In the lead up to “Red Dead Redemption 2,” most of the talk surrounding the game was about just how detailed it was. Rockstar Games is known for their expansive open-world titles that feel as though every inch was combed through in a scrupulous fashion. When I started hearing about things like having to keep protagonist Arthur Morgan (Roger Clark) well-fed, having to brush and care for your horse, and a number of other real-life activities, I’ll admit I got a bit nervous about just how realistic Rockstar was making their game. It seemed as though all of these activities were things that most were playing games to avoid, and I thought perhaps this could lead to the game’s downfall. I suppose I should have had a little more faith in Rockstar’s plan, because not only do these aspects of the game avoid its detriment, they enhance it.
The story of “RDR 2” predates its predecessor by a few years, focusing on the gang that the prior protagonist, John Marston (Rob Wiethoff), was a part of before settling down with his family. In addition to John and his family, a few more returning faces are back, like gang leader Dutch van der Linde (Benjamin Byron Davis), Bill Williamson (Steve J. Palmer) and Javier Escuella (Gabriel Sloyer), just to name a few. While we do see John’s path to where he ends up in the original game, the story is very much focused on Arthur Morgan. Morgan has been with the gang for pretty much his entire life and both he and the rest of the gang must come to terms with the beginning of the end for the Wild West. As technology and civilization grow further inland, outlaws like the Van der Linde Gang are hunted down and captured for their crimes.
While “Grand Theft Auto” — Rockstar’s other open-world behemoth — is very much focused on satirizing the entirety of American culture with off-the-wall missions, odd characters and language used like a middle-schooler just learned their first “sentence-enhancer,” “RDR” has a much more mature and deeper story to tell than its close cousin. While there is still a bit of that DNA to be found in a few of its side missions, overall the game follows a much more character-driven and serious narrative. “GTA’s” tone certainly has its place, but I feel “Red Dead’s” just sinks me into the world and its characters to a more significant extent.
Again, it is all about the characters for the purpose of this story. While the Van der Linde Gang are not saints, the game does do a great job at getting you attached to this family of outlaws and making most of them people that you can genuinely root for. Dutch views the group more as a Robin Hood-esque gang, and while there is some truth there, as things progress, this sentiment begins to unwind.
Rob Wiethoff as John Marston set a strong standard for the video game protagonist in the original “RDR,” so the fact that Rockstar one-ups themselves with Arthur here is even more mind-boggling. At first glance, Arthur comes across as an unwise country boy, but as time goes on and I spent more time with him, he really shows just how intelligent he is. His journal is the primary example of this, something that updates after each in-game day and chronicles his real thoughts on certain situations that I wouldn’t otherwise pick up on. The first time I thought about finally reading it, I set aside about two-hours to read up to where I was currently at. As you come across countless individuals for the numerous side quests and main story, Arthur begins to open up even more about how he views the situation at hand. This is something that is best experienced for yourself, and while I think I want to sit on it more, he might just be the best protagonist I have ever played as in a video game.
The rest of the cast’s performance is just as good, whether it be an integral character to the storyline or just some non-playable character (NPC) you come across for a one-time encounter. Another of my favorites includes Rains Fall (Graham Greene), a Chieftain of the Wapiti Indians whose place in the story brings to light more of the injustices done to Native Americans by the U.S. government. His actor, Graham Greene, delivers a great performance in the role, along with a relevant and superb soundtrack that typically accompanies missions pertaining to him and his people.
If I went on to talk about the other characters I loved, it would likely result in me just listing every character and make this article much longer than it already is. The story that Rockstar has pulled off here is incredible and is one of the best to showcase just how excellent of a narrative a game can pull off in comparison to films and television. The main story uses its biggest moments sparingly, which in return makes them all the more poignant. The rest, though, is far from being called filler and expertly drives the narrative from place to place in its near 60-hour run-time.
In conjunction with the narrative, the gameplay in “RDR 2” is certainly the weaker link. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t excellent either. If you played the original “RDR” or any of the “GTA” games, the gunplay will likely feel familiar to you. While it is not as revolutionary as the narrative, the gunplay does feel true to the older weaponry being used in terms of the minor tweaks done to how accurate you are based on how fast you shoot. Making a return from the original game, the deadeye slowdown ability is a big help in making fights go by easier, and it is incredibly satisfying to come upon a camp of bandits, target them all in deadeye, and dispense of them in about two seconds.
The best I can compare the game to is to “Breath of the Wild,” another game with a gorgeous and fully realized open-world. While “BOTW” has a typical “Zelda” narrative with some interesting twists thrown in, the real draw is the pure gameplay of the exploration, and freedom in how you choose to carry out a variety of your tasks. “Red Dead” is the opposite, where the narrative is, by and large, its strongest suitor; yet the gameplay takes a bit of a back seat. Both are exceptional games, and again, their weaker aspects are not necessarily bad either.
A good portion of the game is spent on horseback, and thankfully the mechanics here work really well for the most part. There is an emphasis on bonding with your horse, which includes feeding, brushing and petting it when it gets anxious or hurt. Riding feels fun, but as the game progressed, making large treks across the map and through the same scenery did get a bit dull. Thankfully, there is an option with the cinematic camera to auto-drive the horse to where ever your marker is on the map, which alleviates this a bit. There are also some issues I found with the horse taking on a mind of its own when cutting through something like a forest, which would occasionally end with both my horse and me colliding face-first into a tree. The story itself does incorporate this bond for a good reason though, and through all the labors of caring for it, I never thought that the horse would be the thing I got the most emotionally invested in.
One of the main focal points of how you play is the honor system, which is based on a number of your choices as Arthur and dictate how the world sees you and how some key story beats play out. Say you’re riding out to town and a man comes out of the woods with a snake bite, you can choose to suck the venom out or leave him to die. I chose to suck the venom out, and later down the line, I passed him on my way into a general store. He then offered to buy something for me in the store (I chose the most expensive outfit I could find). There are countless more examples of these that you can come across in your play-through which really solidify the living world Rockstar has created here.
Coming across any random NPC will present you with the option to either greet or antagonize, which can lead to a number of possibilities. Once, I bumped into a guy in a saloon where he then drunkenly challenged me to a duel in the street, then once there, he passed out. The honor system plays a big role into the kind of individual Arthur is, and based on just how well these characters and the world are designed, I found it hard to go any way but the honorable route.
Tying into my original worries over the game, the core system is what dictates your health, stamina and deadeye ability. Making sure you eat and sleep are the primary contributors to the cores, and while it sounds like a lot, I never thought it got in the way of my enjoyment. Eat too much and Arthur can get fatter; eat too little and he can get skinner. The same applies to sleep, as towards the end of long days, Arthur will progressively walk more tiredly. While not applied to cores, you also need to bathe or else your fellow gang members or people in towns comment on your look and stench. Your horse also has a core system of its own, but really the items you’ll find in homes or off bodies help to maintain both yours and your horse’s to where it never really becomes an issue.
Just looking at any screenshot of the game, it’s pretty clear just how much Rockstar has put into “RDR 2.” The variety of landscapes you’ll come across are all gorgeous and house their own ecosystem, pulling from the game’s 200-some number of species. Walk into a general store, and you can inspect just about every item sitting on the shelves and counters to buy if you please. Each individual cranny of the world has been thought out and further immerses you into the world that Rockstar has created.
The ultimate design choices that Rockstar made for this game make it one that starts off slow and only picks up slightly after the prologue. I think this really works to the level of immersion that they are trying to instill in the player, but if you’re not one to settle in for a gaming session of at least two hours, it may not be your cup of tea. Each in-game day for myself, I would start off by picking out my outfit and then grab a cup of coffee and converse with the other gang members. There are a number of random interactions to be had with them and even some activities can pop-up to further bond with them.
Music can make or break a scene, and composer Woody Jackson has done a terrific job with the score here for “RDR 2.” Similar to its predecessor, the music outside of cut-scenes is reacting to what is happening in the game. Moseying along on your horse will have some calmer beats, where suddenly you’re held up by a rival gang and the score rises up with it. You can definitely hear the influence that films like the Eastwood classic “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” have on it, with a lot of loud brass, orchestral strings, heavy percussion and electric guitar. The score is excellent and further enhances the cinematic moments. Like the last game, there are long horse rides in key story beats, which are usually accompanied by original vocal tracks from names like Willie Nelson and D’Angelo, all of which here match the tone of their respective moments perfectly.
Besides the main story and stranger missions, there are a number of activities to spend time with. You can go on a hunting or fishing trip, search for a bounty set by the law for cash, play poker or another game with your gang, shop for a new outfit, or even get your hair/beard done at a barber shop. One of my favorites to do were the shows in one of the later game areas, which lasted about twenty minutes each and were comprised of multiple acts like magic tricks — dancing and singing to name a few. Each show was different the four times I went, and Arthur can even interact with the people on stage to your choosing through applauding or antagonizing. Hearing him give off wholesome compliments was a treat and again was a part of why I grew so attached to him as the protagonist.
As detailed as the world is, I think that can sometimes work to the game’s detriment. With how scrupulous Rockstar has tried to make their world, that only makes its imperfections more visible. One example of this was a mission where we blew up a bridge used by a train, and only during a mission later on the same day, I could see the bridge in the foreground perfectly intact. In a game that makes use of a system that shrinks or grows your horse’s testicles based on the weather, this seems like something that you wouldn’t let slip by. Looting bodies after a fight is one way to get ammo or stuff to pawn off, and having to make Arthur walk sometimes in a full circle around the corpse to get in the right spot for the animation each time was a bit of a drag, especially with how many bodies are usually left over. These issues are extremely minor and infrequent in the grand scheme of things, but when the game prides itself on being extremely detailed, the imperfections become a bit more clear. They didn’t really take away much of my enjoyment; they just took me out of a game that serves to be as immersive as possible.
In the lead up to the game, I was looking forward to the online mode just as much as I was with the main single-player portion. The prospect of the online being even more in-depth — based on what they did with “GTA V” — was exciting. The online was finally released nearly a month after the game launched and just in time for Rockstar’s “November” time frame: waiting until the very last week to release. The foundation of the mode is pretty much what I wanted it to be, but there are a few glaring issues that have kept me from enjoying it to its full extent.
Getting the bad out of the way first, the main problem with online at the moment is connection issues. It seems to be on a case-by-case basis, but while I usually get disconnected either as soon as I join in or anywhere from five minutes to two hours of playing, most of my friends stay connected just fine. Looking into it further on Reddit, it seemed to be a common issue with other players as well, and Rockstar has since acknowledged it and claimed to be working on a fix. The only other issue is the in-game economy is the prices of guns and other items being high with missions paying out little, which Rockstar has already tweaked (though I don’t think that they have found that happy balance yet). They are calling this their “beta” period though, so I suppose these issues should come as expected.
What I do love about online the most though is that it allows me and my friends to play in this giant sandbox that Rockstar has created. While some of the options aren’t fully incorporated like they are in single-player, the ones that are there are fun to take part in. Even for the side missions with basic objectives, the journey there is one of the best parts of the game. The freedom allowed makes the possibilities endless, especially when coming across other players. There is always the uncertainty of friend or foe, which helps to ante up the stakes a bit. Once I was riding with a friend only for him to accidentally crash into a rival posses horse, which resulted in a fistfight between him and the owner as everyone watched. The comedic moments are simply endless with friends, and I am not sure how enjoyable the mode will be for those looking to simply go at it solo.
“Red Dead Redemption 2” has been one of the most hyped up games since its original reveal in 2016, and for the most part, it lives up to that anticipation for me. It contains one of the most compelling narratives to be told in any game and leaves me excited for where the industry as a whole can go from here. While it is not without its flaws, the gameplay was enough to keep me well-engaged during fights and satisfied for the most part. Their process of design yields fantastic results as the music, sound design, visuals, story and truly in-depth world harmonize perfectly with one another. This is a slow game though, and it demands a lot of time for each play session, so I don’t think it will be a title for everyone. The online also has its issues that will hopefully be fixed, but the foundation in place is strong for future updates. My original worries mentioned at the beginning were thankfully unwarranted, and overall I think “Red Dead Redemption 2” is one of the best of the generation.