I played Red Dead Redemption 2 for the first time this week, and I swiftly caused glorious chaos.
Yesterday I sampled a section of Rockstar Games’ upcoming western at their New York City headquarters, a location game-previewing press haven’t had much reason to visit in the last half decade. There, I hoped to finally get a feel for the mega-studio’s first new game since 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V. It’s out so soon, just a little over a month from now on PS4 and Xbox One.
I left impressed with the level of detail I’d just seen, each scene filled with the sorts of tiny touches that only seem to show up in these most expensive of Rockstar game worlds. The landscape of this version of 1899 America seems enormous and full of life. There are lumbering locomotives, squawking birds, and civilians buzzing about recent events. There’s horse poop, and there are flies. There’s a first-person mode that can be used for the entire game. There are new gameplay wrinkles, including a button dedicated to firing nonlethal warning shots. There’s a shopkeeper in the general store whose item list is a multi-page, illustrated catalogue. At a base camp, the game gave me a tip to remind me that if my character ate too much, he would get fat. Too little, and he’d get skinnier, and lose stamina. Detail after detail.
I left with an appreciation for how this game will play, but without a strong feel for the story or for playable protagonist Arthur Morgan, who seems less like a star and more like a member of a large, ensemble drama of men and women trying to make it in the U.S. 13 years before the events of 2010's Red Dead Redemption. I heard a lot of well-written, well-acted dialogue—jokes, threats, family disputes, gossip, criminal schemes—but arcs and character development in a sprawling adventure like this can’t be seen, let alone judged in such a relatively short session. I left with no way to tell from a two-hour demo if this game would have some of what I valued most about the previous Red Dead: that game’s beautifully languid pace, its compelling side characters, its powerful climax. I also left eager to play more.
And I left some video game chaos in my wake, because whatever else the combined forces of eight Rockstar studios have built Red Dead Redemption 2 to be, they have definitely constructed an excellent engine for mayhem.
My demo started with a Rockstar rep at the controls, showing me an early mission involving a train robbery. It was straightforward in execution but technically astounding, seemlessly switching from richly detailed exterior action, like a scramble across the top of the moving train to richly detailed interiors, such as when the gang was able to scour a cabin car’s furniture for an important document.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, players control a committed outlaw named Arthur Morgan. He’s an early recruit into the Van der Linde gang, a crew of nearly two dozen outlaws and oddballs. Their members include a younger version of Red Dead Redemption protagonist John Marston and his wife and son, Abigail and Jack. According to a Rockstar rep in the room, they’re all pursuing the dream of living free from the constraints of civilization, on the run and gradually traveling east after a botched robbery. The gang appears to be one of the things in the game Rockstar is most proud of, as they recently devoted a one day Twitter blitz to promo shots of its many members. As you play, the gang will set up camp at various spots across Red Dead Redemption 2’s five-state map. They’ll move at various points in the story and will apparently operate as Morgan’s hub for resources and interaction throughout.
I took control of Morgan far away from the camp on a sunny hillside, where Rockstar’s reps deemed it wisest for me to get a feel for the game’s controls. He was easy enough to get to walk around, particularly given that I’ve played one of these games before. Walk around with one analog stick, control the camera with the other. Tap X to move faster. Jump with square.
One novelty was the left trigger, which is used not just to aim but to focus on things. With Morgan’s guns holstered, I could aim the camera at my horse, press the left trigger, and get a list of contextual interaction options such as “brush” or “feed.” Taking the same action while nearing someone on horseback could produce options to “rob,” “greet,” or “aggravate.” Rockstar told me that everyone can be focused on and interacted with. And with weapons unholstered, I’d be able to aim my weapon to intimidate people or, of course, shoot them.
Far from where Morgan stood on that hillside were towering rock mesas and a settlement. Far beyond that were mountains that, I was assured, were not the edge of the map. There’d be more to do beyond. The Rockstar reps monitoring my demo suggested I should try and go hunting nearby.
I was into the idea of hunting animals, but first I wanted to mess with some things. I toggled the game’s mini-map through its various settings. You can play with it placed into the bottom left corner at large, normal size, with it shrunken as a compass, or you can opt to have it not appear at all, for the most immersive experience.
I toyed with the game’s camera settings: three levels of zoom and then first-person. The entire game can be played from that perspective, a la the new-gen and PC versions of Grand Theft Auto V. So granular are this game’s other settings that I was told you can opt to have the head of the horse you ride not appear when in first-person for a less obstructed view. I tried the new cinematic camera, which switches to widescreen, pulls the camera back and shows the action from more dramatic angles. It ran more smoothly than the cinematic modes in GTA games, which I’ve largely found make the game unplayable. It probably helps that horses move more slowly than cars and that it’s easier to hold a button in RDR2 to keep the horse moving in the right direction.
I got on my horse. I got off my horse. I held the triangle button down during dismount so that Morgan would tie the horse’s reins to a stake in the ground. I untied the horse and had Morgan walk it, leading with a grip on the reins.
Maybe it was time to go hunting? I spotted some crows and used the game’s slow-mo Deadeye shooting system to rip off several shots. Turned out the lead from my bullets in their carcasses rendered them nearly worthless. It’s weird how impressed I was, and how we can fetishize guns so much in video games, but the gun details in the game are noticeable and admirable. Morgan loads each bullet into the chamber one by one. When he’s done with his gun, a double tap of a shoulder button makes him twirl it before holstering it.
I set off on the hunt, riding my horse toward a skunk. I had Morgan take out his bow (naturally, you have a bow and arrow in this game) and shoot. I felt the influence of aim assist, though I was told players can reduce it. I got off the horse and took the option to skin the skunk. This isn’t the sanitized camera cut-away from the first Read Dead Redemption. In the sequel, you see the knife cut and the skin come off the body. One grisly animation later, Morgan had a skunk carcass at his feet and a small pelt and some glands in his inventory.
Then, finally, it was time to make some chaos.
I heard a train rumbling in my direction along nearby tracks. I had Morgan ride his horse toward a train station, where a locomotive was wheezing to a stop. I dismounted, jumped onto the train and into a car. Inside, a man with a rifle snarled that I was not welcome. I didn’t care. I took some loot from a chest nearby. He opened fire.
I ran and leapt off the train and onto my horse, which had been following at a gallop As I tried to flee, armed men gave chase. A message popped up on screen notifying me that I’d caused a crime, surprising me not at all. There was now a price on my head.
A man driving a stagecoach was heading in my direction. I pressed the left trigger, hoping to interact peacefully. Maybe I could greet him kindly or ask him for his horse, and maybe he wouldn’t notice that I was being chased? I hit the wrong button. Or maybe I had my gun out? Or maybe I just scared him? I’m not sure. He panicked and tried to ride away. I rode up alongside him, wondering if I could leap from horse to stagecoach. I got close and pressed square. It sort of worked. Morgan wound up in the carriage, and the driver bailed. The other guys were still coming after me.
I doubled back and headed toward the station. I asked the Rockstar reps overseeing my demo if I could steal the train itself. They welcomed me to try.
I boarded the engine and took control. A new notice flashed. I’d committed another crime. Who cares? I found I could cause the train to accelerate down the tracks. I could even ring its bell. I accelerated.
Angry men were still coming after me, riding their horses in pursuit of my now runaway train. I noticed my horse, galloping loyally beside the engine as we roared ahead. I felt bad, so I jumped off the train and got back on the horse.
I turned toward a town and rushed it, slowing down as I got to the perimeter. I hitched my horse to a post, brushed it clean, then entered a post office to pay off the bounty on my head. There was a lady on a nearby bench, and I decided to talk with her. We greeted each other, briefly discussed the beauty of the countryside and then I ran out of options to keep chatting with her.
I moved on, the chaos past me.
In some aspects, Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like a traditional Rockstar game. As you play, tips about the many things you can do in the world flash in the upper left corner of the screen, as they have in many GTAs before. During the train heist mission that I watched, mission goals appear as short sentences at the bottom of the screen, key words written in yellow.
Rockstar is promising a changed formula, with more blending of main missions and side missions, and more fleshing out of the random events that popped up in the original Red Dead Redemption. None of those promises are the sorts of things the studio can effectively convey in a two-hour demo, or that a previewer can assess in that amount of time. That stuff is proven out over dozens of hours.
Some of the systems I saw in action were new twists on older ideas. The detail that Morgan can gain and lose weight depending on how much he eats is a throwback to GTA San Andreas. The honor meter, which reflects Morgan’s reputation, is a variation of the morality meter in the previous Red Dead. Rockstar promises subtle effects in how characters react to you and with better payouts for robberies if you play more dishonorably, and higher payouts for chasing down bounties if you play more honorably.
Newer for Rockstar are things like weapon degradation. Guns have stats and those stats can be slightly diminished if the guns are mishandled. You might, for example, get them wet and wind up with a drop in stats. Cleaning the weapons, complete with elaborate cleaning animations, brings those stats back up.
In a more radical departure from most other games with guns, firing a bullet will usually take two button presses: one press to fire, and a second to pull back the hammer for the next round. This may make the guns feel more real, or at least slows down the pace of gunfights.
Morgan and his horse each have health and stamina meters, and Morgan has a meter for Deadeye slow-mo. Each can be diminished due to hardship but also bolstered through experience. Run more, for example, and Morgan will eventually have more stamina.
Rockstar assigns armies of developers to their games, and winds up with worlds ornate with tiny details other studios can’t afford. See the realistic flip-flops and the radio stations that cut out when you drive deep into the countryside in GTA V for a sense of how into minutiae they’ll get.
In my demo, I was hearing about how Morgan’s hair and beard will grow over time and then went to a barber where I could get a trim (only reductive trims and shaves possible; you can’t suddenly add a huge mop of hair). I marveled at how real the characters’ clothes looked—actually worn, not painted on—then heard from Rockstar that clothing can be layered and that players can even choose to wear an outfit with the sleeves rolled up or down.
I was told that horses come in various breeds, and that you can bond with them and learn new skills, like a dramatic skid-stop or a dressage side-step. After seeing the game’s first trailer, we and others had wondered if the horse’s testicles were animated. I asked, and they told me that the testicles shrink and expand depending on the temperature in the game world. Details, details.
While I was in town, I had Morgan order a drink, take on a bounty from a sheriff, agree to a sidequest to track down outlaws and attempt to take a bath. I checked the flexibility of the system for interacting with townspeople and realized I could vary my interactions with people. I chose to antagonize two men in a bar, for example, and nearly started a fight. Then I chose a more positive interaction option to de-escalate the conflict and walk away untouched.
Later, we went to the base camp, which was full of people and points of interaction. One woman told Morgan about what sounded like a new mission. Two other women nearby started chatting about massacre and a curse and asked him his thoughts. “You believe in curses, Arthur?” one of them asked. “No, I believe in bullets and not too much else,” he replied. “You soulless wretch,” she retorted. A Rockstar rep said that wouldn’t have happened if Morgan hadn’t lingered in front of them. Near a campfire, he could pour a hot drink. A notice on screen indicated that a character in the camp makes stew daily.
At every possible moment, Rockstar would talk about the importance of the gang and their camp, and nearly as often they’d point out that it is not compulsory to do anything with the gang or their camp. Presumably they don’t want people to feel like the Van der Linde gang is a crew of Roman Bellics, channeling the worst of GTA IV’s overly needy cousin. Rockstar indicated that, yes, you can provide money and provisions for the camp and upgrade it, and that you can wind up in more meaningful conversations with other members of the game along the way. They say that helping the camp out will expand the types of activities gang members will go on with you and will affect the stories told around the campfire. But you don’t have to. If nothing else, camp appears to offer the chance to hang around John Marston some more, which is a treat for those who enjoyed his gravely drawl in the last game.
Game previews are a glimpse at the top of an iceberg. I’m told there’s stuff beyond the mountains. I’m told the map is enormous, spanning five fictional states that represent the types of topography seen across the United States. There’s even a big city, they say, the likes of which the franchise has not previously seen. I’m told the story is ambitious. I can’t tell. It just wasn’t possible to see.
What I could see sold me on the idea that Red Dead Redemption 2 aims to be as detailed and involved a video game western as we’ve ever seen. I’m equally sold that the changes Rockstar has made to their formula appear to be for the better. There is potential for them to have created their most interesting and interactive gaming landscape, one that gives much more life to the interactions between the character we play and the many others we meet, to make events unfold more naturally and for everything to feel more organic. In just about a month, we’ll find out for sure.