Developer Rockstar Games doesn’t need an introduction—if you haven’t heard of them directly, you’re certainly aware of either the controversy they have stirred up, or the acclaim they’ve gathered over their decades of making slick, high production value open world games—most recently Grand Theft Auto V. Red Dead Redemption 2 has not only been hotly anticipated, it has been covered extensively since its release, and any single review or article would be hard-pressed to comprehensively cover the magnum opus that is Red Dead Redemption 2.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the video game embodiment of the ‘great American novel.’ Taking place in an ultra-violent, Tarantino-esque alternate United States at the turn of the 19th century, it’s a tale of those struggling to accept the fact that the frontier way of life was dying. A simultaneously romanticized but frank portrayal of the dying Old West, it isn’t accurate to history but is feels extremely authentic. You play as Arthur Morgan—a thuggish outlaw who has no qualms with being a heartless prick.
If you didn’t play Red Dead Redemption, you’re missing a bit of context, but since Red Dead Redemption 2 serves as a prequel to the previous game in the series, it’s not context you can’t do without. Still, I did not regret my recent playthrough of the first game, since all of the characters were fresh in my mind. John Marston, protagonist of Red Dead Redemption plays an important role, but is just another member of the Van der Linde gang—still, it was interesting seeing him in a different capacity this time around. The same goes for the rest of the gang—being able to see them in “happier” times. But these aren’t hard times as lots of different groups are chasing the Van der Linde gang: the Federal government, bounty hunters, private armies, outlaws and lots of others they have pissed off along the way.
Player character Arthur Morgan is a bastard. You have choices, though, and he can be less of a cold-hearted bastard depending on how you choose to play out situations. You can even choose to eschew killing sometimes—but he is still a murderer, and you can’t totally avoid armed conflict. Alternatively, you can embrace your dark side, though there are (often monetary) consequences. Arthur Morgan is a loner who has travelled with the Van der Linde gang for a good part of his life, and is the perfect canvas for your choice as a player, as he is so morally gray.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has some of the highest production values I’ve seen in a game, ever. Cinematics almost seamlessly blend with gameplay, while maintaining extremely high fidelity and detail. There is such an attention to detail it is excruciating. Water pools in hoofprints and carriage ruts in the rain, and steam comes off your horse after exertion if it’s cold outside. The fictional alternate reality US is full of different regions to explore, all with unique wildlife, plant life, etc. The production value continues into the story and side missions, as every single one has top-notch voice acting and scenarios that make them feel like episodes of an ongoing television show.
The world itself is vast and gorgeous, of varying terrain, and while it feels authentic, it isn’t very realistic. You can travel from dusty southwestern vistas to murky gator-filled swamps in only a few minutes on horseback. It doesn’t take much time to see Red Dead Redemption 2’s America, but there are so many details you couldn’t possible take them all in even after hundreds of hours.
As Arthur Morgan you essentially have access to a Wild West theme park. You can rustle cattle, hold up stage coaches, help people, hurt people, rob trains, gamble, fight, etc etc. There are so many activities that it would be hard not to find something to do. There is even a pretty extensive hunting and fishing aspect that has you looking for legendary animals. You can use money you earn to buy clothes, better guns, better horses, or contribute to your gang’s camp—among many other things. As with any other open world Rockstar game you can choose to follow the story, or run round making your own fun—or do a combination of both, whichever suits you.
You can carry two long guns and two pistols on you at any time, as well as a number of remedies and food items. Running or getting hurt drains your stamina or health cores respectively. Once your cores are depleted you need to eat or rest to regain them. If you eat too much food, you get fat. Too little and you are underweight—each carries their own stamina penalty. Your horse has a similar system of health and stamina cores (without the weight gain), and is also a mobile inventory station holding custom outfits as well as your armory.
Having a horse is an integral part of the Red Dead Redemption 2 experience, and a pretty detailed one. Bonding with your horse enables more options while riding, and allows you to call your horse from a further range. You aren’t forced to stick with just one horse, either, as you can stable horses to retrieve later. There are a number of ways to customize and maintain your horse, too, with different saddles, stirrups, horns, etc. Brushing and feeding your horse has its own benefits, and is part of upkeep for your faithful steed. I found myself getting attached to my horse, and was devastated when one of my first horses died. If your horse dies, it remains dead. The only way to get it back is to load an earlier save.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is huge, both in number of activities and length of story. If you ignore everything else the game has to offer and just do the story missions, it could take you over 50 hours just to complete it. A lot of it is action-packed, wall-to-wall adventure, but Red Dead Redemption 2 does little to remedy the biggest problem that its predecessor also had: travel time. You will spend a lot of time travelling from point A to point B. The sheer amount of travelling can feel tedious. There are a few fast travel options, but even using those you won’t get away from having to ride to where you want to go.
While Red Dead Redemption 2 sets a higher bar for open world games, it doesn’t really do much to transcend or innovate the genre. Instead, it’s a refinement that has been decades in the making. Despite how refined it is though, it isn’t perfect. There were lots of bugs–some small, but others big enough to make me have to start a mission over or backtrack a considerable amount. Most bugs I’ve run into are graphical—missing textures, limbs, or objects being the most frequent. Pathfinding bugs are prevalent as well, but non-player characters reacted pretty realistically as you pass through cities. The ambience is amazing, as you can overhear entire conversations, with Arthur even contextually answering if you choose to engage with them.
Just like Grand Theft Auto V before it, Red Dead Redemption 2 will have an online component in the future called, appropriately, Red Dead Online. I’m assuming it’s going to be much like Grand Theft Auto Online: players run around, do missions and interact with other players in an open world environment. I have to admit, I didn’t spend too much time in Grand Theft Auto Online, but I’m curious to see what Red Dead’s version will look like. And while there currently are no announced plans for a PC version of Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s not something I’d rule out completely.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the result of the refinement of a genre that Rockstar Games is the master of, and it shouldn’t be missed by anyone who has any interest in video games, Westerns, or compelling stories with equally compelling characters. There is not one article that could possibly cover the scope of gameplay that is available in Red Dead Redemption 2 with the nuance it deserves.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
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