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RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2 is a Brutal, Beautiful Game (Hands-On Preview)

In just under two weeks, gamers all over the world will strap on their finest cowboy boots, oil their six-shooters, and git along lil’ doggies in the expansive, immersive world of Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2. Easily the most anticipated game of the fall, the open-world western action-adventure game has some awfully big boots to fill; its predecessor, Red Dead Redemption, is widely regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time.

Now, eight years after Red Dead Redemption‘s release, Rockstar Games is back with a prequel that will plunge fans headlong into a very different vision of the Wild West than we saw previously. To call it a massive undertaking would be a massive understatement, a fact that became all-too-apparent for me when I spent roughly three hours putting the game through its paces recently. In a word, it’s “yeehawesome.”

I sincerely regret saying that, but I regret nothing about playing this truly excellent game.

Climbing back into the saddle with Red Dead Redemption 2 exceeded my expectations in every way. It’s the closest experience you can have to visiting Westworld without getting murdered by newly sentient sex robots. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is as stunning as it is sprawling, which is to say extremely. The version we played was running on a PlayStation 4 Pro and it truly feels like the next-gen game from Rockstar for which we have been waiting. While Grand Theft Auto V had plenty of beautiful sights to take in, its inner workings date all the way back to the PlayStation 3 era. Development on RDR 2 began shortly after the release of the Undead Nightmare DLC for the original Red Dead Redemption. The result is a world full of sweeping vistas, snowcapped mountains, thundering locomotives, bustling towns, and countless other environments that are teeming with life.

There is a level of detail here that borders on the obsessive. From individually modeled and rendered saddlebags that bounce independently as you canter along a treacherous mountain pass to the way that horses hooves’ displace the snow to the way said hoofprints fill up with water after it rains and beyond, this is a world that has been lovingly crafted from the ground up, and nothing feels like an afterthought. The draw distance alone is jaw-dropping compared to many of my other gaming experiences where large character models and environmental details will suddenly pop up in front of me once I get close enough. In Red Dead Redemption 2, if you can see it, you can likely explore it.

This time around you are no longer playing as John Marston, the star of Red Dead Redemption, although you will cross paths with the grizzled gunslinger as he is a key part of the Van der Linde Gang, a gang of outlaws led by Dutch Van der Linde who robbed, murdered, and plundered their way across the American West. But this isn’t just a ruthless group of killers with no regard for human life. They are a community of outlaws, outcasts, and outsiders–people who just can’t seem to hack it in polite society–and together they form a family of sorts. Set during the gang’s heyday, we are stepping into the well-worn boots of Arthur Morgan, one of Dutch’s earliest recruits and his most trusted lieutenants. As Arthur, you’ll exist within a world of murky morality, leaving it almost entirely up to you how kind or cruel you wish to be.

You’ll get to know each and every member of the Van der Linde Gang as you traverse across the American frontier with them, setting up camp in new territories, sitting around the campfire and sharing meals, and occasionally torturing rival gang members for information. The camp functions as your base of operations in a given area and over the course of the game, you will be able to upgrade it to include nicer amenities and make it feel less like a pitstop and more like a true home. It’s a smart, savvy way to ground you as Arthur and help you remember that you’re not alone in this world; everything you do is in service of giving your friends and compatriots a better life. And if that includes a little murdering, stealing, and a gunfight or twenty, then so be it.

Our session began with the Rockstar reps running me through a mission to rob a train in the snow-capped mountains where Arthur and the Van der Linde gang sought refuge after a bank heist gone awry. Wanted by the law and unable to access their ill-gotten gains, Arthur and company seek to liberate a stack of bearer bonds belonging to wealthy industrialist Leviticus Cornwall from his private car on a passing locomotive. Of course, like any well-devised plan, things go wrong almost immediately, leaving it up to Arthur to stop the train from hurtling past the gang so they can steal the loot.

Here we get to see the game’s core mechanics in action as Arthur deftly makes his way from car to car, taking cover while gunning down guards, issuing orders to his compatriot, and then engaging in fisticuffs with the engineer before throwing him to the bleakest death imaginable. It’s what we in the outlaw business call collateral damage. As Arthur and gang leader Dutch warn the rest of the train’s guards who are holed up in Cornwall’s private carriage, “We don’t want to kill you, we just want what’s in that car.” After blowing open the doors with dynamite and taking the guards hostage, Arthur ferrets out the bearer bonds and hands them over to Dutch. Cornwall might not miss the cash flow much, but it will be a lifesaving injection of funds for Dutch and the gang, which we’ll later learn includes women and children, in addition to the hardscrabble hooligans who do Dutch’s dirty work.

With the prize acquired, Arthur is faced with a choice. Does he let the guards go and show some mercy? Does he kill them so they don’t rat them out to their boss? Does he kill one as an example to frighten the others into keeping their mouths shout? This is one of the countless choices you will have to make in Red Dead Redemption 2. It is a world where for every action there is a reaction, and for every choice there is a consequence. You get to decide exactly how much of a mustache-twirling villain you want to be and how much of a heart of gold you really have. For example, if you commit crimes in broad daylight or in front of witnesses, and you don’t intimidate them into silence, then you’ll find yourself on the run from lawmen with a price on your head. If you evade the law, you’ll enjoy a brief respite before bounty hunters start tracking you down to bring you in dead or alive. And unlike certain Boba Fetts I could name, these bounty hunters are actually good at what they do.

This idea of creating an intimate, deliberate experience set within a living, breathing world that exists independent of the player was core to how Rockstar approached Red Dead Redemption 2‘s design. The pace of this world is so much slower compared to Grand Theft Auto V where you are likelier to be speeding through city streets at a frankly irresponsible velocity than sauntering through the doors of a saloon to investigate the unscrupulous denizens within. To help with that immersion, Rockstar has ensured that you can interact with literally every NPC you encounter in a variety of ways. By holstering your weapon and pressing the “Aim” button, you’ll bring up a contextual menu that lets you greet your fellow man, intimidate them, rob them, and much more. Sometimes things will go well and you’ll get a friendly greeting from a passing carriage; other times, you’ll shake them down for everything they’ve got; and sometimes, like what happened during my playthrough, you’ll say good morning to two people reading a newspaper and one of them will sucker punch you, forcing you to beat the stuffing out of them after they knock your favorite hat into the mud. (Even the Rockstar reps were surprised by that one.)

During my playthrough, I never felt as though the experience was too on rails, even when embarking on missions. Events flowed into one another seamlessly as I explored the wide-open world. It’s a game that makes me feel like anything is possible and that I won’t be artificially constrained by invisible walls or other limiting factors that shatter the immersion. If I spy a mountain in the distance, I can go climb it. If I see a train, I can ride alongside it on my horse, leap aboard, and rob it. If I see a barber stationed in the back of a saloon, I can pay him to give me a sweet handlebar mustache…provided I’ve let my facial hair grow long enough to do so. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is my murdery, dusty oyster, and come October 26, I’m going to eat it. And you should too.

Will you be playing Red Dead Redemption 2 on day one? What badass outlaw name will you give your horse? Let me know in the comments below.

Images: Rockstar Games

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