Things are always better with friends, especially when your mates are bunch of hard-ass outlaws.
A little over two hours into Red Dead Redemption 2, Arthur has a decision to make. The Van de Linde gang have moved down from the snowy, hostile mountains known as the Grizzlies, which serve as the backdrop to the opening of the game, and have set up camp just outside the town of Valentine. The camp has needs – food primarily, but also money – and so various members of the gang head out in search of supplies.
At this point, markers appear on the mini-map – the location of other gang members, which Arthur can visit to learn the intricacies of hunting from Charles Smith, or get into a bar brawl after Bill Williamson pisses off the local landlord. But this being an open-world game – with a strong emphasis on open – he can choose to ignore them completely and go off on his own adventure.
Rockstar has been upfront with how Arthur and the Van de Linde gang go hand in hand, and that while he’s free to come and go as he chooses, he’s ultimately Dutch’s right-hand man. We’ve already covered how the opening hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 unfold, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to see the world! With little more than a few bucks to my name, I rode to the nearest station and bought a one-way ticket (I couldn’t afford a return) to the bustling city of Saint Denis.
It’s a sprawling metropolis, with a port to the south packed with paddle steamers and fishing boats (no, you cannot steal them, at this point at least, but there are other boats you can) and cobbled streets lined with shops, shows and games to play. It’s also expensive and teeming with the law, two things that don’t really mix with a skint outlaw on the run, so I head out to the Bayou, the area of swampland in the southeast part of the map.
Up until this point, I’d only really seen Red Dead 2’s classically Wild West vistas. Lush prairies, rolling hills, and thick forests. The Bayou instantly feels very different, with wide patches of impassable swamp and dense clusters of trees often preventing Arthur from taking the most direct route. It was dark at this point, and the gentle hum of mosquitos buzzing around was frequently punctuated by deep, guttural growls. Alligators, it appears, and lots of them, their black eyes glinting in the moonlit when they turn to face Arthur should he stray too close.
A word of advice at this point: taking on an 800-pound reptile with only a knife might seem like a good idea, but I manage to land only a single blow before it lurches forward and clamps its jaws around my legs, biting down and snapping them in two.
It’s at that point I decide I’ve never really been a fan of humid, insect-ridden hellholes and ride north, taking in a few sights on the way. Considering the size of Red Dead 2’s map, it’s never long between encounters. One poor woman had borrowed her friend’s horse to ride to a nearby town for a job interview, but the nag unexpectedly dropped dead on the way and when I find them its dead body is pinning the her to the ground.
Never one to abandon someone in distress, I help out, shoving the beast far enough so she can pull out her trapped leg. But then what – leave her in the middle of nowhere, to starve or become the victim of bandits? Or politely offer to take her home, even though it’s miles out of my way? Sometimes being a good guy has its drawbacks, but at least I have a companion for the next few minutes and the polite smalltalk gets me thinking about the gang back in Valentine and what they might be up to. She also gives me a piece of jewellery as thanks, which I can sell in the next town.
Some of Red Dead 2’s best moments are when you’re sharing stories with the rest of the gang
Going off the beaten path also gives me the opportunity to get to know the locals. I ride up to a picture-postcard place called Emerald Ranch. A dog barks as I approach, but is calmed when I kneel and rub its tummy. The ranch’s owner isn’t quite so amenable, yelling for me to get off his land. I only wanted to stroke his pooch, but the farmer gets increasingly agitated. Manners cost nothing as far as I’m concerned so I pull out my revolver and put a bullet in his screaming face. Next time maybe start a conversation with a respectful ‘howdy’. Incidentally, his dog, who was guarding the property only moments before, doesn’t flinch. It appears a belly rub makes you friends for life.
The frontier is a brutal place, for Arthur as much as those he encounters. He may be a skilled gunslinger and packs enough lead to open a pencil factory, but there’s also a vulnerability to him, especially without the backing of the gang. Later, I expected a similar encounter – in which an older guy was stuck at the side of the road when his wheel fell of his cart – to play out the same as before, but when I bent down to help two others jumped from the bushes, put a gun against my head and robbed me.
From the six hours I’ve played of Red Dead 2 it’s very apparent Arthur Morgan isn’t the only gritty gunslinger in the West. For every polite passerby there’s a gobshite cowboy with a loose trigger finger; for every stranded traveller in need of help there’s an opportunistic thief waiting to steal your belongings at gunpoint.
Over the next couple of hours, as I rode north through the industrial town of Annesburg to the East Grizzlies – the slightly less cold but much foggier cousin of the snowy mountains you start in – before heading back down to the Heartlands, I cannot shake the nagging feeling that something is missing. Every sun-soaked horizon I ride across is breath-taking, every encounter with someone new unexpected, but it’s not the fulfilling life I want Arthur Morgan to lead. Truth is I miss Dutch and the rest of the crew, and while it’s possible to leave them behind for big chunks of the game, life’s more fun when you’re surrounded by friends.
I only spent a couple of hours with the gang before I rode off on my own but already I have an overbearing urge to return to Valentine to see what they’ve been up to. And you know what, when I do head back for the last 30 minutes or so of the demo, it’s a blast. There are gunfights, hold-ups, rowdy poker games games, and even a scrape with a giant grizzly bear. The Van de Linde gang may be a rag-tag bunch of miscreants, but they’re my rag-tag bunch of miscreants.
Alex is IGN’s UK Editor-in-Chief and plans to spend as much time as he can with Dutch and the gang come 26 October. Follow him on Twitter.