Rockstar returns with the next entry in its Red Dead series, Red Dead Redemption 2 on October 26, and late last month we played it. We strongly recommend that you cancel all social engagements for the rest of the year.
When Rockstar bought Angel Studios, renaming it Rockstar San Diego in 2002, one of the titles the studio was working on caught the eye of the Houser brothers; it was a Western-themed game called Red Dead Revolver for Capcom, who, after a troubled development, dropped it in 2003 leaving Rockstar to pick up the rights. A critical success more than a commercial one, the game, despite its cartoon-like characters, was a gritty and entertaining representation of the Wild West and a perfect foundation on which to build.
Six years later, expanding on the Western theme established in Revolver, Rockstar San Diego, utilising the innovative GTA series DNA, delivered an authentic depiction of the last days of the Wild West. It came complete with an array of memorable characters, including protagonist John Marston, a well-developed story and an entire in-game ecosystem, all topped off with a solid multiplayer. In the space of seven months, Red Dead Redemption sold eight million units.
While the GTA V juggernaut and its pioneering business model has kept Rockstar busy over the last five years, its next title was announced in October 2016 as Red Dead Redemption 2. A prequel to Red Dead Redemption set in 1899, the protagonist is now Arthur Morgan, a man described by Rockstar as a “more or less unrepentant outlaw”. Morgan is part of the Van der Linde Gang headed up by Dutch van der Linde, who players may remember from the previous title. The gang is at the forefront of Morgan’s loyalty: it’s where he lives and fights, but that doesn’t restrict h
is ability to explore the world solo.
I grabbed some time with the very latest code. The initial part of the 4K presentation was hands-off and used to set-up the session and introduce some of the gang members, including a younger John Marston. Featuring a train robbery in the snow-swept Grizzly Mountains, it’s my first close look at the game and, as a big fan of the first two Red Dead games, my fingers are getting itchy in anticipation.
Finally I’m handed the PlayStation 4 controller and after a little familiarising with actions mapped to buttons, I’m off in a new part of the map. Thunk! That’s the sound my arrow makes as it hammers into a deer startled by my presence and trying to escape. I’m trialling the hunting component first up. “Whoah, you got it in the neck! Great shot,” comment my hosts. Of course I play along with the notion that it was fully intentional but I learn that where the arrow/bullet strikes your prey when hunting will affect how much you can sell it for when you find a butcher. And the longer you keep it, the lower the price will be – fresh in the West is king.
It’s just one example of the incredible detail that RDR 2 has in abundance. Your horse can now do the equivalent of an equestrian hand brake stop and it can even perform dressage. Saddle, saddlebags and other equipment strapped to your nag has all been animated individually and moves independently, adding impressive realism. And you have to feed and pet your horse to keep it in good shape because if you let it die, it won’t regenerate. Different breeds have their own advantages and idiosyncrasies, so it’s all about gaining trust in your steed. Visually, the game is a knockout. From the snow-filled mountains in the hands-off demo to the rolling plains and rises in the level we’re playing through, the depth of field is remarkable.
Encouraged to explore a nearby town, I immediately sense the opportunity for trouble. Mud tracks churned from wagon wheels and hooves wind through the timber structures while carpenters saw lumber and hammer iron nails into new constructions; the detail in even this short passage of play is phenomenal. There’s a blacksmith, a hotel, a saloon (not adorned with Hollywood saloon doors), and a store where you can browse catalogues to replenish vital inventory items and add new ones. There are no hidden pockets in RDR 2 when it comes to weapons – if Morgan is carrying a repeater rifle slung over his shoulder and peacemaker strapped to his waist, then that’s what you can use. You have to clean and maintain your weapons, too, to keep them operable.
Talking of guns, I spot a bank that is currently being guarded by the sheriff. Strolling through the doors I walk up and, prompted by an onscreen option to press the square button on the controller, I taunt him. It doesn’t take much to rile the arm of the law and before I know it the HUD turns red and I’m belting out of town on my horse with the sheriff and a couple of his men in hot pursuit. Eventually cut off by a cliff face, it’s time to fight. In a quick exchange of fire, two lay dead and finally the sheriff falls off his horse. Upon close inspection, the coup de grace is a shot right through the brow of his Stetson. My host points out that it’s possible to swap hats with the dead lawman, which I promptly do. In order to take the heat off, I slink back into town, swing past the railway station and pay a hefty $100 to the bounty paymaster – job done.
The final part of the demo details how intrinsic the Van der Linde Gang’s camp is to the game. It’s the central hub of all gang activity; here you will build relationships with members, play cards, hunt, swap stories around the campfire, and pick up missions. As I walk through the campsite, John Marston’s young son Jack calls out “Did you become a sheriff?” in reference to the hat I’m sporting. Again, it’s those little details.
Back to the final mission that I acquire at the campsite. A member of rival gang the O’Driscolls is ‘persuaded’ to give up the location of gang boss Colm O’Driscoll and his clan, so off we gallop. Now the brief here is to stealthily dispatch wandering opposition gang members on the perimeter of the enemy camp. By initiating a squad-based mechanic you can direct your posse to attack certain targets, but old butter fingers here, keen to help out, pulls out the six-shooter instead of Morgan’s throwing knives and before I know it, lead and tree bark erupt in fury. An improved version of the Deadeye mechanic returns and kill animations add to the cinematic feel of the melee. The AI is top shelf – as I push on trying to flank the enemy, they retreat, sensing my strategy. It’s a frenetic and brutal gunfight, fought whilst dashing through forest undergrowth and seeking cover behind trees from where you can shoot from. This is all Sam Peckinpah and no John Ford.
It’s hard to condense the overload of information and little time spent with the game into such a short preview. Rockstar has expanded all the elements from the previous title in the series and added a stunning amount of new content, a formidable open world adventure, and refreshing experimental concepts. With an unbelievably extensive map and an undoubtedly endless suite of online play to be unrolled, like GTA V, Rockstar will have you locked into its depiction of the Wild West for a very long time. No complaints here.