Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: October 26th, 2018
Reviewed On: Xbox One X
Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Price: $59.99 USD
After several years in development, Red Dead Redemption 2 has finally been released. The first game Rockstar Games has released on the current generation of consoles (not counting a handful of remasters) and the work that has been put in shows. When Rockstar Games published the names of everyone who had contributed to the game in some way, the list had over 3,000 names. I played Red Dead Redemption 2 for over 80 hours and I’m finally ready to talk about it. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to the original Red Dead Redemption.
If you are already playing the game, be sure to check out my beginner’s guide here. Finally, as a disclaimer, while Red Dead Online is launching as a beta sometime in the next few weeks, this review will only consider the single-player portion of the game. Now, here’s my Red Dead Redemption 2 review.
The game opens with the Van der Linde gang (lead by Dutch van der Linde) fleeing into snow-capped mountains. They’re on the run, as a bank robbery has gone horribly wrong, some of their number are dead or dying, others are scattered and the situation is desperate. Deep into the mountains, we assume the role of Arthur Morgan, one of Dutch’s main men. He believes in the gang and in Dutch and he’s willing to do whatever is required to make sure they all survive. He hunts to bring back food. He finds a missing member of the camp. He endures. When new robberies start to be planned out, he’s up to the task. When numerous, deadly rival gangs (and ever-encroaching lawmen) catch up to them, he’s the first defender, the vanguard. He endures. Because as long as he endures, the camp endures.
Among all the voice actors, special mention must go to Roger Clark, whose nuanced portrayal of Arthur Morgan betrays a man ahead of his time buried within a gruff criminal. His journal (which you should absolutely read) is filled with private thoughts, showing the disparity between his brutal actions and his opinions on the world at large.
All of the voice acting though, for both the gang and their rivals, is incredible and believable. When Dutch gives a speech about survival, it’s charismatic, fiery and believable. Throughout the story, the simple day-to-day actions you take build a sense of brotherhood and family. One day you might go hunting and bring back a deer. Donate the food to the camp butcher and different members of the camp will thank you for it. Each member of the gang gets an extraordinary amount of focus and no one feels out of place. Even the ‘dumb oaf’ of the group, Bill Williamson, has an intriguing amount of depth and fleshed-out motivations for the way his character evolves.
The pacing is fantastic, as you can choose to go about the game’s story quickly or take a leisurely route, exploring the world, fulfilling side tasks and more. At very few points does the game feel like it is pressuring you to get a move on, which was really remarkable. It’s rare for open-world games to get a sense of proper story pacing but here, Rockstar Games has succeeded in doing just that. Every single major story beat hits like a train of bricks and then something remarkable happens. There’s a massive change, a shift in worldview. All of a sudden, Arthur’s motivations and interactions change, the underlying purpose is radically altered. The way this transition is handled (as well as what it entails) and the care with which it is implemented is stunning and not something I’ve seen many games even try to tackle.
At the core of everything here is the gameplay, which consists of tons of controls crammed into the limited buttons and triggers of a controller. The controls are far-reaching and ambitious in scale: you can interact with every single NPC in the game, choosing to charm or antagonize them, rob them, and aim your gun. As a result, it definitely takes time to learn all the controls. There’s also a variety of options in regards to aiming, holding down or tapping buttons to run and more that you might need to tweak. Once you find the optimal settings for you, the in-depth options of how Arthur can interact with the world must be applauded, even if they aren’t quite perfect.
The honor-dishonor mechanic returns, with Arthur losing honor for thuggish actions and gaining honor for going out of his way to help people. Commit enough crimes and bounties will be taken out on you, as lawmen and bounty hunters are sent to bring you in. Shooting is much more refined in comparison to prior Rockstar titles, as guns feel powerful and the impact of every shot counts. You’ll even have to manually pull the trigger to cock back a hammer or eject spent bullets, which was an incredible touch. You’ve also got a variety of other deadly armaments in your arsenal, including tomahawks, fire bottles, throwing knives and a lasso.
You’re going to be doing a lot of horseback riding and for the most part horses handle quite well, trying to avoid obstacles, halt before cliffs and acting nervous around predators. Emphasis on “most part” as running into any decently-sized object on purpose (such as a tree) is a great way to get vaulted off your horse and thrown through the air.
Progression is handled through a new system referred to as your cores. You have a Health Core, Stamina Core and Dead Eye Core, plus two cores governing your horse’s health and stamina. When one of your stats is depleted, it’s restored by draining the core. The more full the core is, the faster that particular attribute will regenerate. You can restore these cores through resting or through a very wide variety of consumables, such as whiskey and food. These can be bought, looted or prepared at a temporary camp.
To say that this game is absolutely gorgeous might be the understatement of the year. It’s easily the best-looking console game I’ve ever seen, with simply stunning visual detail. There’s insane snow and mud deformation, as humans, horses and other animals trudge through the thick environment, struggling to find their footing. The lighting looks beautiful, with rays and shadows scattering across the world in a wonderful display.
The textures are all high-quality, which they have to be, since the entire game can be played in first-person mode, where lower-quality textures and effects won’t hold up as well under scrutiny. Character models are also highly-detailed, with mud and blood sticking realistically to their skin while sweat pouring down their foreheads.
This is a very animation-heavy game. Everything has weight, from getting off a horse to skinning animals and looting bodies. There’s no implied action – everything you can do, you see Arthur do. While immediate actions without the emphasis on animation might be preferable for some gamers, I enjoyed the slow, cinematic quality it lends the game.
It’s also worth mentioning the detail put into the different towns and NPCs. If a building is there, you can likely enter it (through the front door or illicitly) all without any form of loading. Dozens upon dozens of shopkeepers bustle about their day, drunks stagger in alleys, town residents smoke on their balconies. It’s a feast for the eyes and just one more thing that lends this world its sense of scale and immersion.
Given the setting, a huge part of the game is the audio design and the soundtrack, both of which I’m pleased to say are excellent. There’s an incredible soundtrack that wouldn’t sound out of place in a sweeping western epic, with multiple original songs that feature strong vocals and guitar-based themes. They’re used in striking moments, not as a backdrop but rather a prism through which the brutal, primal nature of this beautiful world is captured.
You’ll be using quite a few guns and other weapons, so the sounds they make are appropriately powerful and discordant. It’s not just the guns that make striking sounds though – the various wildlife has been captured perfectly. The roar of a bear, the bellows of alligators, the cries of a deer in pain, it’s all believable. When you’re on foot, low on ammo at night and you hear the shriek of a cougar, it’s legitimately horrifying.
As an added note of detail, if you are talking with another character while riding on horses, keep your distance from them and they’ll actually begin to yell their lines to you, instead of conversing normally. As this no doubt doubled the amount of dialogue recorded for these sections, it’s an impressive touch.
The scale and ambition of what Rockstar Games has done here simply cannot be overstated. This is a game that is greater than the sum of its ridiculously polished parts. The work put into the open world, the interactivity systems, the empathetic characters, it adds up to something that is absolutely worth playing. The bar has been raised. The mood, the setting, the characterization, everything here comes together to create a modern, epic western on par with or exceeding the likes of The Hateful Eight and True Grit.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a massive game, easily taking 50-60 hours just to get through the story. Yes, you absolutely need to take the time to learn and tweak all the controls. With that said, this game has my strongest possible recommendations.