Red Dead Redemption 2 hands-on: "I'm ready to kiss goodbye to 2018… and probably the rest of my life"

If you walked the plains of Red Dead Redemption way back in 2010, you might think you're ready for the sweeping prairie and continued Wild West hijinks of Red Dead Redemption 2. But you're not. This game isn't so much entertainment as it is time travel. Rockstar's latest open-world opus offers the chance to step through a portal into an intricately connected world of complicated humans, skittish wildlife, and devastatingly beautiful sun-bleached scenery. It's a cheap shot to compare it to Westworld, but damn, I just took it. 

Going hands-on with the game, even after months of poring over the trailers, initially proves daunting. The demo started me off gently, with a story mission from early in the game. It's a classic Western train heist, with gang leader Dutch van der Linde heading the charge, shouting instructions over the hoofbeats of our horses. The whole gang is a little on the back foot, trying to make a new start after a botched bank job. 

Here's how the opening mission unfolds

Even on the ride to the train tracks, there are subtleties that hint at the miles-wide world to come. As the morally ambiguous outlaw Arthur Morgan, you can choose where you ride in the gang, moving up to the front next to Dutch or hanging back, making small talk with your gang buddies. The journey brings us down from snowy mountain terrain into a more thawed prairie, and a view that would make Bob Ross weep. A majestic score kicks in, and we haven't even fired a shot yet. 

The gang's plan is to blast a train belonging to Leviticus Cornwall - a local fat cat - off the tracks, and the first job is to check on a familiar face, Bill Williamson, who is busy attaching dynamite to the track. In case you don't remember old Bill, you spent a decent amount of time in the original Red Dead Redemption hunting him down. Here he's the butt of many a joke, and salty as hell. 

I hook up the fuses, bust his balls a little, then ride back to Dutch. Pressing L1 brings up the weapons and item wheel to put on our bandana (a key piece of outlaw equipment) and then, well, everything goes to hell. The dynamite doesn't blow, so there's a scramble onto the moving train, followed by hopping across the roofs of the cars while using the slow-motion Dead Eye shooting to pick off enemies. Typed out, it sounds like the kind of standard action game set piece you've played plenty of times - but in the moment, it feels damn cinematic.

The detail is incredible and you can upgrade almost everything

Once I get up front to the engine, stop the train, and enter Cornwall's carriage, it's hard not to marvel at all the details inside (especially given the lack of any transitional loading). There are letters, oil paintings, a stuffed fox, all filling a space you're only going to spend ten minutes in while searching for bonds. The heist also gives me an early chance to decide just what sort of outlaw Arthur is going to be when Dutch leaves him to decide what happens to the train guards. Blow their brains out or let them take their chances in the wild? It feels like either choice could have consequences later on. 

Back at the camp, I get a quick lesson in just how important the gang's temporary home will be. For one thing, it's where you can shave and pomade your hair to maintain Arthur's rugged good looks. Only slightly more importantly, it's also the place to pick up supplies, or hand over the spoils from hunting trips. Here you'll also get to know your fellow outlaws. They're an eclectic bunch, ranging from the baby-faced young Jack Marston (son of the original game's hero, John Marston, and the focus of that game's epilogue), to con artists, gunslingers, former revolutionaries, and more. There are 23 members altogether, and you'll be able to build a relationship with each of them through missions and general interactions. Red Dead Redemption 2 enables you to talk to any NPC, be they a gang member or a stranger riding by, with a friendly greeting or something more antagonistic. Contextual dialogue options will change how they react to you. The camp will constantly be moving locations, and any contributions you make - handing over loot, helping out with chores, and so on - will be rewarded in the form of new items to acquire, unlocked fast travel, and overheard leads for side missions. 

The camp also provided me with the next big story beat. Dutch threatened to castrate a captive from a rival gang, who predictably gave up the location of the O'Driscoll hideout rather than lose his plums. Dragging the prisoner along, I went to check out the site, accompanied by a few of my cronies, including John Marston. The missions clearly wanted me to take a stealthy approach, picking off one member of the O'Driscoll gang while he was taking a piss, and then working through the others. As with many grand plans in the Old West, it wasn't to be. I fumbled drawing my weapon and just started blasting the dude with his trousers down. This probably would've meant certain death, but a kindhearted Rockstar employee kept hitting the magic heal button, sparing both the playthrough and the good name of GamesRadar+. 

How does combat feel?

The shooting has an Old West weight to it that may feel clunky to those of us who've been spending our time with snappier action games in the intervening eight years since the original Red Dead. Learning to whip out your pistol without accidentally pistol whipping someone is also clearly going to take a certain amount of practice. That's not a play on words, either. During one sequence in a nearby town, I accidentally cut off a whole side quest line by misjudging the controls, leading to fairly big shootout and a vital NPC running away from me like I was a leprosy-ridden insurance salesman with a recently unloaded gun. 

I'd done something similar with the O'Driscoll gang, meaning to simply draw my weapon but discharging it instead - and in a game where seemingly every action has a consequence, this feels potentially problematic. Hopefully extended time with the controls will have things feeling familiar soon enough. Speaking of which, the Dead Eye mechanic is still super satisfying. The gossamer smooth slo-mo, the desaturated color, and the crack of the bullets as they speedily deliver your target to the afterlife aren't going to get old anytime soon. 

After sampling a couple of missions, Rockstar directed me to a town and left me to mosey there at my own pace. It turns out my own pace is a mix of breakneck galloping, interrupted by suddenly pulling up to admire a shimmering lake or particularly attractive mountain vista. (Seriously, this game is landscape screenshot porn.) It feels strange to talk objectives and story missions, because when you're actually playing, the experience feels more organic than that. Put another way: It's easy not to care about what the story might even be, because the prospect of just stepping out into the wilderness and seeing what's there is so much more compelling than following any critical path.

Rockstar understands this well enough, so there's no explicit objective constantly flashing in the top right of the screen. Likewise, listening to the chatter of your campmates - there was talk of a local haunting that seemed worth checking out - won't result in your map suddenly populating with a jarring Ubisoft-style to-do list. There are various HUD options too, so your map can be detailed or unobtrusive, and it's also easy to see how much health, stamina, and Dead Eye power you have on hand. You can even switch to first-person, which is all the better for admiring your horse's lustrous mane. 

Your horse is as customisable as a car - and building a good relationship pays dividends

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild proved that all gamers are just aspiring pony owners, and Red Dead Redemption 2 has really leaned into equestrian management. Your horse isn't just your ride, but also your walking luggage and one true companion. Happily, you can build your relationship with the nag by grooming it, petting it, feeding it, and calming it at opportune moments, such as after it spots a rattlesnake lurking in the grass. The more you bond with your horse, the more reliable it will become, and a better relationship also means you can get your horse to rear on command, skid dramatically, or even perform some damn fancy dressage steps. 

It was while meandering under the dazzling skies and through moody forests that I got a taste of just how compelling the world's more incidental moments cans be. Night had fallen, and a small homestead glowed just off the track. I went over just to look around, not meaning any harm, when the owner ran onto his porch and started shooting. Of course he did: a stranger was lurking around his property at an ungodly hour, and I'm just not used to NPCs reacting like actual people. Long story short, by dawn there were two corpses - his, and a poor witness that had ridden by while I was looting his body - and I had accidentally lassoed a bull but had no idea what to do next. 

"Once you're in the free-roaming part, it feels strange to even talk about objectives and story missions"

Beneath the detail and gloss, there are still hints of Rockstar's trademark strive to deliver something edgy. These plains very much not PG-13, and the demo is punctuated by a couple of blunt and brutal moments. A trip to a local inn for a room and bath gave me the option to pay extra for the deluxe wash, with a lady of arriving to reach into the suds and ensure that Arthur was completely clean downstairs. It's all fairly chaste and I'm sure virtual money well spent.

Fairly happy finish or not, baths are going to be an absolute necessity given how messy, and indeed harrowing, dealing with the spoils of any hunting trips is. Remember that bull I mentioned accidentally lassoing? Well, things didn't end well for him. And instead of the camera cutting away as you set about skinning an animal as in the last game, here you get to watch the hide sloughing away from fat and muscles like a bloody banana peel. Morgan even snaps off the horns unceremoniously. I'm not going to pretend I've turned vegan since, but I'll probably think twice about shooting every creature that crosses my path in the finished game

Story missions flow organically from exploration

Honestly, once you're in the free-roaming part, it feels strange to even talk about objectives and story missions. When you're playing the flow feels more organic than that. When you do start a story mission a title card comes up - "Who The Hell is Leviticus Cornwall?" or "Paying a Social Call" - but otherwise the narrative is pushed forward via verbal instruction from the NPCs around me. How this will work hours in, when I can't remember who I need to hunt down or where that cursed raccoon pelt was, will be interesting to see. 

And of course there's still so much more to see - hunting, fishing, how the relationships with your campmates evolve, crafting and buying saddles, cleaning weapons and adding gun parts. Most important of all will be the real consequences of making Arthur an honorable white hat or a total scumbag. The system will need to deliver much more than BioWare's binary Paragon/Renegade stuff, and so far I've only seen the tip of what's likely to be one of the biggest games in several years. That said, even after this brief glimpse, I'm ready to kiss goodbye to the end of 2018, and - now that Red Dead Online has been confirmed to the surprise of precisely nobody - probably the rest of my life too. 

Red Dead Redemption 2 will be released on PS4 and Xbox One on October 26.