Rockstar Games has revealed the first few hours from its upcoming Western, Red Dead Redemption 2.
The game, one of the most eagerly anticipated titles in recent years, is a prequel to 2011's Red Dead Redemption. It takes place 12 years before the events of the original and centers on the notorious Dutch van der Linde Gang as they flee pursuing lawmen following a riverboat heist gone bad.
The game opens on a blustering snowstorm as Dutch and his posse of outlaws trudge their way up the precarious precipice of the Grizzly Mountains, retreating eastward to ride out both the literal storm and the lawful one at its back.
Control is soon passed to the player as they assume the role of Arthur Morgan, Dutch's right-hand man and a member of the gang since childhood. Events that preceded their alpine exodus are unveiled slowly (though not fully) over the course of the roughly four-hour play-through exhibited.
Morgan is a hard man with a thick drawl and a deep sense of loyalty, though the veneer of reverence through which he views his leader does show faint signs of cracking when he discusses the ill-fated Blackwater mission that drove the group high into the frosted peaks of the Grizzlies.
The game's first mission plays out like a two-hander play as Dutch and Morgan traverse the piling snowfall in search of their wayward compatriots. Atop a faithful steed, the player is introduced to a gameplay mechanic at the fundamental core of Red Dead Redemption 2: horseback riding.
Rockstar has made the process both impressively simple to approach and deceptively complex to fully master. With a tap of the X button (the game was demoed on a PlayStation 4), Morgan's horse falls in line beside his fellow gang members. Double-tapping the button kicks the horse to speed up and ride tandem to the posse's leader.
While exploring, a quick hold of the L2 trigger button can bring up optional dialog choices to communicate with those around Morgan. Alternatively, if Morgan has a weapon equipped (be it a rifle, pistol, throwing knife or bow), the same button pulls up an aiming reticle.
The difference is key, particularly when the isolated snowy vistas of the Grizzly Mountains give way to open-world exploration later on. Every NPC encountered could be interacted with, and the responses varied greatly from person to person.
Feel like robbing that nearby wagon? Simply hold down L2 and a host of options become available, from the straightforward "rob" option to "antagonize" to "dismiss." Robberies themselves are as varied as the inhabits of the world. Some victims of your nefarious intentions will simply flee. Others might retreat a fair distance and keep a keen eye on you in the chance they can hop onto their horse and put the spurs to it. Still others will meet your hostility in kind, resulting in a frenzy of bullets or a quick de-escalation of raging, dueling bravados.
Of course, the game isn't only for those who feel like living out their deepest, darkest outlaw fantasies. While traveling the expansive countryside, Morgan will hear calls from other riders or the wayward cries of a distressed soul farther off the road. One such instance that occurred during The Hollywood Reporter's play-through featured a bespectacled gentleman caught in a bear trap. He was released (warily, as one must always be on the lookout for an ambush by bandits), though not without a good bit of ribbing from the "antagonize" dialog option. Morgan can be a real son of a bitch.
That rapport is nothing rare in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2. The interplay between the van der Linde Gang is superb, with strong personalities constantly butting heads and trading jibes. The game instantly makes the player feel like a part of this strange family, made up of more than 20 individual characters that feel thoroughly fleshed out, human and convincingly real.
Adding to this is the fact that the gang doesn't only interact with Morgan, but with each other. The camp is a living unit and it operates on a daily schedule — literally. If players stumble into camp at dawn they will see their fellow gang members dressed in longjohns and setting up for breakfast.
This extends to the rest of the world, as well. When Morgan rolls into a town late at night, only certain businesses are open, and as the night wears on the raucous crowd at a local saloon dwindles to a handful of drunks slumped over tables.
The game's interior clock also has an effect on Morgan, himself. Spend a few days roughing it in the wild and his beard and hair will grow wild and unkempt. A quick stop by the barber will take care of that, but unlike in so many other RPG character customization screens in the past, Morgan can not magically grow hair once his saddle-worn behind hits the barber's leather seat. Want a handlebar mustache a la Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight? Then Morgan must have grown out his beard long enough to be trimmed into such a majestic sculpture of facial follicles.
What Rockstar is aiming to do with Red Dead Redemption 2 — a massive undertaking that was worked on by each of the company's worldwide studios — is create the next generation of open-world gaming. Given that this is the studio's first project built entirely on and for the current generation of consoles (2013's Grand Theft Auto V was originally made for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 generation before being ported to the current gen), Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like a massive step forward from not only its predecessor and Rockstar's previous titles, but also for gaming in general.
Simple details are likely to be overlooked by many of the general audience when the game is released on Oct. 26, such as unique reloading and cocking animations on the many guns in the game, collectible objects that actually disappear from shelves when picked up, how guns and animal hides are stored on Morgan's horse, how blood and mud sticks to Morgan's clothes or his horse's hide. But every detail is painstakingly attended to.
At one point in the play-through a real-life conversation pulled my eyes away from the screen for a brief moment, causing my horse to hit a nearby rock and spill Morgan from the saddle. As the demo jumped forward, to a point when Morgan and the horse had formed a more solid bond, my steed simply bounded over such obstacles.
Immersion, strong dialog and engrossing storylines are certainly big selling points for any media title, but what is perhaps most important for any game is how enjoyable the gameplay itself is. In Red Dead Redemption 2, the feel of the gunplay is satisfyingly weighty and varied from pistol to carbine rifle to bow and arrow. Stealth approaches to enemy encampments award patience while going in guns a-blazing is thrilling wish fulfillment for would-be Old West heroes — if they have the quick-trigger aim to pull it off.
Missions, even in the short demo, were wildly different and many happened organically while exploring the world. While Red Dead Redemption 2 delivers full-force on the action-adventure front, it may be even more engrossing in its quiet subtlety while simply helping a passerby or hunting local deer.
All of the game's many charms are elevated by an absolutely beautiful score that feels authentic to the time period yet unquestionably modern all at once. Traveling through muddy swampland as night-fog creeps in around Morgan's horse to the tunes of slide guitar and bass notes from a cello is enough to produce goosebumps.
While only showcasing a small slice of the game, there was enough in the demo to gather a sense of the world's scope, the rich character designs and the core gameplay mechanics of what aims to be the biggest gaming release of 2018.