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