Thanks to Rockstar for the code for this one!

Reviewed on: Xbox One X

The prequel-sequel

We've taken our time with this particular game, because, like a fine wine, it's meant to be savoured and not guzzled down in a single sitting - as much as you really want to. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a fantastic journey into a time of upheaval for the not-so Wild West which saw the end of the outlaw lifestyle and the death of the traditional 'cowboy' living rough on the range.

It's a prequel to the first critically acclaimed game, and follows the fates and fortunes of Arthur Morgan and the Van Der Linde gang (Dutch's gang from RDR).

It's a highly emotional, connected journey which has highs/lows/twist/turns and a really great plot which we're not going to spoil whatsoever.

Set years before the original, the game manages to convey a beautiful tale wrapped in some elegant game mechanics and immersive open world, which pushes the boundaries of what open worlds are capable of.

Sit back, ride with us, as we canter through why we think Red Dead Redemption 2 is our Game of the Year and one of the best games we've played since Witcher 3.

A Slow Burn

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game designed to play at your pace, with a story which has a slow-burn to it. It's meant to be experienced, and for some, it won't have that 'bang bang bang' Call of Duty instant-gratification which they've come to know, and rely on like a crutch. Many of the game's features and tricks unveil as you progress through the main, and sub stories, unlocking as you play and introducing a new aspect to the huge world of the Wild West which Rockstar have masterfully created.

The game is far from boring though, with some great set piece moments and some truly epic gun battles taking place at all kinds of ranges.

When the lead starts to fly, on foot, or horseback, you're in for a great cinematic Wild West experience.

We are Family

Central to the game is the theme of family, an outlaw gang, a bunch of disparate individuals who, with their leader - Dutch - cling onto the last slivers of a lifestyle which is going out of fashion rapidly thanks to innovation, industry, and the rise of the Pinkerton Detective Agency who have the backing of Big Oil and other investors to get the job done. Empowered to do that job, by any means within the law, they're not averse to gunning down outlaws if they have to.

Against the backdrop of a West that's being civilised day by day, Dutch and his band of not-so merry misfits try and survive. You play Arthur Morgan, a senior gun in the Van Der Linde gang and you can interact with your fellow gang members in numerous ways at camp - helping them out with certain things they might need, small side missions, chores, or just chewing the fat as you return after a hard day's hunting or robbing (as you do).

Rockstar have given life to these people, they're not just static NPCs that do one thing then rinse/repeat... they're people ... they have their own likes, dislikes, and interactions with you/each other. You can spend hours in the Van Der Linde camp just listening to them and watching as they interact with each other.

Though if you do spend too much time at camp, beware the ire of Susan Grimshaw - since she doesn't like you shirking your responsibility of 'going out' there and making money.

"Arthur Morgan, you're hanging around here like a bad smell."

There are activities you can undertake at camp, play five finger fillet, or dominos, perhaps you just want to help the gang with their day-to-day... do some chores. Chores will help you gain honour too.

We'll talk about that a little later on, since the honour meter is back for this one.

You can also donate money, jewellery and see the camp provided for. There are three main areas you can help with. You can bring in food for Mister Pearson to cook in the stew pot which can then be eaten once per day to bolster Arthur's 3 core stats, based on the quality of the meat you bring in from hunting.

You can use the ledger to buy medicines, and ammo.

You can use the ledger to upgrade the camp with better facilities and in turn unlock boosts, bonuses, and a fast travel (kind of) system which lets you get around the map a little faster.

There's a lot to do and take in, and fortunately the game has a dedicated help page as well as a good set of tutorials for you to follow as you play.

The gang will also come to you for little missions, be they a home robbery, holding up a stagecoach or other things - always come back to camp and check in. You never know what'll happen if you spend some time interacting with the members of your gang.

To Quest or Not to Quest

Many of the games minor quests and missions all kick off in a very natural way. Approach a certain situation and suddenly you're in a cut-scene with the characters and a new mission begins. Sometimes you have to interact with the individual in question, but for the most part, it's all smooth and requires little player initiation.

Open World Freedom

Red Dead Redemption 2 is huge, it's a massive game, and there's a lot of map to explore - packed with Rockstar's incredible level of detail and love of Easter eggs, and secrets. Plus the dynamic and systemic encounter system which throws dozens of things at you as you explore the various wild places, towns, cities, and cabins of the world. It would take way too long to describe everything which can transpire, and we're pretty sure we've hardly seen half of what encounters await Arthur as he gallops along the plains.

The level of immersion here is staggering; from the people you meet, to the world itself, brought to life in minute detail. With a fully realised day/night cycle and weather systems which includes some of the best snow we've seen in an open world game to date - the world itself is a character in this story of outlaws and the dying Wild West.

Arthur has new tools to interact with folk, since Rockstar have made things more immersive in that regard as well. Now you can Greet, Antagonise, Threaten, and perform other context sensitive actions with everyone you meet.

They're not static either, they'll remember you, and they'll keep a record of what you do with them. Shopkeepers will come to know you; even the law will remember you, especially if you stray on the wrong side.

This all ties into the Bounty and Honour System too.

The Good, the Bad, and the Bounty

You're going to do good and bad things as Arthur, there's no escaping it, and try as you might to be a 'good outlaw' if that's how you roll - there's going to be situations where you're caught robbing some dead no-good son of a gun who tried robbing you. A guy or gal sees you do it, they witness you looting that guy and now there's a Witness.

You can try and catch them, tie them up, intimidate them or stop them somehow. If they don't reach the law, all's well and good. Of course they'll remember you if they're still alive.

If you don't stop them, you're going to be Wanted and the law will come riding in to investigate. If you're caught - you can surrender and spend some time in jail. Sometimes the gang will bust you out though, which is a fun surprise.

Depending on how you handle things, your honour is going to be affected. Shoot too many innocents, or cause too much ruckus and you'll get negative honour which causes problems down the line. Shopkeeps will raise their prices and folk won't be too friendly at all.

On the other hand, keep that honour level high and you'll get help, lower prices and other benefits.

You can pay off most Bounties at the local Post Office.

Just because you pay off the Bounty though, doesn't mean you're forgotten. Folk will remember, the law won't forget and you'll have to change outfits, alter your hair, beard, and so on to confuse them and ensure that you don't raise suspicions further.

Amazing Horse

You can have one horse at a time, stable up to 3 more, and any other horse is your temporary horse. Rockstar have ensured that you can care for your animal and bond with it. You can brush, feed, pet, look after and form a strong connection with your horse - even naming it in a stable. Your horse is your ultimate buddy in the game, and has your customisable saddle on it. In turn this carries your 5 stored outfits, your weapons, your gear, and everything you need to survive outside of the main gang camp.

The more you interact with the horse, the more the bond grows, until you max It out and gain the animal's full trust. Each level increases the horses' stamina and health cores, as well as allows it to perform different tricks.

Care and maintenance of your horse is important, and if your chosen beast dies, then you'll need to get a new one - start the bond all over again, and recover your saddle too.

Your horse also lets you stow various animals and pelts on it. These range from deer pelts on the back, which you can layer, to carcasses, bigger pelts and so on. You could stow 3x deer pelts, one larger animal pelt atop that, say alligator hide, and then hook on two rabbits (one either side of the horse) for a mighty haul to take back to camp or sell at a butcher or trapper.

Be warned, carcasses will rot and decrease in value.

Cowboy Roleplay

Arthur has 3 stats to take care of, his Health, his Stamina, and his Dead Eye. They range in levels from 1 to 8 and by doing things associated with these stats they'll grow over time in the game. Chores at camp will also help to increase them, as will certain foods/drinks found out in the world.

You also need to eat and drink, keeping your weight maintained, which in turn affects your cores. A fat Arthur has more health, but little stamina, a thin Arthur has more stamina but can't take much damage in a shootout.

Hunting High and Low

Fortunately there's a full fishing and hunting system in the game which allows Arthur to keep his satchel stocked. Hunting and tracking animals, skinning them, and landing fish all lets you fill Arthur's stores and provides a bunch of things you can cook around your camp fire.

Camping is back, and lets you craft and cook depending on your provisions/ingredients and pamphlet recipes you might have.

Anything you don't keep can be sold or donated to the gang.

Shot Down in a Blaze of Glory

Rockstar have improved all aspects of the gunplay and cover system in Red Dead Redemption 2. There are a lot of systems at play, and the physics of combat are excellent, including hit reactions and content sensitive actions. The result is a truly cinematic gun, or melee combat which feels satisfying and takes a little time to get used to. Once you're used to it though, fighting on foot, punching guys and shooting them in the face becomes second nature.

There are a few changes from the first game to be mindful of too. Plus, this isn't a CoD-style FPS. So you're going to have to adjust to the slower pace of Wild West combat. Fire, pull the trigger again, and then fire. The second pull chambers a round, especially in a single shot rifle. Lever-action rifles need to be cranked with RT for example after you shoot.

Once you get the hang of it though, the game's gun combat becomes a pure joy and so much fun.

Plus, depending on your honour, you'll sometimes get a cinematic camera view which will either be stylish or at the low end of honour - brutal.

I can't stress just how much the physics system in this game is an amazing one, just how much it really does do under the hood.

Third or First

Red Dead Redemption 2 has been built ground-up to support first or third person view in every aspect of the game. It's easy to switch between the views as you play and there are dozens of options for you to experiment with to find the right settings that work for you.

Next-Gen Stuff

Rockstar have pushed out the boat in terms of every single system at play in this game, from the amazing world itself - which is one of the best looking games, with some of the best looking effects and atmospherics, to the level of detail on the characters and physics simulation for clothing and other materials. This is what I really call a Next-Gen game, and it pushes the bar so high it's going to take a while for the rest of the industry to catch up to this one.

The AI is fantastic, for every single entity in the game. From the townsfolk, to the gunslingers, gangs, animals, and tiniest critter -- it's all working madly to bring this world to life. Enemies won't rush at you blindly, unless they think you can be flanked, or that's how they're feeling in terms of the fight. Mostly though, they'll use cover. Wolves will hunt in packs, cougars are ambush predators and they hit and run...

The weather alone is amazing, and when you see a full blown storm rip across the mountains, the sky lights like a bonfire and the lightning can blast trees - your breath can't help but be taken away.

The snow in the mountains, which requires a change of clothing, dusts across the edges of the hills and collects on your clothing.

The early morning mist dances over the water.

God rays penetrate the dense foliage and cut through it like tiny radiant knives as they fall, dappled, on the ground.

Swamp mud collects around your boots and threatens to suck you and your horse down where the gators love to play.

All of this can be witnessed in Cinematic Mode too. Just select a destination from the map, ride, and hold down the back/share button - sit back and watch a Wild West cinematic journey unfold before your eyes and witness a living/breathing landscape.

As Arthur's horse rides by, a squirrel startled by the animal makes a bolt across the muddy track; it shoots between the animal's legs. The horse nickers, trots a little, and then the sound of a hawk screeches as the squirrel is picked up and plucked aloft.

None of this is scripted. It's all simulation running constantly in the background to deliver one of the most immersive and diverse open worlds yet.

People ride past, some tell you how nice your horse is, some are more wary, others eye you as a possible target... shifting in their saddle and putting their hands to their guns.

Arthur's horse comes into town - people move around, do their own thing, talk to each other. They watch you, they interact with you, and they continue their day to day. Dogs run barking...

The world moves on.

A Great Cast

I can't go into too much detail here, save to say that the cast of the game is fantastic, the voice work is superb, and the best character in my mind NPC wise is Sadie Adler. Keep playing; you'll see what I mean.

The Sound of the West

Married to everything else which is going on is a superb sound system which brings the West to life alongside the incredible graphical work. Nothing is left to chance and the tiniest sound is used to convey something about the area you're in. The creak of an old shack in the swamp, the whisper of a supernatural voice in the trees, or the zing as a bullet strikes a metal wall or pings off a rock by you - it's all there and in great audio detail.

Music to Ride By

The orchestral score and songs are some of the best, the soundtrack is clever, perfectly used, and dynamic so that you're not drowned out by it in moments of solitude - the beautiful arrangement complements your actions when riding and then swells to match a scene of high tension.

Outstanding stuff.

Game of the Year

Even without Red Dead Redemption Online, which starts the beta for some today (with a slow day by day rollout to follow). Red Dead Redemption 2 is a stunning game which could take up more than the 2,900 or so words I've written about it so far. There are hundreds and hundreds of hours here of quality entertainment, in a triple-A industry which delivers barely half-baked games like Fallout 76 for a similar price.

Rockstar have once again proven they have got what it takes to keep on innovating in the industry, and creating games which are works of pure art on numerous levels.

They have captured the feel of a turning point in the history of the US, crafted a wonderful living/breathing world, created a truly memorable character in Arthur Morgan and given us a game which has so many layers it would take over 3x more words than I've written to do it true justice.

This is my Game of the Year 2018, and alongside Witcher 3, it's one of the best games I've played for a very long time.

I might be done with part of the story, but I'm not done with the game, there are outfits to find, craft, and still lots of things to do. Not to mention the systemic nature of the game and the great sense of exploration and adventure.

There are still secrets to find...

Out there...