When it comes to quality, Rockstar doesn’t skimp. That much can be said about every individual aspect that makes up Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar’s third entry in their massively popular Red Dead series. Its immediate predecessor took the world by storm when it released eight years ago, and if there was one thing I was skeptical about, it was whether the prequel could match its pacing, its story and its core character. Well, I can safely say that not only does it match it, it runs rings around it. No, I really don’t say that lightly. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that feels well ahead of its time, so much so that I daresay that developers will be referencing and learning from this, for many years to come.
Being the first game from Rockstar to be built from the ground up for new generation hardware, it’s fair to expect a great deal of depth, and boy howdy is that what you’re getting. Though, we’ll get into that shortly, so let’s take it from the top. The game is served as a prequel, set over a decade prior to the events of Red Dead Redemption. Beginning in 1899, the era of the outlaw is coming to a violent end and the Van der Linde gang is smack bang in the middle of it. Living by the old ways in a new world has given them quite the reputation, for better and for worse. You take on the role of gang member Arthur Morgan, a character that may well be Rockstar’s most interesting and likable character to date.
Following a poorly executed robbery in a town known as Blackwater, the Van der Linde gang are on the run; the nation’s law enforcement and bounty hunters never trailing too far behind. Forced to flee and fight their way through the heartland of America, you’ll cheat, steal, lie and commit just about every sin imaginable throughout your pursuit of survival. Given the sheer scope and size of the epic story alone, it wouldn’t be justified to spoil any story beats here. Hell, even a slither of the overall plot equates to several, several hours played. Instead, I’ll direct my view at the game’s structure, as well as some insight regarding Arthur. Those that played the predecessor will see some familiar faces here.
The Van der Linde Gang is a compilation of both fresh and returning characters alike; a group of outcasts and outlaws that each house their own unique ideologies and beliefs. All of whom are brought to life through a range of impressive animations and realism. Though, what’s most interesting is how the game sheds new light on many of its well known characters. John Marston, for instance, is every bit as witty and fearless as we remember him to be. Though, the game does a stellar job at introducing fans to his immature, somewhat compulsive traits, giving the character more depth alongside his forty-something hour campaign in the follow-up. It’s a refreshing focus point, and Rockstar have done well to ensure that good old John doesn’t steal too much of the proverbial limelight.
There’s no shortage of interesting members to pull from, such as the straight-talking Abigail Roberts, the loyal and passionate Javier Escuella, or even Molly O’Shea, a Dublin girl that’s clearly starting to grow tired of the gang’s lifestyle. Then there’s leader Dutch van der Linde, a character that’s consumed by the past and cant quite embrace the future; the birth of the modern world. There’s several more characters to engage with, oftentimes questioning their own principles or the morality of those around them, and as such, causing divisions in the camp that threaten to unfold it. Protagonist Arthur, however, is the gang’s most capable enforcer, a character that you’ll largely shape throughout the course of your time within.
Having been adopted by the gang when he was just a young boy, Arthur is fiercely loyal and will do whatever needs doing to provide for his wayward family. This largely acts as one of the game’s main pillars as far as the fields of play are concerned. Red Dead Redemption 2 wants you to become intimately acquainted with its outstanding cast of diverse characters, and does so to great effect, going so far as to giving you total control over the camp’s various living arrangements. This typically amounts to the usual Rockstar formula; countless character missions spread across a sprawling, living world, complimented further by heaps and heaps (and heaps) of intriguing side activities, collectibles and encounters.
The game’s campaign is spread unevenly across six expansive chapters, but you’re rarely tethered to a specific region. In fact, Red Dead Redemption 2 is surprisingly free. I found that I was able to go pretty much anywhere I wanted to from the outset, and do whatever the hell I liked. There’s a few limitations, of course. Such as specific activities that only open up through natural play, or activities that require you to bulk Arthur up, but nothing that feels unfair or harshly gated. The same can be said about the aforementioned camp – the optional heart of the whole adventure. I say optional loosely because outside of the story’s arch, there’s a lot that you can engage with and contribute to throughout.
Helping the camp consists of bringing in money and supplies, as well as upgrading the camp when you see fit. The latter of which will afford you some additional benefits, such as more wares, extra horse hitches, fast travel and so forth. Impressively, camp offers a very dynamic relationship with Arthur, and as a result, the player. The camp’s inhabitants will regularly engage in conversation with you, often commenting on your overall behavior as well as your commitment to the gang. This banter is contextual, meaning that if you approach a character following an argument or after participating in an activity, said character will react with that in mind. It’s a very effective way at making you feel more involved.
Activities range the likes of poker, drinking, robbing, fishing, hunting and more. You’re also able to adjust the way that Arthur looks. For instance, Arthur’s appearance will alter as you spend time in the game. His hair and facial hair will grow, but you can indeed maintain your look at any given time. The bottom line? The gang’s camp is upheld by a range of deep systems, and for the first time in any game I’ve played, this hub actually felt like a home thanks to its seamless design and structure. Still, as impressive as the camp is, it doesn’t have a scratch on the world overall. The game covers a vast amount of American landscapes that blend together magnificently well, at the same time as providing depth and broad variation.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the modernized city of Saint Denis, the grassy plains of the heartlands, the gator-filled swamps of the bayous, or any location in between, Red Dead Redemption 2’s gorgeous world remains stunning and exciting. Each new location has been designed in such a way to promote both exploration and interactivity. Make no mistake about it, the world and the era that it’s set in is a dangerous place for an outlaw, and that’s something that rings true at every passing second. I found myself travelling quite a bit during the initial stages of the game, just for the sake of taking in the sights and testing just how deep the game was designed to be. Hell, was I more than impressed with the outcome.
This may be somewhat of a cliche, but the living world within is chock-full of engagement. On a single trek from one county another, I stumbled across a lady that fell from her horse and needed a ride home, a man that was being savagely attacked by wolves, a band of men surrounding their broken carriage and even an ambush. You’re free to disregard these encounters entirely, or, you can help out/fight back. Given that you’ll spend a lot of your time on horseback, frequent moments like this help to spice things up a bit and keep you on your feet. The world will react to you based on how you play the game. If you’re an asshole, you’ll be treated as such, and vice versa.
This also boils down to entering any given town, being that if you have your weapon drawn, the town’s community will respond in ways that they wouldn’t if your weapon was holstered. Communicating with the world’s NPCs offers a similar outcome. Players are able to alter the flow of a conversation by using prompts such as; greet, defuse or antagonize. This affords you the option to bend the narrative in your preferred direction, and through context, serves to deepen the already in-depth adventure. The Honor system falls inline with that concept too. Arthur’s honor will change based on the player’s actions, producing new opportunities and consequences depending on where you push the system.
Although this doesn’t have a dramatic impact on the story itself, it does have some knock-on effects with how the world perceives you. You’re an outlaw, but it’s always up to you to be the outlaw that you desire. More intimately, you can improve Arthur’s capabilities through other actions in the game. This largely falls towards how you care for Arthur. Don’t feed him enough, feed him crap or even overfeed him, and his stats will respond accordingly. You can always improve your base stats, such as increasing your stamina level by running more or bulking up your health capacity by engaging in fights and such, but there’s a bigger picture at play here. Rule of thumb – look after Arthur, and he’ll look after you.
I can apply the same concept to Arthur’s horse. Unlike any other open world game on the market, horse play in Red Dead Redemption 2 takes it next level. There’s a range of varying breeds; some more ideal to use in specific terrains than others, and all will react to the world and to Arthur in varying ways through their personality traits. It pays off to bond with your horse by grooming them, by feeding them, and by calming them. This will improve a horse’s stats and in turn, improves their health, stamina, agility and whistle range. Horses are not invincible. If you injure your horse too much and lack the supplies to heal it, you’ll need to kill it and haul ass to your destination on foot with your saddle in hand.
You can of course kill a nearby local and steal their horse or catch a new horse in the wild, but again, choices are everything here and come with an impact. The point in all of this? Treat your horse well and don’t take it for granted. Much like Arthur, you can fully customize your horse’s appearance across a broad range of options. You want to ride in style, right? Well, there’s plenty of that here. Not that style matters all that much when you’ve got the law on your ass. The game’s Wanted system is notoriously strict; with each state regularly tracking criminals independently. It may be all too easy to blow the brains of a pick-pocket clean out, but is the sum stolen worth the bounty placed on your head?
Oftentimes it isn’t, but it’s damn fun all the same. When you commit a crime, you’ll have a bounty placed on your head if a witness reports it. If you don’t pay off your bounty at the local post office, any consecutive crimes will stack and before you know it, you’ll owe a small fortune to the state in which the crimes were committed. This feeds back into how you can alter Arthur’s appearance. Changing your clothes and your appearance (or wearing a bandanna during a crime) will lessen the likability that you’ll be identified, but not so much that you’re completely out of the clear. The game’s AI has a way of keeping you on your feet at all times, never truly allowing you to relax in a region that’s tracking your movements.
The more serious crimes will see bounty hunters and marshals gunning for you, which typically results in spontaneous attacks that can put you out of commission in a pinch. This is where you’ll want your best weapons at your disposal. There’s a total of over fifty unique weapons within, all of which can be customized to improve damage output, accuracy and range. You’ll need to clean your weapons fairly regularly with oil to ensure maximum performance, and if you fancy yourself some branding, you’ll be glad to know that you can alter the appearance of your firepower too; engravings, wraps, and more. The local gun-shop has everything you need, including ammo, all laid out in a well documented catalog.
You can use your horse to carry the bulk of your items, but when you’re on foot, Arthur can only carry limited inventory. You can indeed loot dead bodies or pick up their weapons if you find yourselves running low on ammo, which comes in very handy from time to time. Looting a corpse is well worth the effort. On several occasions did I find heaps of cash and useful items when raiding the dead. The same applies for robbing homes too. You’ll find a lot of wares doing this, including jewelry that can be sold at select spots for a healthy income. When engaged in combat, the returning Dead Eye feature has your back, only this time, it’s been greatly upgraded to assist you throughout conflict.
The ability to slow down time, manually select your targets or even highlight weak spots on foes and fauna is all present. There’s nothing more empowering than finding yourselves outnumbered to then trigger Dead Eye and fluidly take out half of the opposition. This also proves useful when tracking wildlife or legendary animals; killing several animals at once in a single draw. The game’s Eagle Eye feature enables you to see the scent left behind by nearby wildlife, allowing you to carefully stalk them before getting close enough to get a kill-shot in. Successfully killing an animal will grant you the ability to harvest its corpse, or, mount the body on your horse to take it back to camp for a donation.
The more you hunt the game’s wide selection of animals, the more likely you’ll be to stumble upon legendary animals. I came across a legendary bear that killed both me and my horse in no more than a single attack. These can be located on the map once you’ve uncovered their living grounds, but be warned, they’re formidable. Taking down (or attempting to, rather) the bear alone took a special bait, a lot of time and perseverance, and heavy firepower. Even then I was well out of my depth. I’ll get the bastard one day. The payoff is that any animals you harvest, as well as acquired flora, collectively goes towards selling or crafting items to ultimately better your gear, meals, items and equipment.
Rockstar has spared no effort in their creation of Red Dead Redemption 2. I’ll reiterate, this is a game that developers will be learning from for years to come. Not only does this reinvent the open world foundation, it sets a new standard. Everything just feels so alive and so dynamic. The freedom that players can utilize only emphasizes its depth. One moment you can be catching fish in an attempt to find all species, and in the next, you can shift to bounty hunting, tracking down gang hideouts, squeezing money from debtors or even taking in a show. The depth here is outstanding, and that’s not to mention the many secrets and countless other (more traditional) activities that you can partake in.
It helps that everything is so interesting. Whether you’re chasing the story or not, the writing is top-notch, further upheld by some stellar voice talent across the whole board. There’s easily over a hundred hours worth of content to soak up, with its hugely engrossing story taking up roughly half of that play-time. The entire game can be played in either third person or first person perspective, but despite how you choose to play Red Dead Redemption 2, you’re bound to be awestruck by its beauty. This is easily, without a shadow of doubt, the most photo realistic open world game of the current gen. That not only applies to the world itself, but to each and every structure and district that collectively makes it up.
I’ll extend the same level of respect to the game’s handling too. Movement is precise and accurate, giving you fluid, complete and immediate control over each situation that the game throws at you; be it general traversal on foot and on horseback, or throughout its action-packed combat segments. I cant commend the game enough for its ambition, it’s really something you have to experience first hand. In regards to Red Dead Online, this isn’t due to go live until November. When it does go live, this will be subject to a public beta and will be available to anyone that owns a copy of the game. Until then, there’s no shortage of things to do in the core offering. When all is said and done, Red Dead Redemption 2 has just redefined its genre.
Rockstar knows quality like no other. Developers across the world will be learning from Red Dead Redemption 2 for a great many years to come. The care and attention to detail within is second to none, and the depth throughout the entirety of the game’s stunning open world, as well as every component that it encompasses, is unrivaled. Simply put, Red Dead Redemption 2 is not just ambitious and revolutionary, it’s a masterpiece.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.