First Impressions: Red Dead Redemption 2

My troubles started with a $5 bounty on my head.

In my defense, it wasn’t entirely my fault. I was collecting a debt – a woman had borrowed money to give to her boyfriend and the dude didn’t want to pay up. His preferred course of action was to punch me in the face, so circumstances demanded that I respond in kind. After I left him a drooling lump on the ground, the woman told me to take the money from him and leave her alone, so I did. Unfortunately, not everyone had context into this little exchange. Someone saw me rifling through the unconscious chap’s pockets, assumed I was robbing him in broad daylight, and made a beeline for the sheriff’s office.

A big ‘WANTED’ sign flashed at the top right of my screen and I panicked. So I got back on my horse and bolted. While the lawmakers gave up looking for me eventually, I still had the damn bounty on my head which, I knew, meant trouble later. So after turning in all of the debts I had collected and having a bit of a sit down in camp to calm my nerves, I decided to do the right thing and head to the nearest Post Office to pay off my debt to society. Seemed like the decent thing to do.

Only I got mugged along the way.

Three of Colm O’Driscoll’s boys rode out of a thicket by the side of the road – two on a wagon blocking my way and the third scurrying alongside with his carbine out. I was not in the mood for their shit. So I took ’em out, all three of them, emptied their pockets, dumped their bodies in the shrubbery, and stared at their now-riderless wagon for a solid minute, wondering if I’d make decent money on their horses. They didn’t look like much, but I’d be able to get around ten dollars apiece, so I figured it was worth a shot.

But I had one other thing to take care of first. I rode the wagon into Valentine, found the Post Office, and paid off my bounty. With no price on my head and very relieved about it, I made my way to the stables to sell the horses and the wagon. Only I didn’t quite know how to do actually make the sale. So I drove the wagon right into the stables, assuming that a menu would come up to let me sell the horses. That didn’t happen.

What did come up was the standard stable menu, which prompted me to buy new horses, manage the ones I had, or shop for horse-related things. When I exited the menu, my wagon and both the horses were gone. Vanished into thin air.

‘Well shit,’ I muttered, and exited the stables, wondering if the game had moved them elsewhere. There were two smaller carts parked outside that were very nearly not mine but – there, right next to the stables, I saw it. My wagon, and its two dark brown horses. Much relieved, I went over to the horses, one of which spooked a little when I got too close.

My new plan was to cut them loose from the wagon and take them into the stables individually, to see if I could sell them that way. So I whispered sweet nothings to the beast, patted it a bit and then, when it seemed calm, cut it loose. And then some random dude who happened to be walking by screamed about horse thievery and bolted off as fast as his legs could carry him.

Turns out, that wasn’t my recently-acquired wagon. It looked a hell of a lot like it but, on closer inspection, it was clearly carrying different things, was slightly smaller, and one of the horses had a bit of white on it. Oh dear.

Maybe, I said to myself, I can catch the witness and explain that it was all a misunderstanding and that I thought it was my wagon and I am not, in fact, walking around stealing horses from outside the stables. So I ran after him. I caught up to him right as he ran into a building but, before I could say half a word in my defense, he came right back out with the Sheriff. The poor man, who looked as confused to see me there as I was by my sudden, undeserved misfortunes, drew his gun and told me to surrender.

I tried to talk my way out of it. Once. Just once. And then deciding that it just wasn’t my day, I surrendered, went to prison, paid my due, and came back out a little thinner, with a little more facial hair, and having made a solemn vow to set newly-riderless horses free the next time I get mugged.

All this was about 10 hours in

And it’s just one of the weird and wonderful things that I’ve encountered since I started playing Red Dead Redemption 2. While the game is staggeringly beautiful and a tremendous, slightly ludicrous amount of detail has been put into the world, the thing that captures me the most is that nothing, nothing, so far has happened quite like I expected it to.

I’ve completed one bounty, collected three debts, and run through a couple of other short missions in the game’s first real town and nothing, from the start of the mission, to the dialogue, to the delivery of said dialogue, to the resolution of the mission itself, has been predictable. That’s not to say this may not change as I get further into the game, but the love and care with which everything in Red Dead 2 seems to have been crafted suggests that the quality of the experience may stay intact from start to finish.

Also, Red Dead 2 has the smartest, most seamless mission initiation system ever

It’s very simple. You walk up to a person and talk to them. Sometimes they talk to you. But the way it’s integrated into the experience means that you go from wandering aimlessly around town to talking to someone, to getting into a bar fight, to brawling on the street in the mud, to a mission completion screen without ever realising that you started the mission in the first place.

Little icons show up on the map as points or places or persons of interest and all it takes when you actually find one is pulling the left trigger (I’m playing on the Xbox One X) to open a menu of interaction options and away you go. Not once did I feel like I was actively taking on quests in the same way that other RPGs offer them.

In the case of a mission involving a man trying to write a book, I walked into a bar, listened to an argument he was having, and then interrupted politely to ask if I could help. The phrasing of the dialogue, delivery, the way the protagonist – Arthur Morgan – actually makes that interruption is so artfully done as to feel entirely natural in a way that nothing I’ve played before Red Dead 2 has ever quite achieved.

And when you’re in mission, it’s awfully easy to get sidetracked

While mid-mission, making my way from point A to B, I heard a gunshot. Since one thing I’m trying is to see if I can go legit – leave outlawing behind, basically – I stopped to see anyone needed help. It turned out to be a guy shooting at bottles. He bet me five bucks that he was a better gunslinger than I was and I wasn’t about to pass up a free five bucks. Sure enough, I shot more bottles than he did, but he decided to up the ante. His next challenge was to shoot down more birds than him. He got four, I got one, and I got back on my horse with my walled $10 lighter and a newfound determination to not get sidetracked again.

Unfortunately, when I was making my way back from point B to A, I saw a guy by the side of the road struggling with his horse. It looked to have something lodged in its hoof and was bucking uncomfortably while he tried to get it out. Since I was still trying to go legit, I stopped to help. I got off my horse and took about two steps forward when the thing kicked the man’s head in with a terrible crunch. He dropped like a rock, the horse ran for the hills, and I had to pause the game for a solid minute because I was giggling hysterically. When I calmed down, I unpaused and considered going after the horse. But as I was doing this thinking, I realised that I was standing by the side of the road, next to a corpse, with no one else in sight, and that it was probably not a good look for me.

Needless to say, I got back on my horse, left as quickly as I could, and am seriously beginning to think that going legit is more trouble than it’s worth.

Shooting things is almost as fun as accidentally getting into trouble

I’ve gotten into a few gunfights and they’ve all felt pretty good. My aim is a special kind of ass because I’m not entirely used to the weaponry or the setting, but I’ve gotten the better end of most fights and I’ve already grown to love the carbine. There isn’t much to say about the business of shooting except that it feels good, I have enjoyed the little I’ve engaged in, and gunplay makes for an excellent burst of adrenaline in between what is otherwise a fairly slow (but not in a bad way) game.

But, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t gotten into very much trouble – accidental horse thieving aside – so I don’t have a whole lot to say about the combat experience. I didn’t know what to expect when I started Red Dead 2 so I assumed there would be a fair bit of shooting, but, now, gunfights are no longer why I’m playing. What I want now is to explore every corner, find every story, suss out every detail, and come back with even more stories like the one I started this article with.

So far, my biggest gripe is that goddamn LT prompt

So the prompt to pull the left trigger to open up the interaction menu appears at the bottom right of the screen. This may not sound like a big deal, but because I’m so used to the on-screen position indicating which button needs pulling I – early on – accidentally pulled the right trigger. As a result, not once, but twice, I have almost shot my horse. This is a problem. I do not want to shoot my horse. I love my horse. Frog Jr. is a good horse and does not deserve a bullet to the brain. If I was to change anything at all about the game (again, remember, I’m saying this after ten hours of gameplay), it would be the position of that prompt.

But, yeah, seriously, that’s the biggest gripe with the game that I have so far.

I like the slow pace, I like the music, I like riding through the countryside and just looking at things, I love the dialogue and the delivery – basically, ten hours in, I’ve loved everything that Red Dead 2 has to offer.

So, to sum this up…

Do everything you can. See everything. Go everywhere. It’s what I want to do. I’m ten hours in and the last time I was so thoroughly lost in a video game was when I played The Witcher 3. In terms of sheer quality, that’s the only real comparison. What you say to people matters here, whether you walk around with your gun out matters, whether you stay on the right side of the law, toe the line, or leave the line behind – all of it seems to matter. Hell, whether or not you shave matters. And there’s just so much going on all the time.

Ten hours in, I’ve robbed a train, captured a quack of a doctor, hunted rabbit and deer, tangled with a bear, almost drowned one horse, gotten into a bar fight, lassoed a dude off his horse as he tried to run away from me and his debts, shot up a cabin in the woods, gotten mugged, gotten arrested, and made a wagon and two horses disappear.

Ten. Hours. In.

This is insane. I can’t say whether or not you should buy the game simply because I haven’t finished it. Doesn’t feel right to make a recommendation until I’ve played more of the thing. And the save menu tells me that I’m at 12% completion, so it’s safe to say that this is a reasonably long game especially if (like me) you intend to chase 100%. What I can say is that this is the most polished, most beautiful, staggeringly well-crafted, most immersive ten hours of a video game that I’ve played in my entire life.

And finally, if you’re playing Red Dead Redemption 2 yourself, I have a tip for you, something I picked up pretty early on. If you plan on taking a screenshot, look carefully at the background before you do. The moment you press that button, somewhere, close by or off in the distance, a horse will be taking a shit.

Trevor Coelho

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