Red Dead Redemption 2 is not so much a game as a destination.
My copy of Red Dead Redemption 2 arrived on the day it came out. I bought it in spite of loving the first and suspecting that a second, in addition to being entirely unnecessary, couldn't possibly measure up to it. It pre-dated my strict "No Pre-Ordering" rule - in fact I think it may have been the last game that slipped in under the wire on that one. I started it shortly after it arrived, and realised very quickly that this was a game that was going to require a massive time investment. I played a couple of nights, and then stopped. It may have been the arrival of Destiny 2: Forsaken, or maybe even my wife's purchase of Assassin's Creed: Odyssey that dragged me away, but either way the result was the same. It's been sat in my pile of shame taunting me ever since. The box was eyeing me in much the same way that the Mass Effect: Andromeda one was. It was giving me a sly grin. "Go on," it seemed to say. "Pick me up again. I dare you. I'm enormous, and I'll swallow you for months. Go on. Do it."
This weekend, I did.
I've done my best to avoid reading anything at all about the game's narrative beats - so my only expectations around the story are the ones that the original game laid bare, and that I can still remember. The first game came out in 2010... and that's long enough ago for me to have forgotten most of it. My thoughts on RDR2 so far are a mixture of anticipation and, frankly, nervousness. Having only just started it, I'm aware that these are early impressions. They may well change as time goes on - and if (when?) that happens you can rest assured that I'll shoot my mouth off about it here. For the moment though, the overwhelming feeling I get every time I fire up the game is just one of being massively impressed.
Everything about RDR2 screams of a developer that knows what it wants to achieve, and how it wants to achieve it, and who absolutely will not compromise on a single thing because, well, it's Rockstar Games and no-one on this planet can make it do a damn thing that it doesn't want to. Muddy footprints fill with water. Your character's clothes get dirty. His hair and beard grow. You need to clean weapons, eat, sleep, and (bizarrely) smoke. RDR2 is a full-on wild west simulation - and your options are apparently to embrace it or ignore it. Middle ground, from what I've seen so far, simply doesn't exist.
Right from the start, the game feels like a slow burn. You traverse the massive world on foot or on horseback. Getting anywhere takes time. You'll sometimes ride all day to reach a destination, sometimes you'll have to make camp in order to reach a destination at a respectable hour. Along the way you'll need to hunt or fish for food to cook to keep Arthur alive and healthy enough to handle himself. At this early point in the game, it feels like I'm standing on the precipice of a seriously deep simulation - it's exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. It feels like my gaming life is in danger of being swallowed whole by a single game for the first time in a long time. It's not a bad thing, exactly... but it does go against the grain of how I've intentionally been engaging with video games for the last 7 or 8 months.
I've had a couple of spoiler-free conversations with other people about RDR2. Some of them have said that the systems that enthuse me so much here at the beginning will frustrate me later on. Some have said that the characters were difficult to form any kind of bond to. The first of these points I can see the argument for, and I guess that only time can really tell. Regarding the second, I'm already feeling some weird dissonance in the narrative. I'm trying to play Arthur Morgan as a reasonable human being. I'll shoot people, but generally I'll try not to let that be my default action. Even this early in though, it's a weird fit. My version of Arthur helped a woman (presumably a prostitute) who was being assaulted by stepping in. My efforts to defuse the situation resulted in my having to beat the guy to a pulp, which seemed fair enough. Five minutes later though, at my mission destination, I ended up beating up a clearly very ill man in a futile attempt to get him to pay a debt with money that he didn't have. Those two sets of actions don't sit together well for me - and if it's happening this early in the game (maybe 8-10 hours in), I can only see this kind of thing starting to feel more and more strange.
For the moment though, I'm just going to go with the flow. Ride the horse and see where it takes me. This world is massive and beautiful, the attention to detail bordering on insane. It doesn't feel so much like a video game for the moment. It feels far more like a digital world that you can choose to inhabit; not so much a game as a destination. I have the feeling that I have an awful lot left to discover here - and at the moment, I'm looking forward to seeing what it might be.