The Cowboy way.
There is a moment in Red Dead Redemption 2 where you take a young boy, Jack, fishing. It is here where Arthur Morgan, the game’s main protagonist, has a discussion with Jack that in some ways can sum up most people’s experience with the game. See, the young boy describes fishing as boring, that it’s slow and that there is a lot of waiting. While Arthur attempts to explain that there are rewards in that patience, the young boy trails off in search of his own creative freedom. While Jack is excited when Arthur eventually has a bite, he is very comfortable bypassing that pacing with keeping busy with another activity. This mission also starts out innocently enough, but eventually becomes quite serious and finds a way to bleed into the overall narrative. This prequel follow-up to the stellar Red Dead Redemption can start slow with its deliberate pacing, but it is a game that rewards you when you least expect it.
Where Red Dead Redemption 2 excels so perfectly is in its storytelling. It’s not a far off assessment to say that this might very well be one of the best written games ever crafted, not only in its main quest, but in its side activities as well. In fact, the side quests are probably my favorite moments I’ve had during my 60+ hours with the game. Whether it is helping a grieving widow learn how to hunt after her husband has passed away or dealing with the aftermath of collecting money from a poor family, each and every side quest offered here leaves its own unique stamp unto this world. Every time I would see one of these quests pop up on the map, some of which only become available after certain story moments have occurred or if you are nearby them, I would race across the land to take them in, often getting side tracked with helping a random person dying on the side of the road from a snake bite, or stopping a pair of bandits from robbing a stagecoach.
While some quest givers offered me nothing more than some collectible fetch quests, the way in which these would unfold is what made them so engaging, regardless if I ended up tracking down collectible cigarette cards or some 30-odd dinosaur bones. What these side quests do is allow this large open world to feel not only more real, but lived in, a element that is missing from so many open world games. It is so often that I rarely take in side quests in the open world genre due to how boring, generic, and repetitive they can often feel. I can comfortably say that not a single quest or even the random encounters you have in this game, are boring or generic in any way. Rockstar has certainly set the bar high on how an open world should act and It will be interesting to see what this game does to the open world genre at large.
What compliments so many moments in the game is just how genuine the voice acting and writing is. Even the most bland narrative can be enhanced due to how all these elements work together. In the example I gave of helping the poor widow come to grips on how to feed herself now that her breadwinner has passed on, the voice acting, the animations given to her, as well as the superb writing, allowed this entire quest line to feel authentic and heartfelt. While some people may claim that the amount of visual detail and realism is what is to be remembered about this title, I strongly put forth that it is the title’s believability that should be at the forefront of the conversation. While I will talk more about the incredible amount of detail that has gone into the game later on, I’m not denying its importance here, I’m simply giving clarity to my point.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that will often tug at your heart strings and have you question what path you want to take Arthur on. You can choose, like I did, to make Arthur redeemable and often come to aid of those around him, or swing the pendulum to the other side and have Arthur live as a stone cold killer. These choices will impact the world around you and how Arthur sees himself. Saving a man on the side of the road may not pay off initially, but you’d be surprised how often my assistance would later pay off. Throughout many of the side quests, and even that of the main story, there are several characters from previous missions that will pop up when you least expect it. These characters will either play into some running gag, or come to your assistance later on, providing the same amount of care you gave them previously. By having these characters reappear, it furthered just how well constructed this game is and that the choices I made with Arthur, mattered, even if most of these events were scripted in some fashion.
The main story is one built around survival, both of yours and those who are part of Dutch’s gang. Each scheme that Dutch has will attempt to earn the group a huge pay day, one large enough to ensure the safety and survival of the gang for years to come. Many of these attempts to score this money fail miserably and look to not only make your gang a bigger target, but test the bonds of each member of the group. You will settle old scores, create several new ones, all in an effort to leave this land behind. As much as I would love to talk about the story and its fantastic epilogue, doing so would ruin several twists and turns that I found to be not only enjoyable, but consistently shocking, even knowing full well the fates of certain characters due to this being a prequel to the original Red Dead Redemption. The story will take you across much of the explorable map as well as a single location that is featured only once in the story. At first, an entire section of the map is closed off, or rather, it exists in a state where you are wanted Dead or Alive, quickly killed by bounty hunters if you so much as enter the state. This area is fully opened up after completing the main story and is actually a large portion of the original map from the first game, albeit somewhat empty. The entire map here is huge, spanning large open plains, alligator infested swamp lands, to snow capped mountains, each fixed with a temperature that you will need to be dressed appropriately for.
While I won’t be going to much into detail about the who’s who of Dutch’s gang, the group consists of over 20 people that reflect several personalities of the era. Apart from some key members such as Dutch van der Linde, Arthur Morgan, John Marston, and Micah Bell, you have several other interesting characters such as Uncle, Javier Escuela, Bill Williamson, Sean McGuire, Charles Smith, and Sadie Adler. Out of the entire cast, Mrs Adler is hands down my favorite of the bunch. You meet her at the very start of the game, rescuing her from a bunch of rival gang members as they have murdered her husband and taken over their homestead. During the story, Sadie becomes a key member of the group and will have your back when the time comes. Every moment I had to interact with Sadie and tackle a few missions together, sold me on this woman who has changed so drastically to adapt to her situation. The blood thirsty nature that consumes her need for revenge is genuine, and combined with the fantastic voice talents of Alex McKenna, who gives Sadie a scratchy nature to her voice that sells the character so perfectly, made her become the most enjoyable personality of the bunch.
As you complete story missions, side quests, or skinning numerous animals on a hunt, you will need to make deposits to the camp. You can donate items such as jewelry or cash to allow the gang to flourish, as well as providing medical supplies and food. At first, the thought of integrating survival aspects to the game made me sigh, as babysitting meters isn’t my idea of a good time. Thankfully, it doesn’t really take much to keep the gang satisfied as after upgrading the camp a few times, I was able to supply them with enough goods to keep the camp happy during the remainder of the game. Arthur, and his horse, however, do require a lot of food and items to keep their health, stamina, and dead-eye gauge in good standing. You can purchase or come across several food and drink items that will keep these meters healthy, and should Arthur eat too much, he will gain weight, which limits his stamina but allows him to take more damage. Reversely, having Arthur too thin, will result in greater stamina, but he will be won’t be able to take in as much damage. Maintaining a healthy balance by having Arthur take regular meals can be somewhat of a chore, but thankfully, these are quick measures to take that won’t consume much of your time.
When not dealing with the fallout of the numerous side missions or getting caught up in the lives of the various quest givers, you have a wide assortment of activities that can keep you busy for dozens of hours themselves. Apart from bounty missions, home robberies or stagecoaches to thieve, which use the existing controls, you can play domino’s, five finger fillet, and poker mini games that are playable at numerous locations across the map. While some of these activities are featured in a few quests, they are mostly scripted to move the story along. Should you want to leave civilization behind, you can enjoy some relaxing fishing, or take to the wilderness to hunt. Hunting has a massive presence to Red Dead Redemption 2 as nearly every aspect of crafting larger satchels or holsters, as well as some camp upgrades, is built around collecting perfect quality pelts. I’ll state right away that I didn’t spend too much time with the hunting here as finding animals that can offer these high quality pelts, as well as needing to kill them with certain weapons and conditions, to be far too convoluted for my tastes. However, I am glad this complexity exists as I am sure that a large percentage of the player base will consume this content happily. The systems in place for tracking is interesting, but the fact that you have a timer remaining on how long you can follow the tracks make zero sense when you can cancel and start up the timer again at any time you want, giving you an infinite amount of time to follow your prey.
With the game offering the entirety of the experience in first or third person, you can take to combat how you see fit. While I played a few missions in first person, I tended to favor the third person view far more as it just felt more natural. You can duck behind cover, even if the system to do so can be a bit clumsy if you are not perfectly lined up, an issue that had Arthur taking cover on a side that left me exposed or the few times he would climb up on the cover instead, leaving me defenseless. Aiming and shooting is based on a snap-to system that allows for some quick shooting as the targeting is mostly done for you. While a system like this could be considered to make the game far too easy, Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t a game that feels the need to be difficult and instead gives you the tools to make the combat more enjoyable. That said, you can turn off the auto-targeting should you want an even greater challenge. The snap-to aiming will often target the body mass of the enemy you are facing, allowing you to give the stick a small tug to get it lined up for a head shot. To assist in gunning down your adversary, you have a slow down mechanic called the Dead-eye system. This will slow down the world around you and allow you to target various enemies as well as where to shoot them. This mechanic will change over time giving you far more freedom than it does initially. This is also a mechanic, much like health and stamina, where you need to consume items to fill the meter back up.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s weapon variety is pretty great considering the time period it takes place in. You’ll have everything from sniper rifles, revolvers, bolt action rifles, repeater shotgun’s, to tossing out a stick of dynamite to really mess things up. There are several different guns within each weapon type that all have varying stats. One of the best pistols I unlocked was during a mission to track down a man named Billy Midnight. The automatic pistol fires extremely fast and made several encounters an absolute riot. Eventually, after completing a mission for Micah, you will be able to duel wield a pair of pistols, as you’ll be given an additional holster. Apart from that, you can hold two larger rifles as well as holding onto various items like a knife, explosives, and binoculars. Arthur won’t be able to have his entire assortment on his person at all times, so his remaining arsenal will be in his saddlebags on his horse. While it is somewhat annoying to have to reselect your loadout after you leave your horse each time, it does tie into the realism that the title is shooting for. That said, it doesn’t really make much sense that a small saddlebag can hold as much weaponry as you can buy in the game. For as much realism the title is attempting to aim for, there are several moments where concessions are certainly made.
Selecting your food, guns, and various items is handled through a radial menu that can be rather touchy and has led to several instances where Arthur would not respond to my prompts. As you need to release the LB (L1) button to select what is highlighted, it is really easy to want to let go of all the buttons and then have your actions not occur. I’ve had numerous moments trying to feed my horse where it took 3 or 4 attempts to feed her. While there are moments where the radial menu is snappy and intuitive, it still ends up suffering during all the wrong moments when you are frantically trying to stay alive.
The same awkwardness translates to several other aspects of controlling Arthur as Red Dead 2 still very much plays like a Rockstar game, for all the good and the bad that statement can mean. Arthur himself contains almost too many animations to his walking that can result in a clunkiness to subtle movements and can make lining up to interact with the environment a bigger chore than it should be. This was especially noticeable when I would be hauling ass to my horse in a crowded street as the law be shooting at me, only for Arthur to end up tackling a random stranger who was standing beside my mount. Even racing through the forest or on a road with the horse has led to numerous instances where I would slam into a tree or another person on horseback because again, subtle movements are hard. The biggest offended to this is when people cut you off in the street in a big city like Saint Denis and you’ll accidentally trample them with your horse, instigating a bounty, forcing you to leave town and find a post office to pay it off. Granted, this doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it really points out the Rockstar needs to concentrate on making the game fun, and less on how realistic it may be. Another issue that I’ve had several discussions with friends about is how how easy it is to accidentally target someone or smack your horse, in fact, there is a very popular meme about the latter sweeping the interwebs as I type this.
Now, not all animations are bad, in fact, very few are. The motion capture present here is top notch and apart from a few times where your character will awkwardly pace around in order to start the canned animation, this is some of the best animation I’ve seen. Whether it is watching people fall from a look out tower after a satisfying head shot, or watching a cougar crumple to the ground during a legendary hunt, there are so many animations that are stunning to look at. As Arthur is the main protagonist, he is loaded with far more animations than your typical npc, supporting cast or otherwise, and while everything here is incredibly well done, it can get a bit repetitive. While you will see the same animations for getting on and off a horse or jumping from a train or stagecoach, it is in the hunting and gathering where it started to really become tedious. Skinning animals can often present very long animations that you will see countless times. I have a friend online that has hunted all the legendary animals and has almost completed the perfect pelts collection and each skinning animation can range from 5 to 10 seconds. While they have thoroughly enjoyed the hunting, even they were frustrated with how long some of the skinning animations were. While I appreciate the realism that comes with how they have developed the game, seeing the same animation hundreds, if not thousands of times can again, become very tedious.
Where the original Red Dead Redemption had a series of outfits to run around in, its sequel, or rather prequel, has a vast assortment of clothing items that range from hats, coats, vests, pants, boots, and more. There are several tailors available all across the map that have an extensive catalog of clothes to peruse. You can purchase entire outfits should you want, or just a single piece of clothing that you can buy in several different colors to get your look just right. My favorite outfit, and one that I had remain on Arthur right up until the very end, was an outfit accessed through a river boat mission that saw Arthur and a few members of the gang access a private poker party on a river boat. The outfit reminded me of the clothes Mel Gibson wore in Maverick, at least from what I can recall. As you will lose your hat quite often, you can pick up any hat you knock off another person or see roll down a snowy hill, and in fact, there are special hats that cannot be purchased in store hidden in numerous locations around the map. You can also track down special face masks to use in robbing or holding up shops and banks.
As you complete missions, sell pelts, or take in a bounty mission or two, you will earn money so that you can afford these items, as well as numerous supplies for your horse. At first, you will earn money fairly slowly, limiting what you can buy since you’ll want to upgrade your campsite as well. Eventually, you’ll take on larger missions that will see you net a pretty sweet sum. By the time that I reached the end of the main campaign, I had well over six thousand dollars, and this was with buying nearly everything I could find from various shops as I would sell my stolen goods at the local fence.
Making your way across the old west has never looked better. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a stunning achievement visually and the details are everywhere. As I mentioned before, the title has a ‘lived in’ approach to its design and every town or cabin you find in the middle of nowhere is filled to the brim with history. Even just making tracks through the snow or rolling around in mud during a fight outside a saloon can just look incredible, especially when the mud transfers to your clothing. Even entering into deep water will leave a wet and dry line upon your clothes, as well as cleaning off any mud or blood that you should have upon you. Carrying a body of a wounded man or a successful hunt can leave a blood smear across your shoulder or on the back of your horse. Again, while this translates to a tremendous amount of realism that the title is to be commended for, it is the believability of its world and features that are truly more impressive. I can’t count the amount of screenshots I took of the sun coming in through the trees, turning even the most basic environment into a visual feast for the eyes. While some characters still have a flatness to them or the few npc’s that don’t nearly match up to the care and detail of Arthur or his supporting cast, there is very little here that doesn’t impress in some way. Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the best looking games period, regardless of the platform you play it on.
Rockstar has brought forth a massive collection of over 1000 actors and actresses to bring this title to life, and apart from maybe one or two instances, every single voice is perfect for this game. Roger Clark is amazing as Arthur Morgan and adds such a credibility to the role regardless of what type of Arthur you are working towards. I’ve already mentioned before, but Alex McKenna absolutely hits it out of the park with a standout performance as the blood thirsty Sadie Adler. Rob Wiethoff is back as John Marston and has a sizable amount of presence here in the game, despite being the star of his own entry in the series. To compliment the voice work is a stunning soundtrack that is worked into each mission with just the right amount of energy each scene requires. When the gang works together to help take down some workers at a factory, there is a fantastic score playing that sets the mood perfectly as all hands are on deck for a massive shootout.
Currently, the online portion of Red Dead Redemption 2 is not live and once this mode is playable, I will update this review, and possibly the score, once I have enough time to give my opinion on it. Please note that my scores are posted on various sites and I am unsure if my changed score will reflect those outlets. Given what Rockstar has been able to do with GTA Online, I am sure that the online systems in store for the title will greatly enhance the experience.
Rockstar set out to make an epic cowboy adventure with Red Dead Redemption and it remained my favorite game from the developer right up until a few hours into this stunning prequel. Red Dead Redemption 2 thrives with its believability, not just from the world it has created, but the very voices that fill its wonderful cast. Being a Rockstar game, there are aspect to its controls that I wish the developer would modernize, as they can cause a lot of frustration when they don’t work. Even as I feel finished with the game, I am still discovering secret quests like tracking down a serial killer near Valentine, or the quest I am on now in Saint Denis where I am investigating a series of cryptic writings on a few local buildings. Red Dead Redemption 2 has more than fulfilled what I wanted from the game and has delivered a truly fantastic experience that I just wish controlled a tad bit better.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was purchased by the reviewer.
All Screenshots were taken on an Xbox One X.