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Red Dead Redemption 2 - Sadie Adler holding a rifle with Arthur Morgan behind her Rockstar Games

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Red Dead Redemption 2’s easy-to-miss moments are built for Twitch and YouTube

Everywhere you look, the Wild West comes to life in stunning fashion

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.

Valentine is a small town at the edge of the plains in the state of New Hanover, with the mountain range known as the Grizzlies rising behind it to the north. Its economy revolves around livestock auctions, an industry that’s a perfect fit for a settlement in the Heartlands region.

But I was there to see about a different kind of animal. Having found some dead birds on a trail cutting through the prairie, I had stuffed a carcass into my satchel, hoping to sell the meat to a butcher in town. After doing so, I wandered down Valentine’s main drag, greeting the denizens of the town on this bright morning as I walked toward the church at the end of the street.

When I approached the gunsmith’s shop — which sits across the street from the church, as it happens — I noticed two men in conversation on the porch. I walked up to the pair, and one of them said to the other, “Hey, this is the guy I was telling you about!” The man explained to his friend that after he was bitten by a snake the other day, I had come across him and had saved his life by sucking the poison out of the wound. (Presumably, someone playing the game before me on this save file had actually done that.) Then he told me that I could walk into the gun shop and grab one item for free, on him, as a token of his gratitude.

This is Red Dead Redemption 2, which launches Oct. 26 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It’s a game tailor-made for Twitch, with thrilling action set-pieces like a train robbery that are juxtaposed with quiet interpersonal moments such as the one I described above — unscripted moments that most players probably won’t see, except in clips on Twitter or YouTube. When you go off the beaten path to explore the nooks and crannies of this sprawling world, your actions will reverberate à la the butterfly effect, and you could find your own special little moments that might be unique to your experience (or that of a small subset of players).

None of that is necessarily unexpected or new, but the subtle ways in which the developers at Rockstar Games make this Wild West world feel truly alive combine to produce a game with a potentially unprecedented scope and verisimilitude. In other words, Rockstar looks to be raising the bar yet again for the genre it essentially invented a decade and a half ago with Grand Theft Auto 3.

Arthur Morgan’s story is your story, too

For the uninitiated, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to the original Red Dead Redemption. The new game takes place in 1899, a dozen years before its predecessor, when Dutch’s Gang — the band of desperados led by the eponymous Dutch van der Linde — is still in its heyday (for now, at least). By this point, the American frontier has closed, and as the pace of modernization quickens even in the pastoral environs of the rural West, the days of outlaws living free outside of civilized society seem to be numbered.

You play as Arthur Morgan, a trusted enforcer for the group. Arthur was adopted into the crew when he was just a boy; it’s all he’s ever known, which makes him fiercely loyal to Dutch and the gang. So yes, Arthur is an outlaw and damn proud of it, unlike Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston, who was trying to repent for his bandit days.

At the same time, Arthur does have a moral code that you can help define through the game’s honor system. This popped up at the end of the first mission I played, “Who the Hell Is Leviticus Cornwall?”

Red Dead Redemption 2’s story kicks off with the crew attempting a bank heist in the town of Blackwater. The job goes seriously awry, leaving multiple gang members, lawmen and even civilians dead; the remaining outlaws are forced to flee into the Grizzly Mountains. (You’re limited to this area very early in the game, but the entire map is accessible once you complete that segment of the story.) This catastrophe causes all kinds of issues — including, for the first time, the potential loosening of Dutch’s hold over his followers. But the most pressing problem is a financial one: The gang had stored its riches in Blackwater, which means the group is now cut off from its war chest.

Dutch forms a plan to hijack a train that is said to be carrying lots of money. The cutscene that plays before the mission also features a John Marston who has been seriously injured, presumably in the botched Blackwater job; he wants to participate, but is too weak to even get out of bed. (It sure sounded to me like the original voice actors for Marston and Bill Williamson, at least, reprised their roles for Red Dead Redemption 2, but Rockstar declined to officially confirm that.) Dutch’s right-hand man, Hosea Matthews, expresses some concerns about the gang’s predicament and the planned heist — the train is owned by an oil baron named Leviticus Cornwall, and he won’t take too kindly to this insult.

As we rode down out of the snowy Grizzlies into the thawing foothills, I took note of the change in the natural environment. Snow-covered evergreen trees gave way to barren trunks in a transitional region before the edge of the forest. Our horses left deep tracks on the trails, whether on the powder in the mountains or the mud at lower elevations. I had the option of riding with the gang (double-tapping the X button to keep up) or pressing R1 to drop back on my own.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur holding a rifle as he sits on his horse on a ridge overlooking a town Rockstar Games

We alighted on a ridge overlooking train tracks that crossed a low bridge over a stream. The hotheaded Bill Williamson was already down by the tracks, setting charges to blow the bridge. Let’s just say that didn’t go according to plan, forcing Arthur and fellow gang member Lenny Summers to chase down the train and then jump aboard from above.

Lenny and I encountered some resistance as we headed toward the locomotive — the sequence evoked Uncharted 2, but without the platforming or the helicopter — then stopped the train so we could loot it. The security officers inside the armored rear car didn’t want to open up, which forced us to blow the doors off. (If this sounds familiar, it’s the sequence from the beginning of the trailer that Rockstar released in May.) We entered to find a lavish interior, as if this car served as the captain’s quarters, and then rummaged through drawers to find a bunch of bonds.

Before Dutch and the rest of the crew left to try to flip the bonds for cash, Arthur asked what he should do with the train personnel who had surrendered. Dutch didn’t care, so the choice was up to me as the player: I could leave them to die in the mountains; I could take them with me as prisoners; or I could simply kill them all. Whatever decision you make — I left them there, since we were short on time during the demo — will have an impact on Arthur’s honor rating.

As your actions bring Arthur toward the honorable or dishonorable ends of the spectrum, you’ll see various consequences in the form of other characters’ reactions to Arthur and the opportunities that are available to him. If you’re on the straight and narrow, law-abiding folks will be more friendly and you’ll make more money from bounty hunting gigs. If you aren’t, you’ll find it easier to intimidate people and you’ll earn more cash in robberies. The game’s killshot cameras will change, too: They’ll be heroic or gory depending on honor.

The implications of Arthur’s honor won’t always be obvious, according to Rockstar. For instance, saving a snakebitten man presumably increases Arthur’s honor, but I wouldn’t have gotten a free gun in return if I hadn’t happened upon him in Valentine afterward. The company also says that the goal of the honor system is to deliver something more holistic and subtle than, say, branches of the story that may or may not be available depending on a binary morality rating. (This is the case for a few quests, though.)

How realistic is too realistic?

What stuck out to me the most about my time playing Red Dead Redemption 2 was that the game does not make many concessions to fun when it comes to replicating real life. In building a believable, lifelike world, the game’s designers have included all kinds of life-simulation elements that may seem exciting to some people and annoying to others.

Red Dead Redemption 2 uses a weapon system that’s similar to that of Rockstar’s Max Payne 3. Arthur can carry a maximum of two one-handed weapons and two long weapons (two rifles, or a rifle and his bow). He also packs his hunting knife, a lasso and throwable weapons such as, well, throwing knives. All of this is controlled by a weapon wheel, although dual-wielding is a skill you have to unlock. You hit L1 to pull out or put away your weapon, and of course, it may be wise to keep your gun holstered when talking to people.

Everything else will be stored in your horse’s saddlebags. If you want to swap to a weapon you don’t have on your person, you’ll have to fetch it by running back to your steed. (Your entire arsenal will be accessible as long as you’re riding your horse.) There are some great little animations to go along with this: Arthur keeps his bow on the left side of the saddle, so if you’re standing on the right side of your horse, you’ll see him lean over to store the bow in its proper place.

Speaking of your mount, Rockstar is emphasizing the idea that the horse is Arthur’s companion, not a mere mode of transportation. You can take a train at any time, but your horse won’t come along with you, so the trip will leave you without a mount. (There is a form of fast travel that obeys the law of equine conservation: If you upgrade Dutch’s tent in the gang’s camp, you’ll unlock a map at your tent that will let you go to any settlement you’ve previously visited via a cutscene of you riding there.)

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur’s horse rearing up in the forest as the sun shines behind them Rockstar Games

If you leave your horse behind and wander out of earshot, you won’t be able to magically make the animal appear at your side with a whistle, like you could in the previous game. Instead, you’ll have to return to its original location — or acquire a new mount. Note that the whistle radius will widen as you form a closer connection with your steed.

Bonding with your horse will also unlock cool-looking moves like rearing, skid turns and even actual dressage, and improve characteristics such as the animal’s speed, stamina and ability to stay calm under stress. As I pranced around the grasslands of New Hanover, I noticed at one point that my horse had suddenly become skittish and wouldn’t move forward. It turned out that the animal was reacting to a snake in the grass — and the game conveyed that to me mostly through the horse’s movements and neighing.

Weapons and horses will get dirty over time, which will affect their performance — guns can degrade and jam — so you’ll need to clean them every so often. The game luxuriates in these maintenance actions, with detailed animations of Arthur brushing his horse’s coat and wiping down a gun’s barrel.

Customization is everywhere in Red Dead Redemption 2. In the previous game, John Marston could only don full outfits. Here, you can put together all kinds of looks for Arthur Morgan, mixing and matching various clothes and accessories. The game goes so far as to let you make style decisions like whether to tuck your jeans into your boots and how to layer garments over each other. In addition, you’ll see Arthur and his fellow gang members dress for the weather in their current location — overcoats in the snow, sleeves rolled up in the swampy southeast — and Rockstar says his stamina will drop if he isn’t dressed appropriately, similarly to Link’s health in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

It’s also possible to customize the equipment on Arthur’s horse, like stirrups and bedrolls. Saddle upgrades increase your horse’s health and stamina, while upgraded saddlebags expand storage for clothes, masks and hats. You can outfit weapons with all kinds of ornamentation — I saw Arthur using a revolver with a beautiful blue inlay — and buy or craft unique types of ammunition such as high-velocity bullets.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - close-up of Dutch holding an ornate revolver in his right hand
You can turn your weapons into showpieces worthy of a display case.
Rockstar Games

The Wild West comes to life

I also played another mission, “Paying a Social Call,” in which Dutch and Bill convince a captured member of the rival O’Driscoll gang to give up the location of the hideout where gang leader Colm O’Driscoll and his crew are holed up. I chatted with Bill on the ride there, using the L2 button to target him and continue our conversation. (I also tried that with John, but apparently there aren’t any dialogue lines for him during that ride.) This is all optional; you can ignore Bill if you want.

Most of the controls in Red Dead Redemption 2 are contextual — you can think of L2 as the “focus” button, since it aims your gun when you’re holding one and otherwise locks onto people for personal interactions. I only spent a brief period of time with the game’s first-person and cinematic modes, but it seems like all the controls are the same there.

Once we got to the hideout, I decided to try a stealthy approach, using my bow from afar and my knife for up-close takedowns. The bow is a ton of fun to use in combat if you have the skill — I was able to pull off a few headshots immediately. But with the third or fourth guy, I held the trigger too long while trying to aim at his head; the tension in the bow became too much to bear, and when the arrow sailed past the enemy, he alerted the entire camp.

I saw some interesting enemy behavior in the ensuing gun battle. The O’Driscolls took cover and shot at me from all sides, and I even watched a dude climb up on top of a house and rain down gunfire from the roof as he hid behind the chimney. Dead Eye came in handy here, as the gang members kept scurrying about the place. There are five different levels of the targeting system to unlock in Red Dead Redemption 2, including one that will highlight critical hit areas — a key assist for hunting beasts, especially legendary animals (yes, they’re back). I didn’t have to kill every last one of the O’Driscolls, either: After I had taken out most of the enemies, the remaining few men fled.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur walking down to the first floor of a saloon Rockstar Games

Both of the missions began when I started talking to a person highlighted on the map by a yellow dot, not a block letter. Rockstar is trying to make Red Dead Redemption 2 a more seamless experience, blurring the lines between when you’re on a mission and just exploring. I picked up a new adventure — something about tracking down a list of legendary gunslingers — just by talking to a gentleman in a bar in Valentine; he wasn’t marked as a quest giver. Yellow-dot characters will advance the plot in some way, but there aren’t necessarily clear distinctions between side quests and main story missions.

This is a clever way for Rockstar to put a spotlight on the human interactions at the heart of Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s one thing to be able to wave at strangers as you cross paths on a trail or in a saloon; it’s quite another for every inhabitant of this turn-of-the-century American setting to have lives of their own and remember their experiences with you.

When I was walking through Valentine, I stopped by the town’s bank. There wasn’t any gameplay in there per se, but I did see something arguably more meaningful. As I approached the security guard in the corner, he muttered, “I’ve got my eye on you. Don’t try anything like last time.” It’s a simple line of dialogue, asking less of the game’s underlying systems than the aforementioned snakebite story does. (Rockstar representatives told me that neither case was a canned sequence; they said they’d never seen either interaction happen before in the demo.)

Still, if that kind of memory extends to every character in Red Dead Redemption 2, it will go a long way toward making the game’s world feel like a real place with real people with whom Arthur has real relationships. I could spend twice as many words as I already have describing Red Dead Redemption 2’s gameplay mechanics and plot points and visuals and audio, but as my colleague Chris Plante wrote last month, you simply have to play Rockstar’s open-world games to understand and internalize why they’re so alluring.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - wide shot of Arthur on his horse with the sun low in the sky behind them and a lone tree to the left Rockstar Games

When Rockstar set me loose in the Heartlands, I just rode around for a while to try to take it all in: the grass swaying in the breeze; the sun shining over the two towering bluffs in the distance; the thunderstorm that came through in the evening and left puddles everywhere; the Milky Way illuminating the night sky. My location amid rolling hills provided a terrific vantage point from which I could see a grand view of the idyllic countryside before me — it was like I was gazing into a landscape painting from the Hudson River School.

But a gorgeous virtual world doesn’t quite feel like a living world until you put humans (and, in this case, animals) in it. The most exciting element of that stunning vista was the people I saw crisscrossing the landscape on horseback or in a carriage — and the idea that I could gallop over to each person and have some kind of interaction with them that might be unremarkable, unforgettable or anywhere in between. Just like in real life.

For more analysis of Red Dead Redemption 2, check out our detailed breakdown of the first gameplay video, which Rockstar released in early August.