After a pack of dynamite fails to ignite, you chase after and then jump onto the top of a speeding locomotive train, hoisting your friend up from the side just before he comes just a hair’s breadth of being cleaned by a passing metal pole. Before you can catch your breath, you are moving through the carriages towards the engine room, picking off enemies with headshots before they can do the same to you. After you halt the train, metal wheels squealing as it comes to a stop, you discover a coach with a hidden room before more bandits arrive and another firefight breaks out, the bullet holes in the train leaking sunlight, shrapnel ricocheting off the conveniently placed rock that you hide behind. Once the fray is finished and you have collected your booty, your colleagues arrive and indulge in a little post-melee banter, and you ride off back to your encampment.
This cinematic episode, rendered in pin-sharp beautiful detail by the wizards at Rockstar, unfolds towards the beginning of Red Dead Redemption 2, and it is emblematic of the kind of rollicking, high stakes action that happens time and again throughout the many hours of the game’s narrative. Like its predecessor, and perhaps even more so, this spicy slice of Wild West rambunctiousness is unparalleled in scope and scale. This fictionalised version of turn of the century America, a portrait of the last days of an old world in decline, is almost bewildering in its accuracy and sense of realism. Playing as outlaw Arthur Morgan, de facto leader of the Van der Linde gang, there is the option to follow the main narrative, in which your band of brigands elude capture and attempt to retrieve a stash of stolen gold, but as is often the case with games of this type, more time and interest will be expended on wandering or trotting off the beaten track to discover the dozens of stories and secrets that Rockstar have hidden in all nooks and crannies of the map. Whereas some open world titles are a mile wide and a few inches deep, Red Dead Redemption 2 is packed full of in-jokes, Easter eggs, quest lines, activities and so on. A random encounter with a stranger may lead to a murder mystery or a cabin-dwelling sect of… well, you’ll see.
However, what is most impressive is the brave way in which Rockstar place emphasis on telling a story: the first couple of hours are noticeably slow-paced, where your group is trapped and struggling for survival in a snowbound locale. It is testament to the quality of the writing that this sequence at no point grows tedious. Essentially a tutorial that teaches the game’s many mechanics, you will learn how to hunt and skin animals, unhitch and ride a horse, chat with your colleagues and choose to compliment or insult them… at the outset the range of controls can be bamboozling but thankfully there are on-screen prompts to remind you of the button configurations. Also, it is at this stage that you will learn that Red Dead Redemption 2 does other things to immerse the player in their vision. If Arthur does not eat or rest, he will lose stamina and become slow and sluggish before eventually keeling over. If he eats too much beef jerky or biscuits, he will put on weight. His hair will grow if not cut, his breath will bloom in cold conditions, he will bleed if shot. Slain animals decompose and attract predators. Townsfolk will remember if you are rude to them and will greet you with hostility the next time you ride into the main street. The variety of these little throwaway details reiterates that Marston – and therefore you – is a living, breathing character with human needs and desires. This in turn makes the storyline engrossing and emotionally affecting – yes, you have a certain level of control over the game’s events but every so often cutscenes, such as an early cinematic of scaling the side of a snowcapped mountain, play out without breaking the immersive spell.
Arguably the most satisfying and nuanced Rockstar release to date, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the product of a heady cocktail of ambition, creativity and talent fused together by a nation of designers, artists and coders working together in perfect synchronicity. It is as close to an interactive movie as the medium is ever likely to reach, and at regular occasions it is tempting to stop riding through the wilderness and pause to take in the beauty of the vista spread before you. Added to that is the promise of new discoveries and branching activities in every forest, rock formation, outpost and abandoned farm. It is a game of limitless possibilities that never stops rewarding the player with surprising turns. Like the time period that it documents, Red Dead Redemption 2 pushes into a new frontier that sets an unassailable watermark for the medium. Ross Thompson