Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game about details. You have to recover your hat if you lose it in a fight, you have to eat to make sure you’re strong enough to continue your journey, you bond with your horse as you ride it. All of these touches, along with a multitude of others, combine to create one of the most immersive and grounded open world experiences in any video game ever.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar’s first foray into the current generation of consoles. While Grand Theft Auto V is available on and touched up significantly for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it still is a seventh generation game at it’s core. Red Dead Redemption 2, on the other hand, utilizes the entirety of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s power, looking beautiful on the base systems, gorgeous on PlayStation 4 Pro, and especially stunning on Xbox One X. Environments are sprawling and draw distances are expansive. Character models, lip syncing, and animation are all top-notch, as one would expect from a Rockstar production. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the prettiest game I have ever laid my eyes on bar none, and I found myself stopping several times as I rode up to a cliff or along certain trails, taking in the jaw-dropping vistas and magnificent sights.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes us back to 1899, a full 12 years before the events of the original Red Dead Redemption. While Red Dead Redemption had players controlling John Marston in his adventure to hunt down his former gang members, Red Dead Redemption 2 gives players control of Arthur Morgan, right hand man to Dutch Van Der Linde, leader of the gang Marston used to run with. Being set over a decade prior to the first game, Red Dead Redemption 2 offers a very different snapshot of the west. In the first game, the wild west was basically eradicated. The few gangs and gunslingers remaining were hunted by an ever-growing and seemingly omniscient government. Red Dead Redemption 2 shows us the beginning of the end, the time when civilization had just begun to overtake the west, and this is where the story begins.
After a botched robbery in the town of Blackwater, the gang is forced eastward into snowy mountains, harsh conditions which they are ill prepared for. Red Dead Redemption 2’s opening chapter is slow and extremely linear, but deliberately so. Unlike GTA V’s opening linear segment, which lasted about 20 minutes, Red Dead Redemption 2’s first chapter takes around 2 hours to complete. Asking players to sit through the average runtime of a movie for an introduction is usually reserved for JRPGs and the like, but Red Dead Redemption 2’s opening hours are filled with interesting dialogue, character building, and tutorials for the game’s complex simulation mechanics.
The opening act also introduces you to the game’s method of storytelling. While the game features some of the most well-acted and well-produced custscenes I’ve ever seen, the majority of the exposition and character building happens through the dialogue system. Holding L2 lets you lock onto any NPC and have a conversation with them. While not as deep as something like Mass Effect in terms of what can be said (you’re usually only offered a “greet” and “antagonize” option), you can actually carry out full conversations with just about anyone by pressing any of the dialogue options more than once. Voice lines usually don’t repeat, and the conversations flow surprisingly well, although you can start to see the seams in the system after a couple conversations. Long horse rides are a staple in Red Dead Redemption 2, but talking to your fellow gang members helps to keep things interesting. These are scripted for the most part, but after the essentials are covered, the dialogue system can be used to ask more personal questions about the gang. There’s a lot of talking in Red Dead Redemption 2, but the writing and production values make it just as entertaining as the shooting.
The game’s pace is slow. That’s not to say nothing happens (some of the most critical plot points and reveals happen during down time), but you’ll spend considerably less time shooting a gun in Red Dead Redemption 2 than say, Grand Theft Auto V, or even the first Red Dead Redemption. If you can’t make it through the first chapter, then you most likely won’t make it through the rest of the game. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a slow burn, but it pays off in incredibly rewarding gameplay segments and story beats. Luckily, the game opens up in Chapter 2 and even more so as the story progresses, and this is where Red Dead Redemption 2 shines.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world is the most fully realized and detailed map I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring. While not exactly dense, the game’s world remains interesting throughout the story’s 65 or so hours. You spend a lot of time riding in Red Dead Redemption 2. A lot of the map is empty fields and plains, and towns are normally a couple minutes apart by horseback. To keep things interesting, Red Dead Redemption 2 features random encounters, or “chance encounters” as the game calls them. These range from the basic “I need a ride back to town” and “I’m going to pretend being hurt so I can steal your horse” quests to more intriguing ones I won’t spoil. Surprisingly, in my dozens of hours spent with Red Dead Redemption 2, I didn’t encounter a single repeat. Not a single one. Well, except for one.
Early in my adventure, I had helped a man who had been bitten by a poisonous snake. I gave him some medicine and was on my way. Two chapters later, I was riding along a path when I heard a man cry for help from some nearby bushes. He had been bitten by a snake, and it was the same man from before, same character model, same voice, same everything. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “the game finally cracked. I finally got a repeat.” I was about to dismount my horse and give the man medicine like I had before, expecting the exact same scene to play out just as it did before. Much to my surprise, the dialogue was a little different than I was expecting.
“That the snake bite feller? Again?”
That’s how unique and varied Red Dead Redemption 2’s chance encounters are. I didn’t get a single repeat during my entire playthrough, and the one time I thought I did, it was intentional. Not only that, I remembered exactly who I had saved from the snake bite the first time. Why? Because Red Dead Redemption 2’s random encounters rarely end after you and the stranger part ways. When I saved that man from the first snake bite, I found him hours later, sitting outside the gun store of a local town, telling the story of the man who saved him to a friend. When I walked by, he flagged me down and told me to choose anything I wanted from the gun store as thanks. I went in and chose a new rifle. There was unique dialogue with the gunsmith about the snake bite victim, too. I always felt compelled to stop for everyone while traversing Red Dead Redemption 2’s massive map. I never knew if I was getting myself involved in just a simple act of kindness or a longer narrative that would play out as I progressed through the story. The rewards are worthwhile, too. You don’t just get invisible points added to your honor meter like you would in other games. You usually get some money, a food item, or even a freebie from a local shop, things that have a tangible effect on gameplay and are of some use to the player.
While chance encounters are memorable in themselves, the real shining side content of Red Dead Redemption 2 are the Stranger storylines. Returning from the first game, Strangers are unique side characters with stories that develop as you progress through the game’s main narrative. Usually episodic in nature, these missions will have Arthur running into colorful characters from around the game’s world again and again. They range from hilariously funny to surprisingly somber, with Arthur encountering a broad spectrum of people from eccentric French artists to lonely Civil War veterans. None of the Stranger missions felt like a waste of time, and, like the chance encounters, they offer tempting rewards, some of them even being unique to their quest lines.
Whether you’re exploring the small livestock town of Valentine or roaming the bustling, smoggy streets of Saint Denis, you’ll have to remember to keep Arthur fed and groomed. Food plays a key role in Red Dead Redemption 2 thanks to the way the game handles health and stamina. There are traditional bars to manage these things, but the game introduces a core system in which you have to consume certain snacks or drinks to increase the rate your bars increase, otherwise they won’t regenerate quickly, or even at all. Luckily, this isn’t obtrusive. The cores don’t drain that fast at all, and when they do, you can remedy it in a matter of seconds. Grooming is another matter entirely. Arthur needs to stay clean or people will react poorly to him and even try to avoid him outright. At one point I went a little longer than normal without bathing, and one of my gang members took me aside when I came back to camp and made me wash myself. All of this applies to your horse as well. It needs to be fed and brushed to maintain peak performance.
Speaking of horses, there are a lot of them in Red Dead Redemption 2. The game features 19 breeds of horse, each with its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Because the frontier can be lonely at times, you’ll develop a strong bond with your horse. Your horse is unique. You name it, you have to spend time riding it to increase your bond level which unlocks new tricks and techniques and makes it so it won’t run off on you so often, and if it dies, it’s gone. That’s right, Red Dead Redemption 2 features horse permadeath, and losing a mount you’ve spent the majority of the game with is gut wrenching, especially if you’ve put a lot of money into it. The horse customization is extensive, allowing you to personalize everything about your equestrian companion from mane length and color to saddlebags to blankets.
Customization options for Arthur are immense, too. There are preset outfits like the first game, but you can also mix and match individual clothing pieces to create your own personal brand of cowboy couture. All 50+ of Red Dead Redemption 2’s weapons can be fully customized down to every minute detail. There are several metals to choose from, from silver, to gold, to blue or black iron, that can be applied to any individual part of any gun, from the barrel, to the trigger, to the hammer. There are also a handful of different engraving patterns with a range of colored metals to fill them in with, along with leather wrappings for rifles and repeaters. Everything down to the grain of the wood on your shotgun can be customized in Red Dead Redemption 2, and it’s very easy to make a stock weapon you just purchased from the local gunsmith into your own unique tool of destruction to carry with you on your travels.
Shooting these guns, however, is where Red Dead Redemption 2 falls a little short. The gunplay is lifted directly from Rockstar’s previous works, featuring a heavy lock-on auto aim system. Free aiming is clunky and slow, and hitting targets without utilizing the extremely generous targeting assistance is incredibly difficult, especially on horseback. Arthur also controls a bit awkwardly, just like previous Rockstar protagonists. Navigating tight corridors and indoor spaces can be a mess with Arthur’s wide turn radius and general unresponsiveness. Over time, I grew more comfortable with how the game wanted me to play it and the navigation issues lessened in severity, but the clunky shooting problem did not go away, and it lead to some frustrating moments.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s main story is a gripping tale of loyalty, betrayal, and change. Over its 6 chapters and 2 part epilogue, Arthur and the gang will undertake high stakes heists, daring escapes, tense shootouts, and even a standoff or two. The game’s production value elevates these missions to the next level. The animations are varied and have weight to them, guns sound loud and imposing, and there’s plenty of smoking barrels and exploding oil lamps. There’s also a slow motion kill camera ala Max Payne on some kills. The large scale gunfights in this game are visceral and are some of the best set pieces I’ve ever seen in a game thanks to masterful cinematography and sound design alongside a perfect balance of storytelling and interactivity. Rockstar knows exactly when to take control away from the player and just when to give it back to them for maximum effect.
The audio design is equally impressive. Bullets ricochet with a satisfying twang. You can feel every bullet slamming into a revolver’s cylinder. Floorboards creak and spurs jingle. Headphones are definitely a must. The score is varied and effective. Instrumental tracks kick in at just the right time and get you pumped up for a gunfight. Music is used sparingly enough to be impactful when it’s played, and each track is memorable. When the strings swell up and a guitar starts to play, you know things are about to go down.
Part of why Red Dead Redemption 2’s story hits as hard as it does is due to how likable the cast is. Each member of Dutch’s gang is fleshed out through main story missions and side activities alike. The gang is a family, and the game doesn’t let you forget that. Conversations, arguments, fights, poker games, fishing trips, all of these and more happen as you walk through the game’s various camps, and each gang member has unique dialogue depending on who’s present and where you are in the story. It’s cool sitting down with John, Bill, and Lenny to play some poker and then having John give his thoughts on a job the gang pulled a few missions earlier. The gang celebrates after big successes and the parties are some of my favorites parts of the game. I found myself sitting alongside my crew huddled around the fire, listening to Javier strum his guitar and sing while other groups of people have their own conversations nearby.
Details like these are what make Red Dead Redemption 2 stand out among other open world titles. Rockstar’s typical level of polish is on display here along with substantial improvements across the board. Weapons get rusty and dirty over time and you have to clean them or their stats will suffer. Different gang members stand guard and welcome you back to camp. I bought a sniper rifle from a gun store and returned hours later. The clerk asked how my new rifle was treating me. Little things like these make the world feel so alive, like everything is truly dynamic. Everything about Red Dead Redemption 2 is meticulously crafted. The shop catalogs are filled with advertisements and text for each product. If you don’t want to shop from a catalog, you can take things right off the shelf and buy them that way. The attention to detail here is pretty much unmatched.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s plot is easily the best story Rockstar has told to date. The writing is consistent and full of twists and turns. While the original Red Dead Redemption isn’t required to understand the sequel, clever callbacks and foreshadowing make knowledge of the original strongly recommended. Some of the plot’s strongest moments and best lines will go right over your head if you haven’t played the first game. Regardless, it’s still a gripping tale that will easily hold your attention until the credits roll. The performances are fantastic, and watching Dutch’s gradual descent from a charismatic leader to the cold-blooded killer Marston hunts down 12 years later is a pleasure thanks to an incredibly nuanced performance. Even more intriguing was Arthur. Watching him slowly come to grips with the inevitability of change and facing the fact that the time of outlaws is nearly over is highlighted by poignant writing and phenomenal acting. The entire gang is interesting, but over the course of the game, Arthur, Dutch, and the brewing conflict between the two absolutely stole the show.
Overall, Red Dead Redemption 2 is simply massive. After completing the epilogue, there is still a significant chunk of the map left unexplored. I still have fish to catch, hideouts to clear, and strangers to talk to. There is so much in Red Dead Redemption 2, and so little compromise. A fantastic story, gargantuan world, and compelling side content make Red Dead Redemption 2 one of the best games in recent years. Many people consider the original Red Dead Redemption to be one of the defining games of the last generation. I think it’s safe to say many will look back at Red Dead Redemption 2 in the same way.