We Played 2 Hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 – Here’s What Happened | Gaming News
Welcome to New Hanover.
As I trotted across the prairieland of New Hanover on my well-groomed steed, Mahogany Boy (named due to a tragic misread of his breed, the Mahogany Bay), I heard the dull rattle of a freight train. I yanked the reins, hit X a few times to shift gears into a gallop, and streaked toward the tracks, just as the steam locomotive rounded a corner into view. I had an idea.
As I took up a trajectory with the train, I heard a shout over the growing noise – bounty hunters sent to collect me, dead not alive. It was a fair cop: I’d recently threatened a passing wagoner, stolen his cart and rode it off a cliff to see what happens (you die). As the engine streaked past and I swung the camera to get a look at my pursuers, a button prompt appeared in the bottom-right corner of the screen: “Jump on train”.
A press of triangle later, and protagonist Arthur Morgan was up on the saddle, leaping onto a carriage roof. Two seconds after that, I’d dropped into a boxcar, just as the bounty hunters’ bullets began flying. What followed was chaos. The train’s own guards hustled down to meet me as I yanked out twin revolvers – I quickly discovered that there’s a fairly brutal new close combat gut shot move, which came in handy – while the hunters continued firing into the train’s sidings in the hope of catching me between carriages. Mahogany Boy had continued galloping alongside the train – I could have tested whether there was an option to jump back into the saddle, but I wanted to try something else.
As I climbed over the last carriage, I spotted the driver. A flash of Dead Eye sent four rounds into his chest, and he slumped out of the open window and fell to the wayside. Hoping against hope, I walked up to the engine car. More button prompts – “Accelerate”, “Ring bell” and, yes, “Whistle”. I upped the train to maximum speed, pulled said whistle and flew through a tunnel as the train screamed steam, watching the bounty hunters and poor Mahogany Boy get left behind, unable to keep chase.
Systems are polished to a level that feels frankly unmatchable by most of Rockstar’s peers. It’s already astonishing.
This entirely coincidental, organic set of events lasted all of five minutes but, in my two hours with Red Dead Redemption 2, they best sum up why I’m excited for it. Red Dead 2, at its most open, functions as a Wild West wish fulfillment service. The quiet bandit thrill of pulling a bandana over your face as you watch potential robbery victims from a hillside. The Eastwood kick of knocking three lawmen off their horses before they have time to pull a single trigger, then spinning your gun back into its holster with a flourish. Even a simple tipped hat and a remark on what a beautiful day it is as you pass a resting rancher in the heat of the noon sun.
This is minute-to-minute stuff in Rockstar’s latest, each action optional, even ignorable, but so much a part of a world saturated with detail, reactivity and surprise that you can’t help but mess with them. Sometimes, the world messes back. Red Dead 2 doesn’t come with a show-stopping feature like GTA 5’s multiple characters – instead it focuses directly on that idea of depth being what keeps you around, and polishes each of its systems to a level that, even after such a relatively short time with the game, feels frankly unmatchable by most of Rockstar’s peers. It’s already astonishing.
Spinning a Yarn
But Rockstar’s attempting to perform a balancing act here. Alongside indulging your urge for experimentation, it has its own large-scale story to tell – I begin my play session learning more about the people of Red Dead 2 than I do its cog-like systems.
After a bank job gone wrong – which presumably opens the game – Dutch van der Linde and his gang have holed up in the Grizzlies, a bank of mountains along the north of the game’s map. Like GTA 5’s North Yankton, it’s a constrained area designed to teach players who’s who and what’s what. Also it’s snowy. Unlike GTA 5, we’ll be able to return here later – this is a gateway to the world, not an island away from it.
There’s unrest among the gang. Blame’s being passed for what went wrong on the last job and John Marston’s bed-bound after seemingly receiving his famous scars. In what seems like an attempt to reassert control, Dutch takes his best men down the mountain to rob a train owned by local magnate (and probable antagonist) Leviticus Cornwall.
As the men bicker and joke on the way down, the game’s new cinematic camera kicks in. The aspect ratio changes, and I’m treated to landscape shots of the gang as they wind down the mountain paths in formation (incidentally, you can also turn on the cinematic camera during normal play and have your character auto-walk to a waypoint, not unlike hopping in GTA’s taxis). We’re being shown a PS4 Pro build, and it’s startlingly pretty, from the gentle, deeply filmic depth of field used to emphasise the sheer scale of the landscape, right down to the ragged channels of snow left by horses’ hooves.
Rockstar says the world opens up in its entirety after the opening section.
The scene dissolves as they travel, showing the snowmelt as the posse leaves the peaks, before they reach a cliff bluff above the tracks. I won’t go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the pleasure of where that mission goes, but suffice to say there’s a chase, a shootout, and a moral choice that no doubt sets up how the returning Honor system will work in the context of the new game.
There’s also a primer in who we’ll be spending the game with. We can see Dutch’s interest in keeping power, the sway he holds over Arthur – a boy he adopted and inculcated young – how Lenny’s well liked and Bill Williamson ridiculed. It’s convincingly and enticingly acted, and it’s a clear statement that these are people we should take interest in – we’ll be seeing a lot of them.
Wide, Wild West
I don’t see the outcome of that mission, but I’m told that it’s only shortly afterwards that the game’s second chapter begins. Rockstar says the world opens up in its entirety after that opening section is through – no locked-off Mexico sections this time around, it seems.
I’m dropped into New Hanover, looking directly at the Grizzlies Arthur just left. They’re on the horizon – it’s clear we’ve traveled a very long way. This area’s a stereotypically wild landscape dotted with a Cornwall company outpost, the town of Valentine and smaller points of interest. Plumes of smoke mark the pockets of humanity that live in the shadow of the local Twin Stack mesas. It’s here that I’m introduced to my horse, who will soon be dubbed Mahogany Boy.
It’s a relatively minor change amidst the scale of this game, but Red Dead 2’s option to name your horse speaks to the bond the developers feel you should have with yours. Every breed has different strengths and weaknesses, acts as an overflow inventory for anything Arthur can’t carry, even becomes a lost-and-found (if Arthur loses his hat or gets disarmed, the dropped item will reappear in the saddle). You’ll be relying on your animal – and the better you treat it, the better it’ll treat you. Feeding and grooming your horse builds its level of affection towards you, governing whether they’ll respond to your whistles, if they’ll buck at gunfire, even whether they can perform dressage.
Mahogany Boy seems to have been pre-leveled for our demo, and it’s a genuinely huge help. He stays close, enabling for quick weapon switching, doesn’t buck at the howls of a passing wolf pack (you’re not the only hunter in the wilderness), and controls near perfectly, unless I ask him to do something really stupid. Incidentally, Red Dead’s more finessed horse movement feels immediately natural, with various speeds treated like car gears, the player shifting up and down with single button presses as needed.
Travelling across New Hanover is done almost entirely at horse-pace, then – which is good, as even this single area is seemingly enormous. I don’t come close to exiting the demo space in the two hours. The center of everything seems to be Valentine, an appealingly muddy little town visible from the surrounding hills, and the only area bustling with NPCs that I come across. Most central buildings here seem to have a function – from posting your own bounty at the Post Office to call off a manhunt, or managing some of the frankly ludicrous amount of customisation of your weapons and horse in the Gun Store and Stables.
The Barbershop is closed, but I get a look at what personal grooming entails later on and, as you might expect, it’s above and beyond the usual. Arthur’s hair and beard grow naturally according to in-game time, and shaving is, if not entirely manual, then certainly close to it. You can shave down individual parts of Arthur’s face to various lengths, essentially creating totally custom beards. I didn’t know I needed totally custom beards in a game until I had one.
The Saloon in Valentine includes an opportunity to pick up another quest. Rockstar says it wants to steer away from the traditional idea of a side-quest, instead dropping more meaningful, lengthy stories alongside the tale of Dutch’s gang. I don’t get to see the full fruits of that, but our meeting with a historian at the Valentine bar suggests what it means. This stranger’s attempting to write a book about history’s greatest gunslingers, but his current subject – Jimboy ‘The Fastest Left Hand in the West’ Callaway – is a little the worse for wear. He hands you a series of photographs, asking you to head out across the land and meet their subjects, take new portraits of them with a camera he gives you (which acts like GTA V’s phone camera feature, including the ability to take ‘self-portraits’), and report back. It’s clear this isn’t a fetch quest.
In Valentine, I mostly teased the residents using the “Antagonize” option, until one of them drew a gun, I shot him in the street, and was chased out of town.
Honestly, most of my time spent in Valentine was in talking to its residents. Ostensibly a new contextual menu for interacting with the game, Red Dead 2’s new dialogue system is governed by two button presses at a time – look at any living creature with your guns holstered and hold L2, and a miniature menu of possible interactions appears.
If that’s your horse, you can check its stats, feed it, calm it, or groom it. If it’s possible hunting prey, you can study its breed, adding it to a compendium, and check what spoils it might offer, or call out to it to offer the moment’s extra confusion you need to loose an arrow. Friendly dogs can be patted and praised (or scolded, if you’re some kind of insane monster).
This system balloons in usefulness when it comes to human NPCs. Dialogue with any given person can be friendly or rude, creating flowing, surprisingly natural conversations between the two of you. You can threaten to rob passers-by, or surrender to lawmen. You can pretend to surrender to lawmen and then draw your pistol to keep them surprised. In the wide-open pastures of New Hanover, where people are few and far between, it turns every encounter into a treat – whether that’s embracing your Black Hat persona and robbing them blind, or just finding out what pleasantries they have to say as they pass by. In Valentine, I mostly teased the residents using the “Antagonize” option, until one of them drew a gun, I shot him in the street, and was chased out of town.
The Great Outdoors
There is, thankfully, plenty to do outside of civilization. Being left to your own devices in a Rockstar game will inevitably make your first port of call the combat, and New Hanover’s long winding paths make it ideal for a quick robbery (although rival gangs can also be stumbled across, whispering among the trees, waiting to take your hard-earned money).
Gunplay immediately feels like a step up from even GTA 5 – reduced ammo counts on antiquated weaponry makes every shot mean more, and that’s matched by a real kick to everything in your arsenal, and a satisfying thump to the way your payload lands, whether that’s the stereotypical ricochet sound of old Westerns, or the horrible pirouette of an enemy hit in the shoulder. Rockstar wants to show its hard work here – Max Payne-like dynamic kill cams now show impressive shots in cinematic style before returning control to the player. The addition of multiple ammo types for your weapons – fire arrows, split-point bullets, and the like – also promises a level of invention to how you go about combat that hasn’t been apparent before.
I’m told hand-to-hand combat has been improved, but I didn’t let anyone get near enough to me for a punch-up, as the first game’s returning Dead Eye is still absurdly satisfying. The slow motion, target painting feature swipes your world into sepia, and can now be upgraded to show weak points like the heart or brain, aiming to make hunting easier.
Speaking of hunting, it remains a major source of income, but now gains extra importance because of new recipes and crafting options. Arthur can set up a personal camp for himself to cook his spoils – turning them into meals for either himself or his horse, or use loot from enemies and wildlife alike to make new ammo or items. That increase in usefulness comes with a new efficiency measure – Arthur Morgan comes with the Witcher-like ability to identify trails left by animals, following hazy tracks to his prey.
On a more base level, the way Arthur plays is tied to background stats in strength, dexterity, instinct and grit. It’s not clear how these stats are levelled up, but we know that his ‘Cores’ – the health, stamina and Dead Eye meters shown onscreen – will increase capacity through various means. For instance, getting better stamina is a case of getting off your horse and doing some running of your own. That said, your horse has its own Cores in health and stamina, so you’ll want to make sure they’re being increased too.
Travelling back to the gang’s main camp, I get a look at Dutch and co. at their most relaxed. Uncle is blind drunk, but insists his liquor-smell is in fact cologne.
New Hanover’s rolling hills have their own dotted population. These don’t seem to be quest givers so much as ways to make the world feel alive, even markers of time spent in the story. At one point, I rode up to an old man watching two younger men building the frontage of a house. The old man told me how these were his sons, that he thought teaching them how to build their own home would build characters, and that, sadly, they were awful at it. As if to prove a point, the frame of the house promptly fell on and killed me. Unintentional comedy aside, Rockstar points out that, over time, this house will become more developed, and the old man will have more to say, emphasising how long you’ve spent with Arthur.
It’s not clear how long will pass in the course of the campaign, or how extensive those changes will be (could we see towns grow to reflect the progress of the 19th Century west?) but it seems that story missions will be what initiates a time jump.
I finish the session with another of those story missions, an action-packed bookend for my time in New Hanover. Travelling back to the gang’s main camp, I get a look at Dutch and co. at their most relaxed. Uncle is blind drunk, but insists his liquor-smell is in fact cologne. Pearson’s prepared a stew, which recovers Arthur’s depleted health and stamina to their top level, and Dutch is asking for a favour – which seems to be Rockstar’s sidestep around the idea of side-quests – that I summarily ignore.
The camp, like so much I’ve seen today, is technically optional. The only punishment I’ll get for not helping out the gang outside of story missions is a scolding if I ever run into another member. But there are rewards – Arthur’s tent can be upgraded to become a fast travel point, for example. It’s also a condensed settlement of sorts – Arthur can change his outfits here, which can have a real benefit.
Completely dropping the previous game’s outfits, every piece of clothing is individual, and can be layered with any other – and different pieces of clothing will help or hinder you in the game’s different areas. Thick clothing might keep you from freezing atop the Grizzlies, but you’ll want to shed it to travel through the desert. A bandana pulled up over the face during a crime, and then removed afterwards, will help drop your Wanted level more quickly, too. I pull on a new jacket – night’s falling – step out of the tent, and spot a prisoner tied to a tree.
Speaking to him begins the final mission. Again, without spoiling too much of the story, I can say that through some… illegal interrogation techniques, Dutch tracks down a rival, and sends his best men to end said rivalry. Arthur, John Marston and Bill Williamson make their prisoner an unwilling tour guide, and he rides out with them to a humble cabin in the woods.
The ride is the first time I hear much of John Marston in his earlier years, and it’s an interesting contrast with the character I spent a hundred hours with back in 2010. This John is more flippant, brash, even funny than his more sober later self, and it’s odd to hear voice actor Rob Wiethoff’s familiar tones employed so differently.
Soon enough, we’ve reached the cabin, finding it heavily guarded. A wandering patrol passes by our hiding spot nearby, with one dropping behind to loudly relieve himself. It’s a clear invitation for some stealth – and I can either do it myself or, using that dialogue system, tell Bill to go deal with the straggler. Choosing the former and promptly messing up the quiet kill, kicks off an absolutely enormous gunfight.
It’s clear that mass fights like this are manageable, but inadvisable. Arthur doesn’t take many bullets before threatening to go down, and a stock of snake oil-like health tonics has been depleted well before the end of the fight. Cover is the order of the day, so we work from tree to tree, careful not to deplete Dead Eye – a meter now shown alongside your health and stamina above the mini-map – eliminating the rest of the enraged gang members.
And once we bust into the cabin? Well, I’ll leave it there, as I don’t see much more beyond a hint of the story to come. Dutch’s boys are on their way back to camp, but the possibilities for me, Arthur and Mahogany Boy are too many to count. I could indulge my naturalist side and fill out my animal compendium, buy a coat and ride back into the Grizzlies, or try and reduce my Honor to its lowest level through simply making jokes’ at wandering NPCs’ expense. I could rob another train! I’d probably have robbed another train.
This has always been Rockstar’s trick, of course, creating toyboxes so stuffed with possibility that you stay long beyond the core story, or put off finishing it, idling in the gaps between chapters. It becomes more holiday than work trip. Red Dead 2 sees Rockstar blowing out the potential size of those gaps in the storyline, deepening every system, incentivising everything you do, whether through in-game rewards, chunks of story, or just plain comedy. It’s the work of a supremely talented developer with near-limited resources. Rockstar already knows you’re going to play its game – its work now is to have you play that game for a very, very long time.
Joe Skrebels is Tech’s UK News Editor and, despite how much he wrote about here, there’s a lot more he saw. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter.