In the year 1899, the West may well be on its way out but here in 2018 it’s better than ever in what might just be the best game of the generation. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a sweeping epic that becomes even more grandiose if you’ve played through John Marston’s tale in the original Red Dead Redemption. It’s filled with dynamic, action-packed moments we’ve come to expect from Rockstar. What I didn’t expect was that it would also be one of the richest open world RPGs I’ve ever played. This is our review of Red Dead Redemption 2.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, the clock spins backwards and you play as Arthur Morgan, the lead enforcer in the Van Der Linde gang before the events of the original Red Dead Redemption. Dutch’s crew is back in their prime, before the gang began to fall apart at the seams. Even though you’re in a similar framework to the original gang – an outlaw in the wild west – the experience of playing as Arthur is vastly different than playing as John Marston. Where John craved the simple life, to settle down with his wife and son, Arthur knows only one life.
That isn’t to say things are black and white. They’re not. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the best thing Rockstar has ever made and the best story they’ve ever told, which means you’ll be navigating the grey with the many characters you’ll encounter and party up with. Arthur has thoughts and feelings on the direction of the gang and the actions of its leader, and the posse members have thoughts about him that they’re not afraid to share. These fill in nearly every bit of white space surrounding the campaign, leaving just enough for you to inject a bit of yourself into the character and to feel invested in the people and events around you. The voice acting is well done and believable almost across the board which is remarkable for a game this large.
As a huge fan of the original Red Dead Redemption, it was a treat to find the sequel so immediately illuminating to the events of that story. Frankly, I don’t see how Rockstar could not release a RDR remaster after this. Red Dead Redemption 2 has its own, excellent arc but it’s one half of this larger experience I just wanted to go on and on. Do you need to play the original Red Dead Redemption to enjoy RDR2? Not in the slightest, but having played it so widens the experience that you’re in for a treat if you have.
The level of depth Rockstar has delivered here is nothing short of outstanding. So often, we find action games embedding RPG elements in ways that almost make them feel scotch taped on, an aria of “replay me, don’t trade me” for the core gameplay experience. Here, Red Dead Redemption 2 has transcended; the roleplaying and simulation aspects are so core to the experience that they literally make the game.
You’ll need to eat and sleep to be a fit and ready enforcer. Shaving and bathing happen, clothes get damaged if you’re attacked by a wild animal. If you carry a nasty reputation, the world will react to you with fear and trepidation… or aggression and headhunting. The choices you make and how much you contribute effects how the Van Der Linde’s react to you at camp. Your horse needs regular care; food on the trail and grooming, and if it catches wind of a predator, he’ll become spooked. Even your guns need proper maintenance.
And yes, that thing you read about horse balls is true.
It’s hard to capture just how rich the simulation Rockstar has created truly is. The developers have thought of so much and attended to so many tiny details that the world feels more real than any open world that’s existed before it. That’s including Rockstar’s gargantuan Grand Theft Auto franchise. It’s as if all of the effort they spent building the satire of Grand Theft Auto V was redirected into building the reality of Red Dead Redemption 2.
The world is stunningly beautiful. As a rule, I’m not a screenshot taker but again and again I found myself pausing on hilltops to capture beautiful landscapes and picturesque scenes of nature writ large. At one point early on, I effusively described how wonderfully they’d captured something as mundane as foliage to my wife. She, not a game player, gave me a strange look and the okay, honey nod spouses know so well. Where Grand Theft Auto revels in its urban sprawl, Red Dead Redemption is about wild country and your last fleeting moments with it.
Experienced in first person, which you definitely should do, you’ll literally get a new angle on the world. The art team has gone above and beyond packing incredible amounts of detail into every corner. In towns, I’d pore over newspaper clippings and doodads on store shelves. Combined with the RPG elements, it feels like Skyrim and Red Dead had a baby. For more than exploring and getting lost in the world, I still found myself leaning into third person more than anything, but it’s an amazing alternative that really lets you appreciate the fine detail Rockstar has built in.
But let’s get back to the simulation and RPG elements. You’ll hunt for meat to bring back to your camp, build campfires and try new recipes with the herbs you’ve gathered. While you’re down, you might brew an elixir to replenish your health or dead eye meters out in the field (or their cores which determine your regen). You’ll skin animals, collect the meat and use their pelts to craft new equipment or upgrade your camp. As you progress, you’ll upgrade your your skills, upgrade your bonds, upgrade your stats, upgrade your equipment, and the world will unfurl. Sound familiar, RPG fans?
Of course, the game includes everything we’ve come to expect from a Rockstar title and Red Dead Redemption in particular. You’ll still be taking mainline and sideline quests, encountering strangers, finding hidden treasure, gambling, fighting, and drinking more than your fair share of booze. The amount of side activities is vastly expanded, some offering high payouts and others existing purely for the fun of a little downtime. My favorite remains taking on bounties and hunting down wanted men. The thrill of the chase gets me every time.
If there’s one fault with the game, it’s that it sometimes forces a slow pace. In the beginning, you’ll spend a good few hours completing quests teaching you how to engage with the game’s many systems before it really opens up. Often, when you’ve completed a quest, you’ll be stuck with a long ride back from whence you came. The world is beautiful, but there are times when you cry out for fast travel and realize the nearest caravan is a ten minute ride away and you wish for sign posts ala The Witcher 3.
The other element we need to cover is online multiplayer which, as of yet, is still an open question. After the success of Grand Theft Auto Online, I have high expectations for what Rockstar will do with this. At the moment, however, we know precious little other than it will be inspired by the aforementioned online success story.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a triumph of a video game. With it, Rockstar has created not only the best Western of all time but perhaps the best game of this console generation. It’s deeper, richer, and better written than anything they’ve ever created. If you have even a passing interest in the open world genre, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Whether you’re in it for the action, roleplaying, the incredible simulation of 1899 America, or the engrossing story, Red Dead Redemption 2 has something for everybody.
The only thing we’re left to wonder is when, oh when, can we buy it a second time on PC?