I can tell you straight off the bat something that Red Dead Redemption 2 definitely isn’t: Grand Theft Auto in the “Wild West”. It seems to be that’s what people were expecting, but even looking back to Red Dead Redemption from 2010, the slow pace and meticulous attention to detail throughout every part of Red Dead Redemption 2 should really come as no surprise. But it’s Rockstar’s unquestionably stunning consideration of the smallest things that makes this game something truly special… if not without some strange choices.
Before we go any further, let’s take a quick step back. Red Dead Redemption 2 is set 10 years prior to Red Dead Redemption, following Arthur Morgan and the Van Der Linde gang at the turn of the 20th Century. Those who have played Redemption will already know many of the circumstances surrounding the ending, as a young John Marston is also involved in this gang. That’s the protagonist from Redemption, if you’re drawing a blank.
The Van Der Linde gang begin on the run after a mysteriously botched job in Blackwater. After traversing some snowy mountains in the early section of the game, which serves as an approximate two hour tutorial, you are then set free into the vast open world, all of which occupies the lands slightly north of where Redemption took place. This is my favourite world that Rockstar have created, and quite possibly one of the greatest ever.
You can see yourself spending hours not even touching the main story missions. During a couple of hours play through, I was challenged to a shoot-off where I won a measly $10; helped a guy escape from a pack of wolves (which I skinned and extracted the hearts from, for a luxury stew from the camp’s greasy chef, Pearson); and then saved some poor man’s life who had been bitten by a venomous snake. Philanthropist as I am, I donated some medicine to his cause and rode off as he sung my praises. Knowing my luck, he probably died anyway.
There are little events like this happening all the time. Some lead to more involved encounters, such as a wildlife photographer who is afraid of…well, wildlife. Not a wise career choice on his part. In most of the interactions, you do have a simple choice of whether or not you want to help the person in need. At one point, I came across a convict who had escaped capture, still with cuffs on his feet. I had a choice: Free him or hogtie and take him back to the sheriff’s station for a pay-out. I opted for setting him free.
What you choose will have an impact on your honour rating. Frequent murderous rampages will stop you purchasing certain outfits amongst other things, and being too good will have the same effect as well. If you stop and chat to some of the NPCs – although you only get a basic “Greet” or “Rob” with the vast majority of them – they’ll treat you slightly different depending on where your honour is currently sitting.
Clearly, a huge amount of work has been put into the development of Redemption 2 over the past seven or so years, and it’s what took some of the limelight just prior to its release. Most of you reading this review will have seen the reports of 100 hour working weeks by the staff at Rockstar, with some in the QA department in particular that weren’t even leaving work, instead favouring sleeping at their desk. It’s easy to get lost in this and derail this review, but I find it important to note that – whilst these reports do paint a dysfunctional workplace – this isn’t an issue all that uncommon in the videogame industry. Rockstar has faced these accusations before after GTA V and Red Dead Redemption, but so have an ever-growing number of other developers, including EA. It seems as though it’s almost becoming the norm in some professions to give up your life for the good of the company.
For as good and as detailed as this world is, however, Red Dead Redemption 2 just feels somewhat confused when you get to the main story. If you stick to the main story for a while, you’ll realise just how linear it is. Not that that’s an issue on its own, but I find it extremely polarising when you’re trying to be a good citizen, and you have a mission to rob a bank, which subsequently turns into a bloodbath of lawmen. That should take my honour way down, but instead it doesn’t even have an effect. Robbing innocent passengers on a train, threatening them when they don’t hand over the money? Nope, nothing.
If I take Metal Gear Solid V as an example, although it did have its own fair share of problems, its approach to traditional missions was something of a breath of fresh air. You could take it on in your own way; be it with stealth, all guns blazing, or sending in Quiet to do your dirty work. If you don’t follow the strict path in Redemption 2, you’ll be punished with a failure, making you go back and try again. I enjoy the stealth approach whenever possible, but you can’t do that when enemies will just turn around on cue and unload.
What doesn’t help with this is that the main missions aren’t that exciting. They often feel like a chore. I found myself spending most of my time just riding in between places, following another character going from A to B. OK, I’m at B, time to kill 15 enemies…at one point, the mission is to literally deliver a letter from one to another. Thankfully, Arthur quipped that he’s not delivering another fucking letter, which was a perfect echo of my thoughts.
There are some outliers, so it’s not all bad. Towards the beginning of the game, there’s a pretty funny mission involving you going to a bar, but only for one drink…just one…which, five hours later, has turned into much more than just one, and it shows you dancing with all the locals. There are a couple of others like this too, and it breaks up the missions somewhat.
The actual story is interesting and enough to keep you playing through, despite its repetitiveness. It is much less outlandish than what we saw in GTA V, with no social media moguls having their heads blown off live on stage. The Van Der Linde gang are all hanging onto leader Dutch to help save them, after all he has a “plan” to free them all of what society is becoming. Arthur is wary that nobody wants these outlaw gangs around anymore, but they still try to hold onto the past and the view that they can live without laws. It’s interesting that it commentates in several places how even the past that they’re hanging onto isn’t all that we remember it as.
As you’re going through this story, you also need to make sure you keep Arthur and your horse (McHorse in my case) fed, otherwise they’ll either lose health or, in Arthur’s case, become underweight. Eat too much food, and he’ll become overweight and fat. I was concerned when I started playing that this would become too much of a time sink, hunting for food or spending my hard earned cash on carrots and apples for my horse. But as long as you eat some meat at the end of every mission or so, you’ll be fine. It’s a good job too, because in the early game, money really is a privilege, and guns and outfits will set you back a couple of hundred dollars at least (which is quite a significant amount in-game).
This all feeds into the “realism” that Rockstar has been pushing. That realism does come at a price. As I briefly alluded to earlier, Redemption 2 adopts a deliberate slow pace, which comes out not only in keeping good eating habits, but also in hunting. Skinning each animal will show an animation of about five to ten seconds; maintaining your guns is important to keep them effective, and flicking through a shopkeepers catalogue is exactly that: flicking through page by page. Personally, this really doesn’t frustrate me like it seems to with other players, but I can certainly see their perspectives. If you have killed three or four deer and you want to skin them all for meat, you’re looking at almost a minute of skinning them, and then taking the hides to your horse to stow.
The actual gameplay is pretty much as I have come to expect from Rockstar. Combat is still a little janky, and not much improved from GTA V. Dead Eye isn’t too overpowered, so you won’t be able to take out an entire horde of enemies in one go. I still can’t get along with the first person mode either, it feels too much like a camera is stuck on your head rather than actually taking Arthur’s viewpoint.
Horse riding is implemented very well, not feeling too light or too difficult to manoeuvre. It is a bit annoying when you agree to help someone, but then accidentally walk into them on your horse if you’re turning it around. They’ll then run away and complain that you assaulted them, with no way of recovering the situation to explain that it was just an accident. I have also accidentally shot a guy hanging off a cliff when I actually meant to save them – you don’t want to mix your buttons up. At all.
I just wish that Rockstar had brought this to PC. Visually, and musically, it’s simply fantastic, and I can only imagine how good it would look running on my PC instead. I’m sure we will see it ported over at some point in the next year, and I can’t say that I don’t know why they’ve done it, which is maybe just the overly cynical part of me. Maybe.
Red Dead Redemption 2 feels in parts like it has a split personality. You’ve got the fantastic freedom of the open world, which is one of the best I’ve ever played in. But then through the middle, there’s a very rigid, linear story to get through. It feels jarring having the freedom to do what you want, to being punished for doing the wrong thing in a mission. That’s what has disappointed me most.
Of course, we still have Red Dead Online to look forward to.
You shoot my horse, boah, it’s not goin’ to end well for you.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
It is possibly the best open world that you can visit, held back by a main story that’s a bit too archaic. On the whole, it’s still highly enjoyable, so I would still highly recommend you dig into it. You’ll definitely get your money’s worth.