Things were going great in my first preview of Red Dead Redemption 2, the big Wild West game from Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive coming on the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One on October 26.
Until I accidentally shot a dog. Yes, you can do that in this game. On more than one occasion, I accidentally pulled the R2 trigger in the PlayStation 4 Pro version, rather than the L2 trigger. In this case, I was supposed to pet the dog, who was sitting on a wooden sidewalk. Instead, I shot it by accident. (Let it be known I would never intentionally do this, in real life or in a video game). When I did this, we all screamed in shock.
This turned out to be my window into in how far Rockstar is pushing forward the boundaries of what video games can be when it comes to immersive gameplay and complex storytelling in open worlds. Grand Theft Auto 5 set a high bar, but that was built for the PlayStation 3. This one is meant to be persistent, immersive, and intimate using the best console technology today, according to Rockstar. It’s out to prove there doesn’t have to be a conflict between an open world and a scripted narrative.
After I shot the poor little pooch, I learned animal cruelty was a crime. I was branded an outlaw in the fictional town of Valentine, as people witnessed the event and one of the bystanders ran to get the sheriff. The lawman came over and asked me to leave town. I started walking away, but not fast enough. So he started shooting at me. I fired back, and that was another mistake. The crack of gunfire was deafening, and it was all really unnecessary.
I took down the sheriff, but then a bunch of other gunmen came out. I fired at them and used my “dead eye” focus, which slows down time and so you can target a bunch of enemies more easily. Then slow motion turned to quick and I took down a couple more. I took down the whole posse, and then I looked for my horse. I couldn’t figure out which one was mine. And during that delay, another instant posse formed, and a dozen more gunmen came at me. They finally took me and my horse down.
I was reborn, but still had a large bounty on my head. At the advice of my fellow Rockstar observers, I went to the post office and pay the bill. So I went there, paid $225, and lifted the bounty. We noticed there were bullet holes in my leather jacket.
I figured that would be enough. But as I walked through town, the townspeople reacted negatively to me. One said, “We remember what you did.” Even though my weapon was holstered, I wasn’t welcome at the stable in that town.
“Oh, it’s you,” said the stable owner.
If I had walked through that town with my gun drawn, the townspeople would have been on edge. If I had only just pet the dog, it would not have barked at me the next time I saw it.
And that, in a nutshell, is the Red Dead Redemption 2 experience.
A game with a memory
Red Dead Redemption 2 has a persistent memory. I was hoping for a rewind button. But it doesn’t have one. Heck, even my horse’s hooves left footprints in the mud, and while they didn’t persist, I thought about that and was surprised to come upon footprints in the mud at another location.
Rockstar has worked on this for years, with some people on it since the previous game debuted in 2010. The original Red Dead Redemption was an epic experience and my favorite game of 2010, and this one is a prequel to that story. It’s fair to say that I, and perhaps a 100 million other gamers, have been waiting anxiously for a long time for this.
In Red Dead Redemption, you play John Marston, a partially reformed outlaw who hunts down the surviving members of the Van der Linde gang. That took place in the dying days of the Wild West, around 1911.
The new game also takes place in the waning days of the American West, but it places you in Dutch Van der Linde’s gang at the peak of their notoriety. This is the beginning of that end, where as the original was really the end. It is set in a fictional place, New Hanover, which is one of five states in the game.
You play an unrepentant outlaw, Arthur Morgan, the lead enforcer of the Van der Linde gang. Morgan was adopted by the elder leader, Dutch, as a child, and so grew up with the gang. But fractures within the group start gnawing and creating pressures on Morgan. Arthur trusts Dutch to make the right decisions, and he will put the plans in motion. Arthur is as loyal to Dutch and the gang as can be, and honor is a big part of his personality. There’s a big cast of characters, some that you meet by chance on the trails and towns along the way, and many that you’ll find in the outlaw camps.
One of Dutch’s decisions is to do a robbery in the city of Blackwater, where things go wrong. They lose a few gang members and run from the law to the Grizzly Mountains of the East. They’re barely surviving, and the members of the gang are starving in their camp.
Then Dutch decides to rob a train.
The train robbery
That’s where my demo picked up. John Marston is gravely wounded. His wife and son come to visit him and then leave. And so he is left behind. Others are recruited to join the fight. One of the elder gang members objects, asking Dutch why they are breaking with their plan of hiding out in the woods and lying low. Robbing this train, he argues, certainly isn’t lying low. But Dutch senses the discontentment in the camp, and he rouses them to take to their horses.
The cinematic finishes playing as the horses make their way through the beautiful woods and mountain passes. Riding a horse is simple and fluid, almost like driving a car in Rockstar’s other epic game, Grand Theft Auto V. I was amazed to see the footprints in the mud and the wildlife all around me, like the deer running in the trees and the hawks in the sky. It’s no joke. The world is as deep and expansive as Rockstar says it is, and I can see how all of Rockstar’s studios had to pitch in on it.
It took a long while to ride through the terrain, but the camera shifted to cinematic shots of our six horse riders. Dutch talked through much of the ride, and twangy music accompanied his soliloquy. Dutch was kind enough to recite the names of the outlaws, like Javier Escuella, who played a role in the first game.
We arrived at a cliff overlooking the railroad tracks, where one member of the gang was already laying dynamite under the tracks. Arthur helps out and ties the wire to the detonator. But the detonator doesn’t work when the train chugs past, and the riders have to chase down the train. Arthur and Lenny, another gang member, manage to make it aboard, and then they start the treacherous journey to the engine. Gunfights ensue, and the guards start falling. The action is cinematic, with Arthur throwing the last engineer of the train in a spectacular struggle.
During the fighting, dramatic music played, highlighting the sense of danger. The music from Woody Jackson flows seamlessly during the action, and the game has 192 separate pieces of original interactive score.
Arthur stops the train, and the rest of the gang catches up, but then other cars empty and more Pinkerton agents come out and fight. The gang has to take them all down. When they finally do, there are a few holdouts in the final armored car. And like in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, one of the guards locked inside the car with the safe warns the gang that it belongs to an oil magnate, Leviticus Cornwall. I got an inkling that Cornwall was going to seek his revenge, just like in the Butch Cassidy film, later on. Cornwall has some loyal guards who won’t open the door, even when faced with threats from the gang.
The gang shoots up the car and then plants dynamite to blast the doors open. They take out the last guards and search for a safe. Inside the car, there’s a wealth of detail that Arthur can discover, like letters with secret notes, and a pile of bonds that worth a big pile of money. At the end of the train robbery, Arthur faces a decision about what to do with the prisoners.
And that, of course, is where the story gets interesting.
The living West
While the train robbery was a scripted story, the world is as open as you’ll find in a video game. I took the reins on the game with my horse in the grasslands. I pet my horse, and I was reminded that the horse is a character as well. You can bond with your horse.
Just standing in place and watching the wind blow through the grass, you can see how much work Rockstar put into things like shadows, lighting, ambient sound, music, weather effects, and facial and body animation. You can swap between first-person or third-person views as you wish.
If you lose your horse, you lose its unique personality and some of your abilities. You can carry three weapons, and everything else you carry can be seen on you, from your canteen to your saddle bag. The horse can carry additional inventory and weapons. By tapping X, the horse started moving, and each time I tapped the button, the horse picked up speed until it was running fast. At the highest gallop, the horse loses its stamina and can no longer run at some point.
The weapons have been meticulously designed. If you maintain them and keep them clean, they will be less likely to jam or fail during combat. You can also decorate the handles in your own personalized way. You can use a range of ammunition, each with different effects. Your clothing will affect your stamina, particularly if you are not dressed for the weather.
The world is filled with things to do. A road was busy with travelers. You can call out to each one of them with a simple press of the triangle button. Then you can decide whether to greet them in a friendly manner or antagonize them. If you are friendly and your gun is not drawn, they may give you a lift to the nearest town. If you’re not, you could find yourself in a duel in no time.
I set out at first to go hunting. I chased down some deer, who were fast but not impossible to hit at full gallop. I remembered the “dead eye” button (R3 on the PS4) to put the scene in slow motion. Then I painted multiple deer with the crosshairs in slow-mo and then watched the scene unfold in fast action, with the deer falling as if I were a quickdraw artist. I shot a deer and had to pick it up and load it on top of my horse, behind the saddle, to carry it back home. There are now five levels of dead eye focus that you can earn throughout the game.
As you hunt animals, icons for each animal will show up in that area on the map so you know where to look for them again. Legendary animals are rare animals players can hunt down – only one legendary animal exists for select species. If you come across a trapper, you can bring him animal goods and will the trapper will make you rare clothing. You can also come across famous gunslingers who are listed on cards as the best shooters ever. You can go after them, and collect them like animals.
The outlaw camp
After the train raid, we returned to the outlaw camp, where the Van der Linde gang’s assortment of outlaws and outcasts lives in a state free of government interference. They include gunslingers, con artists, former revolutionaries, or runaways. Arthur has relationships with the people, and those can change over time. You hunt, party, steal, and fight alongside them.
You can play a hand of poker in the camp, or sit around the fire and share stories of your adventures. The gang members watch out for each other, do chores, and carry on their own conversations. I walked near a couple of women, and they naturally brought me into their conversation. As I walked further along, they began to ignore me. I thought that was an amazingly realistic effect.
Over time you’ll get a sense of each gang member‘s relationships with both Arthur and each other. The camp is aware of the activities of Arthur and everyone else in the gang; they will talk about things that have happened, like the train robbery. If Arthur argues with someone, they will be agitated. If you are drunk, that will affect your interactions with the gang.
At one point, I saw a prisoner tied to a tree. A couple of outlaws were interrogating him, asking him for more details or they would “geld” him. They pulled down his trousers and threatened to cut off his privates. Finally, the prisoner gave in and told the location of a rival gang’s hideout. Dutch encouraged Arthur to head out for the hideout and bring back supplies to help with the morale in the camp. If you get additional stocks of food, medicine and ammo, the gang will be happier.
The O’Driscoll raid
Once Kieran (the prisoner) fessed up, John Marston, Arthur, and another gang member set out to locate the camp of Dutch’s rival, Colm O’Driscoll, and his gang. They take Kieran along, with his hands tied, and they force him to show them the way on horseback. At the gang members get close, they get off their horses and creep up. Arthur equips himself with a set of throwing knives. I used them to take down three guards on the perimeter of the camp before everything went hot.
We started firing at everyone all at once, and I got taken out quickly. Then we tried it again, and I got further that time. I ran behind cover and stayed there. I used my focus to take a couple of enemies out at a time, but it didn’t last long enough to do more than that. So I had to pick off the rivals one by one, with plenty of help from my companions, who weren’t bad shots at all.
Finally, we got the last one of them and went to the cabin where Colm was supposedly holed up. Arthur opened the door and someone rushed out at him. Kieran, the prisoner, fired and killed the person before Arthur was harmed. In that way, Kieran proved his worth to Dutch’s gang. Arthur was ready to shoot Kieran after that, but Kieran pointed out that he saved Arthur’s life and was now going to be hunted by Colm and his other surviving gang members.
“I’m one of you now,” Kieran said.
So we had to take in Kieran and figure out how much he could be trusted in the future. Honor is deeply integrated into the game, and you would lose a certain amount of honor if you killed an unarmed prisoner or did some other things that would be considered distasteful and harmful to your reputation. I discovered this unintentionally by accidentally shooting the dog.
Arthur Morgan is definitely an outlaw, and not nearly as much as a good guy as John Marston was in Red Dead Redemption. That gives us a little license to be meaner and to do the kind of things an outlaw would do. That reminds me of Trevor, the psycho criminal in Grand Theft Auto V. He can bring more of our willingness to behave badly, just as the guests do in Westworld, because it is an experimental character in a video game.
But Arthur has his limits, and much of what will happen in the story will test his sense of honor and duty to the gang and its various members.
After just 45 minutes of what could be a very long game, I’m convinced that this is going to be one of the best games of the year. Perhaps I should play another hundred hours or so before I decide that for sure, but Rockstar has certainly shown that it knows how to level up the open world game so that it combines both freedom of discovery and a tightly woven narrative within believable, living world where we can all lose ourselves.