Since they practically invented the open-world sandbox with Grand Theft Auto 3, Rockstar Games has produced some of the most complex and beloved worlds in video game history. It’s been five years since its last game, Grand Theft Auto 5, debuted, and with the soon to be released Red Dead Redemption 2, we get its first experience tailored wholly around this generation of consoles.
The original Red Dead Redemption brought the western genre into video games like never before. The tale of the dying gasps of the wild west as civilization pushed towards the Pacific struck a chord with millions of fans, and the news of a prequel was met with great fanfare. However, the original game left plenty of questions unanswered and stories untold.
As I hunted down the scattered remnants of the Van der Linde gang in RDR, I wondered why John rode with them in the past, and what exactly made the gang rise to such notoriety. Red Dead Redemption 2 answers those questions and more. While doing so, it crafts the most in-depth open-world experience since The Witcher 3 and rivals that game in both storytelling and worldbuilding.
Red Dead Redemption 2 Review – A Question of Loyalty
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place in 1899, 12 years before the original. It’s around this time that the decline of the wild west lifestyle is beginning. You play as Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van der Linde gang and leader Dutch Van der Linde’s right-hand man.
As the game begins, we find the gang running across the snowy mountains of the north after a botched robbery attempt in the town of Blackwater. The initial act of RDR 2 centers around just surviving. Between the cold and a rival gang that has taken up residence in the mountains, the Van der Linde gang’s luck has turned for the worst, and just finding a place the band can call home temporarily is a struggle.
It’s in this initial act that one of the game’s overarching themes is introduced: loyalty. Dutch inspires intense loyalty from his followers, and even in the midst of a freezing blizzard, they’re willing to follow his orders despite the risk of life and limb. Arthur may be the most loyal, supporting and believing in Dutch even after the terrible situation his decisions in Blackwater put the gang in.
As the story progresses, the question of loyalty becomes a more complicated one. Many members of the gang, including a young John Marston, find themselves questioning their commitment to Dutch as his decisions and attitude moves them from a group of gold-hearted thieves (think Robin Hood and his Merry Men) who just want to live their lives free from the bonds of civilized society to a darker, more selfish band of killers.
During the story, you get to see (and shape to an extent) Arthur’s morality develop. In the beginning, he’s little more than a yes-man, there to back Dutch up with a nod or a bullet. As the game continues, there’s an internal struggle within Arthur as to whether he should be loyal to Dutch or loyal to himself. This is where the theme of redemption comes into play. How far is too far, and once you’re there, is there any coming back?
Red Dead Redemption 2 Review – A World of Change
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place in a fictional analog of the American southeast, north, midwest, and west. Although the place names are fictional, I’d say the terrain represented is as far north as Minnesota, east to Missouri, south to Louisiana, and west to California.
I don’t want to spoil any surprises the map may hold by going into a ton of detail, but fans of the original will be pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of some familiar places. Red Dead Redemption 2 has much more varied terrain in the sections of the map that are new for this game, though. In addition to the desert and plains of the original game, you can travel to snowy mountains, through the grassy heartland, and into the bayou and swamp.
This is a time period where civilization is starting to push west, so there’s an incredible blend of things going on in the world of RDR 2. In the north and northwest, you have forest, mountains, and rivers, with only a house here or there to spoil the wilderness.
In the central part of the map is the more settled heartland where you are a lot more likely to run into people. However, the heartland still has a bit of a wild feel, and the main settlements of Valentine and Strawberry look a lot like your stereotypical pioneer or western town.
To the south and southeast, you run into the bayou, which is dotted with marshes and swamps. Here you’ll find alligators, catfish, and people who don’t take kindly to strangers. This is contrasted by the sprawling Saint-Denis, a town reminiscent of New Orleans which combines the trappings of a large city with the mystique of the Creole and Cajun peoples.
No matter where the story takes you, or where you choose to spend your free time, there’s so much to do and see in RDR 2. Each location features different architecture and different culture. It was awesome to see the contrast between the very stereotypically western Valentine, where the populace is made up of ranchers and farmers, with Saint-Denis, where the NPCs speak French and dress in city fashion.
Not only is the map huge, the little touches stated above make it feel like you’re actually going somewhere. It’s not just some big homogenized mass full of fluff and filler. You can tell that the world is handcrafted and that thought was put into even the most remote of locations. Trains and stagecoaches also don’t do the usual video game trick of disappearing and appearing at random. They have their own timetables and stops, passengers board them and disembark, and the whole game is full of little things like this that add to the feeling of immersion.
Red Dead Redemption 2 Review – Gunslinger
In 1899 the semi-automatic pistol was a new invention, and revolvers were still by and far the most widely used type of sidearm. In Red Dead Redemption 2, gunfighting is a bit more subdued than that seen in Grand Theft Auto, but with what Rockstar has done with the system, it feels more vital and intimate than just firing off a submachine gun.
The type of action a gun has plays more into how it controls than almost any game I’ve seen. A Cattleman Revolver (the game’s version of the Colt Single Action Army), for example, will fire when you aim and press R2, but must be cocked with R2 before you can shoot again.
This gives an accurate portrayal of the single-action mechanism of the gun. The same gameplay mechanic holds true with repeaters, shotguns, and bolt-action rifles. You have to manually chamber a round before you can fire again. It also adds a new facet to balance for the game’s firearms. For example, you can purchase or find a Double-Action Revolver to use as a sidearm, which has an increased rate of fire over the Cattleman since there’s no need to cock it after each shot. However, the Double-Action is of a smaller caliber than the Cattleman Revolver, so you make a trade-off in damage. For a third option, though, you can fire the Cattleman revolver from the hip. Arthur will fan the hammer, increasing fire rate, but decreasing accuracy.
Arthur can carry a sidearm (and an offhand sidearm later on), and two longarms on his shoulder and back. Any weapons you don’t take with you stay with your horse. This means you have to think about what approach you want to bring to each situation before you head into it. If you’re planning a hunt or a stealth mission you’ll want to make sure to grab your bow. For mowing down enemies at a distance, you’ll want a rifle. Having to choose your armament beforehand adds a bit of realism and challenge to RDR 2, and really makes you think of the purpose behind your arsenal.
Each gun is customizable as well. If you want a fancy, engraved, matching set of pistols, you can head to your nearest gunsmith. You can modify grips, metal finishes (on multiple parts of the gun), engravings (and their finishes), barrel lengths, and more. You can also add upgrades like improved rifling and scopes to select weapons.
For much of the game, I used a customized set of Schofield pistols I modeled after Dante’s Ebony and Ivory from Devil May Cry. Arthur will use whatever sidearm you have equipped in cutscenes as well, so you get to enjoy seeing your customized guns during story bits.
Weapons stats are also affected by more than just the construction of the gun. The more familiar your character becomes with a gun by using it, the more performance they’ll get out of it. You can also switch between multiple ammunition types to increase range or damage for a firearm. You can even use ammo with special properties like being incendiary or explosive.
You have to care for your firearms as well. Over time or when you get particularly dirty, your guns will start to foul up, and you’ll need to oil them to maintain their condition. Ignore a dirty gun, and you’ll notice penalties to its various stats will crop up.
Red Dead Redemption 2 Review – A Horse of Course
One criticism the original Red Dead Redemption received was that horses felt a bit more like cars with legs than living breathing creatures. It makes sense that if you spent as much time with a horse as the characters in these games do you’d form an attachment to them. In Red Dead Redemption 2 this has been rectified thoroughly, and your relationship with horses is much deeper this time around.
Because Red Dead Redemption 2 has limited fast travel, you’re going to be using your horse to get around for the most part. Through the deserts, mountains, plains, and swamps you’ll depend on your horse to get you where you need to go. There are 19 different kinds of horses, and each breed has their own peculiarities and comes in several different colors.
You get a horse for free initially, but after that, it’s up to you what kind is right for you. You might want to get a Thoroughbred racehorse for quick speed and acceleration. However, if you’re planning on long rides, a draft horse like the Shire or Belgian Draft Horse, with their immense stamina, might be better for you.
The horse bonding system makes it worthwhile to stick with an individual horse and form a connection with them. Keeping them clean by brushing them, making sure they’re fed, and patting them will increase your bond, which will, in turn, allow you to perform more complex maneuvers on the horse, and improve their health and stamina.
Bonding with your horse is all about balance as well. If you feed your horse too much, it’ll become overweight and take a stamina penalty. If you don’t feed it enough, it can grow underweight and take a health penalty. You have to take care of your horse as diligently as you do Arthur if you want to get the most out of them.
Like with guns, you can select from a wide array of saddles, horse blankets, saddlebags, and bedrolls to outfit your horse with. You can also choose different mane and tail styles and colors, and you can keep up to four horses at the same time.
What really brings it all together, though is horse behavior. When you first ride a horse, it might act skittish and need reassuring while you ride it. When you pat it, it’ll stretch its neck and close its eyes in pleasure. I loved watching all the little reactions to stimuli that the horses have, and of course, the most realistic part of all is that they defecate just as a real horse would.
Red Dead Redemption 2 Review – Sharp-Dressed Man
The character customization is just as deep as that of the horses and guns. There are a ton of different clothing options to choose from, and you can have Arthur look like a down and out pauper or a turn of the century aristocrat and everything in between.
Again, this is a system that would have been cool with just picking from the vast array of clothes and accessories, but what’s going on in the background is what makes it really special. Arthur gets dirty, whether it be mud or blood, and you have to either wash off in a bath in town or plunge into a river to get clean. Arthur’s current hygienic state will be commented on too, so if you don’t want to be known for your stench, you need to keep clean.
Temperature comes into play in the game too. As stated above, your travels will take you through snow and desert. When choosing an outfit, you’ll have to note what sort of weather it’s appropriate for. Each area has its own temperature which fluctuates throughout the day, and it will affect your character if they’re not wearing the right outfit. Wear a winter coat in the desert of a light shirt in the snow, and you’ll find that your health core will drain faster. Luckily, you can keep a few changes of clothes on your horse, so it adds a bit of realism without making you go too far out of your way.
You’ll also find that Arthur’s hair grows as you play. It can take a few weeks of in-game time, but you’ll go from stubble to full-on ZZ Top as the clock turns. This means if you want a certain hairstyle you’ll need to visit the barber often to maintain it. It’s a far cry from when you could turn a fade to an afro in GTA San Andreas, and it adds quite a bit to the immersion and sense of the passage of time.
There’s also a bit of the survival genre in Red Dead Redemption 2. Your three meters, health, stamina, and Dead Eye, all have a core that depletes with time or overuse. As time passes, your stamina core drains which makes your stamina meter recharge slower, to remedy this, you can go to sleep or eat. The same goes for health and Dead Eye. You have to maintain Arthur’s health with food or sleep, or he won’t be at his peak. Like with horses you can also overfeed or underfeed him and receive penalties to specific stats.
All three of these stats are leveled up in real-time. The more you run, the stronger your stamina stat will get, and so on. This adds a significant RPG element that was missing from the original RDR and gives you a reward for doing something as simple as running.
Red Dead Redemption 2 Review – All the Little Things
While the large and immediately apparent aspects of this game are fantastic, it’s the little things that really bring it to life. Whether it’s hunting or fishing against a beautiful backdrop, or getting a haircut because you noticed your character’s hair has gotten a bit too long, all the little background things come together to make a thrilling and immersive world.
You know a game is good when you start thinking about its characters and its world more like they were real than just projections on a screen. It’s easy to get caught up in Red Dead Redemption 2 and start thinking of Dutch, Arthur, and others like you really know them, especially after you spend the 50-60 hour main story with them. Even after clearing the story at that mark, there’s still a ton to do and explore in the game, and it’s a bit overwhelming (in a good way).
The astounding thing about RDR 2 is that there’s not only a staggering amount of story, side quests, and places to explore but that it’s all high quality and doesn’t feel tacked on. The high level of craftsmanship in this game is evident in all its aspects, and it’s genuinely one of the best games of this generation of gaming.