I’ve never seen in a game before. Everything has its place and everyone has a purpose. Importantly, it’s not just a veneer either. Other games give the appearance that life continues around you regardless, but stop for a second and it’s easy to see past the façade – the guy with the broom isn’t really sweeping his porch, he’s stuck in a never-ending cleaning loop that even a gun to the head cannot break.In Red Dead 2, people exist. They have work to do and schedules to stick to, regardless of whether you’re there to see it or not. But if you are there, they’ll react accordingly – so point a revolver at the guy innocently sweeping his porch and, depending on his demeanour, he could drop to his knees and beg for his life, or at the opposite end of the scale draw a six-shooter and retaliate. There’s deep-rooted connection between you, your actions and the surrounding world, which is critical to everything that Red Dead Redemption 2 is. Rockstar doesn’t just want you to play as outlaw and protagonist Arthur Morgan, it wants you to live as him. Morgan is one of the senior members of Van der Linde gang, a band of outcasts led by Dutch van de Linde. The year is 1899 and the Wild West is being tamed, with outlaws driven into hiding as the authorities grow in size and strength. When a robbery in the town of Blackwater goes wrong, Morgan and the Van der Linde gang are forced to run, chased by gangs of bounty hunters led by the law.
Red Dead 2 is a strikingly beautiful game. We’re only seconds into the demo and it’s immediately apparent every inch of this world and everything in it has been painstakingly crafted and every detail pored over. The opening close-up of Arthur depicts an outlaw who’s wise yet kind, his blue-green eyes and stubbled square jaw painting the impression of a man you don’t want to mess with, but he’d probably be great to share a pint with.
Arthur is standing on the edge of camp, looking out over the wilderness. It’s eerily quiet, as if the world hasn’t quite woken up yet. Turning, Arthur walks towards camp, pausing to pull a cup from his satchel and fill it with coffee, and it’s here we get our first proper look at some of the other gang members. Sean McGuire is a cheery Irish joker who’s telling stories around the campfire with boundless enthusiasm; Uncle is a bearded, hungover wreck, slumped against a barrel dressed only in his underwear, and mutters something as you walk past. There are others, deep in conversation or otherwise going about their daily business.
This is a working camp, so everything has to… well, work. Clothes have to be cleaned, wood is needed for the fire, water must to be collected from the river, and so on. Each member of the gang has a role to play and their own duties to fulfill, and if you take a minute to look around you’ll begin to notice how everything works as it should and everyone has their place.
“Each member of the gang has a role to play and their own duties to fulfill”
As Dutch’s right-hand man, Arthur plays an important role in the upkeep of the gang, not just in terms of supplies but also the morale of the gang. If food and resources are aplenty then spirits will be high, which is reflected in the mood of the camp. People will be singing and dancing, and you’ll be greeted with cheer. But if the food supply runs low, you’ll quickly know about it – people will mutter angrily about where the next meal is coming from. As a senior member of the gang, many will look to Arthur to provide, through hunting or buying supplies, and he’ll be rewarded for doing so. But thankfully the responsibility doesn’t fall entirely on your shoulders – Rockstar is keen to emphasise the camp will continue regardless of your input and is spending a lot of time balancing Arthur’s responsibilities with having fun.
Pearson is the camp cook and when Arthur walks past he’s told the meat supply is running low. Importantly, this isn’t a cutscene that triggers a mission, it plays out as Morgan is walking along, still sipping his coffee. That’s the case with almost every interaction we saw throughout the demo – the camera doesn’t cut away, instead keeping you at the heart of the action, with interactions triggered through a combination of proximity or Arthur choosing to continue the conversation. As a result it felt Morgan had a choice: he could ignore Pearson’s plea and talk to someone else, but in this instance he agrees to help.
From what we’ve seen, this level of choice is threaded through the entirety of Red Dead Redemption 2. Obviously there’s a beginning and an end (or possibly even ends – we don’t know right now), but Rockstar is trying to blur the lines between what’s a story mission and what’s a side quest, instead presenting them all as opportunities given to Arthur. Many are contextual too, dependent on the time of day, where you are and who you’re with.
Choices aren’t just made at a high level either; you’ll be presented with decisions every step of the way, and how you act determines the reaction you get back. When Arthur exits the camp and rides his horse along the dirt track, he’ll soon meet other people. Much like real life, they’re a mixed bunch; some are pleasant and polite, others are less welcoming. You have complete control over how Arthur acts in the world, thanks to a sophisticated interaction system represented by a number of choices displayed in the bottom right of the screen, such as Greet or Antagonise. These dynamically change depending on a number of factors, including where you are, who you’re talking to, choices you’ve made previously in the interaction and so on.
How he presents himself has a similar effect: travel with your gun holstered and you’ll likely get a warm reaction, but carry it in your hand and passers-by react more severely. Bandits and lawmen will retaliate aggressively, challenging Arthur and even drawing their own weapons, while ordinary citizens might cower and or ask you to put the weapon away. And if you point a pistol in someone’s face, expect their reaction to be more extreme still.
There are other factors that impact the response you receive too. A farmer didn’t take too kindly to Arthur riding close to his land, telling him to move on in no uncertain terms. Likewise, a lone traveler resting against a fallen tree trunk is similarly wary when you trot past at dusk.
Others are less aware of your presence, like the lone traveller standing at the edge of the river, casting for fish. In fact he’s so transfixed on landing a haul he doesn’t notice when Arthur rides up to his tent, hops off his horse and rummages through his belongings. Arthur pops open a lockbox with his knife and takes the pocket watch inside, before focusing on the meat hanging near the fire. But while the fishermen is oblivious to Arthur, his dog isn’t, and the constant barking is enough for him to wade out of the river to investigate.
Surprised his belongings have been stolen, he shouts “You betta stop right now!”, at Arthur, but he’s no match for the outlaw, who tells him to turn around and run. He doesn’t, so Arthur tries a more forceful approach, pushing him to the ground. It works and the fisherman scrambles to his feet and flees.
It’s just one of many ways that scene could’ve played out. He could’ve attempted to diffuse the situation peacefully, but that might have given the fisherman the opportunity to retaliate. He could’ve gunned him down there and then, which would’ve meant there was no chance he could flee to the nearest town to tell the sheriff who robbed him – but the bounty for attempted murder is way higher than it is for robbery. These are the decisions Arthur – and therefore you – have to make every step of the way.
Scavenging for food and loot is one way to provide for the camp, but pilfering the odd can of kidney beans here and there won’t sustain the whole gang. Hunting is a more efficient use of time and New Hanover – the area the demo is set in – isn’t short of wildlife. Birds scatter as you gallop past, deer prance across the rolling hillsides and the hum of fireflies provides the backdrop to some of the quieter moments in the demo. We also witness a brief encounter with a bear, which charges Arthur, but a swift escape on horseback sees him live another day.
Think of your horse as a companion rather than a disposable mode of transport,
On the subject of horses, it’s one aspect that been massively improved on compared to the last game. Firstly, Rockstar wants you to think of your horse as a companion rather than a disposable mode of transport, and as such you’ll build up a bond with your mount the more time you spend with it, calming it when it’s agitated, grooming it and feeding it. If you have a strong bond with your horse it’ll be generally be less skittish and calmer in firefights, and more inclined to do as you want, while an untrained horse is more unpredictable.
When you dismount, your horse stays where it is: yes, you can call it with a whistle, but that’ll only work if it’s nearby. Bearing in mind your horse now not only gets you from A to B, but also carries most of your supplies and larger weapons, you’ll always want to know where it is.
It’s evident a huge amount of work has gone into making the horses as lifelike as possible, from their mannerisms to how they’re animated. Different breeds have different personalities – they react differently to terrain, water and stressful situations – but all are beautifully brought to life. The transition from trot to canter to a gallop is seamless, and the horse reacts exactly as an intelligent animal would – it can turn on a sixpence when walking, but is less nimble at high speed. And because it’s smart, it won’t do anything stupid like jump off a cliff, even if you try and force it to.
Back to the hunt, Arthur sets his sights on something a little smaller than the bear encountered earlier – a pair of rabbits darting across the grassland, which he picks off with a couple of well-aimed shots. Scooping down to pick them up, he can either tie them to his horse or skin them first. The latter is a gruesome display of Arthur’s skills as a huntsmen, ripping the skin clean off in one swift move, accompanied by a stomach-turning squelch.
A pair of rabbits will only last camp so long, so he continues to ride until he spots a herd of deer darting across the path ahead. Slipping silently from his horse, he grabs his bow and the hunt is on.
It’s how I imagine it must be to kill an animal in real life – brutal, bloody and exceptionally unpleasant
Crouching low, Arthur eases his way through the long grass to where he last saw the deer. They’re grazing, unaware of the looming danger, enabling him to get close and draw his bow. With the string pulled tight, he whistles to draw the animal’s attention and fires, the arrow striking it in its leg. It cries out in pain and attempts to run, but the wound is deep and, after following a blood trail for a few seconds, Arthur finds the buck collapsed on the ground, still alive but kicking its legs and screeching in agony. Arthur draws his knife and finishes what he started, plunging the blade into the animal’s heart.
It’s a memorable encounter, one that really sticks out during the demo. It truly felt like the animal was suffering and the guttural howl it made when hit by the arrow will stick with me for a long time, not because I’m squeamish but it’s how I imagine it must be to kill an animal in real life – brutal, bloody and exceptionally unpleasant. But in Red Dead Redemption 2 it’s a necessary evil – the buck will feed the camp for days.
But first, Arthur needs to get it back to Pearson, picking up his prey and throwing it over his shoulders. It’s heavy, and Arthur is noticeably debilitated while carrying such a beast. Thankfully his horse is just a whistle away, and strapping the kill on the back of his mount makes the return journey a more enjoyable ride.
Dead animals decay over time – the carcass of a deer left in the scorching midday sun will soon turn
However, a word of caution – dead animals decay over time and while small prey can be wrapped and stashed in your satchel to prolong their use, the carcass of a deer left in the scorching midday sun will soon turn. Ensuring the buck is returned to the camp cook as soon as possible is therefore a priority.
The same applies if you’re looking to sell the animal to a nearby butcher – the better the condition of the meat, the greater your reward. Equally, an animal riddled with buckshot will attract less of a reward than a clean kill with a single arrow.
By the time Arthur returns to camp the sun has set and the mood is more relaxed. The outlaw guarding the entrance to the camp has changed – another example of how life continues whether you’re around or not – but most have finished their duties for the day. Some are playing chess, another is listening to soothing opera on a gramophone, and many have retired to their tents for the evening.
Near the farthest wagon, three gang members – Bill (Williamson, who many will recognise from the previous game), Lenny and Karen are deep in discussion, and usher Arthur over. There’s a bank they want to hit in the nearby town of Valentine. Resistance is said to be minimal, but they still want Arthur to come along to be the muscle. He agrees, the screen fades to black and the next morning the four ride together towards the town.
During the ride, Bill outlines the plan in more detail. Karen will go in first to cause a distraction, then the other three will make their move. According to Bill it’s a plan that can’t go wrong, but Arthur isn’t so convinced. It’s another glimpse at some of the big personalities we’ll spend time with in the finished game; Bill is desperate to prove himself, not just to the rest of the gang but in front of Arthur, telling him “he’s got the lead on this one”. But Arthur has experience on his side – even the best laid plans can fail, and he’s not afraid to voice his opinions.
Valentine itself is a small, quiet town. A railroad runs along its edge and there’s a church in the middle, plus a handful of shops, but at this time of the morning there are few people on the streets. Arthur and the gang tether their horses off the main road before walking towards the bank. The ominous twang of a guitar signals something big is about to go down.
Karen goes in first as planned, but asks Arthur the best method of distraction – should she play the part of a little lost girl (“fellas always like a lost girl”), or the drunken harlot? In this instance it’s the latter, so she unbuttons a few extra buttons on her shirt and staggers inside the bank. Seconds latter there’s all kinds of commotion from inside; Bill, Lenny and Arthur pull their neckerchiefs over their faces and go in, weapons drawn.
There are only a handful of people in the bank. Some are already on the ground, held at gunpoint, while Arthur grabs the nearest banker and forces him to open the door leading to the back, pistol-whipping him when he tries to resist. The vault is in the next room, so Arthur pushes him through and orders the banker to open it. When he says only the manager can open the vault, Arthur provides less-than-subtle encouragement with another pistol-whipping and moments later the vault door is open.
Inside are five safes, but shouts from Lenny and Karen out front indicate time is running out. Arthur has two options, displayed once again in the bottom right of the screen – he can attempt to crack the safes or blow them open. We opt for the latter and Arthur wedges a stick of dynamite in the handle of each safe door before taking cover behind a nearby desk and waiting for them to blow open.
Arthur has two options – attempt to crack the safes or blow them open
The room shakes as the sticks explode one by one, the doors open like dominoes falling, and Arthur quickly reaches in and hauls as much loot as he can before running back out front. But it’s too late – the sheriff and his deputies are already on the scene. Karen now tries the lost little girl act, walking out of the bank saying it was all a terrible mistake. Seconds later she’s followed by Arthur, who kicks open the doors, Dead Eye at the ready.
Dead Eye looks much the same as in the last game; the screen turns sepia and the action slows, giving the player a few seconds to mark targets before shooting. The four lawmen hit the dirt in a hail of gunfire before Arthur turns his focus to the deputies firing from on top of buildings. Long-distance kills play out in slow motion, shown from a reverse angle so you can fully appreciate the kill, and as the law is pushed back Arthur and the gang slowly make their way from one piece of cover to the next, back to their horses.
Just as Arthur is about to climb on his horse a bullet fizzes past his head, knocking his hat clean off. According to Rockstar it’s not a prescribed moment, just something that can happen, and if you lose your hat it won’t miraculously reappear in the next scene – you’ll have to go back and get it if you’re willing to risk the heat, or buy another when you get the chance. There’s no Indiana Jones moment this time and the gang jump on their horses and ride off.
As the gang attempts to escape, more lawmen close in from every side. Arthur deftly disposes of two riding up from behind before switching to his rifle to fire at another gunman riding along a nearby ridge. The first shot misses but the second hits hard, knocking the target off his horse. His legs get caught in the reins and he’s dragged along the ground as the horse gallops on. Up ahead, a train thunders across the plains, giving Arthur and the gang a way out. With a kick of his spurs, Arthur charges in front of the speeding locomotive, which cuts them off from their pursuers and leaves the lawmen behind.
It’s the kind of finale you come to expect from a Rockstar game, an explosive set-piece that plays out around you. Arthur made his escape this time, but only just – a split-second later and his guts would be painted all over the train.
Arthur escaped this time – a split-second later and his guts would be painted all over the train
What we saw is apparently only a tiny part of the game, New Hanover is just a small area in a much larger world – one that stretches from the snowy wastelands of the north to the swamps to the south, taking in settlements and a sprawling city in between. Similarly, the camp we saw is just one that’ll be in the game, and as outlaws on the run the Van der Linde gang will be forced to move on when the heat gets too much.
As for the story, naturally Rockstar is keeping most of it secret. There will be connections with Red Dead Redemption, seeing as this game is set prior to it and features some familiar faces, but Rockstar describes it as a companion piece rather than a prequel. Multiplayer will return, promising to “create a brand new open world multiplayer experience”, but there are no details beyond that statement and, for now, Rockstar’s focus is on the story of Arthur Morgan.
If this demo is anything to go by, it’s a story driven by an ambition to create something deeper, more expansive and immersive than ever before. Rockstar made an interesting point when talking about the game – it never wants you to feel as though you’re being pushed in a certain direction, or that the developer is somehow guiding you. Every decision is yours, and you have to live by those decisions, no matter how good or bad they are.