Tomorrow, the biggest video game of 2018 finally arrives on shelves. And we mean that in various senses of the word, because from the sounds of it Red Dead Redemption 2 takes the open-world genre to new and wider frontiers.
Rockstar Games' first original title this generation is the follow-up to the acclaimed 2010 Wild West outing and critics agree that practically every aspects has been improved upon manifold - although some are quick to differentiate between this and the studio's flagship franchise.
"Anybody coming to Red Dead Redemption 2 expecting Grand Theft Auto with horses will be rather baffled by this slow-paced, sumptuous, character-driven Old West historical drama, in which you spend probably 60% of your time simply riding around the American wilderness," writes Keza MacDonald in her five-star review for The Guardian.
"There's action too, in the form of shootouts, train robberies and frequent thrilling escapes on horseback, but these flashes of excitement punctuate a game that is largely about just being somewhere; about hunting, fishing and having long conversations on cross-country rides or around a campfire."
"One minute you might be in a shootout, and the next you might be scooping up cow turds with a pitchfork. It might sound weird, but the moments of quiet give the gunplay something to contrast against"
Kirk McKeand, VG247
VG247's Kirk McKeand echoes this, describing Red Dead Redemption 2 as "a slow burning character study, interspersed with intense gunfights and one-off set-pieces."
"One minute you might be in a shootout, and the next you might be scooping up cow turds with a pitchfork," he says. "It might sound weird, but the moments of quiet give the punchy, tactile, and weighty gunplay something to contrast against."
This slower, more relaxed pace adds to a main story that will take players dozens of hours to complete, with Eurogamer's Martin Robinson hinting at the true scale of this epic.
"The 60 hours it takes to see [main character Arthur] Morgan's story through to the end can be a slog," he writes in his Recommended review, "but it's the next 60 where you'll find Red Dead Redemption 2's real grace, when you're away from the straitjacket of Rockstar's own story, where the world can breathe and its true potential is realised."
A slog it may be, but critics agree that the story is one of Rockstar's best, spinning the tale of Dutch Van Der Linde's gang as they cling to their outlaw lifestyle in an era of changing civilisations. Deemed both a fitting prequel to the 2010 tale and a solid story in its own right, Red Dead Redemption 2 is praised for its well-fleshed out characters - including, this time around, more female figures - and the overall quality of its writing. Richard Walker, of Xbox Achievements, declared it "exemplary".
"Arthur [is] one of Rockstar's best-drawn characters yet, hiding a chequered past behind a wry, sardonic wit, and an honest demeanour that greets all and any praise with 'I'm a bad man'," he writes in his 95 out of 100 review. "You're inclined to believe him.
"It's the open-world that proves truly mind-blowing, however. The rugged American heartlands [are] a rich, diverse environment that takes in sprawling, grassy plains, mountainous terrain, meandering rivers, mosquito and alligator-infested swamplands, and even a bustling city complete with vertiginous, smoke-belching chimney stacks."
"Were it not so astonishing to look at, the amount of time that Red Dead Redemption 2 expects you to spend enjoying the scenery might be intolerably boring. But the Old West that Rockstar has conjured here is close to miraculous"
Keza MacDonald, The Guardian
This is a sentiment heard across all the reviews we've read: the world is, once again, the star of Rockstar's latest game. Its size is praised - not only encompassing the US portions of the previous game but four other entire States as well - but also the attention to detail.
"It's those thousands of small details that do the convincing," write Robinson. "The way the oil shimmers on the surface of the water that sits outside the factories of chilly Annesburg, the cold stare and silence that meets you when you drag your scruffy frame through the saloon doors of the more cultured Saint Denis, the lamps that flicker across the midnight quiet in the town of Rhodes.
"It's the way it'll make a keen botanist of you, admiring the Spanish moss that hangs from the bald cypress of the bayou, the pines up in the mountains or the white oaks down on the plains, all shifting beautifully in the breeze. Even before you get to the fauna that lies underneath, it's a world that feels alive."
MacDonald adds: "Were it not so astonishing to look at, the amount of time that Red Dead Redemption 2 expects you to spend enjoying the scenery might be intolerably boring. But the Old West that Rockstar has conjured here is close to miraculous."
Moreover the effect these details have on the gameplay is also championed. Examples offered in Robinson's review include the fact your horse and clothes become dirtier the further you travel - unless you clean both Morgan and his mount, or weather the disdainful reactions from passers-by. And yet there's more.
"You can do pretty much anything you want within Red Dead 2's framework... The degree of agency the game affords you is unparalleled"
Richard Walker, Xbox Achievements
"That dirt will clog up your arsenal as well, requiring you to clean your guns lest they lose their potency," Robinson writes. "It's part of that same busywork - very engaging busywork, mind - in which you can maintain the length of your hair and beard or let it grow unruly, can choose to pomade it in the morning or cover it with your favourite hat (which you may well lose in a fight if you're not careful - though thankfully you can pick up anyone else's in its place), or you can get thin or fat depending on whether you overindulge in the food you're required to eat in order to maintain your stamina core."
Reviewers are also pleased by the expansion of non-violent interactions with the game's many NPCs. With your gun holstered, the aim button becomes 'focus', which unlocks an array of options from 'antagonise' to 'greet'. How you engage with people could unlock new stories and missions.
"With the prequel, the GTA developer doubles down on the serene, delivering a shooting game that isn't afraid of keeping your guns in their holsters," McKeand says. "Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most confident, mature game Rockstar has ever made."
He later writes: "We are all fluent in the language of games: big ammo dumps mean there's a boss fight coming; obvious waist-high cover warns of an impending gun battle; and characters are only capable of certain feats within cutscenes. Red Dead Redemption 2 evolves that language and creates a world where it feels like anything could happen at any time. Even in the final few hours of this generous, grand adventure, I was still seeing one-off animations, unique motion capture playing out on characters in real-time, and new surprises appearing in the world."
All of this speaks to the freedom and agency Rockstar affords players in Red Dead Redemption 2. Every reviewer dedicates some of their word count to unique and unscripted encounters, anecdotes from their travels, with Walker describing this as "a new benchmark by which all other open-world games should be judged" - even surpassing Grand Theft Auto V in the wealth of activities and encounters on offer.
"When you're away from the straitjacket of Rockstar's own story... the world can breathe and its true potential is realised"
Martin Robinson, Eurogamer
"You can do pretty much anything you want within Red Dead 2's framework, so if you want to grow your hair long and cultivate a huge beard, go hunting, hold up and rob a train, stagecoach or homestead, enjoy the 'deluxe' bath at the nearest saloon, knock back a whiskey, start a bar brawl, rob the local general store, shoot the sheriff, pat a dog, or just gallop down the trail getting into scrapes, you can. The degree of agency the game affords you is unparalleled."
However, he later questions whether Rockstar has gone overboard on both the scope and level of detail, saying: "It's sometimes easy to forget certain things too, like keeping your weapons clean to ensure they work properly, brushing and looking after your horse, remembering to eat, drink and rest regularly to keep Arthur's health, stamina and deadeye cores at capacity, or contributing to camp to maintain a stock of supplies. Red Dead 2 is almost too intricate, even if there are certain elements that you can ignore if you're so inclined."
There are some negatives, such as clunky controls tied to overly scripted animations that make playing the experience feel less flexible than other games. And there are mentions of extremely rare bugs, but overall the game is praised for its quality and polish.
Yet on the note of polish, Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton appears to be one of the only critics to address the recent controversy that emerged surrounding the working conditions at Rockstar Games - something he believes may have bled into the game's narrative and world.
"Whether intentionally or not, its tale of failure and doom reflects the tribulations of its own creation, as a charismatic and self-deluded leader tries ever more desperately to convince his underlings to follow him off a cliff," he writes. "Paradise awaits, he promises. Just push a little bit further; sacrifice a little bit more; hang in there a little bit longer.
"There can be no doubt that this is a landmark game."
Keza MacDonald, The Guardian
"Such a masterful artistic and technical achievement, at what cost? So many hours of overtime crunch, so many hundreds of names in the credits, so many resources-financial and human-expended, for what? What was the collective vision that drove this endeavor, and what gave so many people the will to complete it? Was it all worth it in the end?" To the latter, even Hamilton admits he does not have an answer, but posits this game will remain an important talking point in the ongoing conversation around crunch. He also notes that: "Play Red Dead Redemption 2 for just a few minutes, and the fruits of that labour will be immediately apparent."
He concludes: "At unimaginable cost and with unsustainable effort, it establishes a new high-water mark that will perpetuate the entertainment industry's relentless pursuit of more, accelerating a technological arms race that can only end at an inevitable, unfathomable breaking point.
"[But] this game has heart... It is a wonderful story about terrible people, and a vivacious, tremendously sad tribute to nature itself. There is so much beauty and joy in this expensive, exhausting thing. Somehow that makes it even more perfect-a breathtaking eulogy for a ruined world, created by, about, and for a society that ruined it."
MacDonald wraps up her review in a similar vein, saying: "There can be no doubt that this is a landmark game.
"It is a new high water-mark for lifelike video game worlds, certainly, but that world is also home to a narrative portrait of the Wild West that is unexpectedly sombre and not afraid to take its time. With very few exceptions, the many stories that Rockstar's writers have set out to tell about this group of outlaws land perfectly, the enjoyable twists and turns of individual missions and chapters feeding into an exciting, sophisticated and absorbing larger narrative - and the stories that you discover yourself within its world are no less compelling.
"Around 2,000 people worked very hard (probably too hard, in some cases) to make this game possible. Every last one of them should be proud of their contribution."