Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most convincing open-world game ever made

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Every morning when I wake up in Red Dead Redemption 2, I do the same thing I do in real life: pour myself a cup of coffee. I roll out of bed, maybe have a shave if I’m looking particularly grizzled, and then wander over to the campfire, where a percolator full of coffee is waiting. I pull a metal cup out of my satchel, fill it up, and take that all-important first swig to start the day.

In most mainstream games, this would likely trigger a short cutscene where you watch Red Dead’s main character — a charming outlaw named Arthur Morgan — enjoy his morning caffeine rush. But here it’s a more interactive experience. Early morning is a busy time at the 19th century Wild West camp, with every one of the 20-or-so members of the gang getting up to start their day. You walk around, sipping hot coffee, while people say good morning to you and talk about upcoming jobs.

This is a fairly minor feature, admittedly, one that doesn’t impact the way Red Dead Redemption 2 plays in any tangible way. But it’s the smaller details that set this open-world Western apart. In a lot of ways, RDR2 doesn’t actually stray too far from the formula laid down by developer Rockstar with games like Grand Theft Auto V and the original Red Dead Redemption. It still takes place in a vast, sprawling world, and it still tasks you with committing a lot of crimes in that world in order to progress. There are lots of shootouts and chase sequences, and you’ll kill a lot of police officers.

But the near-obsessive attention to detail, along with a new gameplay structure that centers around a family-like group of outlaws, makes Red Dead Redemption 2 the most convincing open-world game I’ve ever played. Except for a few rare instances, everything you’re doing in the game feels right, as if you were actually a bank-robber trying to get by in the Old West. Those small details make the simulation that much more compelling. You might be struck by the way mud builds up on Arthur’s boots on a rainy day, or how his beard grows as time progresses.

Sometimes all you need is a simple cup of coffee to create the illusion that this is a real, living place.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place in 1899, 12 years before the events of the original game. (If you didn’t play it, don’t worry: you’ll be able to understand the story just fine.) Arthur is part of a tight-knit group that follows a charismatic leader named Dutch Van Der Linde. Dutch’s main goal in life, it seems, is to stay as far away from civilization as possible and to live life as a free man.

But at the turn of the nineteenth century, with cities and towns expanding across America, that’s not an easy thing to do. The group is constantly on the move, avoiding the law while searching for the one big score that will set them up with enough cash to finally get far, far away from the rest of the world. The game isn’t exactly subtle about its premise; there are multiple times in the game where Arthur or Dutch will explicitly decry the decline of the Wild West and the rise of modern civilization.

“New century’s coming,” Arthur says at one point. “This life, this way? Well, we’re the last, I reckon.” When you first see Saint Denis, the game’s big city location, its skyline is dominated by smokestacks and factories, with dense, smoggy air creating a claustrophobic effect. Arthur can’t stop complaining about it.

Arthur’s attitude aside, the group dynamic turns out to be an ingenious way to structure an open-world game. The problem with these kinds of sprawling experiences is often that there’s often a disconnect from what you should be doing and what you want to be doing. There’s an evil that needs to be defeated, or a magical item that has to be retrieved to save the world. But really, all you want to do is mess around driving cars or chatting with people in town.

In most games, the side activities feels completely separate from the actual plot, but this disconnect doesn’t exist in RDR2. For most of the game, your only real goal is to survive. The gang is in constantly in need of money and resources, which fits pretty well with a game that’s ostensibly about committing a lot of crimes. There are missions to take on, which typically revolve around a big score, like robbing a bank or hijacking a train. But virtually every other thing you do in the game contributes to this as well.

One member of the gang is a loan shark, for instance, and there’s a series of missions where you have to collect unpaid debts. It can feel terrible — I didn’t especially enjoy beating up poor farmers for a bit of cash — but it always made sense in the context of the story. Desperate people are forced to do desperate things. At the outset of the game the gang is freezing, starving, and broke, and while things get better later on, they always seem to be living on the edge.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Even seemingly superfluous side activities serve a purpose. You can hunt buffalo and deer, or go fishing, and doing so not only provides useful items but helps keep the group fed. Going off and playing poker is fun, but it’s also yet another way to get money. These moments flow in a very natural way. You don’t go pick side missions from a menu; they come up organically. You might be heading back to camp to drop off a rabbit carcass, and someone will pull you aside to tell you about a lead on a new heist, or ask you to take their bored kid fishing. Arthur might find a letter from his long-lost love sitting on his bed, yanking him in yet another direction.

The line between story and side mission is very blurry in RDR2, and the same goes for some of the smaller interactions you’ll have throughout the game, which can open up new storylines or unlock content. As you travel, you come across all kinds of people, many of whom need help. Needy strangers will ask you for money, or you might ride past someone being kidnapped out on the open road. Often, intervening can lead you in interesting directions.

One time I found a man at the side of the road who had been bit by a poisonous snake, and I agreed to suck the venom out of his leg. Later, I found him sitting outside of a general store in town, and he offered to buy me anything I wanted. These interactions can also go very badly. Someone asking for water or money out on the road might just be a ruse to try to rob you. RDR2 takes place in a cynical time, and it forces you to become a cynic in deciding when you want to help people.

As natural as all of this can feel, the skeleton of the game will be familiar to anyone who has played a Rockstar game before. Structurally the game is very reminiscent of GTAV. Most missions involve sneaking in somewhere to steal something or kill someone, and eventually they devolve into a shootout. RDR2 has a very heavy feel to it that fits with the setting. The guns have a real weight to them, and take time to reload, while fistfights can be brutal, violent slogs that seem ripped out of Netflix’s Daredevil.

The violence can also get tiring. Big shootouts all involve an improbable number of enemies coming at you in waves, and sitting behind cover shooting cops eventually gets old. Much like in Fallout 4, RDR2 also loves to show particularly gruesome kills; if you get a nice headshot, time will slow and the camera will zoom in on the bloody spectacle. It’s kind of cool the first time you see it, not so much the 100th.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Perhaps not surprisingly for a Western, a huge portion of the game is spent on horseback. The horses are, in some ways, analogous to cars in GTA. They’re your main form of transportation, necessary for getting around the huge world of RDR2. You can steal one if you’re in need, and there are different breeds with different attributes. You can even “upgrade” a horse by giving it better shoes or a new haircut.

Large swaths of the story unfold this way; while you go on long rides across the country, characters will talk about virtually everything. The struggles of the gang, personal relationships, future dreams, the constant encroachment of civilization. These moments would seem tedious if they weren’t so well done. I never got bored of getting to know these characters while taking in the gorgeous scenery; snowy white fields or wide open plains, clear blue skies or dark ones lighting up with crackles of lighting.

Horses are more than transportation, though, as they help form a personal connection to the world. You can bond with a specific horse over time, and its abilities will increase if you look after it and give it attention. I found it soothing to brush down a steed after a stressful battle. They can get spooked in battle and even die if you’re not careful. There are stables so that you can keep multiple horses, though I stuck with only one for most of my time with the game. It felt weird to just trade her in after experiencing so much together. In RDR2 the world is changing, and you’re constantly on the move, so your horse can be the one constant in your life.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is easily the most nuanced and emotionally complex game Rockstar has ever made. This isn’t a developer known for restraint or grace, but both are on display when it comes to the characters and stories of RDR2. Of particular note is the way the game approaches race. Dutch’s gang is shockingly diverse, with black, Mexican, Native American, and mixed-race characters, and their leader is fiercely protective of them all.

Offhand comments about how a horse-dealer “doesn’t like Cubans” set him in a rage, and he gets visibly upset when people call Native Americans “savages.” At times, the game also touches on the difficulties of being able to truly understand the lives of others. When the gang move south to avoid the law, Arthur — who is generally a good guy, aside from all of the murder — says that he doesn’t notice any difference between the racism there and elsewhere. “With all due respect,” says Lenny, a black member of the gang, “you wouldn’t notice.”

The game is less successful when it comes to its treatment of women. While there are plenty of female characters in the group, aside from one woman — who only becomes an actual gunslinging badass more than halfway through the game — they’re mostly relegated to side roles. Mothers, lovers, caregivers. Even when the game seems like it might have something interesting to say about women’s rights, particularly in such an oppressive time, it stumbles over itself. One mission has Arthur protecting a group of protestors fighting for the right for women to vote. But their passion and bravery doesn’t seem to have earned much respect from Arthur. “I ain’t voted before,” he says when it’s all done, “but I’m getting kinda hot for voting rights.”

The only place where the immersion of RDR2’s world is truly broken comes in some of the unscripted moments inherent in the crime-focused GTA model. The main issue is that it’s really easy to accidentally commit a crime, and when you do, you’re punished for it. The game’s contextual buttons, which do different things depending on the situation, can be a particular source of frustration.

One time I left a saloon and tried to get on my horse to head back to camp. Unfortunately, the same button that lets me mount my steed also is used to rob strangers, and someone was standing close enough to my horse that I accidentally mugged them instead. This led to a prolonged chase sequence, in which local law enforcement forced me out of town. Another time, I mounted someone else’s horse by mistake — it was a dark and foggy night — and was immediately reported for theft, and a similar law enforcement chase ensued. I ended up getting my horse’s tail braided so I could quickly spot her in a group.

Red Dead Redemption 2

These moments were rare, but they stood out because of how cleanly they broke the immersion. RDR2 goes to ridiculous lengths to make its world feel real, filling it with details that many players probably won’t even consciously notice or explore, but add an incredible level of plausibility to the simulation. You can talk to any person you come across in the game, for instance. Many won’t have much to say other than a simple “hello” or “leave me alone,” but sometimes you’ll be treated to an interesting new story or mission.

Meanwhile, I loved the comforting routine of the camp, and how I knew where everyone would be based on the time of day. I spent an embarrassing amount of time making sure Arthur was well-groomed, and I always ensured he was wearing the right outfit for the moment. When his hat blew off in the middle of a battle, I made sure to put it back on. In many big-budget games it can feel as though you’re gliding across a slick digital recreation of the real world. In RDR2 it’s like you’re stuck right into that world.

You also can’t talk about this game without talking about the conditions it was created under. These tiny, world-building details didn’t just happen — they were the product of hundreds of people working long hours, often under the stress of prolonged crunch, an industry term for forced overtime. It’s something Rockstar has been accused of in the past, and while the company initially denied that some staff were forced to work some 100-hour weeks on RDR2, a report earlier this week from Kotaku revealed that crunch was an integral part of the game’s creation. With this knowledge it’s impossible to separate the experiences of the game’s creators from the game itself.

RDR2 is undeniably an amazingly detailed and expertly-crafted game, but it’s hard not to wonder if a game of this scale can even be made in a way that doesn’t harm its creators. Rockstar isn’t the only offender, of course, as crunch is prevalent in blockbuster game development. But as we learn more about how games like this are made, it’s an important thing to consider when looking at massive open-world games on this scale.

In her review of the similarly huge Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra wrote, “Odyssey is gorgeous and I love playing it, but I’m left wondering exactly what the human cost was for my enjoyment. While I adored the majesty of Odyssey’s world, I was often uncomfortable participating in it.” The same goes for Red Dead and the games that will inevitably follow, growing ever larger and denser with detail.

Across all of its games, Rockstar has aimed to make experiences that are both massive and lifelike, and in a lot of ways Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like the culmination of the developer’s long sought after ambitions. Even better, it does so with a level of maturity and care that has often escaped the developer. It’s still a game largely about fighting and killing, but also one that explores topics like racism and urbanization in a way that feels both natural and thoughtful. You can look at it as a Western take on GTA, but it’s also much more than that.

Underneath its rugged, violent exterior is a story with a lot of heart and a world layered with details to uncover. It gives you a lot to think about over your morning coffee.

Red Dead Redemption 2 launches this Friday on the PS4 and Xbox One.