Red Dead Redemption 2: three hours with the most anticipated game of the year

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Left to my own devices with Red Dead Redemption 2 for a few hours, I was expecting to see sweeping open plains interrupted by mesas, dusty frontier towns with swing-door saloons and wary inhabitants, and a gang of crusty outlaws sharing stories around a campfire then riding through the woods on their way to a shootout. This astounding virtual wild west models itself on the classic Hollywood image of that time, the same fantasy as depicted in Westworld. What I wasn’t expecting in my brief preview was a city, Saint Denis, modelled on turn-of-the-century New Orleans.

Riding into town as an outlaw frontiersman, I suddenly felt like a tragic anachronism. A tram rolled past, and I tied up my horse to board the next one

Saint Denis is every bit as detailed as the modern American cities that Rockstar has previously created for its Grand Theft Auto series, teeming with period detail. Riding into town as outlaw frontiersman Arthur Morgan, I suddenly felt like a tragic anachronism. A tram rolled past, and I tied up my horse to board the next one, riding along wide, tree-lined avenues, past the bustling docks and the grandiose train station, through industrial areas where chimneys belched smog and workers trudged back and forth between factories and homes. Stepping out on to the streets, I saw boys hanging out aimlessly by the water, people buying and selling things at the market, hundreds of simulated people going about their pretend lives. Attracted by the lights outside an ornate theatre, I walked in and bought a ticket to a vaudeville show, and watched a virtual crowd applaud virtual actors for a good five minutes before remembering that this was a video game and I could leave any time.

I became mildly obsessed with testing the limits of its realism, riding into tobacco fields to see whether there were people working there (there were), switching to a first-person view to minutely examine characters’ faces and the insides of drawers (I found some pomade in there), greeting every single character I passed to see if they would respond differently (they did). What’s different here is the verisimilitude. You can hunt animals in plenty of games, their useful materials disappearing into your inventory, but here, you kneel down, skin the animal, throw its pelt over your shoulder, return to your horse, and strap the pelt to it, before riding into town to sell it. There are animations for all of that. Eight years’ worth of work from hundreds of people working at Rockstar’s various studios was necessary to achieve this level of realism. The virtual characters are based on voice and motion capture from more than a thousand real-world actors.

This is what Red Dead Redemption 2 wants to offer: a simulation of a time and place in history, so vast and detailed that it is quite difficult to believe, one where you can rob a train or hunt down a bounty, but also walk into a shop and examine the tins of beans on the shelf, or pay for a bath at an inn and make awkward small talk with the young woman washing you, or collect 30 different saddle-horns for your horse. In three hours, I hunted rabbits and men, practised dressage on a mountain top, shot up a bunch of rival gangs hiding in the woods, rode through perfect snow with some buddies, and made a stew. I was able to do all of this without the game strong-arming me on to its own set path.

No open-world game can avoid the unexpected things that happen when a disobedient player veers off course. These moments are part of what makes them fun, if the game is able to accommodate them. Red Dead’s world is impressively robust when you start trying to test it, seeing where you can go or what you can do: the sticky situations I got myself into ended not with death or a “mission failed” screen, but with adventures.

When I took my horse for a spontaneous dip in an unexpectedly fast-flowing river instead of following a hidden trail up around its bank to find a fugitive, I ended up about 100 metres downstream on the wrong side of the water – but this turned into an opportunity for a scenic detour up a cliffside as the sun set, towards a rickety wooden bridge back to the other side. When I wandered on to the private grounds of a mansion on a plantation outside Saint Denis and started getting shot at by guards, I escaped on horseback, only to find myself deep in the bayou with a nervous steed, alligators eerily still in the water.

Saint Denis impressed me the most. It’s on the brink of the modern world that Red Dead Redemption 2 might tell its most interesting stories

Saint Denis impressed me the most. I don’t think I saw more than maybe a quarter of it, and it’s there on the brink of the modern world that I hope Red Dead Redemption 2 might tell its most interesting stories. It gave me more of a Cormac McCarthy vibe than a Westworld one, hinting at the death of the old west, the consequences of America’s rapid industrialisation and the death of a way of life, rather than a straightforward romanticisation of the frontier and its outlaw heroes. Players’ stories will be just as interesting as Rockstar’s when RDR2 is released later this month: with millions of people seeking out their own experiences on the frontier, we will see just how vast and flexible this extraordinary game is.

• Red Dead Redemption 2 is out on 26 October.