Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games' latest magnum opus, takes its time to introduce its colourful cast of characters and meticulously crafted western-themed open world.
Sloughing through knee-deep snow in a blizzard with protagonist Arthur Morgan is slow and hard work. It is hardly the bombastic start you would expect from what is essentially a cowboy simulator.
But the measured pace lets you take in its photo-realistic visuals, which could almost be mistaken for stills from a movie.
The excellent voice acting brings the dialogue-heavy interactions among Morgan's companions to life. The result is that you are transported to a harsh and unforgiving depiction of America at the end of the 19th century.
Wanted and hunted by federal forces and rival gangs, this band of desperate men is led by Dutch Van der Linde, a father figure to Arthur and other members.
Dutch clings to a dying ideal of the Wild West, even as his stubborn refusal to change leads to more death and destruction around him.
PRICE: $81.90 (Sony PlayStation 4, version tested; Xbox One)
GENRE: Action adventure
If you have played 2010's Red Dead Redemption, you already know what happens at the end of Red Dead Redemption 2, which is a prequel. Suffice to say that Rockstar has crafted a tight and powerful script that fills in the details hinted at in Red Dead Redemption.
The first few hours gradually introduces the game's various mechanics. Many of them go against the grain of modern games, with busywork reminiscent of older games, especially old-school multiplayer online games.
Arthur, for instance, requires plenty of upkeep. Keeping his appearance clean could mean a dip in the river, or if you are feeling rich, a bath in a hotel. He has to be fed the right amount to maintain his optimal weight.
Despite my best efforts, Arthur is underweight, which adversely affects his health and his ability to take damage. Being overweight, on the other hand, reduces his stamina, making it more difficult to run away from sticky situations.
This realism extends to other facets of his life, such as cleaning guns, brushing the horse, cooking, crafting items and even picking a warm outfit when venturing into colder areas.
There is a long list of things to do, none of which can be described as quick. Rockstar seems to have deliberately imbued even mundane tasks with a level of interactivity that may rub some gamers the wrong way, seeing as many modern games have pared their gameplay to the bone in the name of convenience.
Having to manually press a button every time you want to chop a piece of wood or make Arthur physically walk with a bale of hay to feed the horses in his camp seem like the chores that they are, but forcing players to do these tasks lends a weight to the world that makes it seem almost real.
It also fits the incredible attention to detail found throughout the game, like how the snow-white hide of my horse becomes stained with blood because I had placed a dead man on it. Or that the person I rescued on a side quest many hours ago recognised Arthur later in the game and offered him a free item at the store in a gesture of gratitude.
The open world, which spans snowy peaks and humid swamps, is huge. There is so much to explore - you can spend hours hunting, fishing and even searching for lost treasure.
It is even bigger because the fast travel option to instantly go from one location to another is limited.
Arthur is thus forced to travel on his horse, which, however, lets you experience the random encounters that liven up the game. These encounters can be anything from an ambush by a rival gang to saving a man from a bear trap.
Doing the right thing increases Arthur's honour level, which affects how the non-playing characters in towns and cities view him. Folks remember him warmly if he is honourable and fear him when he is not. A high honour level also lowers the prices of goods sold by vendors, so there is motivation to play more like Robin Hood.
Ultimately, though, Arthur and his companions are criminals and the main story gives them plenty of opportunities to rob and kill. In these scripted situations, you have little say in the actions he takes, which often end up in some sort of gunfight.
The game does have its less-than-stellar moments. For one thing, the controls are clunky and sluggish. Even after playing for hours, I still find myself accidentally shooting someone or tossing my food on the ground because of a wrong key press.
The game also appears to have badly implemented the high dynamic range (HDR) feature. It looks washed out with HDR enabled on compatible TVs. Barring a future patch, turning this off is recommended.
Rockstar plans to introduce a beta version of an online multiplayer mode called Red Dead Online later this month for Red Dead Redemption 2 players. So the adventure will go on with your friends - once you bid farewell to Arthur's gang.
• Verdict: Rockstar's western epic takes video-game realism and immersion up another notch with a compelling, well-acted story set in a meticulously crafted open world.