Has there ever been a video game world as all-encompassing as the one presented in Rockstar's most recent Western epic? Sure, there are some that stand shoulder to shoulder or even surpass it in terms of straightforward size – Assassin's Creed Odyssey's world map is easily bigger – but when it comes to depth, detail and narrative scope, there's never been anything quite like Red Dead Redemption 2.

From the very first steps you take as Arthur Morgan, this is a game that draws you in completely, rooting you firmly in its world through a dizzying dedication to detail, through a truly breath-taking recreation of a specific time and place. Where Red Dead Redemption was very much an action-centric pastiche of well-worn Western tropes – a tip of the hat to the Hollywood movie clichés we all know and love – this surprisingly dark and brooding prequel sets out to create a much more original, nuanced and ultimately human take on the Wild West. It succeeds it doing so, and then some.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is the story of a Wild West in its death throes. We join Arthur and what's left of the Dutch van Der Linde gang as they make a treacherous escape across the East Grizzlies from a robbery gone wrong but, as they flee the scene of their latest crime, deep down they know they're really trying to escape from much more than a botched stick-up job – they're attempting to escape a dying way of life, and so they make a plan to head South, to rob and raid and murder and steal their way to retirement as the Pinkerton Detective Agency, modernity and industrialisation hunt them down.

You can choose how you go about the lawlessness on which your future survival depends, make your Arthur an honourable thief or cruel and murderous devil – we spared no-one, murdered and robbed without a second thought, and suffered a deserving fate as a result – and it's in the choices this complex morality system extends to you that the game strengthens the often hard-hitting, human aspects of its tale.

As you make your way across this dizzyingly detailed recreation of late 19th Century America you'll happen upon all manner of ne'er do wells, innocent bystanders and people going about their day to day lives – and you can interact with each and every last one of them. Maybe you'll saunter by on your horse and tip your hat, a cheerful "howdy partner" as you pass on by, maybe you'll hear a cry for help and rush to the rescue or, just maybe, you'll coldly gun down anyone who comes within speaking distance of you.

It's an incredible achievement, to build a world so huge, so intricate and detailed and then fill it with these citizens with whom you can interact in so many ways. There's a constant, deep level of roleplaying at work as a result; you inhabit Arthur fully as you make your way through this cruel world, choosing how your take on the character will go about his bandit business, and this in turn infuses everything you do – every story mission, side quest and random encounter – with a real sense of weight and consequence.

The main thrust of the gameplay here will be familiar to anyone who's played the previous Red Dead, or indeed any recent Rockstar title. You'll take on missions from members of the tight-knit Van Der Linde gang and various other NPCs who appear as markers on your map, and you'll always have multiple choices with regards to who you'll run an errand or do a job for next. There's an even greater level of flexibility and freedom as to how and when you choose to proceed the main narrative or spend time running side quests here than you'll have encountered in the mighty GTA V.

The quality of missions too, for a game whose campaign is so vast and sprawling, eclipses everything previously conjured up by the studio. There's a huge amount of variety packed in here, from the expected epic set-pieces – blowing up a bridge, robbing a train, planning a spectacular bank robbery or shooting up an entire town – to drunken pub adventures, tailing mysterious murderous cults and bloody showdowns with rival factions. What really takes Red Dead Redemption 2 to another level entirely, however, is the things you get up to when you're not following the scripted course of proceedings; when you pack your gear, saddle up and take off into the wilds.

The number of side activities available to Arthur off the beaten trail of the main campaign is almost overwhelming, and these aren't hurriedly tacked on distractions to artificially lengthen your playtime either – they're fully developed and engaging gameplay systems of their own. You can while away your time hunting the hundreds of animals that inhabit the world, getting their scent, tracking them carefully and then aiming at their vital organs for a clean kill. You can go digging for dinosaur bones, spend time taking photographs, solve treasure maps, rob trains, collect plants, get addicted to studying the many breeds of horse the game has to offer... it goes on and on. All of these various activities are neatly curated into separate challenge lists that see you rank-up in the various pursuits on which you choose to focus. Whether you dedicate yourself to becoming an expert bandit, explorer, gambler, herbalist, hunter, survivalist, weapons expert or all of the above, Red Dead Redemption 2 has you more than covered.

In the moment-to-moment gameplay too, Red Dead Redemption 2 excels. Weapons feel weighty and pack a punch and enemies react perfectly to being shot – those excellent ragdoll physics from the first game making a welcome and oftentimes hilarious return. The dead-eye mechanic is also back, slowing down the flow of time and enabling you to set up your shots then sit back and watch as Arthur unleashes a devastating barrage upon his enemies. Pulling off a particularly stylish or long-range kill will see the camera switch to a cinematic slo-mo shot, your victim's death regaled to you up-close and in graphic detail. And this is a graphic game. Where the original Red Dead chose to cut away from the more squeamish aspects of your violent actions, this prequel makes you face up to them, and it's a directive decision that fits entirely with the much darker nature of the narrative here.

Indeed, this a story that goes places you could never expect at the outset. After that lengthy, bitterly cold prologue in the Grizzlies transitions spectacularly to the more familiar, lush environs of New Hanover, as the gang settle down and make camp and you get to grips with the ins and outs of being a contributing gang member, the story gives you ample opportunity to goof off, to play the stereotypical cowboy – there isn't a movie cliché we can think of that you can't recreate in detail here – before twisting and turning in constantly surprising fashion, ultimately descending into an almost nightmarish vision of the fate of these renegades as a new world supersedes their lawless way of life. This is a haunting story that will stay with you long after it's wrapped up and Arthur Morgan in particular, is a character who you'll feel a real sense of attachment to when all is said and done.

The other characters too, are uniformly excellent. There's Dutch van Der Linde, constantly pushing his gang to the limits, fooling himself at every turn that he can somehow worm his way out of a fate set in stone. The returning John Marston (who gets a suitably large part in proceedings here), the amazing Sadie Adler, Micah, Reverend Swanson, Hosea and Javier... so many perfectly-pitched friends, enemies and allies, beautifully acted and amazingly brought to life by the simply stunning in-game graphics engine.

Then there's the online portion of the game. Where Rockstar's previous big hitter GTA V spawned a behemoth in the form of its still hugely popular online mode, Red Dead Redemption 2 seeks to follow suit, letting you create your very own bandit before letting you loose on the main game's full world map in a mash-up of solo and cooperative diversions. It's an online component that's been steadily added to since the game's release, absolutely packed full of activities and a surprising amount of story-driven content to sink your teeth into. It may not reach the dizzying heights of GTA V's online world but there's certainly a considerable amount of fun to be had here, especially if you can corral a bunch of buddies into riding alongside you as you take on missions from NPCs and generally wreak havoc and cause grief for the other human players you meet along the way. In comparison to the serious, oftentimes bleak nature of the main campaign, it feels like an almost cathartic and very welcome release to blow off steam in this much more knockabout take on the game's world.

Are there any negatives here? Well, the controls take some getting used to, Arthur is an unwieldy lump until you become accustomed to how slowly he moves and turns; it's an issue that's carried over from the first Red Dead, one that you may initially struggle with but also one we reckon you'll make peace with as you play. There are also a handful of systems which perhaps take the attention to detail a little too far and begin to encroach upon your enjoyment. We like bathing and shaving as much as the next person, but is there really any need to constantly ensure Arthur is kept clean and kempt in order to maintain his mood?

The health core mechanic too could, in our opinion, be disposed of entirely without anyone missing it and constantly monitoring your health and well-being, making sure you're not losing too much weight or getting fat, ensuring your horse doesn't collapse or die and is happy and content – it certainly all grounds you firmly in the world, but there is perhaps a few too many balls for Arthur to juggle in the end. We could also perhaps point to a sequence midway through the story that takes the action off to another location entirely – it's not bad as such, but it feels unnecessary; an excursion that disrupts the flow somewhat and distracts from the engaging central narrative thrust. We spent this entire section of the game pining to get back to the main storyline.

Beyond this handful of minor gripes though, what Rockstar has achieved here is nothing short of spectacular. This is the final days of the Wild West brought kicking and screaming back to life, an emotional rollercoaster of a campaign – a surprisingly grown-up, dark and serious tale – surrounded on all sides and complimented by an almost endless array of amazingly deep systems, side activities and secrets with which to engage, all of them existing in this incredibly detailed, living, breathing world. It's the most fully-realised, realistic and complete place we've ever experienced in a game and one which you owe it yourself to experience. The life and times of Arthur Morgan and the Dutch Van der Linde gang are nothing short of a masterpiece.

Conclusion

Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar's greatest achievement to date – an epic Western masterpiece set in a phenomenally-detailed recreation of 1890's America. Top-notch acting across the board brings its beautifully-written cast of characters to life and the riveting central story is surrounded on all sides by an almost endless array of deep and satisfying side activities that serve to further ground you in the life and times of Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang. A must-have title for your Xbox One.