Rockstar have a point to prove with Red Dead Redemption 2, their first game in five years after the gigantic success of GTA V. It’s a bold reminder of what they are capable of, a dizzying amount of ambition and innovation underpinned by a deeply human story at its center. You can scratch away at it for days and barely even break the surface of this unconventional and uncompromising adventure through the dying Wild West.
It’s apparent that Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t like many other games from its opening chapter, a rather downbeat and patient escape into the mountains with the van der Linde gang after a botched robbery sends them into hiding. It’s nowhere close to the madness in Ludendorff that Rockstar opened their last game with, but rather a chance for the game to begin to introduce its huge cast of characters and show players the ropes. Truthfully, these slow scenes of walking behind gang members and trudging through snow killed my initial excitement for the game dead, though I think that may have been the point. The almost laboriously placed opener is there to tell players that this isn’t going to be a laugh-a-minute affair, neither is it something you can race through.
Instead, the game constantly asks you to sit back and reflect, which I found myself doing studiously as the end credits rolled, unable to move as I attempted to process the last five days of gameplay. There’s no denying that this is a grand statement from Rockstar, so grand in fact that it’s difficult to know where to even begin. It throws down the gauntlet in terms of sheer technical genius for its open world peers to pick up and I doubt any will come close this generation.
Your view into the changing landscape of Red Dead Redemption 2 comes from Arthur Morgan: an enforcer and loyal servant to the van der Linde gang. He’s initially difficult to warm up to, a spiky and no-nonsense individual who’s respected by his fellow criminals but perhaps not always liked. This follows the regular Rockstar formula — making the bad guy seem like the good guy — but Arthur has many more layers than the game initially suggests, which are peeled back the deeper we dive. He’s loyal almost to a fault, compassionate to those he lives with but suspicious of almost everyone else.
I found myself warming a lot to Arthur, so much so that I’d even say I prefer him to the protagonist of the original game, John Marston. A bold claim, but there’s something in Roger Clark’s excellent line delivery and sadness behind the eyes of Arthur that just makes him that much more interesting. He doesn’t have just two people in his family to keep safe, he has twenty.
Somehow, Rockstar made me care for almost every member of the van der Linde gang, which is quite the remarkable feat. They’re pitched as righteous outlaws, those who do what they do because they believe in a cause espoused by Dutch, their charismatic leader. Dutch is the patriarch of the gang as he brought many of them out of the gutter, Arthur included, and gave them purpose, though one which the gang quickly begin to suspect after the aforementioned failed heist.
It’s an eclectic bunch in the van der Linde gang and features many returning faces from the original game. A babyfaced John Marston is almost certainly the character most players will make a beeline with his appearance in this prequel genuinely enriching your memories of his character, as well as providing appreciated backstory. The likes of Bill and Javier are also prominent figures, but Rockstar use the freedom they’ve given themselves with the gang’s history to add plenty of new faces, each with their own personalities, aspirations, and fears. Even the most annoying of the bunch, whether that’s Uncle and his supreme laziness or the drunken ramblings of Reverend Swanson, are endearing in their own ways. It really feels like you’re part of something important, a last stand against the march of civilisation.
Everything is organised from the game’s camp, which more or less acts as the game’s hub. From here you can take on missions, undertake chores like chopping wood, craft new items, or just generally shoot the breeze with your fellow delinquents. The integration of the greet and antagonize prompts means that you will have different ways of talking to pretty much anyone you craft, the former to be friendly and the latter to try to start something. There’s an utterly staggering amount of voicework here, so much so that I don’t think I’ve even heard half of it with the game mostly completed.
The camp is the nucleus for the game as a whole, it shining as an example of the amount of work and effort put into make Red Dead Redemption 2 feel like a living, breathing entity to almost drown in rather than a hollow excuse to go fetch things and check stuff off a list. It’s almost as appealing to just sit and watch these people live their lives through regular chatter and special events as it is to explore the wide open world.
Though the majority of the map is yours to explore from the start of Chapter 2, Red Dead Redemption 2 begs you to take your time instead by doling out important mechanics the more you play. Though the pseudo-tutorial may look like it begins and ends at the end of the first chapter, it’s really still going on by the time the third rolls around. Rockstar were smart to not overwhelm the player with a barrage of fundamentals and quirks, meaning that there’s a constant sense of progression that rewards patience. You have the playground, you just need the tools to go with it.
One of the examples of this is that you need to unlock the ability to upgrade your camp by playing the story. By donating to the camp, Arthur is able to renovate the tents, prepare better meals, and keep the supplies coming, among many other things. There are a couple of important gameplay facets, such as (restrictive) fast travel and the ability to summon your owned horses, that are unlocked through donating, but it mostly feels superfluous and too easy to purchase all the available upgrades within a short space of time. The game adds more options the more you play, but they dry up before the story is even halfway finished.
This is just one distraction in the deliciously overstuffed smorgasbord that is Red Dead Redemption 2, however. The story is a full-bodied odyssey that will take up plenty of your days and nights and is certainly worth bearing with through its slower moments, it coming across like the video game equivalent of The Assassination of Jesse James in terms of themes and pace. If you need a break from it, there’s so much to see and do in Red Dead Redemption 2 that it’s an impossible mission to even try to list it all.
Whether you want to go hunting, help out Strangers, collect bounties, or gamble your money away, there’s no shortage of enticing activities in Red Dead Redemption 2, so much so that I had to constantly remind myself to stay on-track with the story. You could almost skip the majority of the story and just live amongst the trees, hunting deer and selling their pelts to the local trader to subsist. There’s certainly more room here for role-playing than in any Rockstar game to date and more than most games in recent memory, if not ever.
One of my favourite things to do was to act the paragon of the passing age of outlaws, to wander around towns greeting people and try to convince them that we aren’t all bad. I’d donate to beggars, help out people who were being assaulted and just generally tried to live my best life — even if the story demands mass murder, I could at least atone on my own time. I later realised that I had committed very few heinous acts on innocent people (on purpose, mind, but more on that later), which is a huge surprise considering I fondly remember mowing down everyone in a Banshee stolen from a car lot in GTA III in my youth. Maybe Rockstar’s matured or maybe I have; perhaps it’s a bit of both. There’s a fundamentally deeper game than just a simple homicide simulator here to be enjoyed.
That might be down to how intoxicating it is to take in every single pixel of Red Dead Redemption 2. There’s an obsessive amount of detail here that goes far beyond horse balls. While some may not care that much for the little flourishes, I fawned over them constantly and found myself gasping a few times at the insanity of the minutiae. A few of my favourites include snake bites showing on Arthur’s hand, a child sleeping with a book you found for him long ago, and a shopkeeper later having bandages tied around where I hit him in the head after a robbery. Others include police picking up and taking away corpses, me riding over a possum to then discover that he was actually playing possum, and a house near Valentine that is slowly built over the course of the story.
The little things also play a big part in how Arthur is viewed by NPCs with the Honor system playing a role, even if it is heavily skewed towards being the good guy in terms of rewards. The nicer things he does and the more helpful he is, the higher his Honor rating becomes, meaning that he is more warmly greeted by some people and also given discounts in stores, new outfits, and plenty more. Likewise, if you commit a crime, the townspeople may be hostile towards you and even come up to you in a bar and ask for answers.
This emphasis on the small stuff also extends to how well Arthur looks after himself. Cores define how much health, stamina, and Dead Eye Arthur can regenerate, which can be filled back up by eating regularly and healthily. It’s nowhere near the oppression of an out-and-out survival game; I seldom found myself needing to eat, but it’s clearly a mechanic that some will gladly give plenty of attention to. His body changes depending on his diet, but I never noticed a dramatic difference — there doesn’t appear to be the option to turn him into a muscular freak or rolling barrel of lard like CJ in San Andreas, but it’s a nice touch all the same.
Arthur’s hair and facial hair also grow over time and can be maintained and customised from a wild variety of options, but you can’t magically choose a flowing head of hair at the barbers if you’re currently rocking that Max Payne 3 look. I devoted a lot of time to getting my Arthur how I wanted and regularly found myself trimming his beard and applying pomade to keep his beard slick; I truly hated playing any story missions when my boy wasn’t looking his rough and ready best.
Arthur has seen many battles and is a dab hand with a gun, which feels far weightier and impactful than most games. Shots pack a huge punch — evidenced by a guy’s head completely disappearing after a shotgun blast — and are always satisfying to use, even if it takes some getting used to. Enemies don’t stand statically and sway and bob on the spot, which, when combined with the so-so accuracy of weapons that would be called antiques now, doesn’t mean that it’s a simple shooting gallery anymore. It’s challenging, though the game as a whole is never that difficult.
The implementation of an optional first-person perspective feels more natural than it did in GTA V on the current gen of consoles, though I did always find that to be somewhat gimmicky. They’ve polished it finely, so whether you’re throwing down with some fisticuffs or lassoing some idiot from the back of your horse, it’s just as fulfilling to play in first-person as it is in third. I always tried to be in first-person during conversation to soak up the facial animations, but found myself flitting seamlessly between all the options when I fancied a change.
First-person shooting allows you to see the smaller details of your weapons, as well as arguably offering the most immersive way of taking on gunfights. There’s a decent amount of customisation to be had with the weapons, including the ability to dual-wield smaller weapons and to choose different engravings from a gunsmith. The system isn’t as in-depth as something like ARMA or World War 3, but it doesn’t need to be and even really shouldn’t be thanks to the limits of weapons at the time.
There’s plenty of busywork to be done in Red Dead Redemption 2, but none of it really feels droll or uninspired. It’s largely stuff that’s inviting to do, whether that’s cleaning your weapons or keeping yourself clean. Again, you really can do just about whatever you like in Red Dead Redemption 2, so if you want to become a gambling drunk or the scourge of the wilderness, you can. I may have dusted off the story, but I can easily see myself returning to the luscious mountains to the north and eking out a life as a simple fisherman.
I could also become one with my horse, asking them to explore every inch of Red Dead Redemption 2’s huge and almost overwhelming map with me. Your horse is just as important to the experience as shooting the bad guys is and it’s natural that you would grow attached to them over time. The game even fosters this by including a bonding system that ties in with how you treat your horse. The better you maintain them, the more you get back.
By doing simple things like reassuring them when they’re panicked, giving them apples after a job well done, or taking the time to clean them up with a brush, Arthur and his horse will grow closer and be able to pull off new manoeuvres as well as give boosts to the stats of the horse. In addition, Arthur’s demeanour to the horse will warm the closer the pair get; when you’re at maximum bonding level, Arthur positively coos over his horse. It’s heartwarming, which is why it hurts when they die because of your idiocy — I made my way through six generations of the Shadowfart dynasty and the heartache never became easier.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so close to them if they didn’t look and react so much like the real thing. They, and pretty much every single living thing in the game, have their own mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that are simply fascinating to watch, which is helped by the fact that Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the most stunning games ever made. There’s plenty of horizon porn to marvel at here, but the scope in terms of Arthur’s expressions, the puckered skin that makes his haunted face so memorable, is constantly a source of wonder, as well as the attention afforded to making the NPCs feel like more than simple placeholders.
Playing on a PS4 Pro, Red Dead Redemption 2 maintains a steady framerate that only slightly chugs along in Saint Denis when there’s so much life and moving parts packed into one area. It is an out-and-out technical masterpiece that feels like the next step in terms of making a video game world feel truly alive and responsive. It’s not just an ego trip from Rockstar, either: it’s a wonderfully immersive and complete game to play. Well, for the most part.
It’s perplexing why — with all of these innovations and revelations — the player movement has not been smoothened out. Arthur is a big guy, but he does not necessarily need to move like a refrigerator to reflect that. There’s a lack of precision in enclosed areas that borders on the infuriating: A gentle flick will send Arthur in a 180 at times when you just want to look down and pick up a damn apple. When you have to manually look at everything you want to pick up and then hold square, this clumsiness completely sucks you out of the experience. It’s clearly an antiquated facet of the impressive Rage engine that’s been there since the beginning, but what felt pioneering ten years ago for GTA IV now feels unresponsive and just plain irritating.
The controls, too, aren’t always as tight and logical as they should be. I can count at least five separate occasions when I’ve found myself in trouble with the law because an input has gone awry. I’ve started choking people when I just want to get on my horse a few times and even rugby tackled a couple of hapless bystanders. On another occasion, I just couldn’t get out of the way of an ally and had to restart from the checkpoint because I had “aggravated” them, which I loved the irony of.
Some of the game’s systems also feel a little suffocating and restrictive than is necessary, some even sucking the fun out of the small things we take for granted in exchange for misguided realism. Having to take your weapons off of your horse before a firefight sounds great in principle, but not when some missions just chuck you into the action without letting you pick the guns you want. Likewise, I found that if I had the guns I wanted and then ended up dying, the game would restart with the weapons it had seemingly picked at random — I had upgraded the pump-action shotgun for a reason, game.
These irritations weren’t quite enough to ever drag me out of Red Dead Redemption 2 as it always had some grand spectacle or little delight to make amends to me with. The wait was a long one, but Red Dead Redemption 2 serves as a reminder from Rockstar of what they’re capable of once again.
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Despite it having some wrinkles, Red Dead Redemption 2 introduces more than enough innovations to provide one of the most immersive and captivating open world games ever made.
Microtransactions: none, though Red Dead Online is not yet available at this time of writing.
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