This is a spoiler-free review of Red Dead Redemption 2.
Red Dead Redemption 2 might just be the longest love letter ever written. It's a love letter to all of Rockstar's fans, to those who cheered on John Marston in the previous game. The game was built for anyone who saw a Western film and was inspired to be a gritty cowboy who called everyone "pardner."
The developers at Rockstar have built a landmark video game that will be remembered for years to come, setting a new benchmark for immersive open worlds in the AAA industry. From the stellar ensemble cast to the powerful character development, the title has one of the best stories the entire gaming medium has to offer. However, it's propped up by an army of distracting game mechanics that can ironically take away from the emotional experience. Despite these setbacks, Red Dead Redemption 2 is absolutely a must-play game, serving as the new pinnacle for what the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One can achieve.
Set 12 years before the events of Red Dead Redemption, players follow the story of Arthur Morgan. He's a walking, talking intimidation tactic, and he comes off as a dumb but loyal cowboy you definitely don't want to cross. He's the tacit second-in-command of the Dutch van der Linde gang, headed by the eponymous Dutch himself. The gang is constantly on the run from the law in a world that's becoming far too civilized. Arthur has to work with everyone in the gang to survive, all while Dutch promises to lead them away from the clutches of Uncle Sam.
Pelted with Overwhelming Distractions
Watching the story of Red Dead Redemption 2 unfold is an extremely slow burn. It took me nearly 60 hours to see the credits roll, doing a mixture of side quests and story missions. But there are so many activities to sidetrack you from the main story. Arthur learns how to hunt and fish fairly early into the game, and the map is littered with wild game. Everything from ravens to bison to turtles can be hunted, while a smorgasbord of fish lay waiting in various lakes and rivers. As if that wasn't enough, legendary animals await across the map, each providing their own bonuses.
And hunting is just one of the many hobbies Arthur can pursue in Red Dead Redemption 2. He can hunt for collectible cigarette cards and buried dinosaur bones, or get drunk and start fights in saloons. Arthur can rob stores and banks and trains. He can play dress up and groom his hair and beard, to a surprising amount of detail. You can find him gambling over dominoes and poker. He can do a variety of menial chores around camp to improve everyone's mood. The list goes on.
This world that Rockstar built is exorbitantly detailed and very distracting. You'll commonly run into events off the side of a road, most of which don't do much for the story at large. I've saved a woman who was tied up on the back of a guy's horse, and I've also had my horse stolen from me by a soon-to-be-dead thief. You can even race fellow horse riders.
In my time with the game, Arthur has stopped numerous stagecoach robberies and sucked venom out of a guy's snakebite wound... twice. These little events don't always have an immediate reward aside from affecting Arthur's honor. The honor meter is a simple karma system. Good, friendly actions make Arthur more honorable, while evil, mean actions make him dishonorable. It's worth noting, however, that his level of honor does profoundly affect the game's ending.
You can build or lose honor through the many ways you interact with the environment. While your weapons are holstered, aiming at an NPC brings up a menu that lets Arthur interact with them, generally with a greeting or an antagonizing statement. I was initially worried that the mechanic would get old quick, but there's a plethora of conversations to be had with even the most unnecessary characters. It's a level of depth and attention to detail that most open-world games don't have. The very same mechanic is what lets Arthur pet dogs (which is the absolute best part of the game) and tend to his horse.
But this is a Rockstar game. You're not going to peacefully interact with everything in the game. There are (almost too many) times where the answer to a question is at the end of a revolver. While the combat is passable, it doesn't do much to innovate on the formula. You find cover, pop out, shoot, reload, and try again. Sometimes you use your Dead Eye ability to get rid of enemies in one fell swoop and feel like a real quickdrawin' cowboy. Frankly, it got a little stale toward the end, with nothing keeping the gunslingin' fresh hours down the line.
It's the same gameplay Rockstar used in 2013 with Grand Theft Auto V. Actually, it's the same gameplay from the original Red Dead Redemption in 2010. It's a shame that forgiving auto-aim is the name of the game. While you can toggle it off, it's still a semi-bland third-person cover shooter. And frankly, aiming manually is a slog considering how slowly the camera tends to move. Might as well speed things along with an aimbot.
Hunting and Tedium are my Craft
The combat is one of my major gripes with the game, but there are a lot of small things that put a damper on the cowboy fun too. As with almost every other AAA open-world game, Red Dead Redemption 2 has a crafting system. And boy is it hellish. Gathering all the ingredients necessary to make almost anything can only be described as a chore.
If you need an animal pelt, you'll need to find that animal out in the wild. On top of that, you'll need to scout ahead to make sure that animal is in perfect, three-star condition. Then, and only then, will you have an opportunity at getting a perfect pelt — if you kill it with one shot from the correct weapon.
Or maybe you want to craft explosive bullets because that sounds really cool. Well, to craft just one explosive revolver bullet, you need one normal bullet and some animal fat. Then you pull out your crafting tools, crafting one bullet at a time. Your initial satchel can only carry five animal fats at a time, so you're crafting these bullets one by one, five at a time. By the end of the game, I could hold up to 300 revolver bullets. I didn't want to go through the monotony of crafting 300 explosive bullets. You can upgrade your satchel to carry more animal fat, but that requires some perfect pelts. Hunting in the game can be fun for a few hours, but the meticulous nature of gathering the right materials from specific animals can grow tiresome.
What I call meticulous is probably so for the sake of realism. I wouldn't be surprised if the word "realistic" was on every vision board at Rockstar headquarters, because that word is definitely one of the driving forces of Red Dead Redemption 2. As much as I appreciate this level of realism, it frankly serves as a detriment to the experience. There are so many roadblocks in the name of immersion that bogs down so many moments of the game.
I stopped looting bodies after the second chapter because it takes six seconds to loot a body. Keep in mind, almost every story mission leaves you with at least 10 bodies to search. And if you take your time, more often than not, a companion will ask, "What's the hold up, Arthur?" Hunting is made even slower with the time it takes to skin an animal carcass, which is gratuitously long. And while it's neat that you can see every weapon equipped on Arthur's body, the game is a constant struggle of finding your horse to re-equip weapons.
The Ultimate Ensemble Cast
But as much as I can gripe about some of the systems in Red Dead Redemption 2, it's impossible to ignore just how much good is in the game. The open world is a beautifully crafted one, and for every empty vista, there's some kind of interaction to be had. Whether it's a random one-shot or a multi-part stranger mission, each play session is bound to have something organic and memorable happen. As expected of the writers at Rockstar, there's a whole collection of zany, one-shot characters to run into, many of which I don't want to spoil.
The main story and the camp, however, stand as the best of what Red Dead Redemption 2 has to offer. The story unfolds ever so slowly, and it revels in the minute character drama seen among the members of Dutch's gang. You'll gradually learn about every member of Arthur's makeshift family, developing informed thoughts and opinions of each person. The ensemble cast is what makes the story. It's not about robbing that train, but about how everyone in camp reacts to it.
Occasional arguments will spark in camp, and if Arthur hangs around long enough, he'll get dragged into debates. When the gang celebrates with a round of singing, Arthur can join in at the press of a button. There were people I rooted for and others that I distrusted, but above all, it felt like I was part of a dysfunctional family of outlaws. All these relationships culminate in an emotional third act with an impact that's hard to deny.
The Star of the Show
Let's talk about Arthur himself. You're going to spend a lot of time in his spurred boots, and luckily, Rockstar has written one of its most likable criminals to date. The caveat with Arthur, however, is that you need to read his journal fairly regularly to appreciate his nuance, especially in the first half of the game. Arthur is obedient and loyal to Dutch's cause, but he also thinks for himself in his journal. Every page adds
this a new layer to the protagonist. He's an amateur artist who likes to sketch every animal and herb he comes across. He wonderfully misspells or fails to remember some people's names until maybe the third or fourth interaction.
While it's a bit of a cop out to relegate key character development to an easily ignored journal, it feels justified in the story. Other characters at camp will occasionally chide Arthur for "writing in that journal again," and after some loading screens, you'll see him finishing up another entry in the journal. He's portrayed as someone who journals often, opening the door to another method of fleshing out our protagonist.
With Arthur's journal, he's painted as an incredibly flawed character. He comes off as someone who wants to do good in the world but has only ever known the savagery of living outside the law. This theme only becomes more prevalent as the story progresses. By the end of the fourth chapter, I found myself focusing on the story more than anything else. Despite being an open-world experience, I needed to know what would happen to Arthur and the gang.
An Incredible Game with an Identity Crisis
One thing I'd have to recommend, however, is making a separate save file during or before chapter four. It's the best time to roam freely and explore this busy world. While the ending is absolutely worth seeing, a lot of changes come about to hamper the exploration. And that identity crisis is perhaps the most critical flaw of Red Dead Redemption 2. In the grand scheme of things, it's a game that champions player agency. You're free to go wherever you please and do what you want: hunt, fish, tame horses, harass NPCs. There's a lot to see, from Native American cave paintings to mysterious pentagrams. Even the landscape itself is a marvel to behold, with every sunset and sunrise being worthy of a screenshot.
But at the same time, it's a game that begs to be finished. Dutch's gang is on a violent roller coaster, and through Arthur, you see people react to strife in ways that reflect on the human condition. Nothing is urgent, but you'll likely have a pressing need to see what happens next anyway. There are powerful story moments supported by a stellar soundtrack, and I often found myself longing for those moments rather than wasting my time hunting and skinning elk.
Now that my journey is over, though, there's a part of me that misses that tedium. I want to go back and hunt all the animals, explore every mountaintop and winding river. There were so many little easter eggs that I've missed in Red Dead Redemption 2, and I want to take my time to find them all. Maybe it's Stockholm syndrome. Or maybe Rockstar has built one of the most realistic depictions of life itself. There's a beautiful world out there, but when obligations to the narrative get in the way, it's hard to appreciate the everyday grace of nature. After fulfilling the responsibility of seeing the story's end, I still want to experience Arthur's mundane life.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was reviewed with a retail copy of the game on the Xbox One X purchased personally by the reviewer.