Rockstar handed us the reins and we rode off in search of adventure.
If you've already read our extensive preview from just a few short weeks ago, you already know exactly what Red Dead Redemption 2 is all about, and more importantly, you know how it feels. You know how tactile it is, how each animation is heavy and provides the player with realistic feedback, you know that this is the largest and deepest open-world Rockstar has ever built, and you know the entire thing can be played in first-person. You know about the improved gunplay, you know your horse is a companion and not a vehicle, you know how it looks, and how it sounds.
You also know how impressive it all was, and how we (in rosy language we might add) described in detail how awe-inspiring our limited time with the game was in Copenhagen when we played it last month. We were impressed, that much can't be mistaken at this point, but most of all we were relieved, relieved to see Rockstar continuously focus on the detail, on the small things that make a world like this tick. And tick it did.
Recently we were invited to London for an extended session with the game ahead of launch, and these are our final impressions before it's time to finally review the next open-world opus from Rockstar.
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This time we got to spend a total of six hours with Red Dead Redemption 2, from the very beginning, adventuring as we saw fit in the time allotted to us. We were able to travel as far as the eye could see, and engage with every character we met. During this time we've become even firmer in our belief that we're dealing with something rather special, and more than that, something truly important.
This time Rockstar was finally ready to let us see it all, to let the game speak for itself, and let us start from the very beginning. We begin our journey where we began in our original text - the wild west is a dying concept as lawmen swarm the land, big business replaces outlaws, and industry replaces the untamed. Our merry band of bandits has been driven from Blackwater after a botched heist and has sought out refuge in the snowy mountains. Things look bleak, and it's here that we take control of main character Arthur Morgan - the man responsible for these starry-eyed outlaws as they long for a life outside of government control.
From here, our six-hour stint extended out from that jaw-dropping first couple of opening missions, where you as Morgan trudge through blizzards and thick snow to secure food, shelter, and warmth for your people, before discovering the game's largest, bustling metropolis - Saint Denis - something every gamer should be looking forward to.
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Once more we robbed the train, and once more we secured the necessary funds to lead our party out of absolute poverty and most assured death. This time, after having been properly introduced to the mechanics beforehand, we were able to draw weapons more convincingly, easily taking down one enemy after another by mixing cover-based shooting with the repeater, and then changing to rapid hip fire with the revolver. Once again we were able to decide the fate of the remaining surrendering enemies; this time choosing to force them into the train, only to let it roar off into the distance without a driver (this impacted our honour, but felt pretty satisfying). In addition, this time we were allowed to see the actual migration of the camp, taking the reins of one of the massive transport carts as we descended through the mountains to Horsetooth Ridge, which then became the first proper camp in the game.
And once more it's worth pointing out the very same core concepts which we immediately noticed during our original experience. This is a gigantic, yet utterly hand-crafted world, where every rock formation is purposefully placed, where every stranger has a story to tell.
Whereas some seem discontent with the game's very deliberate pacing, here are some words to the wise; Red Dead Redemption 2, like every other Rockstar game before it, is a product of cinema, of the rules and inspirations found in classic pictures, and the pacing, dialogue, and entire narrative form of the game takes place around these inspirations. Nothing is allowed to compromise the immersion, and so you must physically pick up weapons from your horse's saddlebags, you have to actually scrub your filthy body if you decide to purchase a shower at a hotel, and when one of the cartwheels falls off during the camp migration, you must use the left stick to push it back into place.
Not every game can be like this, and it may even seem redundant, but it's utterly immersive, and once more you're constantly reminded that you do belong here. You are not a visitor, you are of this land, and by having this many seemingly minor interactions with the world around you, this immersion is constantly secured. It might be slow, but it's effective, and more than that, everything it does is to serve the illusion that you are Arthur Morgan, and that this place welcomes you and deepens with every layer of interactivity and narrative exposition.
After a lengthy prologue, which does a great job of introducing the many mechanics we've already described in detail - such as movement, horse control, Dead Eye, item management, and character customisation - we were also able to sample some of the additional activities the game has to offer. The Stranger encounters of Grand Theft Auto V are back and will appear dynamically around the map too. Every character has a potential story to tell, and simply by approaching a citizen in the bayou we were assaulted and dumped in the swamp to be alligator food. As we're sure you all expected, the quality of the acting is absolutely superb, and this isn't limited to the main cast of characters, but throughout the entirety of the experience, from random strangers to passing O'Driscoll thugs. They all deliver their lines with presence and gravitas, once again firmly selling the illusion. Also, as several trailers have shown already, these are by far the best facial animations we've seen in any Rockstar game, meaning the actors are able to convey their emotions more convincingly. The result is that it doesn't take long for the player to be firmly attached to the people around Arthur, and we expect this bond to grow throughout.
Not only that, but the bounties are back, tasking Morgan with seeking out his targets across the world, hogtying them (which is still incredibly satisfying) and bringing them back to the cells in towns such as Saint Denis and Valentine. In addition, there are hunting challenges that come with replayability in the form of either a copper, silver, or gold medals awarded to the player after each completed activity. If you think it sounds like GTA V, you'd be right, but the comparisons are only skin-deep, as the base formula has been expanded, extended, deepened, and you now have so much more control and so many mechanics to consider, from leading your horse to holding your repeater carbine while using a revolver. While Red Dead Redemption 2 juggles many mechanics and may seem overwhelming at first, it quickly becomes intuitive, something which can only happen through years of refining core concepts.
We were also able to explore hunting in more detail. Through Dead Eye you can track an animal's movements for a brief amount of time, and by stalking your prey and finding a good angle of approach, you can hunt frogs, eagles, buffalos, alligators, deer and much, much more. In addition, Arthur can then skin the killed animal, and there's a dedicated animation for this, actually, there's one for each animal type.
Even then, we only scratched the surface. We completed main missions advancing the narrative - which we won't spoil here - explored storefronts where we bought new clothes and changed individual parts of our weaponry, talked to some the weird strangers we encountered who asked for our help, and of course we got into a few altercations with the law.
It felt like a brief moment all in all, but six hours had flown by without us realising, something that only the most special games can manage. Red Dead Redemption 2 is less than a month away and, as we echoed when we first held the controller and right up to the end of our six-hour demonstration, it's abundantly clear that Rockstar has achieved something remarkable - true immersion, to make the player belong in a certain space, to make the illusion of an additional reality so convincing that you find yourself missing the characters when you aren't playing, that your own movements start to feel alien and Arthur's normal.
As if we couldn't describe how it feels to play Red Dead Redemption 2 rosily enough, we simply cannot wait not only to play for ourselves but for you all to join us in doing so - because we're telling you; this is the real deal.