Do you have a lot of time to play video games? Rockstar clearly thinks so as Red Dead Redemption 2 will take you upwards of 40 hours to complete – and that’s assuming you focus only on the core story missions. The narrative is epic in scope; protagonists and villains are both complex and fascinating; the world is vast, intricately detailed, and full of things to do. When Red Dead Redemption 2 remembers that it’s an action-adventure video game, not a 1000-page audio-visual novel, it’s easily Rockstar’s finest to date; however, it often displays callous disregard for your time and can feel like a chore to play.
Following in the footsteps of the critically-acclaimed first game – which Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to – was never going to be an easy task. The story puts us in the boots of a new and previously-unmentioned protagonist, Arthur Morgan, who was raised in Dutch’s gang for almost as long as he remembers. He’s deeply loyal but knows the era of outlaws is ending. He’s risen through the ranks as Dutch’s right-hand man – becoming an adoptive son of sorts – and takes the lead in his most elaborate plans. It’s the perfect setup for the players to witness the slow and steady decline of Dutch’s gang first-hand, and their leader’s transformation into the merciless sociopath that John Marston would hunt down years later.
Fans of John will be thrilled to know he returns – along with Abigail, Jack and Uncle – and remains an integral part of the narrative. You’ll also discover more about Agent Ross, Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella, and Dutch van der Linde himself – a charismatic leader, dedicated to his gang, and hell bent on finding a way to live by their ideals, away from government interference. Looking beyond the connections to the first game, there is a huge cast of other gang members, each with distinct and complex personalities, and almost every one of them given time to shine, either in the core missions or optional activities. Red Dead Redemption 2 never shies away from the fact this is a criminal gang of bad people – many missions and cutscenes hammer this point home – but they’re all dealing with relatable issues and I grew fond of many of them.
There are dozens of story missions that focus purely on character relationships, with major events that push the overarching plot forward only cropping up near the beginning and end of each chapter.
Of course, we know there’s no happy ending to this tale and watching the gang collapse, as well as discovering Arthur’s fate, remain the big narrative hook. Just be warned, this is a story told over (in-game) weeks, months, and years. There are dozens of story missions that focus purely on character relationships, with major events that push the overarching plot forward only cropping up near the beginning and end of each chapter. A slow-paced tutorial gives way to unfocused opening chapters, full of missions that contribute little to the overall arc. It’s only towards the end of the third chapter (of six) that things pick up. That said, there’s a lengthy epilogue sequence that now ranks as my favourite video game surprise in years, adding plenty of context to events leading into the first game, to the point I immediately downloaded it again on my Xbox One, fully intending to play through it with a fresh perspective on the cast.
Ultimately, the narrative payoff is worth it – especially with quality writing and superb voice acting – but the story plods along for the bulk of the game; a sensation only compounded by design choices I’ll discuss later.
Sticking with the positives, the environmental design and attention to detail in Red Dead Redemption 2 is unmatched; you’ll not find a more authentic, living and breathing digital world. Although a linear game, the dialogue interactions are close to what I’d expect from a classic D&D RPG, in which developers only had to consider writing a branching dialogue tree, not thousands of lines of voice-acted dialogue and associated animations. Completing missions in different orders will trigger unique dialogue and comments that reflect the order of events; upgrades to your camp or completing secondary activities will result in new dialogue with the gang; visit a store and the shopkeeper will greet you accordingly next time; start a bar fight and the barkeep will admonish you next time you stop by. There are plenty of gameplay systems that reward you for your actions (like putting a bounty on your head) but the way NPC chatter kept on top of events never failed to impress.
The size of the world works against the narrative pacing but it certainly feels immersive.
The world itself is vast, ensuring the distance between cities, towns, farms, and smallholdings feels believable; though it’s perhaps a little too busy for my liking, leading to some ridiculous chases as I intimidated witness after witness who keep wandering down a path during or after a crime. The size of the world works against the narrative pacing but it certainly feels immersive. It’s also a technical marvel that offers an impressive feature set on all platforms (with only the rendering resolution changing), a generally stable framerate, and a few higher-resolution textures on the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X.
Going hand-in-hand with the detailed visuals is a robust animation system. The game still uses a version of the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE) and the animation and physics system has been refined to the point that every character and object feels grounded in the world and reacts realistically. However, this can be a double-edged sword. During desperate horse chases, train robberies, and high-street gunfights, the fluid and realistic animations crank up the sense of immersion to eleven; but there are times when your horse snags on a rock or low fence, sending Arthur flying, and you back to a distant checkpoint, shattering it.
Authentic ambient sounds give every location a life-like feel. Music elevates the action sequences or lengthy rides into unknown territory.
Complementing the visuals is impeccable sound design. The voice actors sound natural throughout and the dialogue system strings together hundreds of lines of adaptive dialogue with ease. Authentic ambient sounds give every location a life-like feel. Music elevates the action sequences or lengthy rides into unknown territory. Red Dead Redemption 2 is set further east and in a more populated region than the first game, so there’s less of a traditional western vibe, but the music does it’s best to make train robberies, bank heists, and horseback gunfights feel epic.
The gameplay loop will be familiar to anyone who has played a Rockstar game since Grand Theft Auto IV: explore a massive map, trigger quest markers, enjoy carefully scripted missions, before heading back into a world full of secondary activities or the opportunity to just cause chaos. Even before considering secondary activities, Red Dead Redemption 2 has over 100 story missions, so there’s no shortage of things to do, even for a player only interested in the narrative.
The most notable new feature is a button dedicated to interacting with NPCs and objects, allowing you to instigate dialogue with other gang members and key characters, or simply greet and antagonize the rest of the population.
You still charge around on foot or horseback; shooting is still a case of lock-on aiming, tilting the analog stick gently up to pull off headshot after headshot; and the “dead eye” mechanic returns, granting the ability to slow time and mark targets for rapid kills (trivializing the difficulty at times). The most notable new feature is a button dedicated to interacting with NPCs and objects, allowing you to instigate dialogue with other gang members and key characters, or simply greet and antagonize the rest of the population.
Other returning features include the quirky “Stranger” missions (though the game feels more serious than the original throughout), semi-random events that pop up along your path, scattered clues that point to a local serial killer, strange abandoned locations to discover, loads of Easter eggs that reference other games or media, dozens of era-appropriate minigames, animals to hunt, and herbs to collect. You can also craft a myriad of health tonics, ammunition types, and gear; customise Arthur’s appearance, horses, weapons, and the gang camp itself; or tackle repeatable tasks with other gang members (all in the name of improving your standing with the gang or society).
All that said, it’s time to highlight some of Red Dead Redemption 2‘s major problems…
First up, getting around the massive world – especially in the opening hours before you’ve unlocked fast-travel options – is a tedious process. If you chose not to invest in camp accommodation upgrades first (because getting food, medicine and ammunition stocks takes precedent right?), you might miss the fast-travel map for hours, stuck riding from the camp to a nearby town to access a stage coach or train, repeatedly. When you consider the slow pace of the narrative – something that generates an urge to push from mission to mission – this gets infuriating quick. Yes, some missions offer you the chance to skip to a location, but others can leave you five or more minutes ride away from any means of fast-travel (and just pray your horse never dies in the wilderness).
Much like the first game, many missions involve travelling out to a location by horseback, but the massive distances in Red Dead Redemption 2 drag this experience out to the point that hours of recorded dialogue can’t hide the fact more than half of any mission features no action. You can trigger the “cinematic camera” to have your horse automatically follow the trail to your mission marker but this just meant I spent half the game with the controller on my lap, listening to dialogue, or browsing on my phone. And when you finally get back to the camp or a safe town, Arthur walks at an infuriatingly sedate pace.
There are several new interactions and customization options, presumably designed to provide a sim-like experience not seen since GTA San Andreas, that only serve to further slow the pace and highlight something I never thought I’d consider a negative – detailed animations for everything. Some examples, in no specific order, include: weapon degradation; the decay of animal products if you don’t get them to a butcher quickly; Arthur’s fluctuating health and stamina cores (which affect the regeneration rate of that attribute) as a consequence of wearing hot/cold clothing or failing to eat; and – perhaps most frustrating – the need to assign your weapon loadout at your horse.
Applying gun oil? Looting a corpse? Skinning an animal? Eating or drinking? Feeding or brushing your horse? If the action exists, RDR2 has detailed animation, longer than it needed to be…
There are lines upon lines of dialogue dedicated purely to reminding the player to equip their guns before leaving the horse, a loadout that the game loves resetting to just your pistol, every time you complete a mission or load into the game. Applying gun oil? Looting a corpse? Skinning an animal? Eating or drinking? Feeding or brushing your horse? If the action exists, Red Dead Redemption 2 has detailed animation, longer than it needed to be, and unskippable.
Finally, there’s the control scheme, an aging remnant from previous games, now with added complexity. Gunfights, thanks to a healthy dose of auto-aim, have never been that tough in Rockstar games, and the cover system only rarely got you stuck to the wrong side of an object. In Red Dead Redemption 2, however, someone decided it would be a great idea to have the contextual interaction button share the same trigger used for aiming. Not unexpectedly, this can wreak havoc in any given scene – in combat or otherwise – if any interactive objects are near you. I’ve had Arthur holster his weapons mid-combat, pulling me out of cover. I’ve had the game revert me from a stealthy crouching position to standing after picking up an object in a stealth-oriented mission (triggering a firefight or sending me back to a checkpoint). I’ve accidentally drawn a weapon and triggered an insta-kill animation during a friendly fist fight. I’ve had dialogue prompts pop-up during other actions and accidentally taunted or provoked an NPC. Given the level of polish seen in other elements of the game, I don’t understand how these frustrating systems made the cut after years of development and play-testing?
Deciding on a score for Red Dead Redemption 2 has been difficult. It’s easily the most intricate, detailed, and interactive world we’ve seen in a video game to date and, if you’ve got equal amounts of time and patience, there is no shortage of well-designed content on offer. If, however, you’re just here for the story, keen to see how Dutch’s gang collapses, the fate of Arthur, and events that led to John hunting down the survivors in the first game, several design choices – paired with a massive world that takes forever to navigate – drag down down an already leisurely-paced narrative. Personally, far too much time of my time with Red Dead Redemption 2 felt like a chore, with many of the “realistic” or “immersive” additions not ending up much fun at all. Thankfully, the story is interspersed with enough stunning set pieces that I kept pushing on towards the incredible epilogue. I think there’s a great game buried underneath a lot of poorly thought out designs, so I’d still recommend it now. That said, Rockstar could do with patching in some fast-travel/travel-skip options and patching out many of the time-wasting mechanics and long animations.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 offers up an epic narrative in an intricately-detailed open world but questionable designs choices make large parts of the game feel like a chore.