Red Dead Redemption 2 Review: How The West Was Fun-ded Through Murder And Mayhem
Eight years separated from its predecessor and delayed twice ahead of release, Red Dead Redemption 2 stands out as easily one of the most anticipated games of 2018.
There's been much said about this foray into the grit and grime of the 1899 American West, but in their rush to get reviews to print, many outlets didn't take the time to fully absorb all RDR2 had to offer before making their analyses.
We've been playing for nearly a week now, so it's time to take stock and reflect on if Rockstar's latest open-world epic was worth the hype.
Immersion Through Minimalism
There's one key element of this vision of the lawless old West that everyone needs to know about before galloping into its 60+ hour story.
Red Dead Redemption 2 may seem very familiar at first, but it's important to note that Rockstar is offering up a very different take on the open world formula, one that goes well outside the established norms.
As aging rough 'n tumble outlaw Arthur Morgan, you aren't going to unlock a chain of god-like skills that will help you conquer the Wild West. You won't become emperor of the lands west of the Mississippi, or even come close to saving the world (or what you know of it).
The game is easily defined by the extremely minimalist take on hand-holding, which bucks many open world trends. There are rarely on-screen prompts taking you to the next location, and Arthur isn't expected to collect everything in each area of the map.
Every system or mechanic that reminds you this experience is actually a game is kept as low key as possible, and sometimes actively hidden from view.
The developers clearly worked hard to maintain the gritty old West feel in all aspects of the game -- there aren't easily recognizable giant arrows pointing you toward an objective. When trails are visibly leading you somewhere, they are faint, hard to follow, and give off the feel of old-time Collodion photography.
Every system and mechanic that reminds you this experience is actually a game is kept as subtle as possible, and sometimes actively hidden from view.
While there are bonuses for completing missions in specific ways, they don't flash across the screen -- you have to go into a menu and find them yourself, making sure immersion breaks only if you want it to.
The end result makes it feel as if you are living the character rather than completing a checklist for upgrades or marking quests off a to-do list.
RDR 2's gameplay is more about living in the world than conquering it, and much of the game is spent staying out of the spotlight, not lording over it.
And for the most part, that's a very good thing. But the slow pacing that results from that design may not be to everyone's liking.
There are times where you will be wandering aimlessly about the world, not sure what to do or where to go (although you'll find plenty to engage with along the way, such as injured travelers or prisoners asking for help). You'll also find times where you will have to walk at a snail's pace because your horse died and you are out of stamina.
You could even play the whole game without realizing there is a limited form of fast travel to unlock. I only discovered it because another writer at GameSkinny mentioned it; otherwise, I would have finished the whole story without having the slightest clue.
Living The Outlaw Lifestyle
While going through that slow-paced exploration of the Wild West, you'll get to know a ragtag group of murdering, thieving ne'er-do-wells who believe they are superior to all the other murdering, thieving ne'er-do-wells because they are occasionally nice to each other.
A surprising amount of story springs from that setup, with strong themes popping up, such as civilization versus the wild, freedom versus conformity, and chaos versus order.
Despite centering around robbing people and outrunning the law on your trusty steed, RDR 2 features a fantastic range of main story missions that help you get to know the characters populating the world.
Even outside of the quests and dialog, there's a stunning breadth and depth to this game that centers on a frankly insane attention to detail.
From wandering about shops looking at items on the selves to day to day life around a ludicrously lifelike camp, every aspect of outlaw existence in the West is meticulously crafted. Horses get dirty, alligators eat corpses left near waterways, heck, your beard even grows.
You will constantly discover new gameplay elements while exploring, and I could spend 2,000 words alone just listing all of the different mechanics in the game. For brevity's sake, I'll keep it short with this brief (if wildly incomplete) list of things to do outside story quests and open world events:
- Horse bonding/leveling
- Horse brushing
- Modifying saddles
- Modifying guns
- Cleaning your gun
- Eating and gaining weight
- Writing in your journal about American flora and fauna
- Upgrading your camp
- Playing dominoes
- Solving bizarre puzzles out in the middle of nowhere
- Watching full vaudeville acts (yes, some are more than 10 minutes long)
- Listening to prostitutes sing tawdry songs
- Discovering dinosaur bones
The list goes on and on -- and there's always more to discover. For me, one of the most surprising moments was when I tried to gallop full speed up a steep embankment to avoid going around a cliff.
My horse ended up falling down and broke its leg as I tumbled away while cursing loudly, which was unexpected and another instance of attention to detail. I didn't have anything to revive my horse with, so my only option was to put him out of his misery. That simple moment, where I have to put down a horse I'd been bonding with for a good 10 hours, impacted me more than most of the people I'd murdered up until that point.
While finding all those unexpected moments, Arthur will traverse a wide range of landscapes, such as snowy mountains, muddy livestock towns, oil fields, cave systems, large metropolitan cities, and even swamps.
RDR 2 has an absolutely massive open world to explore that easily rivals or beats Skyrim or The Witcher 3. This is a game that is absolutely begging for a PC release so it can stay alive for decades due to mods.
How The West Can Go Wrong
It can't be all whiskey and working girls though, and sometimes it's gotta be stale coffee and horse shit. While Red Dead Redemption 2 is a triumph in many ways, it does fall short in others.
There are times where the lack of explanations or on-screen prompts leads to baffling results. At one point, while lost after a hunting trip, I shot a guy to take his mount and try to get back to camp faster.
Suddenly, the screen switched to a view of the open sky and I re-spawned at camp for no apparent reason. Turns out, someone I couldn't see witnessed what happened and it counted as leading enemies to the main camp -- but there was no way I could have known that ahead of time.
Apparently, there's also a maximum distance you can get from certain mission objectives, but no indication of where that distance is or when you are nearing its boundaries. The mission just ends if you go too far.
It can't be all whiskey and working girls though, and sometimes it's gotta be stale coffee and horse shit.
The exploration, dialog, and relentless attention to detail will all keep a player interested, but the controls deserve mentioning for their exceptionally clunky nature.
Figuring out how to properly ride the horse takes some serious effort, and the uninspired gunplay is easily the game's weakest link, taken so heavily from Rockstar's other major franchise, GTA.
For all the unique elements at play, there are parts where it's crystal clear Red Dead Redemption 2 is basically a hacked apart GTA with a Wild West coat of paint.
The horse, for instance, often behaves very much like a car in Los Santos or Liberty City, with some small objects behaving like impenetrable brick walls and others thin tissue paper that can be blown through. There's a whole wild, hilarious world of high-speed horse mishap videos out there that are well worth perusing.
While the game tries hard to stay grounded, there are more than a handful of truly ludicrous elements that will pull you out of the experience, like trotting up to the post office and paying a fine as a "whoops sorry" for murdering a bunch of people in broad daylight.
Shopkeepers you shot in the head will helpfully clean up all the blood and happily trade with you after you sit outside the law's sphere of influence for a few minutes and let the heat die down.
Sometimes, those ludicrous things can add more charm rather than they take away, however, especially if you prefer the style of other Rockstar games.
For instance, you don't actually need a bow or gun to hunt. If you like high-speed chases, your horse is all the battering ram death machine you need to take down animals (or people).
The Bottom Line
There's some bad but a whole lotta good in this gritty law-breaking adventure, and it's worth noting that RDR 2 looks flat out amazing for an open world game.
Beyond just the graphics, the entire experience is absurdly cinematic, and you could spend hours just watching the gang canter through untouched valleys or interact with locals at the bar.
The purposefully slow pacing and clunky controls may tank the game for some, but I suspect for most, Red Dead Redemption 2 will be a breath of fresh air in the open world genre.
There's no question this is going to be a contender for game of the year, and this is a story every gamer should make a point of playing.
If you're looking for tips and tricks for this Wild West epic, head over to our Red Dead Redemption 2 guides page.
[Note: The developer provided a copy of Red Dead Redemption 2 for review.]