Does the year's biggest video game live up to the hype? Chris Schulz hitches his horse to a wagon and goes for a ride to find out.

The sun is setting, casting a calm glow over this small shanty town. It's beautiful, serene. You'd take a photo, if you could fetch your camera from your horse tied up by the stables.

But you can't. You're held down in the mud, blood pooling in puddles beside you, being choked to death by a portly drunk with his sleeves rolled up, the culmination of a vicious bar fight.

A small crowd has gathered to witness your demise.

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Arthur Morgan and his gang of outlaws take a ride in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Arthur Morgan and his gang of outlaws take a ride in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Things can go horribly wrong in Red Dead Redemption 2. Those things can be small. If you don't feed your horse, it will collapse. Enter a forest at night, you'll be ripped to shreds by wild animals. Cross a river, and a crocodile might get you.

But they can be big too. Stop to fix a broken wagon and you might get robbed. Trespass, and a sheriff will show up. Even brandishing a weapon in the wrong place is enough to make bullets ring around your ears.

The scenery in Red Dead Redemption 2 is never short of stunning, especially in cinematic mode.
The scenery in Red Dead Redemption 2 is never short of stunning, especially in cinematic mode.

Violence is always an option, but honor is a big deal. In Rockstar's highly anticipated sequel to its 2010 original, a work of near perfection, you play as Arthur Morgan, a grizzly outlaw on the run with a band of like-minded misfits.

It's America circa 1890, a time of bandits and bounty hunters. You set up camp, then you have to grow it by funding it and feeding its residents. To do that, Morgan sometimes has to do bad things.

Those bad things have consequences. Start a fight, rob a bank, or hijack a train, and those pesky sheriffs will be after you. If you try and return to that town, a price will be on your head, encouraging bounty hunters to track you down.

Unlike Rockstar's last game, the all-conquering Grand Theft Auto V, your reputation stays with you. That makes getting in trouble a much bigger deal. Rampage, you won't. Think about every bullet you fire, you will.

But the honour system isn't Rockstar's only improvement here. Technically, Red Dead 2 pushes absolutely everything forward that it can. Its graphical capabilities, its scenery, its animation, its seamless switches between cut scenes and action, make this feel like more an immersive movie than a video game. Speaking of which, you can activate cinematic mode at any given moment.

Here, the devil is in the detail, and that detail is insane. Brush past a tree and leaves will rustle and snow flakes will fall to the ground. Forget to shave and your character will grow a nice bushy beard. Rob a train and you'll be able to read about it on the front page of the Hanover Gazette.

If you return to the scene of that brutal street fight with a drunk thug, someone will sidle up and say: "You're brave to show your face around here again." There's that reputation in action again.

The game's horses, each with its own traits and tricks, are worth a review all of their own. Horse riding is notoriously difficult to nail in gaming, but Rockstar has done it properly. Bonding with your horse is as essential as feeding it to keep it alive. Pat it, brush it, love it, because horses are the heart and soul of Red Dead 2. The first time I ran mine into the ground, it collapsed. I had to put it out of its misery, and I nearly cried.

So far, about 20 hours in, Red Dead 2 is overwhelmingly impressive. But it's not perfect. There's a glaringly obvious lack of strong female characters in Rockstar's games, and that's the same here. Co-founder Dan Houser says they've taken steps to fix that, so maybe that's coming later.

As well, the stories about the game's crunch time - the crazy final months before a game of this size launches - have been fascinating to read when coming from a studio as notorious about secrecy as Facebook or Apple.

But Red Dead 2 has proved to be a crazy, wild ride, one that's impressed at almost every turn. Rockstar's made a big deal about its use of more than 1000 actors, 300,000 animations, and half a million lines of dialogue making up 23 separate stories. At this early stage, it's hard to fully grasp the size of the game. Red Dead 2's full story is said to be 60 hours long, and it's bound to be many more when you include all the additional content.

I've already undertaken one task, involving a swamp shoot out, quickdraw on top of a train, and a mountain trek to hunt a reclusive bandit, that's taken the best part of 90 minutes. It was a mere side mission, not part of Morgan's real quest. The game's separate online component, so important to the success of GTA V, doesn't launch until next month.

But, in an attempt to get to grips with its scale, I hitched a ride on a train. I travelled through so many different cities, each in different states of development, all populated by different characters and stories and saloons and wretches and outlaws and bounty hunters, all yet to be explored by Morgan, that I lost count.

Rest assured, it's huge. Forget about HBO's TV show, because Red Dead Redemption 2 gives you a trip to the real Westworld. It's a place I'm planning on visiting for a long time to come.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Rating: R16
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One
Verdict: Make yourself comfortable, you're going to be staying in Westworld a while