To say that Red Dead Redemption 2 is highly anticipated is an exercise in understatement. The sequel to the critically acclaimed open-world western Red Dead Redemption is the first new title from Rockstar Games in five years, and part of the reason for that anticipation is likely due to the fact that at the time of writing, a month out from its full release, very few people have actually witnessed it in action.
A number of GameSpot staff members recently had the chance to see and play a near-final build of Red Dead Redemption 2. The one and a half-hour demo comprised of two story missions and a chance to goof around freely in the open world, and there's a lot to unpack about how the game looks and plays. Red Dead Redemption 2 feels familiar in many respects, but new systems have piqued our curiosity with their initial impression of intricacy and depth.
Warning: Everyone has a different tolerance for spoilers. We played two story missions during our time with the game, and while we will go into the details of these missions, we didn't think there were any major plot revelations. However, some relationships and cameos might come as a surprise to anyone who has been avoiding coverage of Red Dead Redemption 2. If you'd prefer to go into the game with zero story information at all, consider avoiding the following article. This will be the only spoiler warning.
It's 1899, and outlaw gangs are on the way out as America modernizes. An early story mission opened our demo session, with Rockstar staff at the controls, depicting protagonist Arthur Morgan and his gang leader Dutch Van der Linde tending to a bloodied and bandaged John Marston (told you there'd be spoilers) as they recuperate from a previous job gone south. Marston's recently injured appearance strongly suggests that we'll find out how he got his signature scars, though his wife, who enters with their son Jack, seems more annoyed than anything. The most senior gang members are eager to retreat and move camp to evade pursuers, but Dutch is adamant that some of the gang goes and pursues a train robbery he has a lead on.
As Arthur, Dutch, and a group of men sets off for the train heist on horseback, we're treated to what is now a staple of Rockstar open-world games: storytelling through character dialogue while traveling to a mission. However, Red Dead Redemption 2 features a new implementation of Rockstar's familiar cinematic camera mode to keep these moments interesting--the cinematic camera will now automatically trigger and frame the journey with a montage of shots that emphasize the landscape and traveling group. You can break out of it at any time, but it's a nice touch and an enjoyably filmic framing of what might have otherwise been a dull journey. As long as you hold X on PS4 or A on Xbox One to keep your horse on pace with the pack (like RDR1), you can just sit back and enjoy the naturally-flowing conversation and scenery. This feature can also be triggered manually during gameplay.
The gang rode down from a mountain that was covered in thick snow, with each wearing an appropriately warm outfit. Our Rockstar reps explained that the game's clothing options would be comprehensive--each character will have different sets to coincide with weather conditions, while customizations would allow layering and minor adjustments, like the option to roll up your sleeves. We weren't able to confirm whether particular sets of clothing would carry perks like the original game.
The rolling scenery we saw during this journey was impressive--snowy mountains gradually transitioned into a more temperate environment, with the snow noticeably thinning out and greenery starting to peek through as we descended in altitude. Spending time watching the horses, too, was impressive. Their manes flapped in the wind, their hoofs left imprints in the snow and dirt, and their animations looked natural as they turned and transitioned between speeds gallops.
As the gang pulled up to a ridge overlooking the railway ambush, it was already sunset. Arthur was asked to check up on fellow member Bill Williamson (who you'll likely be familiar with as the first major target in Red Dead Redemption) as he prepares TNT by the rail tracks. Williamson was depicted as a short-tempered simpleton back in the first game, and that remains true here. Our Rockstar representative mentioned that Red Dead Redemption 2 aims to act as both a prequel and companion piece to the first game, so Williamson's introduction at the beginning of both may suggest some broad parallels.
After moseying down to chat with the flustered Bill Williamson, you're asked to help by unspooling a length of wire and connecting it to a TNT detonator. The flow between cutscene, interactive moments, and canned animations appeared smooth here, and once the train arrived, some elegant editing helped heighten the moment, quickly cutting between the gang, the train, and the TNT. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the TNT fails to go off. Williamson messed up. The tension between the gang members gets heated as they quickly fire off blame and run to intercept the train on foot. They reach a nearby overpass and hastily leap onto the roof of the speeding train, accompanied by a noticeably gripping score (Woody Jackson returns as the game's composer).
Arthur lands without any trouble, but his first course of action is to help those who haven't. A fellow gang member named Lenny hangs off the side of the train, and a short quicktime action is required to pull him up. From here, Lenny and Arthur made their way down off the roof and into the carriages, moving towards the front of the train. The first encounter with guards was handled stealthily, and used to showcase the game's new gang interactions--the option was given to let Lenny take out the guard, or we could simply head in and do it ourselves. Looting and picking up bodies are returning mechanics (though they have more detailed and involved animations), and as we moved through the densely decorated carriages we noticed that it was possible to search drawers for loot.
In the next carriage a gunfight occurred, and while Red Dead Redemption 2's shooting feels mechanically similar to the original, the look and communication of impact appears to have been heightened--screen shake was more pronounced with each shot, the sound of discharges was satisfying. It's also notable that in Red Dead Redemption 2 you can physically see all your weapons on Arthur's character model--you can hold only hold two sidearms and two long weapons (along with a knife, lasso, and throwables), and when switching from a rifle to a sidearm Arthur would simply hold his rifle in one hand while he aimed his pistol with the other. Dual wielding is also an option later in the game.
That detail was pitched as a holdover from Max Payne 3--Rockstar specified to us that Red Dead Redemption 2 was not just the result of one Rockstar Studio, but the company as a whole, each bringing their previous experience to contribute to their latest effort. Another holdover from Max Payne 3 was the dynamic kill cam that kicked in once you had eliminated the last remaining enemy, the look of which would vary depending on Arthur's overall honor in the game. Being ruthless will apparently make these kill cams gorier, and being honorable will make them appear more heroic in nature.
Red Dead's take on bullet time, Dead Eye, also returns. If you're familiar with it, it works as you'd expect, only it now has five discrete levels. The first three provide the same abilities as the first game: time slowdown, automatic target painting, and manual target painting. We were told that one of the new abilities is highlighting critical hit areas on enemies, something that would be useful for clean hunting kills, but whether this ability has two different stages is unclear--there may be an additional dead eye ability we haven't learned of yet.
Once Arthur and Lenny reached the locomotive engine Arthur was ambushed by the train engineer. Here, we transitioned into a fist fight. Rockstar reps explained that the melee combat system had been expanded, but it was hard to break down the mechanics during this brief encounter. We saw some grappling, blocks, and a range of punches before Arthur finished the engineer off and pulled the brakes on the train. It was night by this point.
The gang regrouped by the side of the train and after some verbal warnings, all unleashed a hail of bullets into the side of the train's armored carriage in a brief hip-fire tutorial. Arthur and another gang member moved to blow the door up--the animation of them casually tossing a stick of dynamite looked noticeably natural--and they proceeded to ransack the inside of the carriage for valuable goods. Here, we were shown the ability to pick up and inspect loot, as well as other environmental narrative objects like notes. This all happens in-world, with the game's camera cutting to a first-person perspective as Arthur's hands physically manipulated things.
Once the gang was done looting, Dutch and the rest headed back to camp, leaving Arthur to decide what to do with the hostages they had taken while emptying the carriage. Rockstar explained that like the first game, you would have a range of choices here, and your decision would affect your honor meter. No decision was made in our demo session.
We grabbed the controls for the next portion of the demo, where we were dropped into a free-roam area during broad daylight. It was located in a more temperate part of the world, New Hanover to be exact, and we started overlooking a vista where we were able to spot the mountains from the previous segment far in the distance. We learned a lot about the game's new features from messing around during this portion by visiting towns, taking a closer look at the camp, and trying to discover in as much as possible. There was enough in there to make us feel overwhelmed, and wonder about how much we had yet to see.
We've compiled all of our nitty-gritty observations of the game's mechanics in a separate article, so if you're interested in learning about all the new thing features and systems in Red Dead Redemption 2, make sure you spend some time reading through this companion piece: Red Dead Redemption 2: All The New Features
As night fell again, we started to ride back to the Van der Linde camp, pushing the boundaries of our horse (who will completely collapse, tumble, and throw you off if you try and get it to trot down a steep slope), acting like buffoons (holding up on the d-pad with your gun unholstered will let you fire warning shots in the air, scaring off animals and people) and whistling non stop (Arthur will whistle for as long as you hold the button, and will eventually run out of breath).
The next mission was initiated from camp, where Dutch, Bill Williamson, and Arthur attend to a captured member of a rival gang, Keiran of The Driscolls, who is tied up to a tree. In an attempt to coerce him to reveal the location of his gang's whereabouts, Bill Williamson prepares red-hot boltcutters of some description and threatens to basically cut Keiran's testicles off. Rockstar games are no strangers to torture but this cutscene, though tense, was played for laughs more than anything. Keiran folds and agrees to help the three Van der Linde men.
After a long ride out to a location within a forest, the four men approach the rival camp quietly. A nearby patrol stops to let one of its members relieve himself, and again we were given the option to send in Bill to take care of things or do it ourselves. Unfortunately, our stealth takedowns attracted too much attention from the rest of the patrol, and we quickly took cover in the trees and used a mix of pistols, rifles, and our bow to thin out the defending force. Red Dead Redemption 2 still features a similar kind of auto-aim assistance to the previous game, whereby zooming in with the left shoulder button will snap your cursor to an enemy--helpful because we found bodies hard to make out amongst the forests' dense foliage, and we didn't have a scoped weapon. We were reminded again how familiar shooting felt to Red Dead Redemption, but it was nonetheless still satisfying to confidently line up a string of headshots with the bow using Dead Eye.
Once we had taken out the majority, the rest of the gang fled. After some brief time spent looting bodies and experimenting with the environmental systems--dumping a corpse onto a fire will cause it to catch alight, though we didn't have time to test the effects of fire on grass and trees--we moved to the house in the middle of the camp. A cutscene triggered where Arthur is knocked on his feet by a hidden opponent, and Kieren, the Driscoll member, switches allegiances and saves Arthur. The result is that the gang reluctantly welcomes Kieren into the gang as a Van der Linde member, and Rockstar told us that this would be a common scenario. Gang members will both come and go, some as part of the story, and some as part of the choices you make as Arthur.
A lot of work has obviously been poured into the game's world, animation and cinematic presentation, in an attempt to create an experience that looks to impress you at every stage. It's little surprising how superficially familiar Red Dead Redemption 2 feels at first--this absolutely plays like a Rockstar Games title. But that's not a bad thing, and there's a lot to be said for the sheer amount of new, intricate systems which apply to the world, your weapons, your horse, Arthur himself, and how all of that can interact. We've only had the briefest of glimpses at the laundry list of genuine additions, but the level of depth that they suggest is certainly an incredibly enticing prospect, and we can't wait to experiment with them further.
If you'd like to learn even more about our experiences with Red Dead Redemption 2 so far, be sure to also take a look at our companion article dedicated to the game's new mechanics: Red Dead Redemption 2: All The New Features