Open world games generally do a great job affording players the sort of freedom and agency not found in more scripted, linear interactive adventures. Sadly though, encouraging fans to forge their own paths often comes at the cost of delivering a compelling story.

Red Dead Redemption 2 not only side-steps this common plight of the sandbox genre – delivering a cinema-rivalling narrative path – but pulls it off with a sprawling cast of inspired characters and an engaging mission structure that’s a far cry from the typical icon-cluttered map.

The sequel to Rockstar Games’ 2010 wild west romp lets you do whatever you damn well please, from getting a shave and a haircut to grooming your horse for hours on end. And many of these activities, including the latter, aren’t just painstakingly detailed diversions but gameplay-affecting pursuits. Form a proper bond with your trusted steed – through feeding, brushing, and even communication — for example, and you’ll stand a better chance of catching up with that runaway train or losing the law.

Ensuring your equine chores are kept up with doesn’t even scratch the surface of the myriad layered and overlapping systems Red Dead Redemption 2 presents players over its 70-plus hour run. Furthermore, none of these actions or activities feel like one-off mini-games or arbitrary distractions; everything you engage in, whether it be as major as pulling off an epic heist or as minor as keeping your horse’s hooves clean, feels organically woven into the world.

The disparate parts are lassoed together by a thoughtfully crafted story.

Much credit is due to the fact that world is a living, breathing place, one that existed long before morally ambiguous protagonist Arthur Morgan ever moseyed on into it. Unlike most open worlds, Red Dead Redemption 2‘s massive map isn’t a to-do list presented to the player at the start of the game. It’s not a world waiting to be defined by the player’s actions, but a place driven by its own ecosystems, environments, social structures, economies, and cultures.

Of course, you’re entirely welcome to disrupt all those things – for better or worse – from behind a six-shooter. The game is still a gun-slinging cowboy fantasy, so while you might pause to pet a dog or sink hours into hunting a legendary Pronghorn, there’s never any shortage of opportunities to cap bandits in the backside.

Amazingly, all these disparate parts – from its incredibly satisfying Dead Eye shooting system to its detailed character customisation options – are lassoed together by a thoughtfully crafted story. The game’s absolutely brimming with absorbing character interactions and engaging narrative threads, all supported by some of the best dialog the medium’s ever delivered. But Morgan’s posse, in particular, led by standout Dutch Van der Linde, unravels a twisty, inspired tale you won’t soon forget.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is the rare game that delivers on all fronts, providing all the freedom – and then some – you’d expect from an open-world action-adventure, but seamlessly blending it with the sort of polished systems, stories, and stunning visuals usually reserved for more constrained, scripted experiences.

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