Unless you’ve been living under a rock or you’re lucky enough to be on the NBN and still get your news from 2005, you’ll likely know just how big a deal Red Dead Redemption 2 is. As a follow-up not only to the original, critically-acclaimed Red Dead Redemption but also as a successor of sorts to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 5, the most profitable entertainment product of all time, it has some big shoes to fill. Of course, with over $6 billion in revenue from GTA5, Rockstar have had the distinct advantage of being able to pump in exorbitant sums of money and many, many man-hours (perhaps too many?) across the globe to make it happen. The results speak for themselves.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place some twelve years prior to the original game which, in case you haven’t had the pleasure of playing, starred one John Marston, an ex-outlaw looking to start a new life when government agents force him into hunting down and capturing the members of his former gang. In this prequel the gang, led by Dutch van der Linde, is still well and truly alive (and still including John) and on the run from the law following a botched heist. Playing as Arthur Morgan, one of Dutch’s right-hand men, you’ll help the gang pick up the pieces of their former glory in a world that no longer has a place for outlaws, rebuild their fortune and eventually find a new and permanent home.
Best draw (distance) in the West
A suitably epic and action-packed tale in its own right, the true strength of the storytelling in Red Dead Redemption 2 lies in its quieter moments and in the time it willingly takes to build its world and the characters that reside in it. Whether it’s getting positively sloshed by the fire at camp, engaging in some relaxing fishing or doing a quick hit job on a bank, there is no shortage of opportunity to spend quality time with all of the members of Dutch’s gang (and beyond), lending every moment over the 60+ hours-long campaign the kind of authenticity and importance it needs to be engaging for 60+ hours. Arthur Morgan serves as an effective protagonist, as initially jarring as it is that he’s effectively retconned into the narrative despite never being mentioned in the original. Arthur is your typical rebel with a heart of gold; rough but good-natured, not averse to criminal activity when it’s for the perceived greater good, but definitely more Robin Hood than Ted Bundy. That is until you decide you want to cause chaos, kill and rob innocent people and just generally be a complete arsehole, in which case you most certainly can.
In fact, it was at the moment that I broke into the home of a drunk, abusive father and his son, tied the father up and stole the son’s only mementos of his estranged mother that I realised that Red Dead Redemption 2 suffers from an internal struggle of sorts. On the one hand, you’ve got the Arthur of the story; perhaps not rolling with the most respectable crew, but with seemingly noble intentions, and surprisingly ‘woke’ for someone of his station. On the other hand you’ve got the Arthur of the game, an instrument of agency and choice, able to commit the most admirable or most downright dirty and heinous of deeds as the player sees fit, which more often than not feels at odds with the story’s version of him.
So here I was, after dozens of hours of watching Arthur progress as a character — while also carefully building up my in-game ‘honour’ — callously hogtying and robbing innocent people in their own homes. Why? For completion. Because it was an action facilitated and measured by the game, complete with all of the dialogue and feedback and rare collectible cards that told me that I needed to do this to do the game properly. Perhaps it’s my fault for approaching the game with a completionist mentality, and it’s undoubtedly to Rockstar’s credit for creating such a painstakingly detailed and frankly human world that this encounter felt so shitty. But boy did it feel shitty.
This looks like a good scene for a movie… The Eight Resentful Cowboys or something
You know what feels great, though? Riding fucking horses. Riding horses is central to almost everything you’ll do in Red Dead Redemption 2 and the level of care put into making sure that this single experience is engaging, believable and memorable is unparalleled. Horses in the game are characters in themselves, requiring care and attention and reciprocating with loyalty and utility. Whether you need to travel cross-country, store your weapons and provisions or transport a freshly-skinned deer carcass back to the camp to feed everyone, your horse is absolutely invaluable. Treat it well, keep it fed and clean and give it plenty of praise and you’ll gradually form a stronger bond and become an unstoppable team. And if your horse is a turd, go ahead and sell it at a stable for a more impressive steed, or attempt to break a wild stallion yourself. Much has been made of the game’s bewilderingly detailed horse testicle physics, but it’s not until you’re actually playing that you realise it’s the horse attached to the testicles that matters.
Almost everything you do in the game is a product of immense consideration and desire for the player to drive the experience as much as the experience drives the player
This level of detail isn’t exclusive to just our beautiful equine friends, either. Almost everything you do in the game is a product of immense consideration and desire for the player to drive the experience as much as the experience drives the player. Over the course of the story you’ll see and do many, many things. You’ll hunt animals, or people. You’ll rob banks, coaches, trains and homes. You’ll get drunk, gamble, fish, sing songs by the campfire and so much more. The thing that really stands out to me about Red Dead Redemption 2 is that every cool gimmick, every huge set piece moment, every unique action that occurs during story missions is something that the player can repeat in their own free time in the world, with the same nuance normally reserved for heavily scripted gameplay. There is a mind-boggling amount of incidental dialogue, contextual gameplay and bespoke animation that seamlessly integrates with even the most procedural systems in the open world to make everything incredibly rich and believable. I can’t count the number of times that I did something seemingly random and of my own accord only to have Arthur or an NPC react to it with a scarily specific conversation.
Red Dead Redemption 2 feels the most like a ‘typical Rockstar game’ when it comes time to rapidly transpose some hot lead from your weapon of choice into the brains of whomever makes the mistake of crossing your path. Much like GTAV, and naturally the original Red Dead Redemption, combat is a fast and loose affair that doesn’t so much concern itself with presenting an especially realistic or mechanically deep simulation as it does keeping you in the moment. A simple assortment of weapons along with some extreme aim assist and forgiving difficulty means you’ll rarely be challenged, but it also facilitates playing out some great cowboy fantasies like gunning down lawmen on horseback or waltzing into a bandit camp and wiping it out with just a pistol in each hand. Honestly, the few times that I did run into trouble in combat were times that I’d forget that I need to take my weapons from my horse’s saddlebags before wandering off on my own.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2018)
Of course if things do get hairy, you’ll be able to lean on Red Dead’s staple ‘Dead Eye’ system, a bullet time-esque mechanic that slows time and allows Arthur to queue up a series of shots that are then fired off when time resumes its regular flow. The system works much the same as it did in Red Dead Redemption, introducing upgrades over the course of the game that allow you to automatically or manually place shots and even highlight critical areas on enemies and wildlife. The Dead Eye mechanic, and the combat as a whole, brought back a lot of the feeling of playing another great Rockstar joint, Max Payne 3, which is a good thing because that game slaps. Did I use that term correctly? I don’t think so.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Red Dead Redemption 2 also features a plethora of RPG-like systems woven deftly into every facet of the game. For starters your health, stamina and dead eye use are all governed by ‘cores’, representations of Arthur’s overall wellbeing. Maintaining your cores by eating, sleeping or chugging tonics is important in making sure your health and such regenerate reliably in a fight. You’ll also earn experience and upgrades for your cores as you play and perform appropriate actions. On top of that, you’ll need to manage your weight and temperature, and do all of the same for your horse, which has its own cores to take care of.
Then, as if looking after Arthur isn’t enough, you’ve got a whole camp full of people to keep happy and healthy. This is most commonly done by donating money and resources to the camp, and using the camps funds to upgrade the camp and in turn your gang’s ability to use and replenish their resources. There’s never really any game-changing benefit to throwing chunks of cash at camp upgrades, but over the course of the story, your camp will move and grow and it’s nice to be able to contribute to that growth directly. The only frustration is that camp can sometimes be a very long ride from wherever your travels take you, so it’s often tempting to put off returning to camp for long stretches of time.
Oh nice is this that new ‘cod’ game?
Honestly, with so many things to consider and juggle at all times, it can be easy to get distracted and completely neglect things, but luckily the game isn’t too harsh on neglectful players. There are gameplay penalties for not looking after Arthur, his horse and his people but they’re never so huge as to get in the way. I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘survival’ mechanics in story-heavy single player games because it can ruin the pacing, but it’s all pretty low key and forgiving here. If anything, all of the subtleties and the minute systems and mechanics serve more to add depth and meaning to the world, and it works wonders. I could get off fine in most combat situations with slightly worn weapons, but taking a minute every once in a while to polish up my personalised block rifle with the custom engraving helped create a deeper connection to everything I did with it.
The player experience is tantamount to Rockstar’s vision for this game and more now than in any of their prior games is it possible to tailor the game to your own playstyle. With a very customisable HUD, a handy second-screen app and multiple camera distance options (including a full first person camera) there’s no shortage of options. Perhaps the best of the lot is the ‘cinematic camera’, which strips away the HUD and assumes complete control of the camera, framing film-like shots as you cross the gorgeous landscapes on your faithful steed. There’s even some utility in it, since switching to cinematic mode allows your horse to navigate on its own and follow paths and waypoints automatically, making it a great way to cover long stretches of ground without even having to touch the controller.
This scene, you know the one
The one thing I didn’t anticipate during my time with Red Dead Redemption 2 (although in hindsight I should’ve expected it) was just how much I would laugh. Despite the fairly grim subject matter and wanton violence that permeates the landscape, there is also a healthy dose of silliness to be found. Rockstar’s penchant for dark humour and biting satire is of course in full effect (I can’t stop talking about ‘that Lenny mission’ to everyone who plays it), but most of the fun is of the slapstick variety, as a by-product of the RAGE engine and its Euphoria-powered physics. It should be incredibly frustrating to be accidentally clotheslined by a low tree branch and die while galloping through the woods. It should be maddening to shoot a lawman off of his horse, only to have your own horse trip over his dead body, causing a huge pile-up of your fellow gang members and their horses and fail the mission. It should be, but it’s not, because it’s fucking hilarious.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is an enormous game full of contradictions. It’s a beautiful, ugly, daunting, relaxing, polished, messy game. Arthur Morgan’s story won’t go down as a classic, but the world in which it takes place, and the sheer human effort involved in crafting it won’t be forgotten any time soon. By rethinking open world game design and finding meaning in the gaps between the bigger moments it does something very un-Rockstar and embraces subtlety. That’s truly saying something in a game where your horse’s balls shrink in the cold.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher