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Red Dead Redemption 2 hands-on: two hours with Rockstar’s Wild West epic

Get ready to fall in love with a horse

Red Dead Redemption 2

The ride up the gorgeous, sunlit mountain on horseback has been uneventful, almost peaceful, which is a rare occurrence in the lawless Wild West. My steed moves at a meandering pace, up a grey, rocky path where tufts of dry grass jut out from the craggy ground. It’s quiet, and I don’t encourage the horse to move any faster so we can enjoy the moment, fleeting as it might be. But as the path becomes steeper, I realize we have to speed up, and I dig my heels in to get the horse to switch to a flat-out run.

Only, I haven’t been paying close enough attention to my surroundings, and so the poor creature bursts full-speed into a dense tangle of trees. The horse is knocked backwards while I fly 10 feet forward in the opposite direction. By the time I scramble to my feet, the horse is already standing, seemingly no worse for wear. But I stroke its head reassuringly, mostly to say sorry. I’m a lot more careful for the rest of the ride.

I’ve played countless hours of Grand Theft Auto and the rest of Rockstar’s impressive catalogue of games, which has involved speeding across Los Santos and Liberty City in everything from sports cars to speedboats to long-haul trucks. But I’ve never felt a connection to any of those vehicles. Certainly nothing approaching the way that I felt for my horse after recently playing two hours of Rockstar’s upcoming Western epic Red Dead Redemption 2.

The game, which is a prequel to the original RDR, is the biggest thing the developer has ever made, the product of eight internal studios working together. It’s the first time Rockstar has created an open-world game from the ground up for the current generation of consoles, and it shows; the game is absolutely gorgeous with an immense sense of scale.

But what struck me during my all-too-brief time with the game wasn’t how huge it was. It was how deep it felt. The way I could walk up to any soul in town and strike up a conversation, or how if I wandered into camp at the right time I could catch all my friends waking up for breakfast, and pour myself a coffee and join them. I saw it most in my horse. Even in just a few hours, we bonded, and I felt terrible when my mistake caused her pain.

Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t just present a world you can get lost in — it gives you one you’ll become attached to.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place before the events of the original, and puts you in the role of Arthur Morgan, an outlaw and part of the infamous Van der Linde gang. John Marston, star of the first Red Dead, is just one of 23 members of the group, who are as much of a family as they are a criminal organization. When I wandered into their camp, which is out in the wilderness, a good long ride from civilization, it wasn’t what I expected.

It had a family feel. Lunch was just being served — some kind of stew — and everyone was coming together to share a communal meal, greeting me as I walked past. A woman scolded me for not putting enough coin in the communal donation box, while others invited me to join in a song around the fire. As I headed to my horse to leave the camp, Arthur just kept singing, the tune stuck in his head. It felt like an actual place, one that both acted independently of me but also responded to me in ways that seemed natural.

The idea of creating a living, breathing virtual world is something game developers have been striving toward for a long time; it’s ostensibly the goal of every open-world game, Rockstar’s included. What makes RDR2’s so convincing — at least during my time with it — is the depth and detail of the world.

Here are a few of the things that stood out to me the most.

Horses, guns, and beards

The steed I had during my time with the game had a white body with a grey mane and tail, which gave her a distinguished look. More importantly, she was incredibly easy-going; according to Rockstar, you build a bond with the animals over time, and this one apparently already had a great relationship with Arthur. You can forge that connection simply by riding the horse, but you also have the option to fawn over it, by feeding, petting, or brushing it. As that relationship deepens, the horse will learn new abilities. The one I rode could skid around corners at high speed, like a racecar, and even knew a bit of dressage. The horses can also die, and they stay dead, making the bond feel even more precarious and meaningful.

It’s like the anti-Grand Theft Auto, in a way

In addition to being a companion, the horse is also your main form of transportation. Since this is the Wild West, most of the places you’ll be exploring are largely untamed wilderness. You might run into the odd outlaw or trader along a road, but you spend large swaths of the game in solitude, soaking in the landscape. Being on horse forces you to really get a sense of what’s around you. It’s like the anti-GTA in a way; quiet contemplation in place of reckless mayhem.

In another example of the game’s extreme attention to detail, the horse also serves as your inventory. Virtually everything Arthur carries with him you can actually see; his weapons aren’t hidden away in a menu. He’ll slide his shotgun and bow carefully into the saddle before he mounts the animal, and when you hunt, the carcass is slung over the horse’s back. (Rockstar tells me that the carcass will even start to rot over time, attracting flies and wolves in search of an easy meal.) It seems like a small thing, but it keeps you immersed in the world. Instead of checking a menu to see what you have on hand, you can simply look at Arthur and his horse.

Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2

And Rockstar doesn’t just want to make your transportation feel more personal, but your weaponry as well. Video game guns are typically very disposable; you pick one up, keep it around as long as it’s useful, and then upgrade to something better. RDR2 goes in a different direction. The idea is to create an attachment between you and your firearm. You’ll have to periodically clean and oil the gun to ensure it’s in working order. Gunfights are slower-paced, and you really need to be in tune with the rhythm in which your weapon fires and reloads, so that you’re not caught out in battle.

The guns, naturally, are also rendered with a nearly fanatical level of detail, and you can customize virtually every aspect of them. Head into a local gunsmith and you can change the material of every individual part, add a new barrel for a more powerful or quieter shot, or get intricate patterns inscribed on the hilt. It’s surprisingly engrossing; I had to force myself to stop tweaking my pistol so that I had more time to check out the rest of the game.

And then there’s your hair. One of my favorite aspects of The Witcher 3 is something that seems kind of silly out of context. Over the course of the game, Geralt, the series’s grizzled hero, can grow a beard. For a game about an epic quest, it provided a sense of just how much time had passed since you set out on your journey. RDR2 takes this concept a step further. Arthur’s hair and beard will grow over time, and you can go to a barbershop for a trim. But unlike, say, GTA, where you can pick a hair or beard style from a menu, in RDR2 the barber can only work with what he has; your facial hair options are limited by how long Arthur’s beard actually is. If you want bushier mutton chops, well, you’ll just have to grow them out.

A different kind of trigger finger

No matter how much work goes into creating a realistic digital space, most open worlds still boil down to largely the same interactions: you can drive a car and shoot a gun. There are some variations, but they’re rare. RDR2 doesn’t completely avoid this dynamic; I spent much of my time on horseback or in combat, and battles play out much the same as any other third-person shooter, with a big focus on finding cover. In one story mission, where I was searching for a rival gang leader, I started out by stealthily taking down as many enemies as I could before the inevitable firefight, which consisted of me and my companions ducking behind rocks and logs to shoot those rival gang members who remained.

But one of the areas where RDR2 differentiates itself is by offering you things to do other than shooting a gun. In fact, the trigger button — the one on the gamepad you use to fire a pistol — does very different things depending on the context. When your weapon is out of its holster, the trigger is used for shooting, as you’d expect. But when the gun is holstered, the trigger becomes your tool for interacting with the world. (This can take some getting used to; I got into a few unnecessary fights because I shot at people when I meant to speak to them.)

Walk up to your horse and hit the trigger, and a menu will pop up with all the ways you can show her she’s a good girl, whether it’s a quick pat on the head or a more thorough brushing. Confront a bandit on the road with your weapon holstered and you have the option to talk your way out of a conflict, either by intimidating them or offering up some cash. In fact, you can talk to every single non-player character in the game. Some will greet you with a simple hello as you pass, others are looking for more. I had a strange encounter with a one-armed army veteran outside a saloon; he was talking out loud to himself about wanting a friend, and when I agreed, he tried to give me a big hug. When I refused he seemed heartbroken.

Red Dead Redemption 2

These interactions can have a meaningful impact on the way you play the game. When I first reached a small town in the game, I was still getting used to the controls and accidentally ran over an innocent man with my horse. While I could run and hide or stay and fight off the police like in other games, I also had the option to find the sheriff and convince him that I wasn’t going to cause any more trouble. For those looking to soak in the ambience of RDR2’s world without getting into too much trouble, this is a much welcome addition.

There’s a sense of a huge, dynamic world just waiting to be uncovered

I was also able to use this conversation tool to find otherwise hidden aspects of the game. At a seemingly typical drugstore, I ventured into the back to discover a conspicuous metal door. As I loitered around, the owner kept telling me to stay away, and when I confronted him about the door I managed to convince him to open it up. Inside, I discovered an illegal gambling ring and, after a brief, tense firefight, I made off with quite a bit of illicit cash.

These kinds of moments create the sense that there’s a huge, dynamic world there just waiting to be uncovered. One that you can find just by interacting with the world and the people in it. I could have easily missed out on that door in the drugstore, and I almost definitely walked right past all kinds of other interesting moments when I played, things that didn’t catch my eye but would attract another player. It’s that kind of dynamism that makes RDR2 feel alive and unpredictable.

A persistent, seamless world

Perhaps the most important aspect of Red Dead Redemption 2 is also one that I couldn’t judge in such a short time with the game. According to Rockstar, one of the pillars of the experience is persistence, the idea that your actions have real repercussions on the world. Embarrassing that veteran might come back to haunt me, while saving a coach hijacking could lead to new opportunities in the future as the survivors remember my help. I got hints of this in my demo — entering a saloon only for the bartender to warn me not to get into any more fistfights — but, if the game works as advertised, the more interesting storylines are ones that will presumably play out over a much longer period of time.

Rockstar also says it’s aiming to create a story that feels more seamless than other open worlds. In games like, say, the recent Spider-Man on PS4, there’s a clear line between things that happen out in the world, and things that are part of the main story; you can completely ignore Spidey’s quest to stop the bad guys and instead hunt down pigeons and backpacks. In GTA you could be on your way to a climactic narrative moment, only to get sidetracked by a high-speed pursuit that’s never mentioned again.

Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2

The developer says that not only does it want a sense of persistence to the world, it also wants the experience to be more cohesive; even if you get sidetracked doing something outside of the main story, whatever you’re doing should still feel like it’s contributing to the overall narrative. Again, this is something that can be more properly be judged after dozens of hours with the final game, but for what it’s worth, everything I did during my demo felt true to the character and world.

It was like I was living the life of an outlaw. I wasn’t going off and messing around; I was doing things because they had to be done, whether that’s robbing for extra money or hunting for food. These activities then pulled me in new directions, which helped move the story along. Further blurring the line between story and side activity is a new “cinematic camera,” which turns on letterboxing and lets you watch instead of play for a bit. Essentially it turns common moments like a quiet horseback ride into beautifully shot cutscenes.

There are a lot of caveats here. It’s simply impossible to judge a game of the scale and scope of RDR2 in only a single sitting. But even in that short time, I was amazed at how cohesive the experience felt, how every place and person and interaction felt like it had a reason to exist. It was just a taste, but it was a taste of a world that seemed remarkably alive. After two hours, the game leaves a striking impression, but we don’t know yet if that feeling will hold up after 20 hours. The only thing I know for certain is that I already miss my horse.

Red Dead Redemption 2 launches October 26th on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.