Red Dead Redemption 2: Review

On October 26th Rockstar Games released Red Dead Redemption 2, the latest entry into their hit, Western franchise. The team at Rockstar has successfully built upon the impressive setting established in Red Dead Redemption, as well as provided a more immersive world that truly feels alive with every stranger you encounter. Coupled with the lively world is a story that builds organically over time, keeping players pressing forward as they feel the need to find out what happens next. While there are understandable complaints regarding various gameplay mechanics, overall, Red Dead Redemption 2 exceeds the lofty expectations that have been built up over years.

“Sure.” - Arthur every 17 seconds.

“Sure.” - Arthur every 17 seconds.

Set in 1899, a full 12 years before the original, you control Arthur Morgan, who is the right hand man to Dutch van der Linde, the leader of The van der Linde Gang. Arthur has been roaming the country with Dutch for years and his loyalty has never wavered; neither has his faith in Dutch’s ultimate goal: freedom. However, things start to change for Arthur as the game kicks off following a robbery in Blackwater that goes completely sideways. The gang is on the run and their first stop is an abandoned cabin in the snow covered mountains. Morale is low as the group struggles to stay warm, find food, and they fear the worst for members who were separated during the heist. Dutch delivers one of his signature, morale-boosting speeches as he sends Arthur off to find food and, later, the missing John Marston. These introductory missions are used as a tutorial of sorts, and with each new mechanic introduced there’s a message indicator that flashes in the upper left corner of the screen. Through these early stages you start to learn more about the type of man Arthur is and become aware of the small seeds of doubt in the gang’s future that he feels. This introduction to the gang at, what appears to be, their lowest does a tremendous job setting the mood and pace.

The times are changing and the gang is struggling to find footing in a world that is passing them by. Even when things seem to be going well for them, there is always a lingering sense of “something is about to go wrong.” You never feel comfortable going into missions that, on the surface, are sure things. This ominous feeling that things aren’t going to work out plays nicely into the methodical pace of the game. Everything you know from the original Red Dead is slowed down, considerably.

One of those noticeable changes is in the hunting portion. You’re able to take down animals with any weapon you’d like, but if you’re looking for pelts in good to perfect condition, you need to slow down as you track and study animals. You’ll notice after studying that there are specific weapons and ammunition you need to use in order to obtain pelts in the best condition. Your horse can hold up to one large pelt or animal carcass at a time, but can hold multiple smaller pelts. The tracking mechanic is a welcome addition providing a real sense of accomplishment when you finally land that legendary animal. Hunting isn’t just used for sport, as it’s a necessary component for Arthur and the camp’s survival.

Arthur is monitored by three metrics: health, stamina, and Dead Eye. Each of these have an inner core that will deplete if Arthur is out for long periods of time without eating or sleeping. Coupled with the inner core is an outer ring that represents the current amount of each attribute. The outer ring for health and stamina will regenerate when Arthur doesn’t take damage and if he rests. The Dead Eye outer ring will replenish as Arthur gets successful shots on critical zones of enemies. In order to have these outer rings regenerate at a quicker pace, you need to maintain high levels of the inner cores by replenishing them with food, beverages, and medical tonics. This new survival aspect is a great touch as it provides a realistic layer to be concerned about while never overwhelming the player.

On top of monitoring Arthur’s well-being, it is now vital that you keep your horse healthy and happy. It’s absolutely necessary that Arthur form a strong bond with his horse or else the horse will buck you off anytime it’s too startled. Increasing this bond is done by riding, petting, feeding, and brushing the horse. As the bond increases, you’ll unlock an increased whistle radius and riding mechanics such as horse drifting. Truly, the story of Arthur and his horse is what the people pay to see. A love story like no other.

Just a man and his horse. A true love story.

Just a man and his horse. A true love story.

As mentioned earlier, Arthur isn’t just responsible for himself as he has the entire camp to think about. There will be various camp setups as you progress through the main story, but at each of them you’ll be able to donate food you hunt, as well as any money or valuable items you pick up along the way. Adding funds to the camp allows you to purchase upgraded provisions, medicine, ammunition, living quarters, a boat, tools to craft equipment upgrades, and a very handy fast travel map. The more food you bring to the camp, the more likely it is that there will be a pot of stew ready to be devoured. Having the ability to upgrade the camp makes life a little bit better for the player, but because of how full of life the other gang members are, there’s also satisfaction believing that those upgrades have made their lives better.

With so many side characters it would be easy for some of them to get lost in the weeds. Thanks to the way missions organically arise (both main stories and sidequests), you’re able to ride out with just about every member of the gang at one point or another. As your horses gallop across the terrain, Arthur will have in depth conversations with each character allowing their backstories to unfold in front of your eyes. What a cast of characters it is as well. From the wise, old Hosea, the young, excitable Lenny, to the camp backbone, Mrs. Grimshaw, every single character feels like they have a purpose and a story to tell. Some of the best moments in the game can be found sitting around a campfire at night, while everyone drinks, sings songs, and swap stories. There’s a true sense of family with these folks and no matter how dire things may seem, they press on.

When it was first announced that we’d be playing as newcomer Arthur Morgan instead of the fan-favorite John Marston, I was slightly disappointed but excited at the same time. Playing as John in the original left a lasting impression on me as Red Dead Redemption is one of my favorite games of all time, largely because of John’s character. What had me excited was the idea of watching a young Marston’s story unfold from a different perspective. What led him to the events of the first game? What kind of man was he before the FBI used him to hunt down Dutch and the remaining gang members? Putting the player in Arthur’s shoes allows us to watch John’s story from a neutral perspective, while also living through Arthur’s incredibly well-told narrative.

What Rockstar has created in Arthur Morgan is yet another home run of a character. As the game progresses and Dutch comes up with new “plans,” the doubt the player feels is echoed on screen by Arthur. He’s logical, caring, and willing to go to the ends of the Earth to protect the ones he loves. Just like in the original, you’re allowed some freedom with how you want to play the character. Do you want to be a merciless killer, or do you want to lead an honorable life? Choices you make during missions and with random encounters you stumble upon will determine how the world views you. In most interactions you’re able to defuse situations, antagonize the parties, threaten them, or downright shoot them. When you’re “not acting like yourself,” your gang members will make remarks about your behavior. It’s obvious the camp views Arthur in a high regard and look to him as a beacon of hope in perilous situations. The high esteem in which Arthur is held made me second guess my actions in those random encounters as I tried to lead as honorable of a life as I could.

Dutch flanked by John and Arthur.

Dutch flanked by John and Arthur.

As much as this is a story about Arthur Morgan and the gang as a whole, it’s also an in-depth look at what drove Dutch van der Linde to the point of no return we see him at in Red Dead Redemption. Early on we see glimpses of the man Dutch is, or at least portrays himself to be. He’s the charismatic leader who always knows just what to say when the going gets tough. One of the more impressive feats the game succeeds at is providing us an enticing story that we already know the ending of. We know the fate of most of these characters before we even install the game, but even knowing the ultimate conclusion, I felt the need to continually push forward to find out the exact series of events that tore down the vaunted van der Linde gang. Dutch is a complex character who always has a “plan.” No matter the odds, his boisterous attitude comes across as supremely confident with whatever new idea he concocts. Watching Dutch flip back and forth from caring to ruthless as the game progresses is a fascinating experience. We hear so much about Dutch during Red Dead Redemption but only get a small amount of screen-time with him. This time, we spend the majority of the game in his presence and really find out what motivates him. His whole goal is to provide a place for his gang to live freely where they don’t have to worry about big businesses in cities like St. Denis infringing upon their way of life, or the Pinkertons (agents similar to today’s FBI) hunting them down. While the end destination changes frequently, the root goal remains the same for Dutch: he wants ultimate freedom in a world that is heading further and further towards a civilized, law-abiding society. Watching Dutch’s transformation from charismatic leader to the man we saw at the end of the first game, lived up to, and exceeded, every expectation I had.

The main narrative is a tour de force in terrific storytelling and the sidequests that appear in the form of strangers you encounter on the road, to activities popping up around camp, make it so there is always something new to uncover. The world Rockstar has created is vast and visually beautiful, giving the player countless reasons to continue exploring. Added onto the visually satisfying setting is a perfect score which accompanies some of the game’s most important moments. There are plenty of instances where Arthur is riding into an inevitable battle, or riding home, exhausted, that are perfectly accented by the music. Many times you feel like you are playing through a classic Western film when you hear a song that completely encapsulates the mood of the moment. As far as total presentation goes, Red Dead Redemption 2 hits the nail on the head.

When things go south it’s just as exciting as ever to fight your way out.

When things go south it’s just as exciting as ever to fight your way out.

While the overall experience with Red Dead Redemption 2 is overwhelmingly positive, the game is not without its faults. There are some definite issues with certain gameplay mechanics and controls. True to Rockstar’s form, you still have to tap a button to sprint or gallop quickly with your horse. You’ll have to hold down a button in order to interact with certain people as well as open chests and drawers. Other times in order to interact all you have to do is tap a button and the action plays out. This inconsistency can lead to some frustration as you try to anticipate which you’ll have to do only to select the wrong option and have to set up the choice selection again. Also, the fact that the action to aim a weapon and interact with a stranger is mapped to the same button leads to some unfortunate interactions and accidental deaths. These accidents will more often than not lead to bounties on Arthur that could have easily been avoided. Moving in and out of cover can also feel cumbersome, as if you’re not lined up correctly you either won’t go into cover, or you’ll set up in an undesired position. On the flip side, when you are in cover, quickly transitioning from cover-to-cover is easy and mapped to the simple click of a button.

Some things they do well, mechanically, revolve around the gun-play. The lock-on aim feature that we’ve grown accustomed to in Rockstar games returns and fits in well with the methodical pace of the game. Also returning is the weapon wheel that you can quickly access, allowing you to choose between two heavy weapons (repeaters, rifles, bows) and two sidearms (pistols, revolvers, sawed off shotguns). One difference from the original game is that you can’t freely choose between all of your weapons while off of your horse. Before you embark on a mission, you’ll select the four weapons you want slotted and then head out with those choices. If you choose a bow when you really need a scoped rifle you’re out of luck unless you stumble upon a rifle in the field. Having to pick your load-out is a welcome strategic element that we don’t normally find in Rockstar games. Lastly, the ability to reload while in a sprint and moving from cover to cover is fantastic and feels incredibly smooth.

In theory, the cinematic mode is a great concept. Watching Arthur traverse the frontier from some of the aerial angles it provides is beautiful to watch…until you ride off of a cliff or directly into a tree. Unfortunately “hold x to follow,” doesn’t work as well as it should, forcing you to manually control the direction of your horse. Doing that is insanely difficult in cinematic mode, which led me to use the feature sparingly. These mechanics are nothing new for Rockstar and at this point we probably shouldn’t expect anything else; it’s their style of game. However, it’s completely reasonable for people to desire less cumbersome controls for certain aspects such as interaction with NPCs. If you don’t enjoy the way Rockstar games play mechanically, then this surely won’t win you over.

For nine years people have waited for the next entry in what is considered Rockstar’s best narrative franchise. It is almost impossible to live up to the amount of hype that was placed on Red Dead Redemption 2. There are no doubt some complaints to be made, but they are minor in the overall picture. In terms of narrative, this is a story fans of the series will love. Arthur Morgan’s well-told story coincides with the demise of Dutch and the van der Linde gang, as well as a welcome backstory for fan-favorite character, John Marston. With each conversation the tragic tale is provided exposition, which brings everything full circle for returning players.

People who have never played Red Dead Redemption are treated to a prequel that can stand on its own as a truly rich experience. Framing the must-see narrative is an open world that provides endless opportunities. The freedom to tackle the main story head-on, or spend days exploring the frontier provides players a reason to continually pick up the controller. There are few companies who do the sandbox, open-world style as well as Rockstar, and Red Dead Redemption 2 might just be their best attempt yet.

The work done by the entire team at Rockstar deserves all the credit in the world. We have all been treated to a Western experience that feels truly alive with every person we talk to or animal we track. Each character feels unique thanks to the incredible performances delivered by the entire voice cast, notably: Roger Clark, Benjamin Byron Davis, Rob Wiethoff, Alex McKenna, and Cali Elizabeth Moore for their work as Arthur, Dutch, John, Sadie, and Abigail, respectively. You want to learn more about each member of the gang, which is impressive given how many of them there are. After roughly 70 hours exploring this world I have no intention of stopping anytime soon. Simply put, this is yet another game added to the list of must-experience titles from the past few years.