Red Dead Redemption 2 Review
Men are born, and then they're formed
Rockstar Games have made a huge name for themselves since their inception almost 20 years ago. With genre-defining games like the Grand Theft Auto series, they have always continued to innovate, creating unique experiences that remain recognized to this day, like Midnight Club, Bully, and LA Noire. And there was of course Red Dead. As with many of Rockstar's properties, it was not an immediate hit – Red Dead Revolver came and went without much fanfare, but the follow-up, Red Dead Redemption, caused quite a stir. Featuring a unique setting, engaging story, high production values and fun gameplay, it was one of the best games of 2010. It's been 8 years, and the much anticipated sequel has arrive. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a great Western adventure that builds on the mechanics of the original while expanding into a huge new world, and offering the best technical visuals of this console generation.
This open world sequel takes place in 1899, as players follow the story of Van der Linde gang and assume the role of Arthur Morgan, its prominent member and effective gunslinger. It's a prequel, so the events take place before the timeline of the first game in 1911. The narrative picks up as the gang is on a desperate trek across snowy mountains, trying to escape the law and members of the Pinkerton gang after a robbery in the town of Blackwater goes very wrong. They were forced to leave the money behind and are trying to settle elsewhere, while taking advantage of local opportunities to get back on their feet. The gang is led by Dutch Van der Linde himself, while Arthur is his trusted advisor and almost like a son. We also get to meet the young John Marston, as well as other members of the gang when things were still peaceful within the group and everyone treated each other as family.
Throughout the story, players will get to observe the dynamics of the gang, and spend plenty of time with the strong supporting cast that includes Sadie, Bill, Micah, Bill, and others. Everyone has their own thoughts on how the group should conduct themselves, but Dutch usually has the final word, and he is a passionate and charismatic leader that only wants the best for his people. Arthur is also a memorable character, one with a strong personality, dedication to his crew, motivation to keep everyone fed and alive, and a strict moral code. We get to see how these characters and relationships evolve, as the group faces ever increasing problems from all sides. A lot of credit has to go to the very good writing and voice acting; the dialogue is strong throughout and the line delivery is of very high quality. It always feels like you're watching a high production Western, and these characters and their exchanges wouldn't feel out of place in a blockbuster film.
RDR2 occasionally utilizes the idea of player choice, as there will be numerous occasions where Arthur is left to decide how to deal with a hostage, how to approach a situation, or, in the heat of battle, who should cover a flank or take the first shot. These choices have consequences, but don’t expect RPG results - you will fail missions if a character dies or the law alerted. You can accept or reject main missions on a few occasions, which open up new potential branches of the story. When not in a scripted choice, Arthur can approach every NPC in the game and either greet or antagonize them, which leads to the appropriate response. You can also initiate optional additional dialogue during missions, typically while travelling.
The missions get better as the story moves along, even though they are somewhat limited in creativity given the historical setting. You'll rob trains and coaches, stations and banks, free friends from the law or rival gangs, and occasionally experience some trademark Rockstar wackiness. The game takes itself seriously most of the time, and so the light hearted moments come as a welcome reprieve. You can replay main missions to get medals for reaching goals, like meeting time limits or getting a certain amount of headshots. There are also some side missions for minor characters, but most of the time things will play out similarly – get to a location, retrieve something or someone, maybe get into a shootout, and escape. As in the original game, you can encounter strangers who offer a single mission and these can range from the same-old to something a bit more off-beat. You can also go collect debts or capture wanted criminals.
The narrative does suffer a bit due to its pacing and repetitive nature. The "slow burn" approach is usually a fine choice, but when the game's story spans well over 40 hours and has tons of missions, it's tough to maintain an engaging pace. The memorable moments take a long while to start appearing, and this leaves the game's opening 10 hours to feel like a slog. The second half definitely tries to make up for it, with fresh ideas and exciting twists, but there is still the feeling of padding out the runtime, as the grand finale keeps getting delayed by "one more big score", along with an hours-long epilogue – though fans of the first game will be familiar with this. Further, a very similar series of events occur throughout the game, even to the point of characters themselves wondering how many times this might happen. There is definitely a pattern of highs and lows, as you go from intense missions, to mundane, and back again.
Lengthy travel times are another big contributor to the game's extensive runtime. You'll spend a ton of time horseback riding, as the cities, missions, and the gang's camp are spread out across the vast open world. It frequently feels like it takes ages to get anywhere, and you're in the saddle for probably well over half of the time. You're also often accompanied by AI, who set the slow pace of the ride (or walk), as they have a ton of exposition to dump on you. You can take a ride on a train or coach between the towns after you've visited once, so it helps a bit later on, as does the ability to fast travel from the camp, once you've saved enough money to unlock it.
The game tries to break up the monotony of long rides with random events, with moderate success. You'll come across on the road who may ask for a ride back to town (which doesn’t help the pacing), a health potion to save their life from a venomous snake bite, or assistance to escape a pack of wolves. You can also be randomly ambushed and have to fight off enemies. There are also events that don't address Arthur directly, like a stage coach robbery in progress, prisoners overpowering their guards, or someone being executed. Players can observe and do nothing or try to intervene; you get very little time to decide, however. The reward for participating in these random encounters is either small and immediate, or may come later as a greater repayment or side mission. If you need even more reasons to explore, there are tons of different collectibles like dinosaur bones, cigarette cards, points of interest, treasure maps, and so on.
There are a few different small towns scattered around RDR2's vast open world and one industrialized city. In these pockets of society, you'll find vendors that buy and sell all sorts of goods. You could visit shops and doctors, the barber, gunsmiths, or the stables. Butchers will take your meats and animal skins, post offices let you pay off bounties you've racked up, and seedy vendors will take valuables that you've stolen. There's also theater showings to attend, and minigames to play like poker, dominos, and five finger fillet. Sadly, the fast-draw duels are largely absent. Most vendors close up for the night, and you can fast forward time by sleeping, be that at a hotel, at your gang's hideout, or via a temporary campfire you can deploy (though the game can be picky about where and when you can do so). To access the map you must visit the pause menu, which is difficult to get used to and takes an extra step. The typical "select" button on the controller adjusts your camera view from first to third person, and a couple of zoom levels. It's annoying because you're going to want to access the map infinitely more often than adjusting the camera.
You will also frequent the gang's camp hideout. Here, players can take a breather and sleep, idly say hello to others, listen to campfire stories, and do a few housekeeping tasks. As yet another RPG-lite mechanic, you can purchase upgrades for the kitchen, armory, sleeping quarters, and so on. These upgrades improve the items stocked at these tents, so you can grab things before heading out. The camp also has its own status icons for provisions and funds. Those very same supplies you buy appear as items to pick up, but doing so puts the camp's provisions back in the red. So you can't take the very same items you've bought for everyone, which is a bit silly. And whether you're keeping the camp fully stocked and donating a lot of money, or ignoring it completely and letting everything run dry, things do not seem to change apart from different NPC chatter, so the entire aspect feels underdeveloped.
In your spare time, you can interact with the nature all around you. Similarly to the first game, hunting is one of the main attractions. Red Dead Redemption 2 features a ton of different animals and birds to go after; from boars, bison, alligators, and deer, there is plenty of variety. You can purchase bait to attract animals, lotions to mask your own scent, and can track the target using an "eagle eye" vision. In order to get the perfect condition furs you must deal as little damage as possible - a clean arrow shot or capturing them with your lasso are the best choices. The carcasses can be taken to butchers, or you can skin the animal and get their fur and meats, the latter of which can also be sold or cooked. You can also fish by equipping the right bait for the water body (swamp, river, etc) and playing a minigame that's similar to the one in Far Cry 5. You can also gather herbs for recipes, or eat them outright.
As engaging as hunting can be, it is tough and some players may not find to be worth the effort. Animal scents can be tracked with special "eagle eye", but they are very difficult to see outside of it. It takes a lot of patience to find the animals and plenty of skill (and luck) get the perfect kill; anything less than perfect leaves you with a damaged skin that's not worth much. You can use meats for food prep, and perhaps use misc items like skulls to hang them around the camp, as aesthetic upgrades. When you finally manage to get a perfect skin or two, you can use it to craft new clothing items for Arthur, though again most are just for visual flare. The few gameplay affecting upgrades from hunting include satchels to increase carrying capacity or amulets that provide ability bonuses. The same goes for fishing and herbs – everything you need can be purchased or looted, and your inventory will typically be nicely stocked without doing much of these activities.
But if you do want to get some unique outfits from hunts, RDR2 has plenty of those. You can unlock even more looks through a challenge system, which prompts Arthur to perform gradually more difficult tasks in multitude of areas, from gunslinging to gambling to herb collecting. Unlike the first game, you can buy individual parts of an outfit, and create a unique look, whether that's a slick Western getup or a bear-slaying wildman. From a gameplay perspective, the outfits are classified as either for cold, mild, or hot environments; wearing a light shirt in the mountains is not a great idea. To further enhance your persona, Arthur's hair will grow overtime, so you can visit the barber to get a unique cut, or just trim it yourself at the camp. You'll also need to be mindful of your eating, which does have gameplay implications if you're under or overweight. It's easy to forget about this mechanic and you will probably be underweight, because most of the time you'll only remember to eat during/after combat. Food is plentiful though, as are tonics that also restore your wellbeing.
If idle exploring and hunting isn’t for you, there will be plenty of shootouts to get involved in. Red Dead Redemption 2 plays and controls quite similarly to the original. You've got a few different weapon types on offer – repeaters, long range rifles, pistols, shotguns and so on, and they all handle differently; you can satisfyingly dual wield handheld weapons. The guns can be customized in style (engravings, handles, colors) and function (longer barrels, scopes etc) at Gunsmiths, and you can also craft or purchase enhanced ammo. In combat, a simple cover system helps preserve health. You must be patient and wait for your crosshair to focus before taking the shot, lest you want to miss, or purposefully choose to fire from the hip and deliver a quick barrage of bullets. The combat is generally satisfying, with helpful auto-aim when engaging at galloping speeds, and the time-slowing, but limited duration, Dead Eye ability letting you pull off precision shots. There's not much of a difficulty curve, as enemy AI is pretty basic and headshots remain deadly all through the game.
To stay alive in battle, Arthur needs to keep tabs on three indicators. Those indicators – health, stamina, and Dead Eye – have a core, as well as a traditional gauge. Gauges deplete as normal first, as you sprint/take damage/ use Dead Eye, and then the cores start to deplete. The emptier a core, the shorter the gauge and the slower it will refill. Eating good food will restore the gauges and the cores, while tonics fill up the gauges only and can temporarily fortify them. The system is functional, and each gauge will permanently increase overtime with corresponding activities. Sprinting a lot will help you grow Stamina, headshots will improve Dead Eye over time, and brawls/physical actions get your health up. If you do happen to perish, the missions have plentiful checkpoints; you can even skip them if you get terribly stuck. And if you die in the open world, you lose a bit of cash, but otherwise restart pretty much at the same location, which is nice given how much travel time is already in the game.
Red Dead Redemption 2 also takes the horse mechanic foundations from the original game and turns it up a notch. Like Arthur, the horses have a stamina and health cores/gauges. Horses can be brushed and fed to refill their gauges, though it's rarely necessary as they restore overtime. If you use the same horse for a little while, you will form a bond with it, which unlocks a few moves, and makes it less likely to buck you off in combat or in the presence of a predator. It doesn't take long to reach maximum bond level, so you can have a stable full of trusted steeds. Also like Arthur, you can purchase various visual customizations for horses, changing their mane / tail lengths and colors, stirrups, blankets, and so on. For gameplay customization, new saddles provide bonuses to your horses' acceleration, speed, and handling. Should the horse take fatal damage, it can be revived with a tonic as long as Arthur himself survives.
While your horse is a helpful traversal companion, it also acts as key inventory space, which at times makes Arthur feel as though he's chained to it. The pony is needed if you want to take any carcasses or skins to towns after a hunt, as Arthur can't carry those by hand very far. But if you die before making it to a vendor, the horse loses your prized hunting trophies. You also have a limited inventory for weapons, which means you need to decide on a loadout and grab the extra guns each time you dismount; this affords less flexibility as situations change, but it is realistic. Horses also have a general item inventory, and a few changes of clothes for Arthur.
As such, horses are certainly very important in Red Dead Redemption 2, whether you like it or not. Sadly, they can be fairly glitchy, and aren’t very smart. The horses have no sense of danger and will happily collide head-on with oncoming carriages, or even small trees, sending Arthur flying, causing a shootout with whoever you just inconvenienced, and possibly ending the mission. These mishaps can happen even when using a new special cinematic camera, where the game takes over the steering and you just worry about the speed. The cinematic camera itself is a bit annoying as it must be manually exited, for example if you run into a random world event.
So, despite everything that it does right, RDR2 has a few mechanics that aren't all that well executed. For example, there's extraneous weapon mechanics that don't have much real impact – like using the same weapons to make them more effective, or letting them get dirty and reducing their stats. There's also a morality system, where you can gain more or less honor depending on your actions. Helping folks, and generally making "good" choices will raise the meter, while looting dead civilians and shooting up a town is generally frowned upon. As you go further into either direction, the NPCs will treat you different, and a few other things may change contextually. Being balanced or only slightly leaning either way has little impact, and as the meter is so slow moving, you will need to be very focused on which direction you want to go to see any effects.
Then there's the Wanted system, and in Red Dead Redemption 2, crime does not pay. Sticking up random civilians only gets you a few dollars, so small crimes aren't worth the trouble of having to escape the law that will begin searching the area if someone reports you. Arthur can wear a face mask to cover his identity, and stop the witnesses from leaving the scene, by whatever means necessary. You'll mostly want to stick to bigger scores like specific high-value carriages. If you are wanted, and the higher your bounty, the more law officers and bounty hunters will come after you, until you're dead or have paid it off. Plus, you will have plenty of cash from missions, so crime isn't particularly necessary.
But if you do want to be a bandit, there are some annoying inconsistencies. For example, you could kill someone in cold blood, but if you're wearing a mask, the law will just tell you to quickly leave. But in another case, you can accidentally trample over some street dog with your horse. Identified, you will then have a small bounty on your head for "animal cruelty", and if the law shows up, they shoot on sight. Things can get a bit absurd, as the law is very trigger happy and asks no questions – leading to a shootout, leading to a huge bounty. It's best to just run and pay it off to avoid the hassle. In another case, Arthur fast traveled to a town, rode out, then suddenly became wanted and the town went into lockdown - having committed no crime or even interacted with anything.
RDR 2 may pass for a film with its strong writing, voice acting, and characters – but in addition to that, it certainly tries its best to look like one. Aside from the typically well made cutscenes, this is probably the best looking open world game of the year. Running on the Xbox One X at 1080p, the visual quality here is simply unmatched by any other console game in recent years. From a technical perspective, the environmental visuals are rather astounding, and this is not a hyperbole used lightly. From the dry plains, snowy mountains and the swamps, to the centre streets of towns, the game's visuals are unparalleled in their fidelity. But most impressive are the lighting and fog effects, creating a sense of atmosphere simply unmatched anywhere else, while retaining a very sharp look to the environment, and not just blurring out the background. Add to that an immersive day and night cycle, and occasional weather changes, and you've got an extremely well designed world. It's worth noting that this is based on the Xbox One X version, so other consoles may not quite have the power to produce this level of visuals. Still, credit where it is due.
The art design in RDR2 is equally on point and the texture work is simply excellent, with full anti-aliasing there is not a jagged line in sight. The draw distance is rather striking and the game runs at an unshakable framerate. Attention to detail is also a highlight – the way Arthur brushes leaves out of the way when riding, the detailed animal skinning animation, and the terrifying melee encounters with predators. Or the way that roads become muddy during rainfall and dry up again, puddles forming in crevices as you leave hoofprints behind. In gameplay, the small touches are also memorable, like losing your hat in a firefight to a bullet, the way Arthur correctly addresses his horse depending on gender, plenty of contextual commentary from NPCs, or how they slap you when you try to rob those already living in poor conditions.
And while the game world is very detailed and looks fantastic, a few minor blemishes do exist. Shadows and some reflections at times lack the same level of polish as the world around them. The character models, while well done, aren't going to blow you away like those in more linear games such as Uncharted, but that's an understandable concession. And perhaps the weakest part of the presentation is surprisingly the soundtrack; the musical score chose to go in a very minimalistic direction. Most of the audio tracks utilize the brief, repeating melodies with seemingly as few instruments as possible. It's very subdued and on occasion fails to live up to the thrills of the scene.
RDR2 has a few technical problems, too. There are many occasions of typical open world awkwardness, as you accidentally vault over things or bump into NPCs. There are plenty of cool scripted animations, but getting them to trigger sometimes requires Arthur to awkwardly shuffle around or glide into position. The game tries to avoid this by forcing you to walk slowly indoors and at the camp, but navigation can still be awkward. Model glitches may occur, as animals or humans are stuck in their default pose and slide around. Scripting errors happen in missions, where you need to shove characters to get them to perform an action. More annoyingly, there were multiple cases of infinite loading screens that required a game restart, and occasions where Arthur was completely stuck and unable to move, shoot, bring up his weapon or inventory. None of these undermine the entire experience, but are worth noting.
Red Dead Redemption 2 will have a multiplayer component, but like GTA V, it will be launching separately next month beginning with a beta. After the rather disastrous GTA Online opening months, hopefully the developers put more effort into the online play – especially given how huge GTA Online has grown over the years. As such, this review is based entirely on the single player campaign.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game with a myriad of different mechanics, and while not all of them are executed perfectly, they come together as one great whole. It's a sequel that very much builds on the ideas of the original and sticks to its formula, while adding a few features of its own. The story can drag on a bit, but mission variety and high production values keep this Western humming along. There is so much detail packed into this world, you may continue to discover new things many hours into the adventure. The environment visuals are absolutely stunning, setting a new bar of what's possible on current generation of consoles. Whether you've been patiently waiting for a sequel for all these years, or want a high quality American frontier setting to spend many hours in, RDR 2 is the game for you.