As I make my way along a dirt road in Red Dead Redemption 2, I have no destination or objective in mind. There's no quest dictating my path or set goal pushing me to move forwards; I'm simply choosing to ride my horse and see where the road takes me. When night falls, I look up at the stars that decorate the sky above and soak up the sounds of nearby wildlife. Everything is so calm and still, with the gentle strums of a guitar from the game's soundtrack occasionally fading in and out. Then, I hear a voice in the distance that cuts through the quiet and takes me on yet another unexpected detour.
A man sits alone by a campfire, with the orange haze of its flames illuminating his silhouette in the darkness. Wetting his whistle with whiskey and drunkenly talking about days past, this stranger invites me to join him as I get closer. We sit in the stillness of the night, and after handing him more whiskey from my own stash, he tells me a personal story from his younger years. Not long after, he inevitably passes out from drowning his sorrows in whiskey and I hop right back on my horse. Feeling an overwhelming sense of anticipation, I wonder just who or what I'll encounter next.
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Had I not gone on this aimless journey, I may not have encountered this drunken fellow and shared a moment with him under the stars. It's encounters and moments like this that really bring the game's world to life, and it's also why Rockstar's sprawling Western is at its best when you're not really doing anything at all. Forget robbing trains, hogtying wanted criminals, or having a shoot-out with a rival gang, the true joy of Arthur Morgan's adventure lies in hopping on your horse and leaving it up to the open-world to decide what you do, or where you go next.
I admittedly came to first play Red Dead Redemption 2 later than most. As a big fan of the first game, I eagerly awaited the release of the sequel when it was first announced. When time came to actually play it, though, I just couldn't bring myself to get invested. I couldn't shake the feeling of being intimidated by its huge sense of scale and I found it increasingly difficult to commit to starting it properly. At the time, I didn't believe I had the energy for such a massive game. Of course, now that I've finally started it, I'm kicking myself for taking so long to give it my time. After catching myself in the mood for something big and expansive to get lost in, I decided it was high time I finally put on Arthur Morgan's cowboy boots and I haven't looked back since. The game truly opens up once I get past the initial prologue, and instead of feeling overwhelmed by the sequel's open-world setting as I had anticipated, I'm pleasantly surprised by just how undemanding it can be.
Make no mistake, there is plenty of action, excitement, and endless things to do in Red Dead Redemption 2, but nothing is ever forced on you. You can do whatever you want pretty much from the get-go, and take everything at your own pace. While this sense of freedom certainly isn't unique to Arthur Morgan's adventure, the way in which Rockstar presents its world to you really sets it apart from most. In a lot of open-world adventures, the many marks on the map and points of interest are often what can make the game world feel insurmountable.
The map in Rockstar's take on the American Wild West, on the other hand, isn't over encumbered with markers or waypoints. Instead, it shows you general areas which will become more detailed as you explore, with Arthur penciling in interesting landmarks and notable locations as you encounter them. With somewhat of a blank slate before you, that sense of pressure that can sometimes come from opening up a big map with all manner of things to do is taken out of the equation. The way in which the map develops as you make more discoveries also makes the sense of adventure more compelling since you never quite know what you'll find.
As well as creating an element of intrigue and mystery, the map and the many random instances you can encounter as you add to it also creates this feeling of realism that really brings the world to life. As you venture on the road or go off the beaten path, you'll often encounter different world events that are a little like side quests. With everything from helping an injured woman who was thrown off her horse to taking out outlaws trying to rob a wagon, and helping a father and his sons build a house, you'll meet all sorts of characters and interesting goings on that make Red Dead Redemption 2 feel like a living, breathing world that exists outside of Arthur's story.
The events appear as a blinking marker on your map that will eventually disappear should you choose to ignore it, which also further impresses on you this idea that you're in control of how you want to spend your time in the game and whether you want to engage with occurrences nearby. It also makes it feel like it's unique to that point and place in time, which further adds to the sense of realism, since it feels like you've organically stumbled across something going on in the world.
It takes me some time to unlock fast travel, but even when I do, I still often choose to take to the road myself. With gorgeously detailed graphics that really transport you back to its late 1800s setting at the turn of the century, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a beautiful game. It really is such a pleasure to just ride out and take in the scenery of the lands surrounding you. I never expected Rockstar's sequel to feel as freeing as it does, but the studio has delivered an open-world setting that you want to be in, and can feel in control of. Every time I hop on my horse, the sense of excitement rarely leaves me as I hit the open road to places as yet unknown. One thing's for sure: I certainly don't think I'll be hanging up my cowboy hat anytime soon.
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