After being absent for almost a decade, Rockstar’s Red Dead franchise is back with Red Dead Redemption 2. The latest game from the New York-based studio serves as a prequel to Red Dead Redemption (2010), and the third main instalment in the Red Dead series. It builds heavily on the concepts introduced in the first title, and completely hits both returning features and new, right out of the ballpark. A friend told me that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a “once in a lifetime kind of game”, and I wholeheartedly agree.
There is no denying that Red Dead Redemption 2 is an absolutely massive game. It features hundreds of hours of content, both story and open world related. There are numerous amounts of side quests that serve to create a compelling wild west, with characters that are loveable or extremely loathsome. In this review, I will go over many facets of the game, but let me make this clear right from the start: the fifty-odd hours that I have poured into the game, are nowhere near enough to have enjoyed a “complete” experience. The game is meant to be played at leisure, possibly for hundreds of hours, and it is all the better for it.
The name’s Dutch, how do you do? [Story]
Rockstar Games is known for including impeccable details and long, detailed narratives in their games. They are also known for excellent characterisation and incredible attention to plot detail. So much so, that it is actually quite difficult to find holes in their plots, regardless of how silly and far-fetched they may turn out to be (looking at you, Vice City). With that said, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a story about Arthur Morgan. A character most gamers will know from Red Dead Redemption (2010). He is a high-ranking member of the Dutch Van der Linde Gang, lead by the ambivalent Dutch Van der Linde. Arthur’s tale intertwines with all of the members of this gang, and then some, as they try to survive in a changing world where outlaws are being hunted down quite effectively.
The onset of the story tells of how the Van der Linde Gang flees after a failed job in the town of Blackwater. It begins in a mountain pass as the Winter is coming to a close. Here, the story sets up each of the main Van der Linde characters, including John Marston, and Dutch himself. This entire opening serves as a tutorial for all of the basics that the player will need to know to survive the west. The story then depicts the gang as they head north, and settle in a small camp called Horseshoe Overlook — one of the two primary campsites players will come by during the 100-odd mission-long campaign.
Throughout the story, Dutch’s leadership becomes more and more erratic. It depicts a man who is trying his damnedest to keep his people alive, in more and more trying situations. Desperate times call for desperate measures, however, and Arthur starts to become frustrated with Dutch’s leadership. Through this, the gang starts to unravel as strife sets in among the gang members, both new and old.
The story in Red Dead Redemption 2 spans across a gigantic map, one that players can traverse the entirety of, whenever they please. Arthur’s journey may begin in Horseshoe Overlook, but it quickly takes you to the town of Valentine, up through the mountains and much farther west, into much wilder territory. While events unfold, Arthur’s character receives the most nuanced character building I have ever experienced in a video game. The man deals with love, loss, betrayal and even — yes — redemption. Arthur Morgan is absolutely one of the best gaming protagonists that I have enjoyed playing as. He comes off as a rough, hard-as-nails, character, but has a real soft side to him that only a few characters manage to tap into. While hinted to at the start, the first proper show of his softer side comes by way of a side mission involving a previous love interest. It perfectly depicts the conflicting emotions one has to deal with when you still love someone, but circumstances ultimately keep you from being together.
The rest of the cast, including the aforementioned John Marston and Dutch, also receive their fifteen hours of fame. Everyone in the gang has a place, and their places do not just total up to a sum of characters you may or may not end up liking. Instead, all of these characters, including Sadie Adler, Uncle, and even Ben, and Keiran, all end up making heavy impacts on Dutch, and by extension, the player. Very few games feature such an expansive cast of characters, and far less manage manage to keep them believable and compelling throughout the entire time you spend with them; especially in the way that Red Dead Redemption 2 does.
Ultimately, the story comes to an apex when Dutch’s leadership takes a wildly different turn to what everyone in the camp expected. Suddenly, tensions skyrocket and the aforementioned strife escalates to unimaginable levels – something I did not expect to see in my initial hours with the game. Rockstar adequately avoids the pitfalls many open world games suffer from, thanks to the uniquely hand-crafted missions that extend throughout the entire game. Side missions have entire story arcs of their own, but also tie into many of the gang members. Similarly, side missions also tie into the camp and the kind of people you end up seeing more or less of.
There is so much going on in Red Dead Redemption 2, story-wise, that it is engrossingly overwhelming! Arthur’s unforgettable story and the way the side content beautifully ties into the greater scheme of things, is honestly something out of this world to experience. Unlike many other open-world titles, all missions feel unique and worthy of your time to complete. This is because they all aid to further develop the characters that you meet throughout the game. They take you to all kinds of exotic locales and both introduce and encourage you to participate in train robberies, bar fights, duels to the death, bounty hunts (all of which feature their own stories), horseback chases that often end in surprising ways, and even bank heists that have to be planned and executed by the book – or else be prepared for an unexpected end.
I am not exaggerating when I say that Red Dead Redemption 2 is absolutely massive; but it offers a truly incredible experience that is worthy of the time needed to be enjoyed.
Rootin’ tooting’ good time [Gameplay]
Beyond the exceptional narrative, gameplay elements range from basic cover and shooting mechanics, to role-playing game (RPG) elements like keeping weapons clean and polished, beards short in the summer, and wearing thick layered clothing in the winter. There are also elements where you need to keep yourself, and horse, fed and clean, and even keep the camp happy. The game also features a dynamic wanted level system, day and night cycles, the ability to hunt and fish, individual personality systems where townsfolk will remember what you did, regardless of the wanted level, and much, much more. The point is, whether you are shooting up a bank, sneaking up for a stealth takedown, or racing across the countryside to catch someone, the game really seems to feature it all.
Of everything on offer, the mechanic that gamers will do the most is shooting. Whether you take aim at humans, animals, more humans, more animals or even beer cans and targets – there is a heck of a lot of shooting to be done. Given the game’s setting, weapons range from muskets and hunting rifles to double-barreled shotguns, revolvers, and even bows. As a fan of rifles and muskets, I have to mention how wonderfully detailed Rockstar managed to make the selection of weapons look in this game. In fact, they managed to capture the look and feel for the weaponry incredibly well. They sound great, play as expected, and even feel powerful when used.
Beyond shooting, Arthur can also use his lasso to catch people and animals, drag them around, and tie them up. This feature is used extensively whenever you need to catch a target alive, whether that be a bounty or another character that you just do not want to kill. You also use the lasso to catch and tame horses, or catch prey; which is odd given that you still need to kill the animal for food. I preferred to just ‘shoot’em’ with an arrow. Nevertheless, that option is present in the game.
The cover system in Red Dead Redemption 2 is great and works well, but does not change the formula in any noticeable way. With that said, the way the cover system ties into stealth is a fantastic addition to the game. Hiding behind rocks and bushes, for example, actually keeps you out of the line of sight from predators, and other humans.
When not simply shooting things, the game does offer a pretty strong degree of strategy and tactics. During certain encounters, Arthur can choose to take the lead or let others do the job for him. Regardless of his choice, the player will have to keep an eye on the circles at the bottom left of the screen (and above the minimap and/or compass if those are not hidden). These “cores” encompass pretty much every stat in the game, including health, stamina, level of hunger, dead eye, and much more. The cores are also contextual: when you are on your horse, for instance, the animal’s own cores will be displayed at the bottom alongside your own.
In order to fill up the cores, Arthur needs to choose from a wide range of tonics, drugs, and edibles. Curatives include herbs, potions, and medicines, while stimulants include herbal infusions, steroids, and more. Eating will always keep the stamina and health cores nice and full, while smoking cigars and cigarettes, or munching on chewable tobacco, influences the dead eye and hunger cores. Tobacco, however, just like alcohol, stimulates and refreshes certain cores, while it affects others negatively. Long story short, if you forget to eat, Arthur loses weight and becomes more susceptible to damage. I found this out the hard way more than a few times.
Maintaining your firearm is a mainstay in Red Dead Redemption 2. You have to make sure that you have sufficient amounts of gun oil, which you use to polish your weapons. Weapons become dirty as you use them, or when you tread through rivers, mud, and rain. Dirty weapons have increased recoil, reduced accuracy, and reloading problems. Firing rates also become affected when the weapon is very dirty.
Clothing also plays a huge role in the game. If you wear light clothing meant for summertimes, Arthur might get cold and be susceptible to damage and getting sick when the weather turns cold, or when it rains too much. Similarly, the opposite applies when Arthur wears heavy clothing. The outfit system in this game is extensive, to say the least. When you dress Arthur, you can pick and choose from entire catalogues of clothing that include vests, jackets, chaps, pants, boots, belts, bandanas, hats, masks, and much, much more. I do recommend that players always have a bandana and mask, though. Since that is how you conceal your face when committing crimes.
Your horse, which you can lovingly name Mr Jonesie (because there are no better names, period), also needs to be fed and well maintained. Running horses too hard can cause them to become exasperated and hard to handle. They may even start to rebel against you if they do not trust you enough. If or when your horse dies, you must get a new one as well. There are no clear-cut fast travelling methods. Pick that saddle up from your dead steed, and walk it back to the camp, champ!
Furthermore, the sliding Honor scale dictates how the world and everyone in it treat you. Rob and kill innocents and you will soon be considered a menace by townsfolk. Clear your bounty, and individual townsfolk will still remember what you have done. Especially if you have not concealed your face well enough, or if you wear clothing they recognise.
Hunting and fishing are also necessities in Red Dead Redemption 2. Not only do you need to do it in order to contribute to the camp and keep a well-respected status; you also need to keep yourself fed, have enough pelts for upgrades and money, and even have the skill perfected in order to bond with some gang members.
All in all, the game has a heck of a lot that needs to be done. It is easy to get lost in the story and the epic fifty-hour narrative; but when you get lost inside activities, you may find it hard to take a breather and get back to the main quests.
My biggest issue with Red Dead Redemption 2 is definitely not about a lack of content; since that is clearly not the case. Rather, it is the opposite: there is simply too much! Most of the gameplay mechanics I mentioned must be done within the span of a day. If you keep Arthur awake for extended hours, he will get tired, and his stamina cores will become damaged and drain faster. This means that from the point where Arthur wakes up, it is up to the player to decide on what they will do that day. This includes hunting for a meal, going to the motel to get a bath, contributing to the camp (whether that includes more hunting, or robbing a few carriages or a train), get a haircut and a shave, and get dressed, while also doing things for his fellow gang members.
As much fun as everything I mentioned can be, it does become a hassle to have to do time management… for a game. After all, gamers already have to put time aside in the day in order to play. So to have to still worry about brushing and feeding Mr Jonesie Jnr, for fear of him running off or dying, can become quite a chore in the long run.
Prettier than a harlot’s corset [Performance & Visuals]
If the game has anything good going for it, is the incredible attention to detail, superb visual quality, and exceptional animation. Characters are rendered photorealistically in every sense of the word. They look and move like real people! Mix that up with incredible voice over and motion capture actors, and you get characters that are so well done, you actually start thinking that they are based on real people.
The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is just as beautiful. The map features one or two biomes that naturally change from dry, arid wastes, to lush forests and snow-capped mountains. All of these biomes also feature beautiful objects within them: well-detailed flora, and living, breathing fauna that is as believable as the characters in the world.
On top of that, the already gorgeous day and night cycles are accompanied by a dynamic weather system that can turn clear and sunny skies into a heavy downpour or even snow. When thunder strikes, the screen flashes white along with the possibility of a real, true-to-life shock that comes afterwards. I must also mention the outstanding detail that follows rain. Roads become damp and puddles starts to form when light rain has poured; but roads become entirely muddy and certain areas become filled with bodies of water, effectively making them bogs and small swamps, when it has rained for extended periods. It truly is quite phenomenal.
The game looks stunning all the way through, regardless of whether it is sunny, rainy, or whether you are indoors, busy talking with any one of your fellow gang members. And it does so, with aplomb. I played the majority of the game on an original Xbox One, and it hardly ever stuttered or broke a sweat. I must mention that I am not as susceptible to frame drops as many other people that I know, but I do sometimes notice bad frame dips. In the case of Red Dead Redemption 2, I noticed it every now and then whenever I loaded into a game or turned around a tad too fast. Overall, the game ran buttery smooth.
Very best of the West [Conclusion]
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a great game. It looks beautiful, has one of the most compelling rosters of characters that I have played in recent memory, and features a gripping story that takes you from one end of the wild west to the other.
One of the most dividing aspects of the game is Rockstar’s attention to detail. The amount of detail in the game, and what can be done is phenomenal. However, it can also feel like a chore because of the time management required to adequately get what is needed out of the game’s days. Since, you know, you only have so many hours to do so many things. Nevertheless, I commend Rockstar for including as much detail as they have. I think it comes down to the fact that the studio has no one to answer to, and can take as much time as they need to craft an outstanding experience. I commend them for this, because this freedom has allowed them to produce the phenomenal masterpiece that is Red Dead Redemption 2.
Right now, Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar’s magnum opus. It is an epic western tale that knows no limits, and offers a gaming experience unlike any other. From an absolutely engrossing narrative and unforgettable cast of characters, through to a living breathing Wild West to explore; Arthur Morgan’s story is one of legend.
|Time to complete||20+ hours for the campaign / over 50+ played for review|
|Difficulty||Normal (difficulty varies as a part of the game)|
|Acquisition||Review copy courtesy of Rockstar Games|