DISCLAIMER: A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Platform: Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (reviewed)
Developers: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: Friday, October 26th, 2018
With eight years of development, a 2,000+ page script, a massive budget, a follow-up to a critically-acclaimed title, and one of gaming’s finest studios helming it, Rockstar Games has delivered one of the most incredible gaming experiences I’ve ever played in the form of Red Dead Redemption 2.
Many of us assumed this would be a special game given the immense talent at Rockstar but how much it would it truly deliver was always a question. After years of begging from fans, the open-world developer has finally given us the Red Dead Redemption follow-up we’ve been waiting for.
The year is 1899 (12 years before the original Redemption), Dutch’s Gang has fled the West after a failed bank heist and the feds are hot on their tale. You play as Arthur Morgan, Dutch van der Linde’s right-hand man who has run with his gang ever since he was adopted into it as a child. He’s a sarcastic brute whose loyalty to Dutch is second to none, there’s nothing more important to him than this gang which is more of a family than a group of lawbreakers.
The days of the outlaws are coming to a close as civilization throws them to the wayside, tensions are rising in the gang, and time is running out for them. It’s no longer a question of how they’ll survive but rather a question of IF they’ll survive.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is as much a story about crime and the end of an era as it is about survival. This used to be a place where the law feared the likes of Dutch’s gang but the tides have turned and now, they’re in a situation that may put all of them in the ground if they make one wrong move.
As the story escalates, it quickly evolves from a gang just trying to get their next big score into them holding on for dear life and getting enough money together to get the hell out of dodge. Loyalties are tested as the psyches of various members collapse under the stress, men lose their way, betrayals are certain to follow. It’s a story that is intense from start to finish, even when it’s allowing itself to have a slower pace at times.
Red Dead Redemption 2 features a handful of sweet, tender moments that allow you to appreciate the characters, take a break from the bloodshed, and experience something as simple as fishing with little Jack Marston. It’s little moments like these sprinkled in that help keep the game feel somewhat joyful in an otherwise dark story.
This is a character-driven story, you have a crew of 20 people with varying personalities and they all have their own reasons to be loved or hated by you. Rockstar isn’t terribly focused on constant high-octane action here (though there’s certainly plenty of that), they want to tell a very specific story and that story comes from its characters and the challenges they face, how they overcome them together.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is powerful, simply put. It’s moving, it’s gripping, and it’s got something to say about how greed corrupts and how loyalty can be tested. Whether you’re playing an intimate moment with Arthur, riding home after a long, harrowing adventure or shooting up an entire town of cops from the side of a cable car, this open world epic is always focused on delivering the most essential western story in years.
Another fascinating layer to this incredibly lengthy and large narrative is the one focused purely on Arthur Morgan. There was some question from many on how likable someone like Arthur Morgan would be. He’s not John Marston – a man with family values and a strong moral compass – Arthur is far more intense… but he’s not all bad. There’s a reason this is still called Red Dead Redemption and not Red Dead Revolution, Revenge, or one of many other fitting R words.
Rockstar has a history of letting you play as bad people, some of which don’t have much more value than that. Trevor Phillips is a terrible man, Michael De Santa is an awful husband, father, and all-around human being, Niko Bellick is a man sucked into crime and can’t let go, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that, those are the characters and they’re all part of great games but some people have criticized Rockstar for this.
Arthur Morgan is a bad man who does have a very tiny heart of gold, granted this can change depending on choices you make but the streamlined story does try to make him as empathetic as possible within reason. He helps the Native Americans in their fight against the United States government as they attempt to claim their land for oil, he looks after his own people like they’re blood relatives, and he’s even willing to help out past lovers who shattered his heart.
You do learn there’s a reason for why he’s so hardened beyond the fact this life is all he has known. There’s more depth to him than meets the eye, there’s some humanity to him even if he doesn’t always choose to show it. Are some of his means questionable and morally reprehensible? Yes but I don’t believe that it’s done without intent, he’s flawed and complex. Morgan is easily one of Rockstar’s finest protagonists, ranking up there with John Marston himself.
Another criticism the acclaimed developer has frequently faced is its portrayal of women. They’ve never had a single-player story which has you playing as a woman and while that still remains true, they go to great lengths to make them feel powerful. Sadie Adler is picked up by the gang at the start of the game after a horrific event which makes her fragile. She’s seen throughout the game as pretty weak, always crying, keeping quiet, and staying somewhat isolated, which is understandable given what happens.
Eventually, she overcomes this and becomes a fearsome gunslinging badass unafraid to get her hands bloody. She holds her own against the male-dominated gang and sets herself apart from some of the other women who do chores around your camp. Rockstar also shines a light on other groups with a plotline centered around the Native Americans’ struggles, dabbling in racism towards various ethnic groups, and more.
Some people see westerns as products that romanticize times where white people participated in very sinful acts committed against other races and groups but Rockstar makes an effort to give those groups a chance to shine as well.
While this game is a prequel, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to predict. Yes, we know some of the things that must happen because we played the first game (which isn’t needed to experience this game if you would rather be a bit more surprised) but this crime drama goes places I would’ve never guessed in a million years. The scale of this story is utterly massive and sometimes you just forget that you’re playing a follow-up to that cool cowboy game from 2010.
Heists make somewhat of a return after debuting in Grand Theft Auto V in 2013. They’re far more streamlined in Red Dead Redemption 2 but just as fun. You no longer have the massive set-up process of picking the way you execute the heist, getting gear (though there is a tiny bit of that still), and so on. It’s usually “Here’s the plan, let’s do it” and then you execute it to either great success or a failure of epic proportions.
Players have the option to rob just about anything and anyone they want in the game. All businesses can be held up, pretty much every NPC can be stopped and mugged, you can kick down doors of homes and ransack their drawers and rooms for money and valuables, and more. Larceny is easily the most fun crime to commit in the game.
That doesn’t mean you have to do any of that, though. Sure, you can don a terrifying mask to strike fear into your victims as you tie them up and shuffle through their pockets but you can also choose to be a heroic gunslinger. Donate food and money to those in need, prevent the less capable from being picked on by other gangsters, make a name for yourself as a protector rather than a villain. The choice is yours, the game never restricts you from how you want to play.
The gunplay itself has lots of weight. For starters, you can only carry about four firearms at a time (two handguns, two rifles/shotguns/a bow) all of which have holsters so you won’t have invisible pockets like GTA. The rest of your weaponry is stored on your horse where you can swap out guns as you please, it makes you think about what exactly you want to march into battle with so you’re prepared.
Getting into firefights is incredibly fun and versatile. Firing without aiming down the sights can allow you to fire faster depending on the gun, for some revolvers Arthur will rapidly move the hammer of his gun back after every shot if he’s not aiming down the sights. It’s less accurate but a hell of a lot quicker than waiting for him to use his thumb to load the next shot.
Combat feels deadlier, with it being a lot more challenging than you’d expect near the start of the game. You level up your stamina, health, and dead eye the more you play so it becomes easier but there’s still some challenge to it.
Rockstar has opted to take out combat rolls this time around and has replaced it with more of a diving mechanic, something which will be much more appreciated when RDR Online comes out. No more spamming X or Square to roll around like a Droidkia from Star Wars! If you dodge, you hit the ground and then have to stumble back on to your feet. It’s not the safest thing to do if you’re out in the open or low on health but can still save your life if you use it wisely.
There’s also a lot of dynamic elements to the action in Red Dead Redemption 2. You can tackle people down on the ground and beat them or execute them with a shot to the face, there’s more gore than past Rockstar titles, and should you attempt to mug someone, they can quickly disarm you and throw your gun off to the side and will fist fight you. Just because you have a gun doesn’t mean you have the upper hand, you’re always on your toes and trying to find and keep any advantage you can get.
Guns also need to be maintained via cleaning. At any time, you can pull a gun out and examine it up close and clean it off with gun oil. The dirtier it gets, the less powerful it is. A large part of Red Dead Redemption 2 is upkeep, maintaining your gear, your gang, and Arthur himself.
You need to take baths to keep your stamina in check, eat consistent meals to stay in good shape, and make sure your camp is stable. This sounds like it would be incredibly intrusive but it’s really not, it’s all fairly optional but if you want to be performing at peak condition, it’s recommended you do all those things. Luckily, the process for most of it is pretty speedy so it won’t take you out of action for too long.
One thing you must do is make sure your horse is ok. If you play it too risky with it, it can die and it ain’t coming back. You’ll need to get a new one and that doesn’t mean just whistle for one, you have to steal or buy one. Luckily, these stallions are pretty resilient but should you mess up, it’s a long walk back to town. One nice touch is that you can actually stop wagons roaming around and instead of just stealing them, you can actually request the driver to take you to the nearest town. It’s a really great touch that caters to the more gentle players who don’t want to steal from the innocent.
It took me about five days of non-stop playing (waking up at about 10 AM and playing until 1 – 3 AM) to finish the game, hardly making a dent in the side content. I’d say I probably invested 80 – 90 hours into the game, easily before concluding the main story. There’s still lots for me to do including a bunch of endgame specific content, the scope, and scale of this game is massive.
That’s going to sound incredibly daunting to some but let me assure you that not a second of that time felt wasted. It’s long and was tiring to play in such a short span of time to ensure it was done before writing the review but it was one of the most rewarding and gripping experiences I’ve ever had in my gaming life.
While some developers like Ubisoft overwhelm the player with a ridiculous amount of side quests, mini-games, collectibles, and more, Rockstar fills its open world with more than plenty to do but it’s not busywork. It’s all stuff you WANT to do rather than feel obligated to do to get an achievement, get 100% completion, or something along those lines.
This ranges from gambling, bounty hunting, regular hunting, robbing homes, robbing trains, sticking up stagecoaches, coming across interesting secrets in a shop like lucrative backdoor businesses that you can steal from, and of course, the return of the Strangers missions. Those side quests that introduce you to some of the more… unique individuals in the Wild West.
It’s a game I’ll be picking right back up after this review is written to continue exploring the map which is filled with secrets to explore including the first game’s map.
Yes, you can go and visit New Austin and West Elizabeth years before what they were in the original game. Armadillo is a disease-ridden town that is more of a glorified graveyard than a proper town, McFarlane’s Ranch isn’t a bustling little town quite yet, and you can witness the rise of Blackwater. It’s an incredible touch, one that Rockstar most definitely didn’t need to add but they did anyway, it’s not just a simple copy and paste of the original map, everything has been enhanced, and reworked to show some sort of evolution to what it becomes in the first game.
There are new people to talk to, new events to see, and more. It’s more than just there for the sake of being there, it’s purposeful and shows just how ambitious this game really is. While you’ll likely want to run to New Austin and West Elizabeth right away, you’ll quickly realize that the new map is just as interesting if not far more appealing.
The sheer density of it is nothing short of awe-inspiring, no hyperbole. The number of new things I was seeing up until the end of the game was really incredible, there weren’t many repeats of random events throughout my playthrough. There are so many dynamic encounters that happen in the world.
There was a moment where I was walking up to gun store and a man ran out, super excited as he had bought a new revolver. He started showing his friend with glee and then BAM, he accidentally pulled the trigger and shot his friend. The man bolted away and was gunned down by police. Another encounter saw a man on the side of the road calming his horse. He saw me coming up, walked towards me and behind his horse to talk to me and then his horse kicked him in the back of the head and killed him.
These moments of dark humor never failed to make me burst out in laughter but also made me fall in love with the randomness of Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world. It’s not just false projections of life to trick you into believing there’s something more to it than just a playground, it’s truly alive. The people inside it are living in it just as much as you are, it’s a borderline real version of Westworld.
You can find burnt down towns, war-torn Civil War battlefields, caves filled with bones and blood, people hunting and riding home with their game, and works of man-made savagery. Just as I was writing this review, I stopped to check something and was wandering down a road on a horse when someone rode past me somewhat slowly. I didn’t notice at first but after I went past them, something seemed off. I turned around and ran back toward them to find out the man on the horse was dead and had a bunch of arrows placed in his back. His horse was just mindlessly roaming with his bloody corpse on its back.
The vastness of the world is genuinely mind-boggling, it’s hard to begin to fathom how this game is on current generation consoles. There are tons of interiors to explore both in and outside of cities and settlements, the beauty of the world is indescribable, and all the intricate details on both characters and the surrounding environments are really remarkable.
There’s really nothing quite like sinking into your seat as all the vibrant greens and blues overtake you and immerse you in Rockstar’s brutal yet beautiful rendition of the American frontier. It’s a sharp contrast to the dirty browns and oranges heavily featured in the first game (and are still to be seen here) which made give it a sense of desolation and danger.
Where Red Dead Redemption 2’s faults come in to play are ironically in some of those wonderful technical aspects. Yes, the game is absolutely jaw-dropping in its visuals but it has some flaws. The frame rate can feel a bit choppy during some sequences but it’s mostly consistent, it’s not atrocious but it’s enough to be noticeable.
There are some pretty bad bugs in the game as well. I had all of my hair and beard grow back to really long lengths just a few minutes after trimming it at the barber, I had the game crash mid-mission several times during the same mission as I used dead eye to try and kill a large group of enemies, and my weapons would frequently just disappear off my body in the middle of a mission if I paused.
It should be noted that I played the game prior to the day one patch that will release when the game launches so these issues could all be fixed by then or soon after but it’s worth bringing them up nonetheless.
Even with these patchable flaws, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the peak of Rockstar’s decades-long lifespan. It’s one of the most satisfying follow-ups I’ve ever played and is an essential entry in the western genre thanks to its gripping tale of crime, greed, redemption, and survival and the immersive gameplay that makes you feel like a true cowboy/outlaw.
Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like Rockstar’s new GTA 3 as in it takes massive leaps towards a new era of open-world gaming the likes of which have never been seen or at the very least executed to this level of quality courtesy of the borderline photorealistic graphics and remarkable game design. The fact that this is where Rockstar is at right now on these current consoles, I can’t wait to see what they do with the inevitable Grand Theft Auto VI whenever that comes out.