Next Friday, on October 26, the most anticipated game of the year arrives.
“Red Dead Redemption 2” is the next blockbuster game from the folks at Rockstar Games, the company that created “Grand Theft Auto” – which is exactly as big of a deal as it sounds.
“Grand Theft Auto 5” launched over five years ago. “Red Dead Redemption 2” is the first game from Rockstar since “GTA V.” It’s being billed as Rockstar’s biggest, most ambitious game ever made. No pressure!
It was with all this context that I excitedly approached a recent opportunity to play “Red Dead Redemption 2” at Rockstar’s Manhattan offices. I came away from the experience with a lot to say.
1. “Red Dead Redemption 2” is an attempt at something new for Rockstar Games, despite looking familiar.
When “Grand Theft Auto 3” arrived on PlayStation 2 in 2001, it was a precedent-setting game. It popularised the concept of so-called open-world games – games in which players were free to travel through massive, nonlinear environments (“GTA 3” had a New York City-esque open world named Liberty City). It was a smash hit, inspiring copycats (remember the “True Crime” series?) and nearly two decades’ worth of sequels.
Since “GTA 3,” subsequent Rockstar projects have been iterations on that original concept: narrative-driven, single-player games set in elaborate open-world environments, whether a 1980s-flavored version of Miami or a turn-of-the-century American frontier, but it’s always a third-person action game set in an open world.
“Grand Theft Auto 5,” from 2013, is the most recent example: a beautiful third- and first-person action game set in a contemporary version of Los Angeles (called Los Santos) and the surrounding area. “GTA 5” added a robust online multiplayer mode to the concept of open-world gaming – a similar mode is coming to “Red Dead Redemption 2,” albeit a bit after launch – but was otherwise another iteration of the formula Rockstar has been following for almost 20 years.
“Red Dead Redemption 2” aims to break that tradition.
It’s the first game from Rockstar that’s intended to move the genre forward – the genre Rockstar created in the first place. And it’s doing that by making everything in its vast world interactive, however banal that thing might be in another game.
2. Everyone is a potential interaction.
In “Red Dead Redemption 2,” you can interact with every person. Really!
And I’m not just talking about punching and kicking and horse trampling: You can greet, cajole, or soothe every person in the world. Ever person your character sees in the world is a potential interaction.
Maybe you just want to say hi? Go right ahead. The person may respond by telling you to go straight to hell. Or maybe he or she will just wave!
Worse, the people you see may have feelings about you from the jump. As I walked through a small town as Arthur Morgan, a man standing alongside a saloon yelled out after me. Turns out I’d been in a recent bar fight and done something less than honorable. This man – a complete stranger – is now yelling at me, alerting everyone around that I did something less than honorable.
I had a few options: I could try to placate him (“diffuse”); I could ignore him; or I could get aggressive. Turns out, the stranger with the loud mouth didn’t have a lot to say when Arthur pointed his gun in said man’s face.
But even that act had consequences, as I’d intimidated someone with a weapon and lots of people saw. The law was after me, so I headed out of town.
3. Your gun isn’t always the solution.
I didn’t need to pull my gun on that stranger, but just the act of pulling it out in aggression and pointing it – no bullets fired – was enough to end the potential altercation.
There’s a whole mechanic dedicated to holstering and drawing your weapon, and there’s a good reason for that: People react to you differently based on whether your gun is loose.
Rather than pulling your gun, you’re able to focus on individuals, which then offers a few different options. You could also just pull your gun and see what happens, but, as in real life, it’s a pretty bad way to say hello.
It’s a novel addition, but the implications are what matters most: Interaction with the world of “Red Dead Redemption 2” becomes less binary as a result. You have a wider range of ways to interact than just “Do I kill this person or not?”
And that’s meaningful! It helps to make the world feel alive.
4. How characters respond to you depends on a bunch of stuff: how you look/smell, your reputation, how you’re dressed, and much more.
As you can see above, Arthur Morgan is dressed in some relatively standard frontier duds. He’s not covered in mud from weeks of living on the range, nor is he covered in the blood of his enemies, nor does he have a bandit mask on with his gun drawn.
Instead, he looks like a relatively normal guy (at least for the time period). As such, his interactions with the folks on this front porch appear to be relatively friendly.
But if he rolled by with his gun drawn, covered in blood, those people would have something to say about it. Maybe it’s something as simple as, “I wouldn’t want to mess with that guy.” Or maybe they outright don’t want to do business with you because they’re afraid for their life. They may just run.
More than ever, Rockstar is aiming to make the world of “Red Dead Redemption 2” a living one that responds to how you play. On its basest level, this system means you’re going to hear a variety of things, and experience a variety of reactions, based on the way you live as Arthur.
In my time with the game, I heard all sorts of hilarious stuff from the people of 1890s America – much of it too colourful to share in polite company. Allow me to leave those joys for you to experience yourself.
5. In “Red Dead Redemption 2,” there are no “main” missions or “side” missions — just stuff to do.
In a lot of big open-world, third-person games – think “Assassin’s Creed,” “God of War,” etc. – there are “main” story missions and “side” missions. Many times, they’re set up in a list outright, and it can make playing games feel like completing checklists.
“Red Dead Redemption 2” handles this concept differently.
There is a main story to “Red Dead Redemption 2,” and there are things you can do on the side that won’t directly affect that main story. So, in that sense, there is a delineation between main missions and side missions, but that divide isn’t nearly as explicit as it usually is. No lists. No map full of repeated icons, waiting to be ticked off.
Instead, the game showed me only a few icons on my map that would progress the main story.
While on the way there, as is so often the case in Rockstar’s games, I encountered other stuff to do – hunting the game’s dozens of animals, helping a stranger in need, or whatever else. These stories are just as likely to be large, interactive experiences as the main story missions.
As such, Rockstar is intentionally evolving the concept of missions in single-player games. It’s one of the new pillars of Rockstar’s multifaceted approach to evolving open-world games into something that feels more like a lived experience than a series of objectives with a narrative wrapper.
6. You’re playing Arthur Morgan’s story in “Red Dead Redemption 2,” and only Arthur Morgan’s story — there is no character swapping, as in “GTA 5.”
“Red Dead Redemption 2” is the first direct sequel that Rockstar has made, though it’s not actually a sequel, but a prequel – it takes place in 1899, years before the events of “Red Dead Redemption.”
Instead of tracking down and taking out the Van der Linde gang, Arthur Morgan is a prominent, loyal member of the gang. In “Red Dead Redemption 2,” you’ll embody his pursuit of happiness on the American frontier – for better or worse.
Perhaps you’re a morally bankrupt monster. Perhaps you’re more of the John Wayne type, applying black-and-white moral choices to the world around you. Perhaps you’re somewhere in the middle! That’s all up to you.
The game follows the story of Arthur Morgan, but it’s up to you how that story plays out.
7. Arthur is part of a large gang — more than 20 people — who travel from place to place with him.
To Arthur Morgan, the Van der Linde gang is family. Dutch found Arthur when he was still a teenager, living on the street, and helped rear him into the grizzled cowboy he is when the game kicks off.
Thus, Arthur is intensely loyal to the gang, and their campsite is his version of home.
That gang is a roving band of people who travel the world of “Red Dead Redemption 2” with you – a kind of mobile campsite where you can sell stuff, interact with people, have some coffee (really!), and a variety of other stuff.
It’s where you’ll share stories around the campfire, enjoying downtime between train robberies and bank robberies. Just like the few towns I encountered, the campsite feels alive – people are going about their lives, and you’re able to interact or not.
8. “Red Dead Redemption 2” is a road story.
In “Red Dead Redemption 2,” set in 1899, the American government and private business are closing in on the American frontier. Gangs of outlaws like the Van der Linde gang are being chased down, often by gang members turned US marshalls.
America is modernising, and cowboy gangs are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
With a botched robbery kicking off the game, the Van der Linde gang is on the run from the law. That’s the spark that sets the events of “Red Dead Redemption 2” in motion. But it’s symbolic of the bigger move in American society – away from the days of the Wild West and toward the days of robber barons and America’s Gilded Age.
To this end, the “open world” of “Red Dead Redemption 2” is America itself. But, as in the “Grand Theft Auto” games and “Red Dead Redemption,” don’t expect to see a lot of direct examples.
For example, a version of New Orleans (above) is named Saint Denis (the patron saint of Paris).
9. Horses are a major part of the game, and more than just a means of transportation.
Much like the bond Arthur builds with his gang, and the reputation he carries with him wherever he goes, a bond is constantly being forged between Arthur and his horse.
In terms of gameplay, this plays out in one extremely relevant way: Your horse is a portable carrier.
Arthur can only hold so many guns and supplies on his person. In fact, whatever Arthur is carrying is visually reflected on his person. If he’s got a six-shooter in his belt, you can see it. If he’s carrying a bow in his inventory, it’s strapped to his back.
And that means Arthur is limited to carrying a few things at a time – which is why it’s so convenient that your horse will happily carry a spare rifle, or a carcass, or both. It’s a subtle mechanic that, like so many things I’ve already described, serves to aid with immersion and believability.
The fact that Arthur’s horse is so integral to his competence in gunfights comes with a major risk: His horse can die in battle. And if that happens, you’ll need to find Arthur a new one, and then begin the process of bonding all over again.
(Don’t worry: You don’t lose the weapons on your horse. They can be carried away as a saddle and placed on another animal.)
10. A dynamic weather system brings pouring rain, scorching sun rays, and brutal blizzards to the vast stretch of America represented in “Red Dead Redemption 2.”
Just before I was handed the controller to start exploring an early part of “Red Dead Redemption 2,” it started pouring. It was so foggy that the nearby towns being pointed out by Rockstar’s public-relations team weren’t visible. And Arthur was clearly getting soaked.
This wasn’t planned (at least as far as I know) – it’s a measure of the game’s “dynamic” weather system. What that means for you is that weather just happens, as it does in reality. One day it’s sunny; the next is rain. Such is life. And that is reflected in “Red Dead Redemption 2.” The same can be said for a day/night cycle. The clock is always turning, reflecting the Earth’s rotation around the sun.
This is far from revolutionary in an open-world game, but it’s prettier than ever in “Red Dead Redemption 2.” It also has important gameplay effects, such as rain causing mud, which makes Arthur far dirtier and more in need of a bath should he choose to interact with the general public.
11. The world of “Red Dead Redemption 2” is rich with flora and fauna to catalogue in your compendium.
Beyond interacting with people, and hunting animals, and bonding with your horse, there’s a studious side to Arthur Morgan.
By focusing on a subject – a nearby bison, perhaps – and choosing the “Study” option, you’re able to add that subject to a running compendium. More specifically, Arthur’s putting together “A Zoological Compendium of Earth’s Creatures.”
If it sounds like an old-timey almanac, that’s probably not an accident. The pages are filled with gorgeous hand-drawn artwork (seen above). Considering that there are a whopping 200 types of animals in the game – to say nothing of plants – it wouldn’t be surprising to see lots of players turn into encyclopedians when “Red Dead Redemption 2” arrives on October 26.
12. Get ready to go robbin’.
Arthur Morgan is a gunman in a gang of outlaws. That gang sustains itself by robbing and stealing – a lot of robbing and stealing. Given that we’re talking about the Old West, that means leaping onto trains, or running into a bank and sticking a gun in a stranger’s face.
In the time I spent with “Red Dead Redemption 2” at Rockstar, I saw one such train robbery play out.
It started with some faulty dynamite, which is supposed to derail a train and kick off the robbery. When the dynamite doesn’t blow, Morgan and a couple of his fellow outlaws are forced to leap onto the moving train and take it down by hand.
This starts with a gunfight on top of the train – wherein Arthur gets his face smashed with a shovel – and moves down into the railcars as Arthur makes his way from the rear to the front. By the time Arthur stops the train, there are only a handful of guards left to wipe up, at which point his fellow gang members are rolling in and mopping up stragglers.
What’s missing from that description, of course, is the cinematic tension that gripped the whole scene. It’s rife with the type of tight narrative direction that Rockstar is famous for pulling off.