I only want to talk – honest – but the first two humans I encounter in Red Dead Redemption II want nothing to do with me, promptly rearing their horses and riding in the opposite direction. Was it the freshly skinned deer, grotesquely slumped over the back of my horse, that put them off? Or rather had they failed to spot the carcass and were concerned as to the origin of the pool of blood on the dirt track in front of me? Perhaps they just didn’t like the cut of my jib?
Rockstar’s latest title is alive like no other game before it. It remembers. Your actions have consequences. If you start a fight in a saloon after too much moonshine one night, don’t expect to be greeted by the barman with a “so what it’ll be?” the next day (or in a week or two for that matter) but rather a “we don’t want no more trouble, y’hear?” And that’s if you’re lucky; depending on his personality he might choose to reprimand you much more aggressively.
The massive overhaul of the NPCs and the player’s interactions with them is one of the most striking elements of Red Dead Redemption II, which represents not only a seismic improvement on the original Western game but a leap ahead of Rockstar’s most recent project, Grand Theft Auto V.
It’s not the first thing that jumped out at me, though, as I was handed the controller and dropped as protagonist Arthur Morgan into a hilly environment somewhere in 1890s America. It was the graphics. The texture and detail of the environment is absolutely breathtaking. There’s a real vividness to it, a depth of colour that defies the usual stylistic use of brown in Westerns, and I spend a good few seconds just rotating the camera and taking it all in.
I’m particularly distracted by the weather, perhaps because it’s often an afterthought in games. In RDR2 the sky is not just bright, then dim, then dark; rainy and then sunny. Its ever-changing, and rendered with unprecedented verisimilitude. Cloud patterns form and disperse, mist hangs heavy in a valley, wind uproots the brush and sends bits of leaf flying past you. It’s staggering just how much of a difference this all makes to the atmosphere and palpability of the game.
The lighting is another element improved so significantly that you realise how comparatively flat it’s been in gaming until now. In the film Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick exclusively used natural light – characters being illuminated conspiratorially by candelabras. There’s a similar vibe to RDR2 as I step inside a train carriage once night has fallen, the light being localised to its source, creating pools of it that bounce off Morgan and form shadows as I roam the carriage searching for loot.
My two hours with the game were supposed to be centred around a specific mission. I get there eventually, but it’s too easy to get distracted, which is exactly what you want from an open-world title.
I set a waypoint to where the mission is initiated, but along the trail find a woman crushed by her horse who needs pulling out from under the animal and riding back to town. A bounty from a local sheriff for a doctor selling questionable medicine also steals my attention, while a quiet, seemingly empty ranch house proves just too tempting not to explore. Unsurprisingly, the homeowner isn’t too happy when I just stride through his front door, and my attempts to defuse the situation fall on deaf ears, leading to a brawl in his kitchen. Apparently I’m not too virtuous a gamer to beat a fairly aged man unconscious, but I draw the line at his cute, albeit very much snarling, dog. I fire a warning shot in the air and try and get the pooch to shoo, but my fondness for a virtual animal proves foolish when it proceeds to rip my throat out.
Later, I get a glimpse of one of the game’s cities, which I’m not allowed to tell you about but oh boy. Chills.
Some observations on various gameplay elements
Though knowledge of the first game’s narrative isn’t at all vital, RDR2 is a prequel and our new protagonist, Arthur Morgan, is part of the Van der Linde gang, a band of outlaws who have served as essentially his surrogate fathers since he was a kid. They’re a close-knit bunch and based at a camp which is established in different parts of the map throughout the game, serving as a little cultural hub. The camp needs money, food and supplies to survive and is far more than just a “press X to sleep” location. Certain missions and skirmishes may arise from a visit to camp; it’s a place you can grab a quick shave (though it won’t be of the quality of a professional cut in town); and it’s a home where you can sit around the campfire and trade stories. If the mood takes them, a fellow gang member might even suggest you ride into a nearby town for a drink from time to time.
I’m assured that tending to the camp isn’t compulsory and won’t hinder your advancement in the game, but it can lead to upgrades and other hidden benefits. More than that, for a certain type of gamer who doesn’t just want to blast everything that moves, all this quotidian stuff – the minutiae of being a cowboy – might actually prove the most alluring, absorbing part of the game.
“Walk by or shoot dead” have generally been the two options when it comes to interacting with NPCs in games. Here though, you might choose to greet a passer-by and try and learn something from them, or intimidate them and ultimately hold them up. Sometimes your restraint will be rewarded, sometimes you’ll regret not giving them both barrels while you had the chance. The way conversations go down will change from person to person; a farmer, for instance, will react to you very differently than a sheriff. These branching interactions also come into play with your horse, along with dogs who you might choose to praise or scold.