We visited Rockstar's offices in London in 2014 to be among the very first to see Grand Theft Auto V on PlayStation 4, and there the representatives and developers oozed confidence. The game had initially released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 the year prior to rave reviews and larger-than-life sales figures, and that success story had, of course, rubbed off on the people who had spent years of their lives hunkered down over their desks, trying to create the next groundbreaking chapter in one of the world's most respected media franchises. They were determined, poised, ready to take on any and all questions. Even still, at that point in time they couldn't have known what a monster the game would turn into, selling 90 million copies, breaking new ground through GTA Online.
And why are we boring you with a personal history lesson, you might ask? Well, the difference between the Rockstar showcase four years ago, and the one we entered not too long ago at a luxurious Copenhagen hotel is stark, palpable, and even bewildering. It was clear from the offset that Red Dead Redemption 2 - which releases on October 26 after many years in development and is a combined development effort across many Rockstar studios around the globe - is like a sophomore album, as there was tension and nervousness in the air, the developers almost apologetic. That may seem like a negative first impression, to lack that confidence in the product that was so brimming just a few short years ago, but it wasn't - it was Rockstar being humble despite the success of GTA V. One thing was abundantly clear though, which is that they were nervous because they want to deliver something awe-inspiring, something memorable, something wonderful.
And after close to two hours of both watching and playing the next western epic from a studio that's next to impossible not to respect for their contributions to modern game design, we can faithfully say that Red Dead Redemption 2 is one the most impressive demonstrations we've ever experienced.
The year is 1899 and the old west is a dying concept. The land is being repurposed through the fires of industry, and the Frontier - which was once harsh and unforgiving - is now seeing structures, laws, and limitations replace danger and ultimately freedom. None of this is good news for the Van der Linde gang, which stubbornly holds onto notions of free will outside of government control, where it's about taking what life offers, even if it's from the coin purses of others.
The hands-off demonstration opens, oddly enough, with a young John Marston. He's clearly injured, as indicated with the bloody rags covering wounds on his face. In storms Abigail, his wife, and his son Jack alongside Dutch Van der Linde and our new protagonist Arthur Morgan. They've been chased into the snowy mountains by authorities after a botched job in Blackwater, and Marston was injured in the process. Now Dutch sees robbing a train as the only way out of their bleak situation.
Arthur, Dutch and the rest of the gang saddle up, and ride into the snowy wilderness, where control is seamlessly given to the player. Here begins a traditional Rockstar A to B ride, with exposition delivered through dialogue between the characters. It might seem too familiar at this stage, but it gives the player ample time to take in the sumptuous attention to detail. Hundreds if not thousands of working hours have been put into everything, from making the sure the thick snow moves accordingly as your horse drags its hooves through it to the sheets of ice breaking apart as you traverse a small river on the way. As the gang starts the descent from the mountains, the sheer scale of the world of is revealed, with a vista unlike anything in any game we can remember. Not only is the entire world visible from this point - you can see fine details in the distance too, like a sawmill letting out pitch black smoke, or the sun reflecting its rays in a river down in the grasslands.
Upon seeing this roughly 10-minute journey from the base camp in the mountains down to the rolling hills of the west, it's clear that not only is this the biggest world Rockstar has ever designed, it's the deepest one too, where every angle, nook, and cranny has been touched by human hands. It feels tactile, even on the grandest of scales.
And that concept of creating something breathlessly humongous, but keeping the handmade, artisan feel, is what ultimately sets Rockstar worlds apart, and in Red Dead Redemption 2 this ability is on full display; a studio at the height of their creative ability. The train robbery itself shows the tactile nature of the design too, as Arthur is tasked with rolling the spool of detonator wire from the train tracks to the detonator itself, as well as pulling up a comrade hanging on the side of the train when the explosion inevitably fails and the gang must jump onto the train cars as they roar by. These small interactions may seem trivial, but they're essential acts of interaction which underline the illusion of true immersion. The game wants you to be there, to feel intrinsically linked to the actions of your character. Across the entire demonstration it was abundantly clear how interaction and tactile design was the ultimate goal. You actually take stew with a ladle and eat it with several presses of the right trigger, for example, and during missions you'll open cupboards and closets and actually take an item to put it in your shoulder bag. You can pick up and examine letters and notes, and even flip them to check for secret information.
The mission itself saw us stopping the train with brute force, and that involved some good ol' fashioned gun fighting. The weapons feel heavy, responsive, and realistic - more so than in any other Rockstar game - and by introducing active reloading, as well having to holster weapons through lengthy and immersive animations, it again immediately convinces you that you're actually firing a repeater rifle in the old west. You still aim with the left and fire the right trigger, you still take cover and use Dead Eye to pump out multiple shots at a time; on the face of it it looks the same, but underneath the hood Rockstar has tweaked its systems, creating its most refined version of its known structures to date.
Upon stopping the train, shooting up any and all challengers prepared to die for Lividicus, a business magnate, the mission came to an end, and so did that particular portion of the session. Now it was time for us to take the reins and hold the controller for the first time. Rockstar gently asked us to step out of the room while the demo was repurposed, and when we re-entered, the snowy mountains had been switched for a grassy prairie landscape. In the distance to the right laid Lividicus' sawmill, and up north one of the game's many towns, Valentine. Before us the hills stretched out for miles upon miles, ultimately paving the way for what appears to be hundreds if not thousands of square miles of world waiting to be explored.
We saddled up and rode into the sunset, immediately feeling how improved controlling the horse feels this time around. The horse is - if you treat it right and build a bond over the course of the game - now an extension of yourself, rather than a vehicle of sorts, even though it might feel like it. It grinds to a halt, speeds up, switches speeds, and even moves sideways at the will of the player. There are several mechanics in place, such as gear shifts with the X and L1 button, and by holding square while standing still, the horse will strafe in a given direction. If your bond becomes strong enough, it'll even pull off something akin to a handbrake turn. Furthermore, all of the items you can't hold yourself, such as extra weapons, tonics, or other crafting materials, can be stored in the saddlebags of your steed, making it not just a means of transportation, but a companion for the road. Rockstar hopes that the player will bond with their horse, and after a few minutes we could feel that happening already.
Valentine was the destination, but not before we took down an unlucky deer by placing a deluge of repeater rounds in its chest. Hunting plays a big role in Red Dead Redemption 2, and this time around you can use the pelts and skins for multiple things, such as selling them at the butchers in a town like Valentine, as well as to to provide for the gang at camp. After taking down this deer in a most ungracious manner, we lifted it up, put it on the back of our trusty steed, and headed towards Valentine.
Valentine is one of many bustling towns of Red Dead Redemption 2, and while this wasn't the largest, it's among the most impressive urban environments we've come across in recent memory. While other games give the NPC characters inhabiting a town daily routines, none go as far as this. People remember you, greet you, and interact with one another in unexpected ways. The gunsmith acknowledges a fight that happened several days ago between Arthur and an anonymous brute, and the two have a conversation about it. Down the main street a few burly men are building something, and they drag around timber, cut it up into planks and truly build this structure in front of the player. Elsewhere, a shopkeeper is attending his porch and greets a pair riding past in a wagon. Red Dead Redemption 2 wants to greet you, to know you, to let you know that there are systems in place to ground you within this world.
We tied up our horse at one of the many hitching posts, the benefit of which is regaining precious stamina for when you head out into the wild once more. The butcher was anything but impressed with our deer, and gave us a paltry few dollars for it, but that was enough to explore the rest of the main street, and within just a few dozen square meters there was more to do, see, and interact with than entire districts of say Grand Theft Auto V. The gunsmith offered new, incredibly deep customisation options for each weapon in our arsenal, and not only could we clean our weapons - which you must do in order to avoid misfires - but we could also could choose the material of each individual part of everything from a Smith & Wesson handgun to a trusty repeater. Across from the gunsmith was a hotel, ready to offer Arthur lodgings, a bath, and a good meal to restore stamina and health. There are indeed several systems at play that deepen the experience and give the player additional tools to interact with the environment and express themselves in new ways. You must clean your gun, you must trim your beard which grows naturally over time, you must sleep in order to be as sharp as you can be - these parameters may seem alien in a Rockstar game, but they were never intrusive, instead simply grounding you and maintaining the sense of player-driven immersion and narration.
As we trudged through main street, we recognised an odd-looking metallic door on the side of the Doctor's store. A closer look revealed that we could knock, and ask the inhabitants of this out-of-place backroom to reveal themselves. A quick interrogation made it clear that the doctor in Valentine was running an illegal operation, and as any good outlaw would, we decided to relieve them of their illegally obtained treasures. It's worth mentioning a brand new system here, recently introduced through the impressive gameplay reveal trailer, as by holding L2, Arthur locks on to a given citizen and gets a host of possible interactions, ranging from a simple greeting to - in the doctor's case - confronting him about his illegal activities. This resulted in us pulling our pistol, and demanding him to open the door to the back room. His accomplices would not be intimidated, and a shootout commenced, leaving all four criminals dead.
The law arrived, hitching their horses out front before investigating the commotion. In Red Dead Redemption 2, law enforcement will not immediately assume you to be the culprit though, and instead you might be able to talk your way out of a confrontation, especially if you have yet to equip a bandana or have holstered your weapon. This time, however, they did not buy our explanation for standing in the middle of an illegal back room surrounded by corpses. We fled as fast as our horse could take us, looking behind to delay our pursuers with a few repeater rounds as we escaped back into the safety of the wild. A bounty was now on our head - one that could affect our relationship with the townsfolk should we choose not to pay up. Stores would close, the people scared of walking main street with us present.
Again, the tactile nature of Red Dead Redemption 2 is what impresses the most. It's how everything feels handmade, and in turn feels like you're now touching it with yours. It's subtle, but it's abundantly apparent. From taking cover in the mud we were now dirty, our weapons too. Our horse had been shot at and our bond had been strained as a result. The game recorded our actions and responded appropriately.
Back at camp, one that moves as the game's story progresses, it was time for a quick tour. Here, every character is a living, breathing human being, and these people are yours to protect. Every single time you return, they'll have news to share with you, but not all of this is directly tied to missions, instead providing exposition and subtle narration, in turn giving Arthur Morgan purpose.
It was also from here that the final portion of the demonstration began. A mission is commenced by simply locking onto the person in question using L2, and striking a conversation. In this case, it was a tied up O'Driscoll soldier who, afraid to get castrated by Bill Williamson's red-hot knife, gave up the location of the O'Driscoll leader. He agreed to take us to their hideout, and another ride commenced. "Press the touchpad", the Rockstar developer gently suggested, and this revealed a fully-fledged first-person mode, which is there day and date on the release, so if you enjoyed playing Grand Theft Auto V like that, rest assured that it seems to be a mainstay feature for the studio from now. In addition, a cinematic camera can be toggled on at your leisure, placing black bars over and under the screen, bumping up the epic music (of which there are 192 pieces!) and guiding your horse for you. Looking for an Ennio Morricone moment? This is a good as it's ever going to get.
Arriving at the campsite, the game briefly introduces you to a stealthy approach to each mission objective, which Rockstar says is a viable alternative to arriving guns blazing. Back is the trusty throwing knife, and with the addition of the bow, you have plenty of opportunities if you wish to thin the herd before bullets start flying. Also, in the two main missions on display, each one had Arthur set up with a companion, who not only helped out when things got hairy but took direct command inputs from the player. Arthur could, in this case, choose to let Bill Williamson stab an enemy sentry in the back with his knife, giving you space and time to assess the situation.
After missing a critical shot with the bow, proper fighting commenced. Using Dead Eye and a mix of hip firing by simply mashing R2, alongside careful aiming with a rifle, we managed to eliminate each and every enemy in the O'Driscoll camp, leaving the demonstration at an end.
Red Dead Redemption 2 left us breathless. The attention to detail is staggering, its weighty, the realistic controls are immersive, and Rockstar's narrative ability is astounding thanks to the quality of the script, the acting ability on display, and the subtle environmental storytelling. Our time might've been brief in the grand scheme of things, but its impact was anything but. Rockstar's humble attitude was surprising given our personal history with their preview events, and it ultimately suited them - they know their talent, but they're still out to please. They have had incredible success but are still out to surpass past glories.
Ultimately, their vision was on breathtaking display. We left feeling flabbergasted, as Rockstar has created an image, an image which wouldn't be as strong if they didn't deliver every time, but after playing Red Dead Redemption 2 we were again reminded that they just do.