No matter if you fancy yourself as an outdoorsman, it's important to visit towns every now and again. After all, Rockstar has introduced a number of systems to ground you to the world, and by living in the rugged wilds Arthur's clothes will dirty up, his stamina will drain if he hasn't slept, his guns will get dirty if they're not properly cleaned. Just like the cowboys of the real west, visiting towns is a necessity, and despite the fact that it may seem redundant on the surface, actually having errands to run in town and meeting new people in the process is a legitimately fantastic way of experiencing the historical period in which the game is set. The camp, the forests, the rivers, the mountains - that's your home, and small towns like Valentine or huge metropolises like Saint Denis are a necessity, a necessary evil. Still, once there you can upgrade your weapons at a gunsmith, selecting each individual part from the barrel to the stock. You can pay extra for gold plating, or simply upgrade it for a faster reload time. If you're poor, which will happen often, a simple clean will suffice in order to prevent misfires. The hotels offer you rooms to rent, and from here you can replenish your stamina and even take a bath. General stores offer up gossip and a wide array of usable items, and the doctor will sell you tonics. All of these stops are necessary if you want to be a fully functioning outlaw, and it never ever becomes tedious. It's immersion, and that term is vague, but it fits so neatly here. It's just immersive busywork.
What's not busywork at all though is the missions you undertake over the course of the at least 50-hour story. The camp residents, and also new characters you'll meet along the way, will offer up missions big and small, which range from heists to hunting, from escaping deadly Pinkerton agents to taking a friend into town for a drink. It's a brilliantly paced narrative with relaxing moments of utter calm where Arthur and other characters converse and become alive before you, and heart-stopping action where each bullet is not only made of lead but the will to survive. The variety here is better than it's ever been, even besting GTA V, which stands as the pinnacle of perfectly paced linear missions within an open-world framework. The game excellently and masterfully switches at the blink of an eye between a polished, linear experience, only to open the world back up to you. It's difficult to delve into too many details without spoiling some properly memorable moments, but it's safe to say that no two missions ever feel the same.
An aspect that ensures variety is the constant barrage of ways in which the player is offered mechanics to interact with the game world, and that's not only in a narrative sense, where Arthur can greet passersby, defuse tensions, or even rob people but also in terms of combat. Each and every weapon feels distinct, and has immediate advantages, each feels satisfying to fire and reload. It feels weighty, purposeful and wholly realistic. Same goes for Arthur - he moves deliberately, yet patiently, and while the overall movement patterns and action may seem slower than what many are used to, there's a point where you realise how flimsy other, similar characters handle themselves. After a lighter, more responsive control scheme in Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar goes back to something heavier, and the game is all the better for it.
In addition to the main narrative, there are side-missions which appear as bigger circles on the map, where the quest giver must be located by keeping an ear to the ground and your eyes open. Not only that, missions may open up simply by interacting with the surroundings. At one point Arthur sees a letter lying next to his bed in the camp, and it happens to be from his former girlfriend. Reading this letter opens up a whole chain of missions which would've been hidden had Arthur not picked up that specific letter. There's also the usual Strangers, which give you meaningful collectibles to find, and there are bounties to collect across the entire game world. Not only that, one of the camp residents will task you with "persuading" citizens to pay back their outstanding loans. Almost all of these activities award you with medals, just like in Grand Theft Auto V, and it's hard to imagine being done with Red Dead Redemption 2 if you set your aim at earning a gold medal in the majority of the available activities.
Regardless of the activities you choose to engage in, there's one constant - this is one of the most beautiful games ever made, and that's regardless of whether you're playing in the first or third-person mode. That's not a statement to be taken lightly, and while graphical improvements are abundant, it's again design, craftsmanship, and atmosphere that make the bigger difference here. These are all vague terms surely, but in a way, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most hand-built game Rockstar has ever made, and as you force your way through the wilderness, you find yourself stopping, noticing a small lake in a clearing. At moments like this, you can actually see how a designer has placed each and every object in this particular scene. The area may not serve a specific mechanical purpose, they often don't actually, but it's there and someone created it. Still, it's not like the game is all bark and no bite when it comes to its technical make-up. Facial animations have drastically improved to serve up more believable scenes, a deluge of animations creates constant tactile feedback, so as to anchor the player heavily to the world. If there's even a hint of a negative here, it'd be that the framerate did suffer in a few places during the playthrough on PlayStation 4 Pro, but it was never enough to ruin the immersion. Was it there though? Yes.
Bill Elm and Woody Jackson return for a triumphant soundtrack consisting of 192 individual pieces of scored music, which naturally reacts to what Arthur is doing at any given time. While not necessarily a new trick, it's incredibly effective, as powerful drums arrive to punctuate a wild and roaring shoot-out, it perfectly underpins the western atmosphere. However, it's the melancholy of the music that hits you in moments of tragedy, and safe to say, it's enough to make you let go of a tear or two over the course of the campaign.
But we're beating around the bush here, stalling for time, because you all know where this is heading. We didn't know, but the notion did come into focus several times, from the very first time we sat down to play to spending six hours with the game earlier this month. That notion grew, and now, after having spent dozens upon dozens of hours in this breathtaking world, the notion has transformed into something ironclad and bulletproof. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a watershed moment, an instant classic, it's both another high point for a studio which has constantly delivered them for decades, and yet it's also a culmination of a journey, a journey to not only create a world that's interesting and brimming with content but a world where you can get truly lost. As a result, we have no issue calling Red Dead Redemption 2 exactly what it is, and what it deserves to be - a masterpiece.
Red Dead Online, the multiplayer part of Red Dead Redemption 2, is set to launch next month. We'll review that separately when the servers are up and running, so stay tuned for that.