Rockstar Games has never been a studio ever known to pull punches. A pinnacle in the gaming community for many years, the studio is well known for their gritty depictions of whatever setting they’re trying to establish. Red Dead Redemption 2 continues that trend, creating the most living, breathing world that has ever been created.
While in some regards, the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like its own character, it also feels designed around the tale of a group of outlaws struggling against the growth of industrialization and national progress. Thus enters the Van der Linde gang. Leader Dutch and his crew of outlaws screw up an operation and are on the run. The opening couple of hours in Red Dead Redemption 2 are similar to other Rockstar titles, but on a more intimate level. Arthur Morgan is the star of the show, and even though there is an incredible cast of characters, Red Dead Redemption 2 makes sure players know that he is going to be the one holding everyone together.
While the struggle to remain relevant as a group of outlaws is an important facet of the story, the journey of survival is just as important. This ties into the world players will explore, as quite literally every inch of terrain is covered in things to do, hunt, or scavenge. On more than one occasion I set out towards a quest destination and ended up spending literally hours doing almost nothing, and loved every minute of it. Not only are any of these side tasks a lot of fun to do, most of them actually help the rest of the gang. Hunting animals yield provisions that can be taken back to camp. Catching bounties gives Arthur money that he can donate to the gang’s tithing box, and scavenging plants lets players craft tonics and herbal medicines. It’s almost easier to get caught up playing mini-games and hunting legendary animals than actually progressing the story.
Which leads to my biggest problem with Red Dead Redemption 2. The story honestly is incredible. This journey of the Van der Linde gang moving across the old west trying to evade the law while keeping themselves fed and active is an incredible journey, but it struggles with pacing. The side-activities here are almost more fun because a lot can be accomplished in a short amount of time, while there are so many story quests that even progressing from chapter 2 to chapter 3 was 20+ story missions. Almost none of the characters are uninteresting, which does help with pacing struggles, but it feels like Rockstar spent more time making the world interesting to explore than the narrative.
The more I played though, the more I thought to myself, “is that such a bad thing?” While the narrative is important, in a world as big as the one in Red Dead Redemption 2, the things to do in that world are just as important as the journey. When it’s as easy to get lost in hunting and tasks as it is here, the fun activities add just as much to the entire experience as the story does. I found myself wanting to hunt to bring food back to my crew, or looting empty homesteads to donate to the tithing box to upgrade my camp. It’s not just filler, it’s rewarding fun.
Just typing out this review is overwhelming. Figuring out which direction to take, or what I want to talk about is pulling my thoughts in many different directions. It’s easy to mention all the things that make Red Dead Redemption 2 a great game, but it’s hard to narrow on a specific avenue when everything works so well cohesively. The rural hills of the old west are a marvel to explore. The wildlife mulls about, and travelers and bounty hunters explore on their own. Red Dead Redemption 2 is an alive world that lives on whether or not you interact with it. More than one occasion had me literally stopping my horse so I could marvel at the detail in the environment. After destroying an illegal still and hogtying an enemy gang, I was leaving the area when I found a dense forest that I had to stop and look at. Grassy hills contrast the open blue sky, and beautiful rays of light cast shadows during dusk. The world often marveled me at how near-photorealistic it was. Red Dead Redemption 2 begs to be explored slowly for no other reason than to just enjoy your time in the world.
It’s this methodical playstyle that really sets Red Dead Redemption 2 apart from other titles in Rockstar’s library of open world titles. Eventually I fell into a rhythm of exploring, story missions, and side-activities, while most of the emphasis fell on non-narrative progress. It’s really unfortunate that it took me a few chapters to realize this, because up to that point, my fun had been waning. Red Dead Redemption 2’s playstyle will honestly put some gamers off, but those willing to invest the time will find a rewarding methodology to the open world western.
As I mentioned before, the world is filled to the brim with things to do. Red Dead Redemption 2 does a great job of slowly introducing new things to do as opposed to showing its hand too early. A lot of the side activities like poker or fishing end being introduced as part of the story. Hell, even the hunting activities begin with a story mission to hunt a huge bear. However, even in the story missions, Red Dead Redemption 2 always gives players a choice. If I wanted to play poker, I could, or I could walk away and continue the quest. The bear hunting mission gave me the option to continue the hunt or walk away for now. It’s this type of freedom that lets plyers enjoy things at their own pace.
By far, my favorite activities were hunting and fishing. Even hunting in Red Dead Redemption 2 is a little more in depth than other titles. As players explore, they can enter Eagle Eye mode which lets them track animals over far distances. Staying downwind and studying animals gives players a little more insight into them and goes toward compendium completion, and gives tips to what type of ammo to use to get higher animal pelt qualities. It doesn’t end at earning pelts though, as Arthur can harvest meat to use at campfires or donate to the crew’s provisions. There are hundreds of animals for players to track down, and even after 40 hours, I still have a ton to find. Fishing, my other favorite activity, is calming, and often ends up with Arthur on a lake with other members of the gang. These moments allow for some nice conversation between characters and are relaxing portions of gameplay while I’m trying to find new species of fish. When not hunting or fishing, players can play poker or dominoes, hunt bounties, look for collectible cigarette cards or dinosaur bones, rob homesteads, and the list of things go on and on.
The story missions in Red Dead Redemption 2 are as varied as the side-activities as well. Almost all of them feature some sort of similarities, and generally begin and end with riding a horse. Luckily, there are so many different tasks for players in that middle portion, that I can forgive the samey opening and closing. Missions can range from using dynamite to break one of the members of the Van der Linde gang out of jail and having a massive shoot-out to escape, to a slower rescue a Dutch family. It isn’t just the actual tasks of the missions that make them interesting either, it’s the dialogue and banter of literally every character in the game. There has to be thousands of lines of dialogue, because it’s very rare to see the same line twice. The voice acting is top-notch too, and every character in the game has received special care to just be their own person.
The combat sections are probably the weakest element in Red Dead Redemption 2. They aren’t bad per se, but anyone who has played a Rockstar title knowns exactly how it works. There are plenty of weapons for players to use; revolvers, rifles, snipers, throwing knives. There’s even a lasso to capture bounties alive and bring them back to the sheriff. Aiming any of the weapons feels a little floaty, and the responsiveness of the reticle isn’t great. This generally isn’t too big of an issue, but the larger scale battles really show the problem a bit more than the smaller ones. Cover is an important aspect of combat as well, and without it, I died more often than not. Even now, I still haven’t survived a hold-up even once.
Early on, I didn’t pay much attention to the gang tithing box, but as the story progressed and introduced me to camp upgrades, I found myself donating more of the money and items I found to it. The upgrade system is smart, as some allow Arthur to pick up more ammunition, while others unlock full map upgrades like a fast travel. Some of these are far more expensive than others, like the fast travel upgrade, which will force some players to explore on foot/hoof for a while and get used to the terrain. Keeping Arthur well-fed and clean is an important aspect of Red Dead Redemption 2 as well. The stamina, health, and dead-eye cores must be watched, as the lower they are, the less Arthur and his horse can recover. Camping out for the night, or sleeping at the gang’s camp can refill stats, but longer sessions out in the wild can quickly end up with dwindling cores. Eating and sleeping can remedy this, so it’s important to make sure to leave with proper provisions.
Speaking of Arthur’s horse, each horse Arthur tames end up being just as important to him as the rest of the gang. Brushing, leading, and feeding help build a bond between the two, allowing for longer sprinting or more health for the horse. Each horse can be named as well, which is a nice feature, and I ended up naming all of them after my pets. It sounds silly, but this actually helped me personally care about my horses a bit more. One hold-up ended up in my horse dying, so I restarted my game and bought some horse revivers so I wouldn’t lose my horse again at that point in the story. I’m glad I did too, because my horse died again at the same point. The bond didn’t end at Arthur, as I ended up caring about the well-being of my horses. This is probably exacerbated by how well designed the horses are. Even at max bonding level, I accidentally punched my horse in the hind area and it ended up kicking me in the face and running away. The level of design of every facet of Red Dead Redemption 2 is pretty outstanding, and something I’ve never seen in another open world title.
A small gripe I had with the weapon system in Red Dead Redemption 2 actually stems from the horse’s inventory system. Instead of having access to all of Arthur’s weapons at all times, players must manually equip weapons from their horse. Forgetting to do this results in firefights with fewer, less powerful weapons that Arthur always physically has on him like revolvers or throwing knives. Forgetting to equip weapons ends up in a trek back to your horse, which usually isn’t a long distance, but still made me groan in frustration a few times.
Once I really understood how Red Dead Redemption 2 was meant to be played, I enjoyed my time in the old west a lot more than I initially was. Initial impressions were strong, from sound design to world design, but the pacing really killed my enjoyment. Once I learned just to exist in the world, and let everything flow organically based on what I was in the mood to do, I enjoyed my time a lot more. Letting things play out organically provides a much better experience instead of trying to force the story forward. Players will find a well-crafted story, with incredible performances by every character, in a world where there is always something to do.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is available now for Playstation 4 and Xbox One. This review is based on a PS4 copy provided by the publisher. Purchases are available here.
Red Dead Redemption 2
- Insanely detailed and beautiful world.
- Lots of things to do.
- Seriously. So many things to do.
- Incredibly nuanced narrative, with incredible performances by the whole cast.
- Pacing issues, if playing through for the story only.