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Red Dead Redemption II

Extensive New Hands-On Impressions From The Opening To Its Open World
by Jeff Cork on Oct 02, 2018 at 09:34 AM
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Games
Release:
Rating: Rating Pending
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Dutch van der Linde’s gang is on the run. The notorious band of outlaws pressed their luck in Blackwater, and the resulting fallout from a failed boat heist has been devastating. A few dozen stragglers have retreated from the territory of West Elizabeth to the Grizzlies, and the situation is looking grim. Winter has laid claim to the mountainous region and ravaged the wounded. Morale is lower than ever. Through it all, Dutch has done his best to maintain control of a group that, even in good times, resists a guiding hand. Things are going to get worse before they get better – if they ever do.

Red Dead Redemption II is set in 1899, more than a decade before its predecessor, which leads to an obvious question: Don’t we already know how this all ends? Former gang member John Marston hunted down his old friends, including Dutch, before he met his own tragic fate. That still holds true, but after playing the game from the beginning for more than five hours, it’s clear that there’s still plenty of story to uncover – and it takes place in Rockstar’s most fully realized world yet.

On The Run

On The Run

The wagon train inches up the mountain, while a blizzard shoves it back. There are rumors of an abandoned mining town, which is enough to keep the group limping their way ahead. When they finally reach the camp, they’re spent. One man, Davy, is dead. From what they can tell, the law has called off their pursuit. It would be suicide to attempt travel in this kind of weather. Once inside a dilapidated building that once passed for a lodge, Dutch displays the leadership that explains why anyone would bother to follow someone through this kind of frozen hell.

“We’re going to ride out and find some food,” he tells the group. “We’re safe now. Nobody is following us through a storm like this, and by the time they get here we’ll be long gone. I need you to turn this into a camp and make it easier for a few days. Everyone get warm, stay strong, stay with me. We ain’t done yet. C’mon Arthur.” And with that, Dutch and I head out into the unknown.

Before our wagons made it to camp, Dutch sent out a couple of scouts. We get onto our horses with the hope of finding them, and, God willing, supplies to keep our group alive a few more days. Visibility is next to nothing, and there isn’t a formal trail to guide us along. I take it on faith and follow Dutch, holding a button to match his pace. There’s a reason Dutch picked Arthur to accompany him on this critical part of the journey: He’s part of a core group who has run with the leader for the past few decades. By the time we ran into John Marston in the original game, he had broken old alliances for the sake of his family. At this point at least, Arthur is a true believer, even if he is just as confused about how the gang got here as I am.

“What really went down on that boat?” Arthur shouts over the wind.

“We missed you. That’s what happened,” comes the reply. If answers about Blackwater are coming, they aren’t coming anytime soon.

We press on for a bit, eventually coming across gang member Micah Bell. He says there’s a homestead not far from our location, and it sounds like they’re having a party. Sure enough, after a short ride, we find the cabin. A fiddle plays, and people are laughing and shouting inside. We hitch our horses, and Dutch tells Arthur and Micah to stay out of sight. “Let me handle this,” he says. “We don’t want to spook these fine people.”

The following exchange feels more like a standoff than an introduction, as the people inside warily regard Dutch. They aren’t falling for his weary traveler routine, even though he’s selling it with everything he’s got. Micah gets my attention, and it becomes clear that something’s amiss; a corpse is inside the wagon he’s been hiding behind. With that, we draw our weapons and prepare for the worst. The worst comes soon enough. One of the men appears to recognize Dutch, blurting out “It’s god damned—” before we cut the conversation short with our triggers. The gunplay is familiar, and snapping between targets in and out of the cabin is simple. Arthur is at the peak of his powers, too; he doesn’t need to drink a miracle tonic before he can tap into his time-slowing Dead Eye ability, which ends the encounter with a pair of deadly accurate shots.

Inside the cabin, we forage for provisions. I find a horse in the barn, but am attacked by a man before I can calm the animal. After a quick beating, we learn the men were members of Colm O’Driscoll’s gang, who are in the region to rob a train. Dutch and O’Driscoll have history, and it isn’t good. Dutch tells me to do what I want with the man, but to bring the horse when I’m done. I let him go. Arthur may be an unrepentant outlaw, but he’s not a straight-up murderer – at least not for now.

The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery

The next few days are eventful. The gang isn’t completely in the clear, but they seem to be settling into a new routine. Javier Escuella and I head out to find John Marston, who has been missing since Dutch sent him to scout with Bell earlier. “I know if the situation were reversed, he’d look for me,” Escuella says, unaware of how prophetic his words are. 

Marston’s role in Dutch’s gang is one of the most interesting aspects of Red Dead Redemption II. We knew of John as a loyal, dependable man with a dark past. Here, a dozen years before our introduction, he’s seen as a bit of a joke. At one point, Arthur calls Marston “as dumb as rocks and as dull as rusted iron.” We find John, and during the rescue learn how he got his distinctive facial scars.

There are a lot of people to get to know in Dutch’s gang, and unlike characters like Escuella, Bill Williamson, and Dutch himself, we don’t have the benefit of having known most of them from the first game. Rockstar does a remarkable job getting players up to speed through dialogue and interpersonal moments, most of which take place in-game as opposed to breaking them out in cutscenes. In the opening hours, Arthur goes on several excursions with a variety of different gang members. On those rides, they talk about Blackwater, share their thoughts on the current state of things, and even discuss the possibility of going straight someday. The conversations feel natural and don’t seem as though you’re listening to “Exposition Moment #4.”

Even though each gang member has their own criminal specialty, they share one common love: money. Dutch has been looking for another lucrative opportunity after the disaster in Blackwater, and it comes after the gang raids an O’Driscoll hideout. There, he finds more information about their planned train robbery, as well as the explosives to pull it off. Our gang also manages to take an O’Driscoll member alive, though the man downplays his involvement. Dutch tells his men to tie up this Kieran Duffy fellow, before giving a chilling speech: “I’ve got a saying, my friend: We shoot fellas that’s need shooting, save fellas that’s need saving, and feed ‘em that’s need feeding. We are going to find out what you need.”

Duffy isn’t saying much, but that’s fine; Dutch has what he needs for the time being. He calls a group of us together to head down the mountain to pull off what he hopes will be a big score. The steady descent from the Grizzlies is transformative. For hours of game time, Arthur has had to push his way through knee-high snow and had his view obscured by blizzards and blinding reflections of the sun on snowdrifts. As the wagon train rattles its way down, packed white trails give way to paths of dirt and mud, and green foliage peeks from between the pines. There’s an accompanying sense of relief, and I appreciate the fact that, for the first time since I pressed start, it looks like our gang might actually catch a break.

The job seems simple enough. We survey the tracks from a hill beside the train tunnel. Dutch sends Williamson out to plant the explosives, and I help by stringing the wire between the dynamite and the detonator. Of course, these things rarely go as planned. The detonator fails, and the gang scrambles to salvage the opportunity. Lenny Summers and I manage to dive atop the train as it passes by, and we work our way to the engine. Along the way, Lenny asks what I think we should do next. Pulling the left trigger, I bring up options, such as having him move ahead or stay back as I clear out the cars ahead. 

Arthur is part of a seasoned gang of killers, and that’s reflected in the action. The A.I. doesn’t hang back and let me get all the glory. Instead, characters like Lenny do their damndest to cut down any enemies they see. There are plenty of times where I’m about to dial in a kill only to see my target cut down by a partner’s shot. It’s a different sensation from a lot of other games, where your teammates often feel as though they’re shooting blanks.

Even though the heist didn’t work out as planned, the results are the same. We blast open an armored car and end up with valuable bearer bonds – a great haul, for sure, but one that will require some effort to reap. Whether it’s the result of the spring air or the feeling of a successful score, one thing’s certain: It’s time for Dutch’s gang to get back to what it does best. 

Planting Roots

Planting Roots

Our gang heads down the Grizzlies, and the mood is completely different from our ascent. People are in good spirits, and the weather is beautiful. That doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, however. Arthur rides with Hosea, and the old man is still nursing a grudge. Hosea reminds Arthur that the two of them had a lead in Blackwater that the gang could have pursued, and that they both knew that the boat job didn’t feel right. “It just isn’t like Dutch to lose his head like that,” Hosea says. Arthur tries to smooth things over, saying he figures they must have gotten more right than wrong over the years. 

The gang sets up their new camp at a place called Horseshoe Overlook. “I’ve been through a couple of times,” Hosea says. “There’s a livestock town not too far from here called Valentine. Cowboys, outlaws, working girls, our kind of place.” Now that things are settled down, I get to see what the gang does on their own time. Members fan out into the world, each with their own schemes – with the understanding that they keep low profiles and kick a share back to the camp coffers. One of the first to go is a studious looking man named Leopold Strauss, an Austrian loan shark. Valentine is his kind of town, indeed.

Now, for the first time since I started, the world is truly open. The camp is bustling with activity, as characters go about their various routines. I talk to Dutch and then grab a bowl of stew from the camp kitchen. The camp has its own needs – ammunition, medicine, and food – and I can choose to help pitch in whenever I want or ignore it altogether and let someone else deal with those chores. Morale improves the more I help, however, which is just one of the incentives to do so. For now, I want to head to Valentine and see what it’s like. I run into our gang’s resident drunk, Uncle, taking a nap against the wagon. I ask what he’s doing, and he says he’s thinking. “So. While the rest of us are busy stealing, killing, lying, fighting to try to survive, you get to think all day?” Arthur asks. “Yeah, it’s a strange world we live in, Arthur Morgan,” he responds. Uncle wants to head into town, and so do Karen Jones, Tilly Jackson, and Mary-Beth Gaskill. The ladies sing a bawdy song on the wagon ride down the road, giggling and messing up the lyrics at times. 

Halfway there, we come upon a man whose horse has bolted away. I get off the wagon and lasso the animal, leading it back to its grateful owner. Arthur tells the man he was only trying to impress the women. Heading down the road, Uncle is clearly not impressed, and says Arthur is turning into a regular fairy godmother.

Players have their honorable and dishonorable deeds tallied as they play, though Rockstar says it’s not as linear a system as it was in the first game. The effects of being a hero or scoundrel are both subtle and far-reaching. Players who go out of their way to help others are rewarded with higher bounty rewards and townsfolk that don’t flee on sight. On the other hand, if you prefer to become a highwayman and rob people who pass by on the trail, you’ll get better prices at illicit fence operations and respect from fellow outlaws. In addition, the musical score shifts to reflect your moral alignment, and your character’s posture and facial animations change. Even your killcams highlight different aspects of your moral character – heroic slow-motion for the good guys, and more brutal actions if you choose to black hat your way through life.

Valentine is a mid-sized town surrounded by hills. It looks like there’s a lot to do, and my passengers waste little time finding it. I stick with Uncle, and we go to the general store to pick up some supplies. You can choose to browse the shelves, similar to how Ammu-Nation works in Grand Theft Auto V, or flip through a catalog. The catalog is a little easier to navigate, and it’s filled with period language and illustrations. It includes a large section of clothing options, too, such as hats, vests, pants, coats, and more. If you like playing dress-up in games, the cosmetics appear to run far deeper than the handful of outfits offered in Red Dead Redemption.

In addition to the general store, there’s a gun shop, stable, and street vendor to lighten your wallet, as well as a few watering holes. People mill around, adding to the feeling that it’s a bustling town and not just an NPC dumping ground. 

Dutch implored us to stay out of trouble, but sometimes trouble seeks you out. I see Charles and Javier in the saloon, where they’re trying their best to impress a couple of working girls. Arthur isn’t much of a charmer, opening their interaction by asking how much they cost. “Well, ain’t that a nice way to talk to a lady,” one responds. “Oh,” Arthur shoots back. “I didn’t know I was talking to a lady.” And with that, the trio drinks alone. It wouldn’t be a saloon without a fight, and soon enough our friend Bill Williamson gets into it with some locals. It’s a classic western fight, with broken tables, smashed chairs, and a piano player who scurries out at the first sign of trouble. I’m able to hold my own, but then a bruiser stomps down the stairs and throws me through the window. Hand-to-hand combat is more involved than in past Rockstar games, and it offers a fair bit of depth. After a few minutes of blocking and parrying his attacks and getting in a few solid counters, I knock him down to the muddy street – to the amusement (and horror) of the assembled crowd of onlookers that has dynamically drawn close to watch the show.

Rockstar says that if I’d gotten into trouble in Valentine before accepting the saloon mission, Charles and Javier would have come out to help – the characters are in the world, and not just spawned in for the sake of missions. In that instance, the saloon mission might not have been available afterward, thanks to whatever chaos we may have caused in the streets.
Arthur is caked with mud, so I take him to the hotel for a bath before checking out a quick movie. While I could have let it dry, there’s something undignified about catching a flick covered in mud. The film is a glorified slideshow, but it’s still an entertaining diversion.

Black Belle, And A ­Bad ­Loser

Black Belle, And A Bad Loser

In a bar down the street, I run into a man who’s trying to write a biography about a famed gunslinger, Jim Boy Calloway, known as the fastest left-handed draw who ever drew breath. Calloway has obviously seen better days, as he’s slumped onto the bar, blacked out. I agree to help the biographer out with his plan B, which involves tracking down some other gunslingers and getting their stories about Calloway.

I start by finding a woman named Black Belle. Her last-known location is in a swamp, and I set my waypoint on the map. It’s about a 10-minute ride, even at a steady gallop. The world is big and beautiful, but more importantly there are things to do. During the trip I watch a guy get kicked in the head by his horse (and lose honor points by looting his body), help a man stuck in a bear trap, and get my fortune told by a man called Old Blind Man Cassidy. “Just as evil begat evil your whole life long, so good may begat good,” he says. 

While larger-scale missions are denoted with easy-to-see icons on the map, these diversions pop up around me without much to-do. I’m able to choose whether to engage with these vignette-like gameplay moments or keep riding along. Since the rewards can be lucrative – financially and morally – I’m more inclined to participate.

Red Dead Redemption’s campaign had a serious arc, but there were moments that leaned more toward the Weird West end of things. From my time with Red Dead Redemption II, things seem significantly more grounded. That’s not to say that it’s not funny, but that the humor is more about the funny things that the characters are saying than in leaning into weird characterizations such as body-defiling prospectors. If that kind of silly stuff is in the game, I didn’t see it.

I won’t spoil what happens with Black Belle, but she’s a great example of a character delivering humor without being a punchline. Suffice it to say, it’s a case where that biographer may have picked the wrong subject.

On the ride back to camp, I swing by a ranch to see what’s happening. There isn’t much activity, aside from a few cattle and sheep, and a friendly game of dominos is what passes for excitement. I pull up a chair and join in. One of the best things about Red Dead Redemption was the slow, almost meditative, pace exploration embodied. You’re traveling predominantly on foot or horseback, which has a significantly different feeling from whirling a car around corners at 90 miles an hour. In this kind of world, a relaxing game of dominos is just the ticket. At least until I lose.

I was about ready to walk away with a smile on my face, when the winner made a little gloating remark. I look at him, and then pull up an interaction menu. When you see an NPC, you can choose several different ways of engaging them, if you want. In addition to friendly greetings, you can rob them or try to intimidate them. I try to talk him into fighting, and he obliges. After a few punches, I knock him out and take on his friend for good measure. I riffle through his pockets for the $4 pot – not my biggest score, but it’ll have to do. I also take his hat for good measure.

Unfortunately, the remaining player sees it all go down and alerts the law. I get on my horse and hoof away from the crime scene, but soon get a notification that there’s now a bounty on my head. And, to add insult to injury, it’s $5. 

Hunting Party

Hunting Party

Back at camp, I meet up with Hosea. He says he’s been itching to go hunting, ever since learning about a legendary bear who stalks the woods nearby. Going after a beast that’s purportedly 1,000 pounds doesn’t exactly sound safe, but what do I have to lose at this point? 

We head out, stopping by Valentine to sell a horse that Hosea has recently “acquired” during his travels. Since we don’t have the paperwork on it, I’m unable to get top dollar for the animal, but I do get enough in the transaction to buy the stable’s cheapest option. At first, I think the mare is covered in freckles, but I realize it’s just filthy. I dismount and clean her with my brush, making her look about as good as can be. “Interesting choice,” Hosea sniffs, though he says that if I spend enough time with her I could make something out of her. Indeed, the longer you spend on your horse, the tighter your bond grows, through four levels. Each level provides a new riding ability, like being able to rear up on command, perform dressage, and eventually pull off the equine version of drifting with a slide turn. 

Overall, the horse riding is a marked improvement over Red Dead Redemption’s. The horse obeys commands but also acts with its own kind of intelligence; it doesn’t feel like you’re on the back of a four-legged robot. At one point I’m getting fancy with the camera, and don’t realize that I’m heading toward a rock. The horse bucks me off, and I flop onto the ground. Lesson learned. If you want to focus on the game’s breathtaking visuals, you can have the horse stick to the trail automatically while the camera cycles through a variety of different cinematic angles. It’s a great option for when you tire of looking at your horse’s rear. If you prefer, you can also use first-person mode. 

Hosea and I ride down the trail for a while before we break camp for the night. I hunt down some rabbits for supper, which is easy to do thanks to an Eagle Eye vision mode. It’s similar to the alternate-view mode you see in a lot of games now, where colors momentarily desaturate and points of interest – animals in this case – are highlighted. Rockstar’s take is a little different, however. When you use the view, animals and their tracks are highlighted. If you look at their trail and press a button, it highlights the trail for a period of time when you return to normal vision. It’s a clever way to provide the benefit of an alternate vision without forcing you to see the game through a distorted lens for longer than you need to.

Rockstar has done a particularly great job in replicating the outdoors – no small detail, considering just how much time you spend there. Forests get appropriately dense, and wildlife is abundant, with more than 200 different types of birds, beasts, and fish. And while the game features a score that has more than 100 different pieces of music, the sounds of nature are a big component of the audio landscape. At several times during the demo, I was certain that a persistent fly was near my head, but it was just part of the game.

I take down the rabbit with a bow, and then skin our dinner. Unlike the last game, the camera doesn’t pull away during this action. Arthur holds the creature with one hand and pulls its hide off in one smooth motion with the other. Skinning deer is a more complicated process, with Arthur sliding his knife down the creature’s belly and methodically removing the hide. Hides can be sold or used to craft apparel, and meat can be eaten – such as the rabbit, which Arthur roasts on their campfire. After eating, we go to bed in our makeshift camp with full bellies. That’s an important new element to the game, since Arthur needs to eat and sleep. When he’s full, for instance, he can regenerate health more quickly. It didn’t seem like a fussy component to the game, but I dipped into my in-game satchel to eat a few oatcakes or other foods that I scavenged to keep Arthur full.

The next morning, we craft some bear bait with fish and berries, and try to track down the legendary beast. I’m able to track it using clues, such as a half-eaten fish, pile of scat, and broken branches. Hosea says we’re close, and I’m given the choice between splitting up or dropping the bait and staying together. Splitting up seems like a bad idea, so I drop the stinky bait and we hide behind some boulders. Less than a minute passes before Hosea starts fussing about the bait. Did I mix it correctly? Did I put it in the right spot? We move out, only to realize just how effective it was – just a few feet away, the bear appears, raising on its hind legs and roaring. I enter Dead Eye and paint its massive body with targets. It’s enough to scare the beast off.

Hosea is grateful for saving his life, and he gives me a book of maps in gratitude. “A man in a bar gave it to me,” he says, adding, “well, I stole it from him, but that’s another story.” He heads back to camp, giving me the option of going back with him or seeing if I can finish the bear off. I tell him I’m going to try my luck and see if I can’t finish what I started. And with that, Hosea rides out of sight.

Who Is Arthur Morgan?

Who Is Arthur Morgan?

The biggest takeaway from my time with Red Dead Redemption II – and Arthur – wasn’t centered around any kind of revelatory character moments. I’m sure those will come later. What struck me most is how rooted he was to the world around him. Rockstar has pioneered the open-world genre for decades, and with Red Dead Redemption II, they’ve outdone themselves. It’s a role-playing game in the truest sense of the word. You are inhabiting this role in ways that few, if any, other games have attempted.

You won’t end up with a Level 38 Arthur Morgan, or anything like that. Instead, there’s a feeling that you inhabit the world. A lot of open-world games fill the screen with icons representing things to do, and that’s fine. In this game, you’re given things to do between those activities, which are small but meaningful. The game isn’t attempting to be a simulation like Don’t Starve, but you need to eat and sleep. You can make your firearms more effective by maintaining them with gun oil. Even something as seemingly insignificant as being able to say hello to a passing traveler adds to the overall tone – even if they look at the gut-shotted deer carcass stowed on the back of your horse and sarcastically ask if it’s your first time hunting. 

Arthur Morgan is still surrounded with mystery, which is why it was so interesting to step into his boots. We know what happened to Javier, Bill, Dutch, Abigail, and other members of the gang, but Arthur’s fate is unknown. Did he manage to get out and start a life away from Dutch’s crew? Was he killed in another failed heist? Arthur may be an outlaw, but hopefully he’s able to find his own kind of peace along the way.