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Red Dead Redemption 2 - wide shot of Dutch’s Gang Rockstar Studios/Rockstar Games

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Breaking down Red Dead Redemption 2’s new trailer

Hello, John Marston

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

The third trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 arrived this morning, giving us another tantalizing glimpse of Rockstar’s vision for the Wild West of the late 19th century.

That’s right: We learned some more cold, hard facts about Red Dead Redemption 2 today, and we can glean even more details by taking a closer look at the trailer. Join us as we dive in and analyze our longest look yet — over two minutes! — at the game.

[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for Red Dead Redemption.]

The third trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2.

Red Dead Redemption 2 goes back a dozen years

Rockstar sent out an updated synopsis for Red Dead Redemption 2 along with today’s trailer, confirming the timeline for this prequel: The game takes place in 1899. That puts it 12 years prior to the events of Red Dead Redemption, which are primarily set in 1911.

The end of the wild west era has begun as lawmen hunt down the last remaining outlaw gangs. Those who will not surrender or succumb are killed.

After a robbery goes badly wrong in the western town of Blackwater, Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang are forced to flee. With federal agents and the best bounty hunters in the nation massing on their heels, the gang must rob, steal and fight their way across the rugged heartland of America in order to survive. As deepening internal divisions threaten to tear the gang apart, Arthur must make a choice between his own ideals and loyalty to the gang who raised him.

The gap between the two games fits with our assessment of the second trailer last September, in which we estimated that Red Dead Redemption 2 was set 10-15 years before its predecessor. What does the earlier time frame mean?

Well, for one thing, it’s exceedingly unlikely that we’ll see any cars in Red Dead Redemption 2. They really only showed up toward the tail end of the previous game, in the modernized settlement of Blackwater. But the U.S. automobile industry had barely gotten going in 1899; notable names like the Olds Motor Vehicle Co. (later Oldsmobile), the Cadillac Automobile Co. and the Ford Motor Co. wouldn’t begin manufacturing the first mass-produced American cars until a few years later.

Indeed, there are a few stagecoaches and horse-drawn carriages in the trailer. But of course, the most advanced form of transportation at the turn of the 20th century was the railroad, powered by steam locomotives — and it looks like we’ll see a lot of trains in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - John Marston being held at knifepoint
John Marston is being held at knifepoint in Red Dead Redemption 2 — a threat that just seems like overkill, considering that he’s already got gashes across his face that still bear stitches.
Rockstar Games
Red Dead Redemption - guy aiming at John Marston
By the events of Red Dead Redemption a dozen years later, the scars on Marston’s face have healed somewhat.
Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

John Marston and other pals show up in this prequel

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to Red Dead Redemption, so it stands to reason that we would see younger versions of characters from the original game. This trailer doesn’t disappoint in that respect, with the list of recognizable faces led by none other than John Marston, the beleaguered protagonist of Red Dead Redemption.

Marston used to run with Dutch’s Gang, a group of violent bank robbers who terrorized what was left of the Old West at the turn of the 20th century. But by the beginning of Red Dead Redemption, Marston had retired from his life of crime and settled down as a rancher with his wife Abigail and teenage son Jack. Unfortunately, Marston’s past came back to haunt him when federal agents kidnapped his wife and son in order to compel him to hunt down the three remaining members of his old crew: Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella and Dutch van der Linde himself.

If the new trailer is anything to go by, Marston may not have started out as a willing participant in Dutch’s Gang. It appears that Marston has been captured and brought before Arthur — the protagonist of Red Dead Redemption 2 — and Dutch. (Then again, perhaps Marston had simply been caught when the Blackwater job went awry.)

We’ve suspected for a while that the gang members we knew from the previous game would also appear in Red Dead Redemption 2. Today’s trailer gives us our clearest look yet at familiar faces like Bill, sporting his trademark Stetson with a bent brim, and Javier, with his split mustache and soul patch. But it also features a couple of other characters that you may recognize.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - the Van der Linde Gang by a campfire
That thick-bearded older fella is Uncle. He’s sitting between Javier Escuella (to his right) and Arthur Morgan.
Rockstar Games
Red Dead Redemption 2 - federal agents talking to the Van der Linde Gang
The mustachioed man in the bowler hat? Well, I’ll be ... that’s federal agent Edgar Ross!
Rockstar Games

The Marstons didn’t run their homestead by themselves. They also housed a drunkard who occasionally worked as a ranch hand, a gray-bearded man known only as Uncle. In a past life, he was a petty thief — and now it appears that he was a member of Dutch’s Gang back in the day! (Or at least, that he once sat with them at a campfire.)

A few times in the trailer, we see a federal agent who seems to be one of the main antagonists in Red Dead Redemption 2 — a lawman who may or may not be modeled after the face of a beloved character actor. One of his associates, a man with a thick mustache and a bowler hat, happens to have been the villain in Red Dead Redemption: Agent Edgar Ross of the Bureau of Investigation, who would be 38 years old in the prequel (and would end up dying at the hands of Jack Marston in 1914).

Back to Blackwater

Red Dead Redemption took place two decades after the closing of the American frontier, but its world consisted primarily of rural settlements or pristine wilderness. The coastal town of Blackwater, in the eastern territory of West Elizabeth, was the closest thing in the game to a developed urban area, although most of its streets were still unpaved. (Again, expect it to be more of a backwater town now that it’s 1899.)

What we learned today may lend even further credence to an old leak. In April 2016, an image purporting to be the world map for Red Dead Redemption 2 showed up on NeoGAF. The northeast portion of Red Dead Redemption’s setting — West Elizabeth, which consists of the Tall Trees and Great Plains regions — sat in the southwest corner of the leaked map.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - federal agent
The West Elizabeth Co-Operative Bank sits adjacent to the Blackwater Grand Theatre ...
Rockstar Games
Red Dead Redemption 2 - Antoinette Sanseverino Breathes Fire
... which might be the place to catch this fire breathing performance, although this looks like a more fancy venue.
Rockstar Games

The purported Red Dead Redemption 2 map grew outward from West Elizabeth to the north and east; the only area to the west of Blackwater was the Tall Trees region, which also existed in the original Red Dead Redemption. The synopsis that Rockstar put out today for the prequel refers to West Elizabeth’s main settlement as “the western town of Blackwater,” which, of course, suggests that it sits in the western part of Red Dead Redemption 2’s world map.

Another piece of evidence comes from the second Red Dead Redemption 2 trailer, in which Arthur — apparently speaking to his fellow gang members — says that lawmen have “chased us from the west, they’ve chased us over the mountains.” That’s the kind of thing you’d say if you had started in the west and headed east from there, with the feds following behind you from the west. The new synopsis says that Arthur and Dutch’s Gang had to run for the hills after the game’s inciting event, a botched robbery in Blackwater, which would be a very good reason for law enforcement officers to put a bounty on their heads and track their movements across multiple states.

The past two trailers may have shown off another location in Red Dead Redemption 2. The leaked world map — and let’s emphasize here that this remains unconfirmed speculation at this point — included a town called New Bordeaux, a French-tinged name that evokes the port city of New Orleans. Again, the geography would fit in a general sense. The original Red Dead Redemption’s world was split by a river between the U.S. and Mexico, so we can think of the American portion of the setting as the state of Texas. If Red Dead Redemption 2 is indeed expanding to the north and east, well, that would include the Gulf Coast region.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Dutch’s Gang robs a bank
Oh, streetcar! “City of” ... where?
Rockstar Games

More notably, we’ve seen a few snippets of footage that may corroborate that. The second trailer showed three men wading through a swamp — or bayou — and this week’s trailer included a shot with a streetcar rolling by in the background. (You may be familiar with the classic play A Streetcar Named Desire, which is set in New Orleans.) Another scene from the new trailer features a building called the Saints Hotel. That could certainly be a coincidental name, but it may also reference New Orleans’ NFL team and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” a spiritual that is basically the city’s theme song.

Violence and beauty

So far, we’ve only seen cinematic trailers for Red Dead Redemption 2, where it’s not clear what is gameplay versus cutscenes. So we can’t really know how much the trailers are representing actual game mechanics. But if we take the footage at face value, there are some indications that the combat in this prequel will offer more options than were available in Red Dead Redemption. For instance, we already know that Arthur Morgan practices archery, a skill that John Marston did not possess.

Marston could punch and kick people, sure. But both the second and third trailers for Red Dead Redemption 2 have showed off more advanced situational combat, like running tackles and bare-knuckle brawls, hinting that there may be more of an emphasis on hand-to-hand fighting in this game. That would make sense, since Arthur is a debt collector — you want debtors to pay back what they owe and keep paying you, so it would be reasonable for the game to let you rough people up without, say, shooting them.

This next point is a bit of a stretch, but bear with us.

When Rockstar announced Red Dead Redemption 2 in October 2016, the company teased a “brand new online multiplayer experience.” We haven’t seen or heard anything about that element since, but Rockstar’s most lucrative project — Grand Theft Auto 5’s Grand Theft Auto Online mode — may provide a blueprint, based on what we’ve seen of Red Dead Redemption 2.

The trailers and screenshots for the game have highlighted guns that are more than just weapons; they’re showpieces, with ornamental engraving worthy of a museum display case. The revolver that Dutch uses to threaten people on a train at the start of today’s trailer looks to be one of a pair of artfully crafted six-shooters that he packs. Red Dead Redemption offered a variety of revolvers, rifles and shotguns, but might it be possible to upgrade weapons or apply skins to them in the prequel — if not in the story mode, then in the multiplayer component?

As detailed as the weapons look, the animations are arguably more impressive. Watch the barrel of Dutch’s revolver rotate as he pulls back the hammer to cock the gun. There are plenty of touches like this in Red Dead Redemption 2; the game looks incredible in motion, whether we’re seeing horses gallop across the plains or Arthur’s eyes narrow.

We can’t wait to see more. Red Dead Redemption 2 is scheduled to be released Oct. 26 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. For more details, check out our video analysis of the new trailer above, and 36 screenshots from the trailer below.

Update (May 4): This article has been updated with additional notes on the game’s setting, including the possible existence of a New Orleans-inspired city.

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