Rockstar chose a hell of a moment in its Wild West epic to begin our two-hour playthrough on. Riding through the snowy mountains, with hoofprints being created in the snow, Red Dead Redemption 2 looks amazing in 4K. Even the details on the backs of the horses were impressive.
In this picturesque scene, you could practically feel the crisp air biting beneath your coat as protagonist Arthur Morgan and his gangmates rode through falling snow to get to camp, where they’d discuss a train robbery. Pressing the touchpad triggered a cinematic travel camera, which would switch between different angles as we kept speed with our posse. Characters would still talk, and time would remain constant, but we were holding one button and enjoying the scenery.
It’s completely optional, and when riding solo, we’re sure many players will prefer the tangential distractions of RDR2‘s massive wilderness. Much as with Marvel’s Spider-Man, if simply getting around the world is this enjoyable, it’s a very good sign of things to come.
Robbing a Train in RDR2
Our train robbery was the first scene in the trailer above. After a botched attempt at blowing the tracks with dynamite, the gang had to run to a nearby tunnel mouth and jump onto the train. From there, like many situations, there was the option to be stealthy until things got loud. You can send gangmates forward to take care of someone, or you can handle it yourself.
We had already killed many guards before Dutch van der Linde yelled out to the armoured car that we don’t want to hurt them. The metal door was a problem easily solved by TNT, and out came the guards with their arms raised. As for what to do with them, that decision fell to us. Kill them? Intimidate them into not identifying us? Dutch left it in our capable hands.
Red Dead Redemption 2‘s Minimal HUD
Another great move which will help you enjoy your surroundings and the weight of every scene is the lack of HUD clutter. There’s a minimap in the bottom left, and some context sensitive info at the bottom right.
That minimap can be scaled up or down depending on your needs. When appropriate, your health, stamina, and deadeye meters will fade into view around the minimap. If your horse is around, its own health and stamina meters may become visible too.
Some actions are more constant — for instance, pulling out your gun or mounting your horse will always be the same button. But for other actions, Left Trigger (L2) is effectively your function key. It’ll change the actions in the bottom right according to whatever you’re near.
If there’s a passerby on the road, you can hit L2 and a face button to call out to them. If someone’s causing trouble, L2 will bring up options to either intimidate or appeal to their good nature. If you’re around your horse, L2 brings up your grooming, petting, and inspecting actions.
Going for a Hunt
Hunting is a necessary part of keeping not only yourself fed and supplied, but also your camp. The default autoaim setting makes this very easy, though you’re free to turn that off. Our cursor stayed glued to a deer, even as it energetically hopped away from us over a hill.
Pressing down both the thumbsticks will trigger Arthur Morgan’s heightened senses, and make animal tracks visible to you. If you’ve wounded the animal these tracks will be red instead of orange.
Like many things in the game, your hunt will be affected by the weather. As a storm started while we were stalking a deer, the wind picked up and it started to rain heavily. The scent of the animal was whisked away, and its tracks were muddied. Ever since Spider-Man PS4, games will be judged on the quality of their puddles and after a rainstorm, Red Dead Redemption 2 landscape is pocked with a plethora of premium puddle-porn.
Later on, we’re told, there will be an ability to see the most vulnerable points on a beast. Even more important than a quick kill is a clean kill, and hitting that critical zone will ensure your meat isn’t damaged. You can use a bullet, but ideally you’ll do it with an arrow.
We walked over to the deer we killed, a short distance along its red trail, and endured a heart-wrenching yelp as we put an end to its painful last moments. From that point, you can chop it up, skin it for crafting materials, or haul it back to camp or a nearby town to sell. Butchers will let you know if what you’ve brought back is too damaged.
You won’t want to be running too many errands in the meantime — carrying the carcass is a chore. The deer weighed down our horse no small amount, and it affects horse stamina too. It was pointed out to us that we could fit more prey on our horse like rabbits, and probably even another deer, but we feel like that would reduce our speed so much we’d be going backwards.
RDR2 Civilians Aren’t Dumb
On our way into town after hunting, we decided to approach a random fellow by the side of the road. It looked like he was tending to his horse. An agitated horse, by the looks of it, which he was tending from the rear — bad idea.
Before we could greet him, the horse bucked its hind legs and smacked him in the face, apparently killing him. We wondered if this was a scripted event to teach players the dangers of approaching a horse from the rear – which are very real in Red Dead Redemption 2 – but we were assured it was a complete fluke.
Moments like that are common in RDR2, and we suspect people will be telling stories about what happened in their games, much like they did in Breath of the Wild. A nice touch here was how riders along the road would slow down and look at the body for a while, the stagecoach equivalent of rubbernecking.
Seeing as he was dead, we thought we may as well loot him. We didn’t anticipate any witnesses, though our honour rating went down after pillaging his body. We’re told you can actually chase down witnesses to your crimes and intimidate them into not telling anyone, which will protect your honour rating.
Still riding into town, we came across a couple of rival gang members. An altercation ensued, in which we were the sole human not shot. It was a couple hundred metres out of town, and what happened next astonished us. The townsfolk, having heard gunshots coming from our direction and subsequently seen us riding in from the same direction, were wary of us. They asked questions about the fight, with full voice acting.
Man. This game.
Your Gang Camp in RDR2
We’ve spent a bit of time charting the members of the Van der Linde Gang. That is, both the original gang and Dutch’s later, less principled gang. We always knew the original gang had obscure members lesser known to history. But the truth is, in Red Dead Redemption 2, gang members will come and go based on your actions and decisions.
They can die, or they can leave, or perhaps you never even see them in your playthrough. The gang is a lot more fluid this time around.
You’ll see them at the camp, where they can tell you stories around the fire, or lose their money to you in poker. The camp is your hub. You can trim your beard (careful, it takes time to grow back), buy ammunition, fast travel, and tend to the morale of your gangmates.
Mr. Pearson the cook might be low on meat and need you to go out hunting, or perhaps you decide to donate some of your split from the last robbery to upgrading the camp. Dutch is the boss, but it’s up to you, Arthur Morgan the senior gun, to pitch in with keeping the place well maintained.
One thing we loved was how seamless a camp conversation could turn into a quest. Which began when we started interrogating a captive from a rival gang…
A Baptism of Firefight
Our last task in our demo was to find out where a rival gang was hiding out by allowing Bill Williamson to apply some “advanced interrogation” techniques to one poor, captured sod. He didn’t want to speak, but he did — and just like that, we were on our horses so he could show us the exact spot.
This recon instantly turned into a search and destroy mission. It had begun with a simple dialogue prompt, and before we knew it we were holster-deep in a fairly involved story mission. It was like Red Dead Redemption 2 tricked us into progressing its story, and we weren’t opposed at all.
Much like the first mission mentioned above, we stealthed until we couldn’t. Throwing knives helped out at the start, but once you go loud, the varmint’s out of the bag.
At one point our captive saved our life, and seeing as he feared being let loose lest the rival gang hunt him down, all of a sudden the Van der Linde gang had a new member. Kieran was his name, and Lord knows how long the kid would last in Dutch’s Gang.
The moment that stays with us the most, after all the firefights and AI stories, is the serene ride through the snowy mountains. It’s an impressive sight in 4K, as we imagine it is at 1080p as well. You’ll be able to play the game however you want — either as a social gang member, or more solo style. Regardless, the minimal HUD and other immersive moments and features do wonders for the game.
There’s a point when a threshold of conversation-worthy moments is surpassed, and you stop thinking of everything as fun flukes, and start thinking of it as design. Sure, there’s random, emergent gameplay. But our anecdote-packed two hours with RDR2 suggests a level of craft is at play that will keep people sharing stories for many hours.