In recent years, open world games have exploded in both quantity and quality. Horizon Zero Dawn let us explore a vibrant and deadly world filled with colossal robot dinosaurs and feuding tribes. Spider-Man gave us a beautifully realized New York City with a charming and distinctive personality. The Witcher 3 gave us some of the most compelling quests and gorgeous world design we’ve ever experienced. There are countless other examples of sprawling worlds that make up some of the best gaming has to offer.
That being said, when it comes to realism and immersion, none of them can hold a candle to what Rockstar has created in Red Dead Redemption 2.
From the very opening of the game, the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 feels brutal, intricate and alive. As the Dutch Van der Linde Gang trudges through the snow, speaking in vague terms about their previous home at Blackwater and the troubles that went on there, you feel like you’re there. The cold in the air, the thinly veiled anxiety and fear among the gang members, the uneasy yet familial relationships they all have. It’s all immediately apparent, even though it’s never directly said.
There are many reasons as to why Red Dead Redemption 2’s world is so immersive, the most obvious being the incredible visuals. We have long known that Red Dead Redemption 2 has an unprecedented amount of detail, infamously going as far as including realistically expanding and shrinking horse testicles. However, experiencing it in the open world for hours on end is something different and special.
As you ride across the map, every blade of grass, patch of mud, and towering tree is beautiful and lifelike, even when put under the microscope. While many other games have contained beautiful open worlds, none quite live up to the awe-inspiring nature of watching the light filter through the trees as night sets in on Dutch’s camp.
The way in which the player is able to actually engage and interact with the details are hugely impressive, too. Once, for example, as I was trying to escape the law to get to an objective, Arthur fell down a cliff and landed hard in the mud on his right side. I got up and kept running until I got to the mission, and as the cutscene started, I noticed Arthur was covered in mud but only on his right side and only on the areas that hit the ground earlier. Sure, it’s a trivial little detail, but it’s one of the thousands of small, meticulous details that make this experience a masterclass in gaming immersion.
These little details are what separate Red Dead Redemption 2 from other open world games. In Horizon Zero Dawn, characters will stand in the pouring rain and act as if nothing is happening with no change in animation. While Horizon has a stunning world and top-notch effects, it’s this sort of missing detail that reminds you that you’re playing a video game. With Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar’s obsessive attention to even the smallest detail means that their world can transition seamlessly to whatever you or the environment throws at it. Most of the details you don’t even notice, and that’s the whole point.
As impressive as the detail is in a visual sense, Red Dead Redemption 2 really sings with how the details actually impact gameplay mechanics.
Here’s an example: Early in the game, I left camp and hunted down a deer. I skinned the animal, put the carcass on the back of my horse and headed back towards camp. By that time night was falling, yet I was still riding at full speed into the wooded area surrounding the camp. I figured that, as in other open world games, if I were to canter into an obstacle the horse would automatically bundle past it.
In the Witcher 3, it’s not even necessary for you to watch where you are going at all. You can stare at the mini-map and Roach will automatically dodge objects in the world as you mindlessly navigate to your destination.
But that’s not how it works in Red Dead Redemption 2.
As I rode through the dark woods, I ran directly into a tree. My horse buckled and collapsed, Arthur went flying forward and the deer carcass went sailing into some nearby bushes. It’s in moments such as these you realize Red Dead Redemption 2 is a step beyond what we’ve come to expect from open world design. It seeks to change the way the players think of video game sandboxes.
There’s certainly a case to be made that these mechanics can make the experience somewhat tiresome. Between Arthur’s growing hair and his tendency to put on weight, there’s a lot to keep track of. Yet when you’re playing the game, the mechanics all feel like a crucial piece of the puzzle. They made me feel like Arthur Morgan more than any other game has made me feel like any character.
Whenever you travel from your camp into town or camp out in the wilderness for days, it feels like something you need to prepare for. Whereas in most games you can call your horse or fast travel from anywhere, getting caught out miles from your objective could make for a very long walk. It can be hard work but it leads you to be creative with your actions, moving with a level of thought and care that isn’t normally necessary in games.
Take Skyrim, for example. After you’ve unlocked most of the map, you can legitimately play for 80 hours without ever traversing the land. Making the journey from Riften to Solitude should mean something, but with fast-traveling so readily available, it really doesn’t. While easy fast traveling has its merits in some games, it can also take away some of the magic of slowly experiencing and getting lost in an open world.
Actions such as replenishing supplies take on a whole new meaning when access to a town isn’t available at the click of a button. Traversal in Red Dead Redemption 2 is earned, and the world can be dangerous. While not every open world game needs this level of complexity, the way that Rockstar has challenged many open world norms without losing the fun factor is groundbreaking.
The intense realism of the world is cemented by a nearly constant level of production value to every scene in the game, whether scripted or organic. Detailed narratives, impactful voice acting, and impressive animation can still be found in small, missable encounters. In games such as Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Tomb Raider, there’s an obvious dip in quality for voice work, facial animation and overall detail when talking to unimportant NPCs or engaging in small challenges. This is rarely the case for Red Dead Redemption 2, and nearly every encounter feels just as believable as the last.
In fact, that same level of quality permeates to every facet of the experience. Whether you’re hunting animals in the plains, stirring trouble in a local saloon or having talks with friends at camp, the world feels like it responds to your actions. It constantly evolves to the decisions and events you’ve taken part in, both large and small.
It’s this extraordinary detail that’s been put into every inch of the map which makes Red Dead Redemption 2 the most impressive and immersive open world game we’ve perhaps ever seen. It’s something truly special.