I don't envy the team at Rockstar Games that made Red Dead Redemption II. Companies like Valve have rolled over and admitted defeat rather than try to live up to the hype of a previous game like that associated with the first Red Dead Redemption game. Rockstar forged ahead, though, and brought us a game that defies expectation and does its own thing.

Even now, Red Dead Redemption looks beautiful. But when I put it next to Red Dead Redemption II, it's like night and day. Like a sketch and a photograph. Even without talking about the story, the very world of Red Dead 2 is worth talking about on its own. This expansive place is so huge as to be unexplorable. If Rockstar came out and said that even with millions of people covering every inch of the map, there were still un-discovered secrets, I wouldn't be surprised. There's more here than any one gamer could see without immense commitment. The world of Red Dead 2 takes place eastward of the first game, bringing us up into the mountains of Colorado, down into Texas, over to the deep South of Georgia and up to Appalachia. Without every really going to the desert, it manages to be as varied as the original and dozens of times livelier. The world of Red Dead 2 is absolutely crawling with life, and it was as fun to watch it all go by as it was to hunt or explore. I would sit with my binoculars and look in the trees or ride slowly through the forest to see what might be hiding. I spotted an owl's eyes in the trees, reflecting light back at me eerily, and I tracked a moose through the northern reaches of the game's map.

It was easy to get lost for hours at a time in Red Dead 2, and I always enjoyed doing just that. It felt like the game begged me to slow down and pay attention to what I was doing.

That there's a stellar story on top of all this? It's not icing on the cake, it's a whole other cake with a pie chaser. I doubted the idea of a prequel right up until release, but with Arthur Morgan, Rockstar has found one of its best protagonists yet. We get to know a sad, angry, and complicated man through the course of the game. He knows there's a better life out there, but he feels doomed and trapped in the one that has him acting as the older brother to the Dutch van der Linde gang and right hand to Dutch himself. How can he seek out that better life when all the varied members of the gang depend on him? From the inexperienced John Marston to brand new member Sadie and the crew that keeps the gang running, everyone depends on Arthur, and he bears that burden. I spent my time with the game hunting down food for the gang, selling off loot to support it, and then in my downtime, playing dominoes and drinking with the crew.

Red Dead Redemption II is filled with incredible moments both with the gang and when Arthur's out solitary. It's easy to get going talking about this game. When I cut my playtime short at about 80 hours, it was so that I could write my review. The truth is that I wanted to keep playing. I wanted to keep hunting, upgrading my camp, and riding with my fellow gang members. I wanted to keep searching for legendary animals and customizing my guns. I know there are adventures that yet remain for Arthur to discover. Like Red Dead Redemption, I expect I'll boot the game up in a few years, when the memory fades, and go through the highs and lows of the story again.

We're not going to get a Rockstar Game without an epic online mode ever again, but so far the studio seems committed to delivering top-notch single-player experiences, and this easily stands out as one of the best of the year.

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