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Red Dead Redemption 2 really wants you to love your horse

Rockstar Games is building a "deliberate and intimate" game world, where an outlaw's best friend is his trusty steed.

Dan Ackerman/CNET

There's one relationship more important than any other in the upcoming game Red Dead Redemption 2. It's not with your tight-knit gang of fellow outlaws. It's not with the shopkeepers and farmers who keep the frontier economy running and your pockets full. It's with the only one an ethically challenged gunslinger can truly depend on when the chips are down -- his horse.

That relationship is a singular point of focus for Rockstar Games, according to a rare Q&A session the secretive game developer held the week before the game's October 26 release, at a subterranean screening room under Ian Schrager's Public Hotel in New York's Nolita district.

That relationship between man and horse is a marked difference from how the company's other big game series, Grand Theft Auto, treats transportation around its huge open worlds. In GTA games, even the most tricked-out, highest-end supercar is only as good as its latest high-speed chase. Smash through a few police roadblocks and would-be gangsters will ditch even their favorite rides, leaving a smoking wreck behind and carjacking the nearest alternative without a second thought.

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Rockstar Games

In Red Dead, however, the bond between man and horse is meant to grow over the game's 60-plus hours. Spend more time with your mount, keep it clean, keep it safe and calm, and it will reward you with new abilities.

Well-trained horses can strafe from side to side with ease, carry a deer carcass back to camp or learn various dressage tricks -- the latter may not actually be all that useful when robbing trains. More importantly, the more your horse trusts you, the further away you can get and still whistle for him to appear and whisk you away from danger.

During the 2-hour-long gameplay demo and Q&A session, a producer pointed out how every piece of gear on your horse, from the saddle to the pack strapped across its back, was individually rendered. Each individual piece has its own physical reactions to the world.

It's all said to be in service of the game's goal -- to provide "seamless" integration between the plot-advancing story missions, free exploration, hunting and all the other random events that make the American frontier of 1899 feel alive. To that end, you'll find fewer stat screens and progress bars. Companions don't have loyalty bars to maintain -- you'll know how they feel based on their actions and dialog.

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Rockstar Games

And unlike GTA games, Red Dead 2 isn't meant to be played looking down the barrel of a gun, or running-and-gunning around a faux LA or NYC, causing as much mayhem as possible. But that doesn't mean it's a quaint Ken Burns documentary about the Old West.

In the live demo played for us on a PlayStation 4 Pro, the gang takes on one of the classic challenges of the western genre: robbing a train. It's a bit of a greatest hits package, taking notes from other games and films (The Wild Bunch, 3:10 to Yuma and so on) as the characters crawl along the roof of the train and duke it out with the engineer. But the dialog, and a few sticky ethical choices presented along the way, helped it feel fresh, even if we've seen the broad strokes before.

That train robbery was probably the most GTA-like gameplay sample I've seen from Red Dead 2 to date, and Rockstar exec Jennifer Kolbe told the crowd that the new games was "a sequel to GTA V just as much as to the original Red Dead Redemption."

If you're planning to play the game on its Oct. 26 release day, you should start planning ahead. The physical version comes on two discs thanks to its massive amount of content, which includes the work of 700 actors reading half a million lines of dialog. The downloaded version will eat up around 100GB of hard drive space on a PS4 or Xbox One.

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