Red Dead Redemption 2 is about as awesome and immersive as a video game can get, and that’s no hyperbole or surprise, as the game comes from Rockstar Games, which made masterpieces such as 2010’s Red Dead Redemption and 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V. I am confident that this mature-rated game will be one of the mega-hits of the holiday season, if not for years to come, and it will be a strong contender for Game of the Year.

I’m about halfway through the single-player story, which follows the misfortunes of the notorious outlaw gang led by Dutch Van der Linde and his lead enforcer, Arthur Morgan. I’m withholding final judgment and a review score until I finish the game, but I’ve savored the journey so far.

I’m already amazed at the breadth of the experience. I’ve completed 62 missions (I remember GTA V had 69 missions total), and I am only 51 percent done with the story. It is no exaggeration for Rockstar to call this an epic story of the American West. It’s about honor among thieves and loyalty in the last days of the outlaw era. It is set in a deep open world, but Rockstar leads you through it with a deft hand and a tightly controlled story.

Red Dead Redemption 2 offers so many things to do, but so far I have only dabbled in tasks such as exploration and hunting. I’m sticking to the main story, which is easy to follow because you are directed to each mission through a yellow color code on the overall map.

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Above: Red Dead Redemption 2 debuts on October 26.

Image Credit: Rockstar

The tale begins with the gang in trouble in 1899, 10 years before the events of Red Dead Redemption. They are in full retreat from a bank robbery gone bad in the town of Blackwater. They have fled into the mountains and are searching for their scattered gang members. John Marston, the lead character from Red Dead Redemption, is missing. Finding him is one of your first tasks as Arthur Morgan. The beginning is kind of plodding, but you learn important things like how to ride a horse, track an animal or human in the wild, and hunt. The group sets up camp and you try to help improve the common good by hunting and providing and protecting. And they must escape federal agents, bounty hunters, and private armies like the Pinkertons.

The world feels alive. It has 10 times the custom animations of GTA V. It has 300,000 individual animations, 1,000 things to do and discover, 500,000 lines of dialogue (or twice the number in GTA V), and more than 1,000 actor performances in the game. (Yes, it is no wonder Rockstar is facing allegations of involuntary crunch, or forced overtime.) The game also has better artificial intelligence that appears to sense what you are thinking. Rockstar has taken full advantage of what this generation’s consoles can offer.

What this means is that if you follow a nonplayer character into an alley, they will look back at you and start to worry that you mean ill intent. The character will question you or stop working to confront you. If you have bounty on your head, the passersby may recognize you and report your presence. If you pass by someone with your gun drawn, they may react in a hostile way. You can defuse confrontations, or you can antagonize others into attacking you.

If you are known for shooting up a town and then paying off the bounty, the survivors will treat you with disdain. Every now and then, when you are shooting someone, or when you are riding in the wild, or when an important part of the story unfolds, the camera goes into a cinematic mode. When you walk by two women having a conversation, they will begin to include you in the chatter. All of this helps you feel like you are in a living world.

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What  you’ll like (so far)

Above: Dutch Van der Linde (left) treats Arthur Morgan like a son.

Image Credit: Rockstar

An epic story

I’ve already mentioned the living-world cliche. And I don’t always like to throw around the word “epic,” as that’s what marketing departments do in just about every description of any video game. But Rockstar has set itself apart with the quality of its stories. You can find pathos in the loss of the freedom and frontier lifestyle that forms the backdrop to the tale of Dutch and Arthur. While they’re not nice people, you spend so much time with them that you want to see them fulfill their dreams of escape.

Just when I thought I was getting a little bored, a new kind of mission surfaced. Every now and then, a big twist takes the story in a new direction, and it reminds me that the Rockstar team has some awesome storytellers. I loved getting to know the characters in the gang and the villains — whom you might otherwise think of as law-abiding citizens. You can get to know the members of the gang during missions, where you can tell if they’re cowardly or brave, or you can spend time talking to them in the outlaw camp.

Arthur was adopted into the gang at a young age, and he is one of the few who has been with the gang forever, compared to some who have only been on board for a few months. Arthur buys into Dutch’s dream of living free from the law and societal interference. A charismatic leader, Dutch treats Arthur like a son, but the gang has a lot of baggage, and Arthur has to decide how much he is willing to follow Dutch. Arthur also has to make choices that tell you whether he’s an honorable outlaw or a dirty one. If you remember the plot of Red Dead Redemption, which takes place chronologically after the second game, you’ll wonder how each character turns out.

Diversity of missions and places

Above: Arthur Morgan strikes out on his own in a lot of missions in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Image Credit: Rockstar

I loved going on missions like a train robbery, a bank robbery, a chase through the woods, or even hunting a 1,000-pound bear. One mission involves an alligator, and I won’t say more about that one. You also have random adventures you can pursue. These don’t advance the story, but you can get more resources from them (by looting the enemies you kill) and come face-to-face with interesting moral choices, like whether you should help an escaped convict get out of his chains.

The gang gets chased around multiple states in the fictional American West, and each time it is forced to move, a new chapter in a new place begins. You can explore the snowbound mountain trails of the East Grizzlies, the grassy plains of the heartlands, treacherous alligator-filled swamps, the rapidly modernizing city of Saint Denis in the Southeast, as well as the classic Southwest frontier. You’ll also go to a number of places you wouldn’t expect to see in a Western.

Amazing graphics and environments

Above: The environs of Red Dead Redemption 2.

Image Credit: Rockstar

The game begins in the snow-covered mountains, in the midst of a blizzard. Even on the aging PlayStation 4, the animations of snow particles blowing sideways in the wind look amazingly realistic. The animation of the human faces look superb. The motion captured movements also look real. When you move through the snow, you leave footprints and trails behind you. The music is stirring, and the developers included 192 separate pieces of original interactive score. The combined effect will make your jaw drop open.

Since the world is huge, you’ll see a wide variety of environments, from the mesas of the Old West to the industrial factories of modern cities. The facial animations and close-ups of the characters are also believable, getting over the challenge of the “uncanny valley,” or the notion that animated faces look weirder the more realistic they become. I came to think of the characters as people, not animated pieces of code.

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. The world is visually arresting and it is filled with things to do, and it has a lot of ambient sound and ambient life. I was running down a path, and I laughed when a pig charged up behind me and knocked me over.

The user interface and controls are simple

Above: With scenes so pretty, no one wants to see a user interface in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Image Credit: Rockstar

The screen isn’t cluttered with the usual video game heads-up display.

When you need to pull up your inventory, you hit the left bumper and the weapon wheel appears. If you further squeeze the right trigger, you can then see a secondary wheel of items and then quickly select an item you want to use. When you don’t need to see the inventory, it disappears from view.

This kind of weapon wheel and inventory system makes switching weapons during a gunfight simple and fast. The mini map could be bigger, as it feels a lot like a GPS that tells you at the last minute to make a sharp left turn.

When you are in combat, you can target enemies with auto-aiming by squeezing the L2 trigger. But you have to move your right stick to target enemies more precisely. I learned to control the game quickly and fluidly, so that I never had to slow down much to accomplish certain tasks. That feeds to the illusion that you are in a cinematic experience, more like a movie than a video game. When a cut scene comes, black borders appear and the top and bottom of the screen. I had an easy time learning how to ride a horse, as it’s a lot like playing GTA V, except with horses.(And yes, like with cars in GTA V, it’s quite easy to crash your horse). It feels like a lot of thought went into making the user interface less intrusive.

Combat is deeply satisfying

Above: Arthur Morgan is a legendary enforcer.

Image Credit: Rockstar

This is a game, not a movie, and you can tell that through the quality of the combat system. As you would expect, the Wild West of Red Dead Redemption 2 spawns a lot of combat opportunities. It is spaced across multiple missions, but every once in a while you get into a gigantic shootout. The Dead Eye system is back, and it allows you to shift a scene into slow motion for a limited period of time. During that time, you can target multiple enemies at once and shoot them all at once when the slow-motion returns to fast. When you are being chased on horseback, it’s easy to shift the view so that you can turn around and target your pursuers with pistol fire. If you leave yourself exposed in front of the AI enemy, you’ll die quickly.

It’s not perfect combat, as you spend far too much time trying to auto-aim at enemies and then getting no results. Quite often you have to shoot enemies four or five times to bring them down. But as you get used to the system, you’ll find yourself trying to get headshots just for the rewards. You can find 50 weapons in the game, and you’ll learn how to use a lot of them. And sometimes, you’ll have more than 50 enemies to shoot.

Superb acting

The voice acting for Dutch Van der Linde and Arthur Morgan is first-rate. I’ve come to expect this from Rockstar’s games, but the quality of the facial animation and the voice acting goes a long way toward making you believe that this game is for real. It’s part of making you care about the characters. 

What you won’t like (so far)

Above: Hey Dutch. Get off my foot.

Image Credit: Rockstar

Occasional bugs reveal the game’s limits

Just when you think that you’re not in a video game, and this all seems so real, little bugs remind you that it’s not entirely beautiful. I parked my horse and its head became stuck in a tree. My wagons became inextricably stuck in rock formations. It’s a big game, and a lot of the animations don’t look polished. Pathfinding is difficult, and so you rarely see all of the gang members together on missions. Usually, it’s just a couple of characters involved in most of the journeys. Every now and then, the targeting system seems really slow. These flaws knock you out of the fantasy.

Your horse can be hard to control

Above: Arthur Morgan rides his horse in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Image Credit: Rockstar

It’s hard to avoid pedestrians sometimes. You hit them with your horse and cause a major incident. Other bystanders will report you for an unarmed assault, and the law will come after you. They may kill you, or you may kill them. But either way, you will end up with a bounty on your head.

And when you are riding fast through the wilderness, you occasionally will be unhorsed as you ram straight into a big rock or tree. This is a major unintended consequence of having realistic physics in the game. You can’t just put the brakes on the horse or your wagon easily, or turn on a dime, the way you can in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto games, where vehicle maneuvering is a lot more precise. I would have preferred no consequence at all for bumping into a rock.

I got bounties on my head — or shot a few times — because I accidentally ran my horse into the people who were passing by on the narrow dirt trails of Red Dead Redemption 2. This taught me to be more careful, because the world reacts to my ineptitude, but I wished I could rewind these actions so that they weren’t so consequential. For instance, one of these simple screw-ups led me to losing my horse, which is like losing a character in the game. You can invest a lot in your horse, and if you lose it, you’ll feel sad. So steer it wisely.

It’s a man’s world

Sadie Adler has to beg to go out on missions.

Above: Sadie Adler, a widow who wants revenge, has to beg to go out on missions.

Image Credit: Rockstar

Most of the shooting, living, and dying in the game is done by men. That may be the nature of action in the Wild West stories from the past, but the female characters in the game do little more than fulfill the stereotypes of prostitutes, caretakers, and camp servants. You will encounter some strong female characters, but they only come to the forefront in some of the missions. Sadie, one of the would-be outlaws, has to beg Dutch to go on robbery missions. It reminds you that the game is designed as a man’s world, and that this could very well put off a lot of people who wished for something more modern. One of the women, Molly O’Shea, is constantly interrupted from talking by Dutch. It feels like Rockstar could have made better use of the strong female characters it created.

Small details don’t mesh

At the end of a bank heist, I scored about $20,000. The share for the whole gang was around $12,000. That was a huge amount for the destitute group. But when I proceeded to play further, the gang still only had a few hundred dollars. That bank heist was tough, but I didn’t get the rewards. Dutch always says the gang needs more money, but he never says how much, or where the gang’s money disappears to every now and then. If I knew that, I would know how much stuff to steal in any given region.

Animations can be stiff

Above: Don’t shoot. My aim is a little slow.

Image Credit: Rockstar

Nothing ruins the realism of a game as a lousy animation. Throughout the game, you see characters move in awkward ways, like they’re skating on the ground. I had a hard time tethering my horse sometimes. The characters may look perfect, but if they don’t move as humans do, or if they get in each other’s way,

Choices that aren’t real choices

You have an option to question a captive or beat a person. You can’t extract information nicely, and so your only choice is to be in character, an outlaw, and do what an outlaw would do. Arthur doesn’t seem have many choices to be good — or bad — as you might think in this open world. As Dutch says early in the game, “We’re bad men, but we ain’t them.”

On the other hand, if you make a series of mistakes in the game, you may be forced to give up your progress and start over. That’s because you may make the wrong calls and handicap your character. I found at one point that I had hundreds of dollars on my head, and that brought out the bounty hunters. If too many bounty hunters are on your trail, then you won’t be able to get anything done.

So I had to spend a lot of time on schemes to come up with cash so I could pay my bounty. That was a challenge, and it made me wish the game didn’t remember so much about the dumb things I did. The point is that you can dig yourself a hole so deep that you may have to start over to progress further in the story. You almost feel like you are doomed to be an outlaw.

Conclusion (so far)

Above: John Marston was the hero of Red Dead Redemption, and he is back in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Image Credit: Rockstar

The above list may seem like a long list of things not to like. And hopefully, some of these illusion-breaking bugs will be stamped out with early patches. The bugs are unsettling, considering it took a huge team about seven years to make this game. But make no mistake. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece. I see these flaws as small distractions, but they don’t kill my enthusiasm for the game.

I’m tempted to give this a thumbs up now, but I look forward to playing the second half of the game. I’ve seen enough to know that Rockstar has done a brilliant job blending an open-world game experience with the freedom of discovery and balancing that with the tightly woven narrative.

I’m going to keep on playing this baby until I drop dead from exhaustion or finish all those missions in the campaign. And I’ll let you know how I feel after it’s all done. The mature-rated game comes out on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Friday, though early access is available for some on Thursday.

Score: TBA

Red Dead Redemption 2 comes out October 26 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Rockstar provided GamesBeat with a physical copy of the game for the purpose of this review.