red dead re­demp­tion II

OXM gets ex­clu­sive hands-on time with Rock­star’s long-awaited open-wor ld Western pre­quel red dead re­demp­tion II

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - Chris burke

It ain’t no se­cret I didn’t get these scars fall­ing over in church,” John Marston mem­o­rably says in Red Dead

Re­demp­tion. Af­ter eight years of wait­ing to find out just how he did get his fa­cial dis­fig­ure­ment, we’re about to find out. And as OXM be­gins its ex­clu­sive hands-on pre­view at Rock­star HQ, we’re as ex­cited as a small child, all of whose Christ­mases have come at once, and who’s def­i­nitely get­ting a puppy.

OXM’s time with the game ac­tu­ally be­gins with Marston, his face ex­ten­sively ban­daged and cov­ered in fresh blood, ea­ger to join in his gang’s lat­est es­capade but be­rated by his fu­ture wife, Abi­gail, and told to take it easy by gang leader Dutch. It’s 12 years ear­lier, and – fol­low­ing a bodged rob­bery in Black­wa­ter that has forced the gang of out­laws to flee into the wilder­ness – John’s got those char­ac­ter­ful scars. But he’s very much on the side­lines as we take con­trol of se­nior Van der Linde gun, Arthur Mor­gan.

Back on the Xbox, 2004’s Red Dead

Re­volver laid the foun­da­tions for Rock­star San Diego’s telling of epic Wild West tales, with a ton of stylis­tic nods to clas­sic West­erns and the in­no­va­tive Dead Eye shoot­ing me­chanic. On 360, Rock­star did not want for am­bi­tion with Red Dead

Re­demp­tion. By then, Rock­star’s pro­pri­etary RAGE en­gine was able to cre­ate the kind of huge, open­world sand­box that blew our minds. Even now, with the help of 4K vis­ual up­dates on Xbox One, that game rocks. But John Marston’s tale of ar­che­typal Western re­venge on his former gang-mates was ripe for a deeper ex­plo­ration of his and the gang’s back­story, and here we’re get­ting that and so much more.

As Arthur, we ride with Dutch and his boys to rob a train. We’re up in snowy moun­tains, and as our ponies plod through the tun­dra to where Bill Wil­liamson is rig­ging the track to blow, we get our first close-up look at the game’s gor­geous en­vi­ron­men­tal de­tail. Pow­dery snow bil­lows around our horses’ hooves while white­capped moun­tain vis­tas stretch into the dis­tance. We ex­pected noth­ing less, es­pe­cially with the X’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties ver­sus the old 360, but we’re still struck by how much more im­pres­sive those vis­tas look. We spent so long with RDR that its scenery is im­printed on our eye­balls, but where you’d still see tele­graph poles pop­ping up at a cer­tain dis­tance, here the draw-dis­tances look vast, as lim­it­less as the naked eye can see.

The train chugs into view, but the ex­plo­sives fail to go off, so it’s up over the hill to leap on top of the train as it emerges from a tun­nel. Shoot­ing his way along the length of the train, Arthur reaches the en­gine and brings it to a halt. The pri­vate car of wealthy in­dus­tri­al­ist Leviti­cus Corn­wall is heav­ily ar­moured and with goons still in­side. Hav­ing blown the doors off, Dutch leaves these guys’ fate to Arthur; this means killing them, putting them back on the train, or send­ing them pack­ing into the wilds, hav­ing threat­ened them into si­lence. What you choose to do here will swing your Honor me­ter and im­pact how NPCs in the world re­act to you – but more of that later.

The game’s HUD is min­i­mal, to keep you as im­mersed as pos­si­ble in the world. Arthur has ‘core’ stats – health, stamina and Dead Eye. Tap down on the D-Pad and you’ll see them as icons above your mini-map. Arthur also has at­tributes run­ning in the back­ground, Strength, Grit, Dex­ter­ity and In­stinct, which can be lev­elled up.

We’re left in lit­tle doubt that this is Arthur’s game. You won’t be switch­ing char­ac­ters like in GTAV. But whereas Marston’s nar­ra­tive drive was clear, Arthur has no clear story. At least, not yet. He’s a blank slate, al­most, wait­ing for you to write his story with him.

“Un­like a lot of games, we are not send­ing play­ers on a quest,” the game’s di­rec­tor of de­sign, Im­ran Sar­war, tells OXM. “We are putting them in Arthur’s life dur­ing his time with the Van der Linde gang, and you dis­cover Arthur’s story along with him.” Ex­plo­ration of the world will be via the gang be­ing on the lam. “When we pick up with the gang, they are on the run from the law af­ter the failed Black­wa­ter job, and they have a plan to lay low and head back to pick up the cash as soon as they can. But events first push them east into the

Heart­lands, where they set up camp to try and build up funds and sup­plies to head back West. Of course, trou­ble fol­lows them and soon they are on the run once again, be­ing pushed through the var­i­ous ter­ri­to­ries of the world as events un­fold.”

With such a mas­sive open-world as this, it must have been a chal­lenge to di­rect Arthur’s story as or­gan­i­cally and nat­u­rally as pos­si­ble for the player.

“One of our ma­jor am­bi­tions for the game was to blur the lines be­tween the var­i­ous ex­pe­ri­ences that the player can get up to, so that Arthur’s ex­pe­ri­ences and re­la­tion­ships al­ways make sense and are grounded in the world,” says Steven Messinger, lead open world de­signer on RDRII. “Red

Dead­Redemp­tion in­tro­duced the con­cept of am­bi­ent events that the player could stum­ble across. Red

Dead­Redemp­tionII takes this con­cept much fur­ther, and blurs the lines be­tween the tra­di­tional idea of a ‘side-mis­sion’ or ‘ran­dom event’. We did a huge amount of tai­lor­ing of the open world con­tent to make sure that there were not only a mas­sive amount of dif­fer­ent kinds of things to do, but that they would all make sense for the over­all story and the char­ac­ter of Arthur, and in some cases right down to the lo­ca­tion, sit­u­a­tion and time of day.”

Stranger than fic­tion

Next, we’re dropped into the Heart­lands, all red­woods, val­leys and rivers. And mud, lots of mud. As we ride into the live­stock town of Valen­tine, we spend as much time an­gling the cam­era to look down as we do around. The mud looks so re­al­is­tic, dy­nam­i­cally de­formed by our pas­sage. Tracks stay un­til changed by other tracks; if it’s rain­ing they will fill with mud.

Valen­tine is full of peo­ple milling around, car­ry­ing planks, mov­ing pur­pose­fully. Some shadier types idle. There is con­struc­tion afoot, and there are build­ings, shops and a black­smith’s to ex­plore. We head into a bar, as you do, and get chat­ting to some drunks. As you do. One of them, Theodore Levin, tells us he is the bi­og­ra­pher of his com­pan­ion, Jim ‘Boy’ Cal­loway. The Jim ‘Boy’ Cal­loway. Never heard of him? Levin isn’t sure any­one has heard of this self-pro­claimed leg­endary gun­slinger ei­ther, and asks us to track down Cal­loway’s old gang­mates. He gives us a cam­era for proof we’ve met them, and pho­tos of fa­bled gun­slingers Black Belle, Billy Mid­night, Flaco Her­nan­dez and Em­met Granger. Analysing each one gives us a gen­eral way­point for where to find them.

It’s a side-mis­sion that looks to be a lot of fun, and this en­counter con­firms that RDRII will have the equiv­a­lent of

GTA’s Stranger Mis­sions. Al­though the pres­ence of the mis­sion was flagged on the mini-map, we might have never gone into that bar; never met those guys. With such a huge open world it could pre­sum­ably be easy to miss a lot of side mis­sions, and we were in­ter­ested to see how the game will present side quests.

“We tried to think be­yond story mis­sions and side mis­sions, to sim­ply cre­ate a huge range of ex­pe­ri­ences for the player to move in and out of as nat­u­rally as pos­si­ble,” ex­plains Im­ran. “The world is packed with things to

“Arthur’s ex­pe­ri­ences al­ways make sense and are grounded in the world”

do, and the best way to find them is to ex­plore and in­ter­act with the peo­ple you meet. Talk­ing to peo­ple in town or in camp will of­ten re­veal new ac­tiv­i­ties for the player to get in­volved in, and you never know what kind of ex­pe­ri­ence that might be.”

Fight­ing talk

Back out in the town, we pick a fight. We want to ex­pe­ri­ence the down-and­dirty melee­ing we’d heard about, while it’s also a great chance to re­ally test the in­ter­ac­tions you can have with NPCs. Tar­get some­one with­out your weapon drawn and op­tions ap­pear to greet or an­tag­o­nise them. We hurl a few choice words at a passer-by, and he swings at Arthur. We ac­ci­den­tally draw our gun and blow his head off. Oops. This of course brings the law, as wit­nesses scat­ter to tell-tale on us for the mi­nor trans­gres­sion of de­cap­i­tat­ing some­one blood­ily in the street.

The wit­ness sys­tem is an­other ex­am­ple of how RDRII’s deep sys­tems work to make ev­ery­thing seem more real. Do some­thing naughty in GTAV and peo­ple scream and scat­ter. Here, some run and fetch help. Wit­nesses ap­pear on the mini-map as red dots, and if you can get to them quickly enough you could si­lence them with in­tim­i­da­tion, or death. You get a Wanted level, the law turn­ing up in num­bers ac­cord­ingly. For my crime, I’m soon gunned down in a blaze of in­glo­ri­ous­ness.

When you die, you are respawned close by, a lit­tle lighter for cash. Al­though you’ve lost your Wanted level, you still have a cash bounty, and wan­der­ing back into Valen­tine’s main street, folks are no­tice­ably re­act­ing a lit­tle less warmly than be­fore. Which is fine, be­cause we’re still look­ing to pick a fight. Af­ter bul­ly­ing an old man and a news­boy, we pick on some­one our own size and pro­voke a pair of cow­pokes into an al­ter­ca­tion. Arthur is a scrap­per who uses his bulk to block, punch, grab and shove. Knock some­one down and you can threaten them fur­ther, or keep pum­melling. Rolling around on the ground you get suit­ably filthy, too. The lit­tle red dots once again scram­ble for the sher­iff and this time we’re given the op­tion to dif­fuse the sit­u­a­tion, by say­ing some­thing like, ‘They started it!’ But no, we just have to tell the sher­iff to shut up, don’t we? This es­ca­lates things, un­til our op­tions are to sur­ren­der or draw, and we’re hauled

off to jail. Get chucked in the slam­mer and if you can’t pay off your bounty, you have to do the full stretch, usu­ally 24 hours’ game-time – and you might see beard growth on Arthur to mark the time’s pas­sage. Your gang might even ran­domly come and bust you out.

The Honor sys­tem is a finely-honed met­ric for your rep­u­ta­tion in the world, and it works in sub­tle ways to re­flect your be­hav­iour back at you. NPCs re­act dif­fer­ently to your ac­tions, out of fear, dis­trust, or mal­ice. This means an am­bi­tious num­ber of per­mu­ta­tions from ev­ery one of Arthur’s ac­tions.

“If you cause trou­ble and you’re wanted by the law, you could choose to sur­ren­der and sleep it off in jail,” ex­plains Steven. “But that’s the kind of news that trav­els in a small town, so you can ex­pect some peo­ple in town to hear about that. For that to feel real across mul­ti­ple kinds of de­ci­sions in the world re­quires a huge amount of cus­tom di­a­logue, an­i­ma­tion and per­for­mance cap­ture.”

It’s im­pres­sive stuff, and helps you to feel as though your pres­ence in those NPCs’ lives is dy­namic and im­por­tant, while keep­ing your ac­tions merely a but­ter­fly-wing’s flap in a broader, evolv­ing world.

One of the ways your Honor level is il­lus­trated is in take-down cin­e­mat­ics. If you’re wear­ing your ‘white hat’, kills will ap­pear more heroic. If you’re wear­ing the ‘black hat’ con­sis­tently, those kill-cams will be bru­tal, mur­der­ous even. Play nice and law­ful cit­i­zens will be friend­lier and bounty hunt­ing will pay more. As a bad guy, your body lan­guage will be more neg­a­tive, cit­i­zens will be less friendly, rob­beries will pay more and it will be eas­ier to in­tim­i­date wit­nesses. This will subtly shift back and forth in line with your Honor. Your ac­tions will also af­fect the world and change en­coun­ters. Save some­one’s life in the wilder­ness, you might see them again and get a re­ward; or find out they’ve killed an in­no­cent per­son.

“We want there to be sub­tle changes and con­se­quences ev­ery­where, not just in big story branches,” says Steven. “We also want to have you ques­tion the way you play as Arthur so that killing ev­ery­one is not al­ways the best ap­proach. Maybe you rob an out­law shack and the last out­law at­tempts to sur­ren­der. Maybe, if you spare his life he will tell you where they stashed

“We want there to be sub­tle changes and con­se­quences ev­ery­where”

the money. If you kill them you may never find out.”

The camp acts as a hub where you can nur­ture re­la­tion­ships and pick up side-mis­sions. Though the camp’s man­age­ment is not cru­cial, the more time you spend look­ing af­ter your gang and the day-to-day needs of the camp, the bet­ter you can up­grade its use­ful fa­cil­i­ties.

Gang war­fare

Im­ran talks OXM through Arthur’s dy­namic with the gang. “The gang are fam­ily and they have re­la­tion­ships with both Arthur and each other. So when you’re not out in the world do­ing your own thing, you are re­lax­ing with them in camp, or head­ing out for sup­plies with them, stag­ing a heist or some other ac­tiv­ity. The gang know when Arthur is in camp and when he’s caused trou­ble out in the world. We had to up­grade all of our game­play and AI sys­tems so that the gang mem­bers were smarter and equipped with bet­ter mem­o­ries, so that they would re­spond nat­u­rally to Arthur and in­vite him into con­ver­sa­tions.”

Those sys­tems ex­tend to Arthur’s in­ter­ac­tions with all NPCs, as Im­ran ex­plains. “Once we were com­mit­ted to that, we re­alised we had to push those ideas out to the way that Arthur in­ter­acts with ev­ery­one, which led to the cre­ation of the in­ter­ac­tion sys­tem that ex­ists for the en­tire world. Whether it’s a shop­keeper, a law­man or a pass­ing rider – you can in­ter­act with them in a va­ri­ety of ways with­out ever draw­ing a gun, and those op­tions will be con­tex­tual based on what kind of per­son they might be and the sit­u­a­tion you’re in. It’s a huge leap for­ward and im­merses you in the world in a way that we have never been able to do be­fore.”

At the camp, we give Arthur a shave, as he’s get­ting griz­zly. The op­tions here are lim­ited com­pared to a town bar­ber’s, but we give Arthur a big, bushy mous­tache, and won­der how best to com­ple­ment this up­per-lip cor­nu­copia. We’re think­ing of go­ing for the ‘Cow­boy from Vil­lage Peo­ple’ look. Whereas in the first Re­demp­tion game, you could change out­fits, here ev­ery item of cloth­ing can be changed sep­a­rately. You can also gain weight by eat­ing. Sadly there’s no time to get chubby on camp-cook Mr Pear­son’s chow, or slip into some less-com­fort­able chaps.

Dutch’s boys are not the only out­law gang on the prairie, and it’s time to tan­gle with ri­vals the O’Driscolls. Cap­tured gang-mem­ber Kieran seems keen to help Arthur at­tack and rob their camp, al­though we have just

“In slow-mo you can tar­get mul­ti­ple en­e­mies with a high de­gree of ac­cu­racy”

threat­ened to cut his knack­ers off with some geld­ing shears.

You can only carry so many weapons – and you can see them all slung across Arthur’s back, or belted around his waist, though your horse can carry ex­tra fire­power. Sneak­ing to the edge of the camp, we can in­struct our com­padres to at­tack stealth­ily. Bill takes one guard out silently, and John helps Arthur take down the next two goons with throw­ing knives.

Red Dead’s sharp­shoot­ing mode, Dead Eye, re­turns. In slow-mo you can tar­get mul­ti­ple en­e­mies with a high de­gree of ac­cu­racy, as be­fits your sta­tion as a bad-ass gun­slinger. Once in Dead Eye, you can mark mul­ti­ple tar­gets and pull off some spec­tac­u­lar take­downs, and it will evolve as you gain ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing it. Out­side of this more fi­nessed aim­ing me­chanic, you can hip-fire now too – fan­ning your re­volver’s ham­mer.

Sen­tries dealt with, we go in guns blaz­ing. Al­though sur­prised, our foes re­act sen­si­bly, to fan out and take cover. From cover you can duck in and out and take man­ual shots, or run out like Butch and Sun­dance and rely on Dead Eye to take out as many en­e­mies as you can. Some en­e­mies have headed into the tree­line and they’re pretty hard to see, but in Dead Eye mode we are able to pick them out, mark­ing each with a cou­ple of wellplaced ‘X’s and drop­ping them eas­ily.

This short bru­tal gun­fight is sadly the end of our hands-on pre­view, but we’re hugely im­pressed by what we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced. There’s no ques­tion Rock­star has cre­ated some­thing re­ally spe­cial here, and we’ve barely scratched the sur­face. Ev­ery­thing we’ve seen sug­gests deep im­mer­sion and epic sto­ry­telling on an un­prece­dented scale.

So, set up camp next to your Xbox One and clear a cou­ple of years in your di­aries… Red Dead Re­demp­tion I I is al­most here.

048

the of­fi­cial xbox mag­a­zine

above The cus­tomi­sa­tion op­tions are deep; you can change in­di­vid­ual lay­ers of your cloth­ing, and even en­grave your gun.

be­low Looks like there will be some arid ar­eas to ex­plore too.

above The map is ‘ghosted’ out un­til you’ve vis­ited an area, and will open up as you ex­plore.

AB OVE Arthur can carry two side-arms and two ri­fles and/ or bow, plus hunt­ing knife. You can see all those weapons on his per­son. BEL OW Heists will be a big part of your life as a no­to­ri­ous out­law.

above The let­ters of ‘Wanted’ will fill up with red the more heat you’re draw­ing. Here, Arthur’s clearly been a real bad boy.

above 190 pieces of mu­sic fea­ture in the game, seam­lessly and dy­nam­i­cally wo­ven to­gether to sound­track your ex­pe­ri­ence.

above Your Dead Eye me­ter fills up with your take-downs. You can use it while dual-wield­ing!

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