Last week, I visited Rockstar’s headquarters in New York City to play the most highly anticipated game of the year. It’s been eight years since Red Dead Redemption was released, and enthusiasm over John Marston’s open-world adventure hasn’t dimmed. Would new protagonist Arthur Morgan be up to snuff? Can Rockstar create a worthy follow-up to such a beloved game? The sequel has some mighty big boots to fill, in other words. After getting some hands-on time with the game, playing through a couple of missions, exploring camp life, and visiting a nearby town, I’m confident in saying that Red Dead Redemption II is worth the wait.
During my time with the game, I played through a couple of different missions. In the first one, Dutch’s gang pulled off a train heist, which didn’t go off exactly as planned. The other mission was a raid against a rival gang’s hideout that started quiet and ended in an all-out assault. Rather than provide a beat-by-beat recounting of those two sequences, I’m pulling out the highlights – whether they revolve around new systems, tweaks to existing elements, or little touches that added a little extra magic to the game.
The Train Heist
Dutch and the gang learn about an armored train from an earlier encounter with a rival gang. The train, owned by oil baron Leviticus Cornwall, is said to be filled with money, but it’s heavily fortified. Fortunately, Dutch is good at thinking on his feet. He formulates a plan that centers on blowing up the tracks and catching the train’s crew by surprise. Subtlety isn’t his forte.
After riding to an overlook position near the tunnel, we prepare for the job by pulling down our bandanas (something I have to do by accessing the face-masking option in my item wheel). I then descend the hill and help Bill Williamson rig the explosives by stringing wire from the dynamite over to the detonator behind some nearby rocks. Unfortunately, when it comes time to blow it all to smithereens, nothing happens.
Now that the plan is out of the window, we improvise. A few of us jump onto the back of the train as it passes, and we work our way to the front with the hope of incapacitating the engine. Lenny Summers, one of the gang’s more reliable members, accompanies me on this leg of the mission. At several points, he pauses and asks how we should proceed, and I’m given the choice between having him clear out a path in front of me or taking the lead myself. He’s a good shot, and I find that it’s quite helpful to give him free rein.
Eventually, we stop the engine and learn that Cornwall is a man who likes to be prepared. A host of armed guards pour out, and there’s a fierce firefight. Dead Eye is back, and the time-slowing system makes it easier to manage the waves of enemies by painting targets and unloading into them in a flash. Rockstar says that Dead Eye can be upgraded multiple times, eventually showing critical-hit zones and automatically painting enemies, but I had to settle with a version that felt comfortably close to the system from the last Red Dead game.
Once my gang regroups, we take control of the scene and blow open the armored car. From there, it’s a simple job of walking in and looting everything I can find. It’s not a revelatory change by any means, but Arthur will methodically loot everything he sees on a table or shelf when you hold down a button, going from one item to the next. It sure beats having to move a crosshair over each item individually.
Now that the train has been looted, I have to make a decision: Do I kill the witnesses, let them run free, or put them back onto the train and send it back out to who knows where? I take the simplest option, and put a bullet in the head of the closest man. The rest of them spring to their feet and scatter in different directions. I’m able to wing one of them, but they get away.
Unlike John Marston, who liked to talk about how his outlaw days were far behind him, Arthur is in the midst of it all. You can choose to make honorable decisions in the world or continue along Arthur’s dark path. Be good, and civilians will be more friendly, you’ll get more money from bounty-hunting jobs, and slow-motion killcams will be more heroic. Take a darker path, and you can expect more cash from robberies and more gruesome killcams.
Whether you wear a black or white hat, Arthur is still a member of Dutch’s gang. There are more than a dozen fellow gang members to interact with, and they all live in a home base, the gang’s camp. The camp element adds a different feel to Red Dead Redemption II from its predecessor, since you’re not a transient moving around the world. Instead, you have a place to call home.
You can take on side missions here, or just walk around interacting with members of your gang. The camp doesn’t operate on goodwill alone, however. It needs food, medicine, and other supplies to keep going, and you can choose to contribute to the cause. I didn’t get to engage in the loop here, but I’m excited that hunting does more than line my pockets or help me craft new apparel (though those elements are here, too). You can bring your carcasses back to the camp cook, Pearson, and he’ll use that game to make food. Contribute enough, and morale will increase.
The Gang Shootout
Not everyone at camp is a friend. In the second mission, I meet up with Kieran, a captured member of the rival O’Driscoll gang who seems to be having some problems remembering his past. Dutch has tied the man up, kept his rations at a minimum, and eventually threatens to geld him with a pair of tongs. That last act jogs Kieran’s memory, and he reveals the location of Colm O’Driscoll, the leader.
This mission is interesting, because John Marston comes along for the ride, as do Bill and Kieran. It’s a fun reunion for those of us who played the last game, but Arthur seems like he can either take or leave John’s company. The overall sense I get is that John isn’t the most popular guy in camp. Still, I’m happy to ride along with John – for a while, at least.
I realize how outnumbered our group is when we reach Six Point Cabin, the hideout. It’s in the middle of a wooded area, and it seems as though there are O’Driscolls in every direction. Once again, I’m given choices as we infiltrate the camp. I decide to take out the first few enemies at range, using my bow to silently eliminate them. One lone O’Driscoll is sitting on a log, and I have John take him out, saying “Get your hands dirty for a change.” He does so in a violent stabbing that even makes Arthur wince.
The silent approach only works for so long, and eventually I’m spotted. At that point, I switch to my repeater and take cover. John and Bill do a solid job of thinning out the O’Driscolls, and I pop out of cover to do my part. I mix Dead Eye kills with aimed shots; the gunplay feels pretty good, and enemies react gruesomely when they’re struck by my bullets. One of my friends shouts “Die, you drunk idiots!” during the gunfight, which seems like a completely appropriate sentiment.
When the last O’Driscoll is face-down in the dirt, we head toward the cabin. Instead of finding Colm inside, blacked out, I’m attacked by one last O’Driscoll. Fortunately, I’m saved by a shot from the former prisoner Kieran. He pleads to stay with us, and Arthur relents. We may have one more mouth to feed, but Kieran could actually be a decent guy after all. To prove his worth, he shows Arthur where $600 is stashed near the chimney. Not too shabby.
What does $600 get you? Your dollar can go pretty far in a place like Valentine, a little community a short ride away from camp. Here, I get a sense of some of other activities you can engage in – things that don’t necessarily require you to pull a trigger.
The general store has all manner of provisions, including an impressive number of clothing options for Arthur. The catalog on the shelf has pages devoted to apparel, and you flip through each one like it were a physical book (unlike the abstracted icons in Red Dead Redemption). There are pages of hats, vests, coats, boots, pants, and more. Clothing is cosmetic, but it also protects you from elements like the cold. Rockstar says you can modify clothing, too, so you can choose to tuck your pants into your boots or roll up your sleeves. You can also choose to wear a fedora, but no thanks.
Guns are a big part of the outlaw life, so the gunsmith is an important stop. You can buy new firearms here, as well as specialized ammunition and customization options. There’s an element of firearm maintenance, too. Near the chimney at the O’Driscoll cabin, I found an old shotgun hanging on display. I grabbed it, but it was old and dirty. Applying gun oil restored its potential, increasing its overall damage and other stats. You can pick up more gun oil at this shop, as well as items such as holsters that slow down the speed that weapons degrade over time.
There’s also a stable where you can buy and sell horses, as well as pick up tack supplies to maintain your own roster of horses. The horse riding is one of the most noticeable improvements over the past game. Horses do a better job of sticking to the path, and they just feel right overall. Their animations are impressive, tentatively stepping across rough terrain, biting at flies while idle, and moving their ears around to hear nearby sounds. The more you ride a horse, the closer your bond with it, and each level has accompanying gameplay elements. On the low end, you can rear up while in the saddle. The highest tier allows you to pull off a sudden skid turn, so you can maneuver around danger at the last second with ease. You can dump your cash into a variety of different cosmetics for horses, like saddles, blankets, and stirrups.
The World Itself
Red Dead Redemption II is easily one of the best-looking games I’ve seen, with an astonishing attention to detail. Arthur changes his posture in bad weather, tucking his chin down to avoid getting wet. The dialog you hear on horseback was recorded twice – at normal volume and a yelling variant, for when characters are far apart. You can holster your pistols with a fancy flourish, like a movie cowboy (or RoboCop). And you can choose to see it all in either a traditional third-person view or via the first-person.
The game makes use of the left trigger in an interesting way. Usually, that button’s used for pulling up iron sights or a precision-aiming mode in games. That holds true here, too, when your weapon is drawn. When it’s holstered, however, it’s essentially a “focus” button. You can look at an NPC and press the button to pull up a variety of different interactions, such as saying hello, intimidating them, or straight up robbery. It’s a small touch, but I enjoyed saying hello to people I passed on the trail or milling around at camp.
Arthur has needs, too, like eating and sleeping. As you play, Arthur gets hungry and tired over time. If you don’t eat or sleep, you won’t regenerate your health or stamina as quickly. It doesn’t seem to veer into pure simulation territory, but I did eat a snack before a gunfight just in case. I can’t say for certain how it works over longer sessions, but Rockstar is adamant that, like the weapon cleaning, it’s not designed to be intrusive. Instead, it’s a way to remind players that Arthur is a person, and not just a hunk of meat that’s entirely self-sustaining. Over time, his hair and beard will grow, which you can shave at camp or get trimmed in town. Hairstyles and facial hair aren’t magically summoned when you plop into the chair, either. If you want a mullet or mustache, you’ll have to grow it and have it cut it to form.
There’s a lot more to the game, but I’m going to have to keep some of it under wraps for the time being. Suffice it to say, Red Dead Redemption 2 is more than just a visual update to an old favorite with a new character. There are elements that are familiar, but Rockstar is very clearly not content with making a safe sequel.
Red Dead Redemption II is coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on October 26.