As I sat down for my third game of Dominoes with Mary-Beth, I wondered if this is what developers had in mind for their players when they spent years creating the next generation of open world gaming. Sure, there might be over 60 hours worth of narrative content to plough through, and countless hours of side missions and spots to explore, but I found myself at my most tense when kicking back and taking part in this addictive little mini-game.
Mary-Beth had spent the past 45 minutes whooping my behind when it came to the table-top battles, but this time I was determined to take her down. So, when I'd sat for another 20 minutes, with 55 points to Mary-Beth's 56 and a target of 60 for each of us, my frustration was palpable. We played another round and I beat her! Then she revealed with a smug grin that the domino she had left was a double blank. Damn her luck.
Fortunately, my winning moment came next. I filled my living room with a cheer of victory, expecting an Xbox achievement to trigger because of the drama I had just been through. That never came which was a disappointment, but perhaps that is what developers had in mind when creating this world...
When taking on the role of Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2, we're forced to confront a brutal landscape in which disappointments lurk around every corner. Whether that be in your own actions which you immediately come to regret, or those of the people in the world around you, you'll be second guessing each move you make. It's dire times for a band of outlaws; especially so when the authorities in certain areas are on the prowl in a bid to take you down.
The first chapter of RDR2 immediately takes me by surprise. Instead of the glorious sun beating down on a dusty landscape, we're up in the mountains surrounded by snow, on the run from Blackwater after a heist went terribly wrong. Taking control of the aforementioned Arthur Morgan, players become a part of Dutch Van der Linde's group of criminals who have earned their livings thieving, lying and doing what any experienced outlaw would do to get by. Arthur's been with Dutch since he was a child, and the pair have a close but often fractious relationship.
Here proves to be the perfect place to teach those behind the controller exactly how to keep on top of their game, both literally and metaphorically. We discover that we'll have to hunt for our food to keep our community thriving and smiling, and believe me, once you're fully enveloped in this game you're going to want to keep your friends happy - the emotional connection you'll build with each of them is something of beauty.
Not only that, but we need to keep three "cores" of our own stable - health, stamina and Dead Eye - if we hope to be any sort of success out in the wild. There are also the cores of our horse to keep watch over - health and stamina - along with a brush in our satchel that you'll want to keep to hand at all times, to keep your stallion in peak condition.
We can maintain our cores and those of our horse using a variety of different foods, ointments, and drinks that are available in stores throughout the open world, (or through stealing from, or helping NPCs), and whilst this all may seem a little overwhelming at first, Rockstar Games have found the right balance to ensure it doesn't take over your experience entirely.
And what an experience it is. There's just so much to do in this setting that you'll never find yourself bored. Whether you're shooting up a saloon for petty cash, robbing a train for expensive spoils, or doing your best to keep your honour high and only hurting those who truly deserve it, this is an immersive and highly interactive story.
One of my favourite things to do in open world games is explore, and see what developers have cooked up in way of surprises and little Easter Eggs for anybody who goes beyond the linear narrative. I've not managed to find the location yet, but one friend (who named her horse Lil' Peep - don't ask) told me of how they were doing exactly this, and went in an abandoned, rundown shack, only to be greeted by a huge grizzly bear who almost tore them limb from limb. Surprise!
Other dangers lurk in the shadows; you could be peacefully fishing when next minute, a group of angry O'Driscoll men spot you, and you have to quickly switch your rod for your shotgun. Or, you could be galloping to your objective through the starry night, only to be set upon by a trio of hungry wolves. All this whilst keeping an eye on your horse who is likely to run off (or indeed buck you off if you're mounted) due to the stress.
Everything about this game feels real. It may be set in 1899; a time in which nobody on the planet today can say they lived, but the immersive quality of the environment and plot means we can get an idea pretty damn close to what it would have been like for an outlaw.
As we progress through the days and weeks, our hair and beard grows and we're given the choice to shave it, style it with the help of a barber, or grow it out completely. There are also a whole host of outfits available to suit a player's particular style, the best of which will force you to go hunting and grab the materials yourself to take to your local Trapper, who can then knock you up a gorgeous piece of gear. The Legendary Bear Hat for example, which you'll be able to get your hands on early in the game, will make you feel powerful. Sure, the boys back at Horseshoe Overlook will rib you for wearing your catch on your noggin, but it's worth it.
It's these magical moments with your fellow outlaws that are some of the most special. Whether you're celebrating around the fire at night, singing a filthy song about a woman who gave up her body to make some money, or listening to the worries and despairs of those who find Arthur a person they can open up to, don't squander these emotive sequences. They may seem secondary on the surface, but they're important if you're to take the deep dive into everything this game has to offer.
Maintaining a unique and extremely rare appeal throughout its entire narrative, players are whisked to new corners of the map right up until the game's closing chapter, and these places aren't just cheap carbon copies of ones we've been before. They'll fully-developed, exciting and fresh.
Rockstar haven't just knocked this one out of the park, they've set an entirely new bar for future open world titles. Everything released from this point with the open world label is likely to be scrutinised and put up against this model. Rockstar have changed the world of gaming and given us the new-generation of open world that we never knew we'd get our hands on. For that, they must be celebrated.
RDR2 is not just in contention for Game of the Year, but perhaps the title of 'Best Game Ever'. It's that good.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is available now on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. A code for the Xbox One version of the game was given to Female First in exchange for this review.