commotion with Micah, we learned that she too was a victim of the O’Driscolls’ raid on her family’s home. “We’re bad men, but we ain’t them,” Dutch says as her family home burns to the ground, the result of a lantern on a table getting knocked over during the commotion caused when she came out of hiding. Whoops.
The music swells for the first time during the return trip to the Van der Linde camp, and it is spectacular. It is period-perfect, and Rockstar told me that there are 192 individual pieces of scored music, composed by RDR1’s Woody Jackson. Arthur and Javier, another Van der Linde-r, venture back out after checking back in at camp, this time in search of an old friend. It’s here I first experimented with RDR2’s built-in first-person perspective. Simply cycle through perspectives by pressing the Touchpad (likely to be the View button on Xbox) until you arrive on the first-person view that’s implemented so thoroughly that you could play the entire game that way. Your arms and legs are visible when you look down (in some games, you’re basically just a floating head with arms), your head bobs when you walk, and on horseback you can see the mane of your steed in front of you. In the options menu, if you’re curious, you can adjust the FOV, and individually turn the vehicle or horse views on or off when in first-person, if they annoy you.
Mantling along the cliffside in search of our injured friend who’s calling out to us, a Rockstar rep points out that we’re actually ABOVE the game’s dynamic weather systems. The volumetric clouds just off the cliffside would allow us to see the world below if the weather were clearer. Arthur picks him up, as he’s too injured to walk and, as we try to ride back down the mountain, we’re attacked by a pack of wolves. That I had my camera set to first-person here proved to be a cinematic choice. The angry wolves lunging at me in first-person was harrowing; they’d chomp down on my arm, I’d shake them off, and then shoot them. It was a bit unsettling to see their bodies crumple and their blood seep into the snow.
I put another guy down with a bullet right through his eye socket, the gruesome exit wound visible on his face.
The graphics themselves are beautiful. Little touches abound, like the snow sticking to Arthur’s jacket before slowly melting, or blood from enemies rubbing off onto your avatar’s body if you carry their corpses around. And if those details don’t floor you, the lighting and animation surely will. We next sought to rob a train after catching wind that it would be worth our while to do so, our money having been largely lost back in Blackwater. Once we boarded the train – I’ll leave you to discover the details of that for yourself – I got my first real look at Red Dead 2’s phenomenal animation system. Remember that impressive Euphoria-powered Indiana Jones tech demo from 2006? No? That’s probably because almost no publishers or developers took NaturalMotion up on their silky smooth animation technology, for whatever reason.
Rockstar was one of the few that did. Euphoria commercially debuted in Grand Theft Auto 4, and it’s been refined through Max Payne 3 and Grand Theft Auto 5. But here in Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s simply next-level. I can already see the potential for “guys getting shot off of their horse” montage videos appearing across the internet after launch. We’ve seen Red Dead 2’s trailers, where bad dudes on horseback are shot, the horse bucks, and the guy’s limp body flops before being flung off the steed. That’s real gameplay, and it happens differently every single time based on the physics involved. It is both gross and spectacular. To wit: as I made my way up the train through the cars, shooting those in my way, they reacted exactly as I imagine they would to a real bullet. One foe got winged in the shoulder, recoiled back on that side of his body, and then continued to attack after the non-fatal blow. I put another guy down with a bullet right through his eye socket, and he limped to the ground instantly, the gruesome exit wound visible on his face.
I got to see more of this in the O’Driscoll camp we raided before getting off the mountain a bit earlier. We snuck into our rival’s controlled turf, and Arthur was given the option: lead the assault myself, or send the gang in. I tried both tactics, the only difference mostly amounting to who shoots first. Still, flanking, cover, and that sweet, sweet location-based bullet damage all came into play as I finally got my first taste of RDR1’s returning Dead Eye mechanic. Click R3 to trigger it, then tag your foes, let it rip, and watch the carnage unfold. You replenish it by chugging Tonic, which is in reasonable supply in the campaign’s early going.
Even Arthur himself has a scent wafting off of his body.
I went to check in at camp again, at which point Pearson, the ex-Navy officer turned camp cook, tells us to go out and get some food. We head out with Charles and his injured hand – a convenient gameplay excuse to let me, as Arthur, do the work with the bow and arrow to hunt and kill a couple of deer to bring back. Clicking in both sticks activates a scent tracker called Eagle Eye, and yes, even Arthur himself has a scent wafting off of his body (it’s the pre-Old Spice days of 1899, so I can only imagine…). You can use this to stay on the trail of the deer. It’s difficult to land a fatal blow from a far enough distance that you don’t scare them away using traditional aiming; Dead Eye helped a lot here, though I didn’t figure that out before wounding a couple of poor, innocent doe-eyed woodland creatures that managed to limp away to safety.
When I did kill a few, I slung the deer husks over the back of my horse and spotted a bear on my way back to camp. Against the advice of my Rockstar demo chaperones — because at this mid-winter point in the game, the bear was obviously ravenous and therefore far more hostile — I hopped off my mount and tried to get into a good shooting position, using a rifle this time. I lined it up, used Dead Eye, and put several rounds into the beast. It didn’t die, but it didn’t come after me either. Fortunately for me, it turned and ran in the opposite direction. Theoretically, you could hunt squirrels and rabbits this way, but I didn’t get a chance to test that out. Instead, back at camp, Pearson had me skin the deer. Walking up to the carcass, its skin unzipped a little too conveniently, if you ask me – and it was time to get off the damn mountain and get down into the “Rockstar world,” a moniker the developers have opted to call it, rather than carry the limitations of the traditional “open world” genre as we’ve known it.
As it turns out, Rockstar probably isn’t wrong to elevate its open worlds above others. Detail is incredible. Mud dirties clothes with a rich brown color – and then dries into a light tan over time. Other visual layers, like blood and snow, function similarly across real-time behaviors as you’d expect them to. Random encounters appear to be far more commonplace than they were in RDR1. One random encounter brought us upon a woman who was being abducted by what was obviously a terrible man. She was hogtied and being hauled like cargo over the back of the steed. I lassoed him off his horse and, after disposing of him, I picked up the bound woman and dropped her down into the mud so I could untie her. The thick mud from the moonlit swampland we were in gooshed around her, and when she got up she was covered in filth but clearly relieved to be alive. And as I rode away, the moonlight – peering through the mists of the muddy swamp – glinted off of the hilt of my rifle, which was stashed, barrel-down, on my horse’s saddle. It’s a million little details like those that all combine to make Red Dead Redemption 2 feel like a real, lived-in place – much more so than just about any non-Rockstar game before it. In fact, Red Dead 2 is gorgeous enough that it may push a lot of PS4 Pros and Xbox One Xes into living rooms, and plenty of 4K TVs as well (I’m in the latter camp; time to go shopping!).
For Whom the Belle Tolls
Missions feel as organic as the game world does, which may be Red Dead 2’s biggest leap forward. Take, for example, a saloon I walked into. I met a stranger there who was talking to a passed-out barfly. Or, well, he was trying to. Turns out the unconscious man was “The Gunslinger,” a legendary gunman on whom the stranger – a reporter – was trying to interview for his book. He asks Arthur for help in locating, interviewing, and photographing each of the notorious shooters he wants to include in the novel. He suggests I shoot them if they give me any problems. That setup led me to the aforementioned random kidnapping event in the swamp area, which was followed by the main mission there: winning over Black Belle, a renegade gunwoman, for an interview. I’d only known to go there by using a provided photo to start my search, and once I arrived, she was skeptical of my intentions. But before I could convince her, a group of bounty hunters approached her home, looking to bring her to justice, dead or alive.
Such began another crazy sequence that deftly mixed cutscenes with proper gameplay. I agreed to help Black Belle in exchange for the interview and photo. She then told me to pull the lever on her porch when she gave the word because, you guessed it, the whole place was rigged to blow, and the bounty hunters were slowly approaching her front door. Setting off the explosives triggered another chaotic firefight, after which, true to her word, Black Belle allows you to take her picture. Humorously, you can request that she change her pose, which will vary from a more traditional posture to a guns-akimbo stance that wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of Guns & Ammo.
Killin’ Time (and a Lot More)
After that explosive gunfight, my time was spent with a combination of roaming the open world and talking to my fellow gangsters back at camp – which was now set up comfortably outside the town of Valentine. I never did make it back to the saloon to talk to that biographer. At camp, the man who goes by Uncle, clearly inebriated, wanted to head into town. Marybeth and two other women from camp convinced Arthur to let them tag along on the wagon, as they’d been cooped up in camp for the last couple weeks.
Another stellar piece of music kicked off our journey. En route, Uncle asked the ladies to sing a song, which they happily obliged in unison, at one point misremembering different words and thus ending their tune with a fit of laughter. Moments later, another wandering wagon passing in front of us saw one of its horses break free. I stopped, slowly approached the horse, calming it with my voice and then a gentle pat once I got closer, and reunited it with its owner. And then, after the good deed was done, I decided to test Red Dead 2’s sandbox by shooting the man I’d just aided. I must say I was disappointed when the game threw up a “Mission Failed” screen despite no one being around to witness the crime. I was told afterwards that this event had further-reaching consequences, and thus couldn’t end with me shooting that man in the face. To Red Dead 2’s credit, though, when I redid the mission, I simply kept right on riding past the stranded traveler, and Marybeth scolded me for not helping him. Nice touch!
I blackhatted it and stepped on his fingers, sending him plummeting to his death below.
In Valentine, I watched a man trying to shoe his horse, offered assistance, and watched him die suddenly, violently, and tragically as the horse fatally kicked him square in the head. I approached a Bluetick Coonhound dog, pet him, and watched his tail adorably and furiously wag. I was told the next time I came into town, this particular pup wouldn’t bark at me – we were friends now. I shot and killed a turkey; Rockstar says there are over 200 species of wildlife in Red Dead 2. I was thrown from my horse and killed (painfully, I might add, a sensation I was once again able to register thanks to those Euphoria-powered physics) when I rode too fast outside of town and accidentally ran into a knee-high-to-my-horse rock. I chased and lassoed a boar, skinned it, and threw the pelt over the back of my horse. I passed the controller and watched Brian Altano sift through the ultra-detailed (and long) catalog at the town’s general store (see video above). Controller back in my hands, a man in town ran up to me, swore he knew me from the crimes back at Blackwater, and then dashed off, seemingly to tell the authorities. So I chased him out of town, both of us on horses (I stole a stranger’s steed), and ran him to the edge of a cliff, where he fell off his horse and clung to life on the edge, literally by his fingertips. I blackhatted it and stepped on his fingers, sending him plummeting to his death below. Back in town, the L2-based conversation system that lets you talk to just about anyone makes it fun to see what people will say and where the interactions can lead. In Red Dead 2, it seems that you can turn over more stones than in any Rockstar offering to date, GTA included.
Red Dead Redemption 2, like Grand Theft Auto 5 before it, is what happens when world-class talent is given virtually unlimited time and resources to bring that team’s vision to life. Most games, if they’re lucky, can check one or two of those boxes, but Rockstar is about the only outfit that can consistently claim all three. The result, if the opening hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 are any indication, is a bar-raising effort that will be remembered long after this console generation ends.
Ryan McCaffrey is Tech’s Executive Editor of Previews. Follow him on Twitter at @DMC_Ryan, catch him on Unlocked, and drop-ship him Taylor Ham sandwiches from New Jersey whenever possible.