’M GINGERLY making my way down the side of a mountain in the snow, following my guide to find a comrade lost in the wilderness.
“This way”, he waves, turning to cut through a gap in the mountainside. I press the button to hasten my speed to catch up, but instead I shoot him dead. My bad.
It’s an infuriating mistake, and one I’ll replicate with annoying regularity – and it’s costing me a small fortune in paying off the bounty hunters.
But this was the first of many learning curves to mastering Red Dead Redemption 2, the astonishing new game from developer Rockstar.
Those expecting Grand Theft Auto in the Wild West are in for a surprise, this is a much slower, much more deliberately paced game.
It begins in the frozen wilds with Arthur Morgan and a rag-tag gang of outlaws hiding out in an abandoned mining town, barely alive and out of food.
It’s a slow, but calculated start to an ambitious campaign, that teaches you the skills you’re going to need to survive the next 60 or so hours.
Holed up in the cold you feel cabin fever setting in, tension building between you and your fellow gang members as the snow continues to tumble and resources grow increasingly scarce.
Hunting is difficult – poor visibility, and thick snow clumping around your horse’s hooves impedes your progress – and it’s even harder going on your own two feet. It’s claustrophobic, it’s tense, it’s beautiful.
So when you eventually make it down from the mountain, and are unleashed into the full map it feels utterly liberating.
The RDR2 world is glorious – bustling towns, breathtaking vistas, lush forests, fast flowing rivers, and windswept plains – Earth porn at its very best.
The characters are beyond lifelike, stunning attention to detail making it easy to relate to those you encounter on the streets, and giving you real pangs of guilt when you accidentally kill someone instead of saying hello.
This realism applies to the animals in the game too – your horse sweats and pants as it carries you from your camp for nefarious activities in towns and cities.
The bond you build with your horse is vital, as no two steeds in this game are the same. Jumping on a strange horse to escape an approaching group of wolves resulted in the frightened animal throwing me from the saddle, and leaving me at the pack’s mercy.
Your horse requires upkeep. Food, water, shoeing – it’s almost as time consuming as caring for Arthur, who requires baths, haircuts and shaves to make him even halfway presentable.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is set in a hostile and unforgiving environment
If you don’t have enough horse reviver, you face the heartbreaking reality of having to put your steed out of its misery if it suffers a fatal injury far out in the sticks.
This is a very different type of gaming. Fast travel doesn’t exist here, so covering long distances takes time and patience.
The enforced journey times are almost relaxing, stopping to ensure your guns are clean, hunting, killing, and skinning animals (which, even though it’s a game, it was so realistic I found incredibly uncomfortable to do) to survive.
The result of all this is almost complete immersion, the feeling of a shared existence with Arthur as he does his best living a hostile and unforgiving way of life, that’s on the brink of extinction in turn-of-the-century America.
Interaction with fellow gang members and strangers is surprisingly deep and nuanced – rich, Texan drawls spin tales by the camp fire – leaving you feeling like the Dude, as Sam Elliot counsels him at the bowling alley bar in The Big Lebowski.
Three quarters of the way through the campaign, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what RDR2 has to offer. The knowledge that there are myriad horrors and delights still to be discovered is intoxicating.
Even the few quirks that are being reported, like the spontaneously combusting horses on the road near Rhodes, fails to tarnish it.
There’s no question that what Rockstar has created here is a game like nothing I’ve played before, a landmark achievement that sets a new standard for all that go after it.