How The West Was Won

The in­side story of Rock­star’s big­gest, deep­est, and most beau­ti­ful game to date


The Th in­side story of Red Dead

Re­demp­tion Re 2: Rock­star’s big­gest, gest, deep­est, de most beau­ti­ful game ever

We are all of 30 sec­onds into Red Dead

Re­demp­tion 2 when we re­alise that Rock­star is bury­ing the lede again. When we think of its pre­de­ces­sor, we re­mem­ber the glo­ri­ous sun­sets, the sun-parched grass of the New Austin fron­tier, the baked-clay plains of Mex­ico. In the Red Dead of our me­mories, there is rarely a cloud in the sky. We did not ex­pect to be­gin Rock­star’s first game in five years, one sold on the prom­ise of an­other ad­ven­ture in the harsh burn­ing sun of the old west, trudg­ing through a storm in snow that comes up to our waist.

Rock­star also did this in Grand Theft Auto V, you may re­mem­ber. The open­ing pro­logue was a quick tu­to­rial heist set in over­cast, snow-driven coun­try­side, mean­ing play­ers had to wait for the fan­tasy promised by the boxart. When the mo­ment fi­nally came, and you were fi­nally dropped into the hazy, shim­mer­ing glitz of Los San­tos, it was all the more strik­ing for the de­lay. Af­ter an hour or so, Rock­star’s lat­est game does the same thing: the storm sub­sides, the thaw sets in and our out­law posse trudges down a hill­side, the sun peek­ing through the clouds as Rock­star flexes its mus­cles for the first time in HDR.

Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2’ s open­ing mo­ments aren’t sim­ply about teas­ing out a big graph­i­cal pay­off, though that’s cer­tainly what you’ll get. Rather, it’s about nar­row­ing your fo­cus early on to what counts the most: pro­tag­o­nist Arthur Mor­gan and his fel­low mem­bers of the Van der Linde gang. There are nearly two dozen of them in all, a rag­tag band of gun­slingers, geez­ers, hard-nuts and har­lots that will nat­u­rally serve as quest-givers and AI com­pan­ions over the course of the game. But they’re more than that. They are a fam­ily. They’re vul­ner­a­ble, as this des­per­ate open­ing trudge through the storm, in ur­gent search for shel­ter, makes clear. When the gang fi­nally stum­bles upon an empty farm­house, one of their num­ber has al­ready died. He is mourned, if only briefly. Dutch ad­dresses the group for the first time, and it’s im­me­di­ately clear why he’s the leader. “Stay strong,” he tells them. “Stay with me. We ain’t done yet.”

You sus­pect that’s be­come some­thing of a motto for Rock­star in the pro­duc­tion of this, its most am­bi­tious game to date by a stretch – and its most com­plex, too. No open-world game has ever been too well served by a demo, but this is on an­other level en­tirely. We spend six hours



with the game, start­ing from the be­gin­ning, the first pub­li­ca­tion in the world to do so. We leave know­ing we have not so much as scratched the sur­face. A few days af­ter our visit, Rock­star sends over a fact sheet. This is stan­dard PR work, re­duc­ing a game’s de­sign pil­lars to a se­ries of handy bul­let points that rarely stretches be­yond a sin­gle side of A4. It is nine pages long.

At the cen­tre of it all is Arthur Mor­gan. From a dis­tance, there’s lit­tle to dis­tin­guish him from John Marston, pro­tag­o­nist of Red Dead Re­demp­tion. He’s gruff, ruggedly hand­some, a man of good heart and rea­son­able in­ten­tions de­spite hav­ing spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law. A mem­ber of the Van der Linde gang since he was a boy, he’s done his share of bad things, but when it’s put to him that his has been the life of a leg­endary gun­slinger, he’s hav­ing none of it. “Folks who need shoot­ing, I try to shoot in the back,” he says. “All that other stuff is bunk.”

He’s im­me­di­ately like­able, though just how long he will stay that way is up to you. The game’s Hon­our sys­tem is pow­ered not, as in other games, by the choices you make at pre­de­fined mo­ments. It’s there con­stantly, and rid­dled with shades of grey. With your weapon hol­stered, any NPC or an­i­mal can be tar­geted, pulling the cam­era’s fo­cus and bring up a con­text menu to en­able you to act to­wards them in cer­tain ways. If it’s a by­stander, you could threaten, rob or sim­ply greet them; a dog can be pat­ted, praised or scolded.

In iso­la­tion, these may not seem like much – but over time, they af­fect how Mor­gan is seen, and treated, ev­ery­where he goes. De­velop a rep­u­ta­tion as a hard­man, for in­stance, and rob­beries will pay out more. Rock­star says it will even af­fect the way the game is pre­sented, a mood­ier sound­track or cam­era an­gle re­flect­ing the player’s choice for the game to be the tale of a dis­hon­or­able badass. And while they may, mo­ment to mo­ment, seem like bi­nary choices, there’s room for nu­ance. At the end of the train job that brings down the cur­tain on the pro­logue, Mor­gan is left alone with three mem­bers of train staff, and told to do with them as he pleases. The ban­dana cov­er­ing his face slipped off dur­ing a fist­fight, so he’s been seen – and the owner of the train, a pow­er­ful mag­nate named Leviti­cus Corn­well, is likely to seek ret­ri­bu­tion for the stacks of rail­way bonds that the gang has

made off with. We pop one be­tween the eyes, and let the other two live. If they’re smart, they’ll keep their mouths shut.

“Hon­our is a big part of the game, much like it was in the pre­vi­ous one,” says Joshua Bass, art direc­tor at Rock­star San Diego. “But it’s much more sub­tly in­te­grated into the world, and it won’t al­ways be clear what’s an hon­ourable thing to do. It’s also less about whether it opens or closes a branch­ing path in a story mis­sion – though there are times when it does – as it is about how you’re go­ing to feel about the over­all ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Play­ing Arthur as a darker char­ac­ter is go­ing to make the mo­ment-to-mo­ment game­play feel a lot dif­fer­ent than if he’s an hon­ourable out­law. It’s lay­ered into every­thing, from mu­sic to cam­era an­gles to body lan­guage and the way ev­ery­one re­acts to you. Hope­fully, by the end of the game, these cu­mu­la­tive ef­fects will add up, and peo­ple will re­alise just how dif­fer­ent their ex­pe­ri­ence was com­pared to some­one else be­cause of the hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent choices they made as they played.”

The ele­phant in the room, how­ever, is Marston, star of Red Dead Re­demp­tion. This is a pre­quel to events of the 2010 game, set over a decade ear­lier when Marston was still part of the gang. Rock­star re­alises he needs to be dealt with and does so as early as pos­si­ble: once you’ve found shel­ter from the storm for the gang, Marston’s then-girl­friend Abi­gail tells you her beau is miss­ing. You trek up through the deep snow to a moun­tain­side where Marston – here young and im­petu­ous, a stark con­trast to his char­ac­ter in Red

Dead Re­demp­tion – has been at­tacked and in­jured. His leg’s a mess, and his face is all scratched up. Rock­star knows you came, in part, for Marston. He’s in­tro­duced early, the mys­tery of his fa­cial scars im­me­di­ately cleared up. Af­ter that, he’s just an­other mem­ber of the gang.

Once the snow melts and you’ve suc­cess­fully robbed the train, the gang heads east, set­ting up camp in ver­dant, hilly New Hanover – and it’s at this point that the game both opens up and puts down roots. Dutch tells the group in no uncer­tain terms that, while they’re free to come and go as they please and get up to what­ever they feel like – as if he knows this is an open-world game – they’re ex­pected to con­trib­ute. There’s plenty to do around the place. At his tent, Marston can trim his hair and beard ac­cord­ing to the player’s pref­er­ence, or change his clothes as the cli­mate de­mands (the at­ten­tion to de­tail in the lat­ter borders on the ab­surd, in­clud­ing whether sleeves are rolled up or not, and how jeans sit on, or in, your boots). You can sit by the fire and gos­sip, or share sto­ries of re­cent ad­ven­tures. The oth­ers live their own lives, and con­ver­sa­tions with them are dy­namic ac­cord­ing to their cur­rent mood. Ap­proach one of them af­ter they’ve had an ar­gu­ment, for in­stance, and they’ll be ag­i­tated (the same ap­plies out in the world: an NPC you’ve just cleaned out at the poker ta­ble will be less than warm to­wards you). And all over the place are de­posit and stor­age boxes, wait­ing for your kick­backs.

“Ev­ery­one needs to do their bit to help the gang sur­vive,” Bass says, “whether it’s do­nat­ing a por­tion of money or items they steal, or help­ing out around camp. Arthur doesn’t have to con­trib­ute, but his fel­low gang mem­bers ap­pre­ci­ate it when he does. We don’t want the gang to feel like a set of stat val­ues to be man­aged by the player; they’re a fully re­alised group of peo­ple who know each other well, who gos­sip and ar­gue and share sto­ries. If Arthur’s help­ing out around camp, they’ll in­ter­act with him more pos­i­tively and the camp will gen­er­ally be a hap­pier place to be. If you don’t, the gang might make pass­ing com­ments about the state of camp, or the fact that Arthur’s not pulling his weight.”

Their most ob­vi­ous role, how­ever, is as mis­sion-givers, and while avail­able op­por­tu­ni­ties are shown on the map, quests be­gin in a more nat­u­ral fash­ion than we’ve come to ex­pect from Rock­star, with no in­ter­sti­tial load­ing screens. In­deed, we be­gin one by com­plete ac­ci­dent, wan­der­ing into the sa­loon in Valen­tine, the main town in New Hanover, and find­ing our­selves sum­moned to the bar by a cou­ple of gang­mates, a mis­sion kick­ing off au­to­mat­i­cally. Your fel­low out­laws will come and go over time – you might meet them while out on the road, or even head out on it with them. When el­derly con­man Hosea Matthews in­vites us out to hunt a giant bear (there are leg­endary-class an­i­mals to seek out across the game world) he calls to the camp as we leave, telling them we’ll be gone a few days. Af­ter the hunt – pow­ered in part by Mor­gan’s Witcher Senses-style track­ing abil­i­ties – is over, Matthews tells us he’s go­ing to stay out on the trail for a spell, invit­ing us to go with him. We turn back, with an apol­ogy. We’ve only a few hours left, old stick. We’ll do this prop­erly in a few weeks.



Hunt­ing is just one of sev­eral sys­tems in Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2 that have been put to­gether with such depth and at­ten­tion to de­tail that the game quickly starts to feel, even af­ter a lengthy de­vel­op­ment pe­riod and all the de­lays, like a mir­a­cle. Or a folly, we’re not sure. Yes, you track prey with an ar­ti­fice bor­rowed from Ger­alt of Rivia, but that’s only the be­gin­ning. An­i­mals are aware of their place in the food chain of the re­gion in which they gam­bol, can­ter or swim. Some have a keen sense of smell, forc­ing you to con­sider the wind as you make your ap­proach. Nock an ar­row and you can whis­tle to get a graz­ing an­i­mal to raise its head, mak­ing the kill eas­ier. Skin it – the friendly cam­era cut­away of the pre­vi­ous game is gone, the cut, the tear and the pull now shown in full, squea­mish non-glory – and you can sell the pelt and cook the meat, though you’ll need to do so be­fore rot sets in.

Mor­gan him­self is driven by sys­tems, too. Health and stamina val­ues are mea­sured in wheels, and re­gen­er­ate over time. In the cen­tre of each wheel is a core which must be im­proved out in the world; as in GTAV, run­ning, for in­stance, will over time boost your stamina. Even with­out up­graded cores, your health and stamina will still re­fill, but they’ll do so more slowly as the cores de­plete. They can be topped up by eat­ing or rest­ing, though do too much of the former and, in a wel­come nod to

GTA: San An­dreas, Mor­gan will start to carry a lit­tle ex­tra tim­ber. He needs to eat, and to rest, and to dress ap­pro­pri­ately for the wild vari­a­tions in cli­mate across this sprawl­ing world.

If that brings to mind an­other re­cent in­dus­try­beat­ing open-world game, Mor­gan, like Link, also has to tend to his steed. As in Breath Of The Wild, horses must be tamed, their trust earned, be­fore they can be rid­den. Like Mor­gan, their abil­i­ties im­prove through reg­u­lar use, un­lock­ing new abil­i­ties as his bond with them deep­ens. There’s a hint here at the sort of gran­u­lar stat-work you’d pre­fer Rock­star to steer clear of: a visit to the Valen­tine sta­bles re­veals that you can im­prove a horse’s ac­cel­er­a­tion, top speed and so on by buy­ing it a new sad­dle, stirrups or bedroll. But mounts are nat­u­rally com­plex out in the world, away from the menu screens. When we hap­pen across a bear, our ride is spooked, buck­ing against our con­trol. It will do the same for rat­tlesnakes, we’re told, and what­ever other preda­tors lie in wait across the land. A pat on the shoul­der, a firm hand at the

reins and a di­ver­sion along the scenic route soon get it back on side, and our jour­ney is all the richer for it.

“Like many parts of the game, the team it­er­ated on the horse for years,” Aaron Gar­but, art direc­tor at Rock­star North – the en­tire global Rock­star op­er­a­tion, span­ning eight stu­dios, has worked on the game – tells us. “The per­son­al­ity of the horse will come through in its be­hav­iour, re­act­ing to the world in a way that’s unique to its breed and your bond with it. Your horse should feel like a liv­ing crea­ture with a mind of its own, and we spent a lot of time tag­ging el­e­ments of the world so the horse knows where it wants to go, and what it wants to avoid, as much as the player.

“Be­yond that, though, we want your horse to feel like a com­pan­ion. You start to care for it, and it up­sets you when it’s hurt. Look­ing af­ter it, and bonding with it, be­comes some­thing you want to do – not just for the ben­e­fits it can bring, but be­cause it’s your most trusted friend. If it’s hurt and dy­ing, you have lim­ited time to get it medicine, and it’s at times like these that the game opens up its own ad­ven­tures. Sud­denly noth­ing mat­ters as much as help­ing your horse. That said, you could just let it die, and get an­other. Well, I couldn’t. But maybe you could.”

It goes on, this level of de­tail. There are some fan­ci­ful, even out­ra­geous, claims: you’ve prob­a­bly al­ready heard the one about how your horse’s tes­ti­cles shrink in cold weather. If what Rock­star tells us is true, this will be the most richly com­plex open world that the game in­dus­try has ever pro­duced. Six hours is noth­ing, of course, in the scheme of such a thing. We can al­ready tell you, how­ever, that Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2 is beau­ti­ful, be­guil­ing, and sim­ply enor­mous.

When Dutch and the gang have stuck up the train and set up camp in New Hanover, the reins of the pro­logue are loos­ened. We ask our Rock­star han­dlers if there are any re­stric­tions on where we can go, or what we can do. Is there any­thing to stop us pulling up the map, set­ting a way­point at its fur­thest ex­trem­ity, and spend­ing the rest of the day go­ing there? Af­ter a pause, we are told to go nuts.

Rock­star is en­ti­tled to feel con­fi­dent. “We al­ways go through a sim­i­lar process when de­sign­ing a world,” Gar­but tells us. “We build out our ideas as quickly as we can, and then we live in that world. We get a feel for it and layer on more de­tail.


More vari­a­tions, more sub-dis­tricts; we move rivers, moun­tains, fea­tures; we ad­just and re­fine, and ad­just again. We spend years liv­ing in these places, day in day out, to try and make them look and feel bet­ter. As soon as the world be­comes more re­solved, we layer in the peo­ple, ad­ven­tures, mis­sions and off-mis­sion con­tent.

“A big dif­fer­ence for this game is mak­ing sure that the player’s not just dis­cov­er­ing fun things to do, but that the world is con­stantly serv­ing things up to you in sub­tle ways. A rat­tlesnake spook­ing your horse, an­i­mals lurk­ing in the woods, a ri­val gang’s camp­fire off in the dis­tance, the dis­tant lights of the near­est town – there’s al­ways some­thing go­ing on. The things that hap­pen to you as you sim­ply hang out in the world pull you through it, cre­at­ing rewarding ex­pe­ri­ences in their own right. That feels real, and it feels new.”

He’s not wrong. We bring up the map, zoom out as far as we can, and move the cur­sor east. It scrolls for two full screens. “Go south,” a voice be­hind us says. It scrolls twice as far. We have a few more hours, so head off with the best of in­ten­tions, but if you’ve ever played a Rock­star game, you’ll un­der­stand we get dis­tracted. We hop off our steed to hunt some deer. We stop off at a beach, where a young boy is skim­ming stones across the wa­ter, play­ing out an es­prit d’es­calier con­ver­sa­tion with an ab­sent, un­re­quited love, and pause to of­fer him the ben­e­fit of our years of ex­pe­ri­ence. We will spend the next week won­der­ing what Mor­gan would have said had we picked the ass­hole op­tion. We spy some smoke on the hori­zon, and head off to find its ori­gin; when we get there we find a gang of ne’er-do-wells, schem­ing their next big job. They do not take kindly to our in­ter­rup­tion. The ‘defuse’ di­a­logue op­tion works, but only for a cou­ple of sec­onds. We’re told to clear off and, when we tarry, are cut down. Death comes quick in these hills.

Res­pawn­ing, we find the smoke and head back, this time mak­ing sure we shoot first. We hear gun­fire over the hill, and find a gang teach­ing a young boy how to shoot straight; they, too, take um­brage at our pres­ence, and now we know we need to turn tail quickly. We stum­ble across a farm, and play psy­cho with the work­ers there, al­ter­nately greet­ing and threat­en­ing them un­til they walk away, glanc­ing ner­vously over shoul­ders. Our horse spies a rat­tler and freaks out, so we turn sharply, rid­ing east in­stead of south, and find a rail­way sta­tion of­fer­ing fast travel to half a dozen des­ti­na­tions. We ask our han­dlers for ad­vice. We set­tle on Saint De­nis, the game’s equiv­a­lent of New Orleans.

If you thought that Red Dead Re­demp­tion’s Black­wa­ter was built up, well, this is some­thing else, a sur­pris­ingly mod­ern ur­ban sprawl that’s a stark re­minder of the new world the Van der Linde gang are strug­gling to come to terms with. While they toil out on the open plain, stick­ing up wag­ons and scrab­bling for food, a short hop away there are bustling towns with road net­works, busy ports, street lights and nightlife. A by­stander takes ex­cep­tion to our ap­pear­ance, and we take ex­cep­tion to his face. A punch-up en­sues, the po­lice are called, and we stand no chance.

Af­ter a good old fash­ioned run and hide, we track down our mouthy ag­gres­sor. We knock him out, pick up his body and walk to­wards the wa­ter’s edge. We in­tend to drop him in it, of course, but Mor­gan trips some­how, drop­ping his quarry on the pier and tum­bling into the drink him­self. The room falls about laugh­ing, and any lin­ger­ing con­cerns just melt away. Rock­star may have lay­ered this game with more sys­tems and struc­tures than all its pre­vi­ous games com­bined. It may have built its big­gest, most com­plex game to date. But there’s no script­ing some­thing like that.

That’s the magic of a Rock­star game and has been for years, but from what we’ve seen this will be, by a long way, the big­gest, most var­ied, and most beau­ti­ful play­ground the de­vel­oper has ever pro­duced. And it is dif­fer­ent. “Grand Theft Auto V al­lowed us to stand on a moun­tain and see clouds cast shad­ows on the ter­rain, which gave a great sense of scale,” Gar­but says. “But the sys­tem in Red

Dead Re­demp­tion 2 lets us climb from an over­cast val­ley up through the clouds un­til we’re on a moun­tain above them. You can see bad weather rolling in, rain fall­ing from clouds in the dis­tance, lo­calised fog around you. It’s in­cred­i­bly dy­namic.

“We have moved away from typ­i­cal open-world tropes. This is not a col­lec­tion of mis­sions in­side a big world filled with blips for pick-ups and minigames. It’s much more sub­tle, and much more real. We don’t think of it as a game to be played through. It’s a place for you to get lost in.” In just a few short weeks, we fully in­tend to.


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