Red Dead Redemption 2 released a couple of weeks ago and serves as a prequel to the original game. I’ve spent these past two weeks in the boots of Arthur Morgan and lived in the most detailed, realistic and utterly beautiful world of Red Dead Redemption 2. By releasing the game, Rockstar has made picking a Game of the Year for 2018 almost impossible. We’ve seen a lot of amazing games released this year, but none are quite as unique of an experience as we will explain in our in-depth Red Dead Redemption 2 review.
Last week, while I was still making my way through the story of the Van Der Linde gang and protagonist Arthur Morgan, I talked about how Red Dead Redemption 2 required a specific mindset to fully appreciate. Today, my opinion on that topic hasn’t changed, as the game truly does ask a lot of the player. What did change, however, is my entire mindset when it comes to open-world games and what type of experience is actually possible.
For obvious spoiler reasons, I won’t go too in-depth about the game’s story in this review since players need to experience it all for themselves. What you need to know is that the game serves as a prequel and yes, you will not only meet John Marston but build a relationship with him. Those who have played the original game will know all about the tragic ending yet beautiful ending. Red Dead Redemption 2 shows you what happened in between, how personalities of various gang members including the charismatic leader, Dutch Van Der Linde, developed.
The game takes the player on a journey of heartbreak, moral dilemmas, a powerful need to survive and doesn’t pull any punches. You will meet various characters, from Marston’s baby-momma, Arthur’s ex, and hundreds of other interesting characters throughout the world. Red Dead Redemption 2 also makes it clear that even likeable characters won’t necessarily make it to the end.
The era of outlaws is quickly ending and the law is ready to string up Arthur and company. 1899 is where it all begins and let’s face it; it is the journey that really matters.
Camp Life & The Gang
As part of the Van Der Linde gang, Arthur has a lot of responsibilities. At the root of all of this is money and basically, the gang needs more of it to finally live free. The game kicks off as the gang escapes from Blackwater after an incident (which you slowly learn move about as the game progresses) and now, they need to set up a camp and find somewhere safe to lay low. This trend continues as the gang fights for survival and to maintain their way of life, but the camp isn’t just a place for you to lay your weary head to rest.
Camp life is an intricate part of the game, as all the members of the gang have their own personalities. These personalities sometimes clash and you can even see fights or arguments break out between members. Walking around camp (slowly), I saw a tonne of interaction between members. When they see Arthur, they greet him, talk to him about their issues and sometimes even asks for a favour, such as finding Tilly a new necklace to replace the one she lost. Helping camp members increases your honour level which also gives you a variety of benefits while doing bad things makes your honour level drop (and you get better deals at the Fence due to this).
Arthur is in charge of the camp’s ledger, which means you decide what to upgrade next, or which provisions to restock. You can also donate funds to the camp. At first, I was quite greedy, keeping everything I could for myself, but I soon realised that a happy camp makes for a happy life. I kept the food supply high by hunting, restocked ammunition as much as I could and kept that medical supply healthy. By doing this, Arthur was a celebrated member of the Van Der Linde gang.
When something good happens to the gang, be it a big score or saving one of its members, the entire gang sometimes celebrates with drink and music. You can join in these activities, taking a seat by the campfire, drinking some whiskey and singing along. These moments made me feel as if I was providing and learning more about real people. Really getting into the camp life is a rewarding experience in itself, especially when you see how your actions affect the people around you.
The final interesting part about camp life is the way Dutch acts. His charisma flows in all big interactions and I could see why the gang members are so loyal to him. It is not very often that you find a character like Dutch in gaming.
He is, simply put, a unique and magnificent specimen to what can be achieved when a developer really wants to bring a character to life. Throw interactions between Dutch, John and Arthur into the mix and you get situations that fans of the first game will love.
A Living World
Many games have, in the past, boasted about their “living, breathing open-world” but in the case of Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar actually delivered. The game has a world so full of life that it is truly mind-blowing and I have to say right now, Rockstar has to be the king of open-world games.
Although I am not sure exactly how big the game’s map is compared to other open-world games, what I do know is that after more than 70 hours, I am still discovering new things. The game’s graphics speak for itself, but when you see all the small things in motion and how the world reacts to the player, it becomes apparent that this feels like a next-generation title.
Birds fly away as you approach, a friendly dog runs up to you and lets you pat it, leaves fall from the trees, mud gets on your clothes and on your horse, wagons and horses leave tracks in the ground and when the wind starts to come up, dust blows up into the air.
In my first 10 hours with the game, I stopped multiple times just to look at my surroundings and all the things moving. It is, without a doubt, breathtaking. But it wouldn’t be a truly, living world if it wasn’t filled with animals and most importantly, other characters (more on that in the next section). There is such a wide variety of species in the game that it takes dozens of hours to just discover them all. Animals have their own instincts, as some run and hide, while others defend their territory and attack you.
Couple the immensely detailed wildlife with a brilliant physics engine and you already have something special. Now, throw in a weather system that completely changes the way everything looks, with rain that produces more mud to lightning storms that light up the sky. Weather also seems to affect wildlife and characters in the game and it simply makes for a spectacular showing of what is possible with current-gen console hardware.
It is a feast for the eyes, but I do have one big issue with the game’s graphics. High Dynamic Range (HDR) is very poorly implemented and to me, it almost looks like fake HDR on my PS4 Pro. I had to turn it off and play the game without it as it simply made the game look stale.
Some of my most memorable experiences with Red Dead Redemption 2 wasn’t from the main story quests, but rather from encounters with NPCs in what Rockstar calls “Stranger Encounters”. Basically, side quests, but these encounters feel dynamic. Strangers and the events surrounding them feel as if they should be part of the main story, and they are of the utmost quality. So much so that these Stranger Encounters could be part of any AAA title’s main storyline and you wouldn’t notice the difference. Not since The Witcher 3 have I experienced side-quests so interesting.
Some of the Stranger Encounters is simply someone asking for money, while at other times, they become part of your journey and truly interesting. To explain exactly how awesome these encounters are, I will give you two examples that happened to me on one trip.
First up, I headed over to a gun store to buy some ammunition before making my way to a different town. As I walked out of the gun store, I took a left because I heard a young man asking for help. At first, I couldn’t see the young man because he was actually in the gun store’s basement. He claimed that he was being held captive by the gun store owner which a just bought some bullets from and asked me for help.
I went back inside, pointed my gun at the store owner and asked him about the basement. With some persuasion, the owner opened up the basement and I saw a boy chained to a bed, with some strange outfit on. I listened to both of their pleas. As it turned out, the store owner was missing his son who died and took this boy as his own. It was one of the most heart-wrenching tales I have heard so far, and I decided to shoot off the chain holding the boy and spare the store owner. I could have left the boy there if I wanted to, or killed the store owner, or killed both.
Making my way out of town, still thinking about the whole basement incident, I got a little sidetracked. Hunting for some deer I saw running across the road, I happened upon a homestead with a fat man on the porch. He asked me to come closer, so I did with great caution. This man invited me into his home with the promise of some great cooking from his wife, and some drinks, obviously. Everything looked fine to me and after some conversation and me going upstairs to tell his wife to hurry up, we had some drinks.
Turns out, these drinks were meant to subdue Arthur so the couple could rob him. After I blacked out, they stole over $800 (which is a lot) and I was left for dead in a ditch with other corpses. I made my way back to the house, shot the woman cleaning the table where they robbed me, then proceeded to fill the fat man with lead. But I was still without my money. Thankfully, I remembered them talking at the dinner table about their family and so, I found a portrait of what looks to be a family member. Behind the portrait, I found their stash and recovered my money.
These were just two of the many Stranger Encounters I experienced, all because I needed more Repeater ammunition. These encounters just keep on coming throughout the game and even now, I still want to explore the world to find more.
Saddle Up, Cowboy
Getting around in Red Dead Redemption 2 can be a task quest on its own. This is where the game asks a lot from players and in the first dozen hours or so, I couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated as the game asks you to saddle up and ride to your next objectives. At times, this can take five minutes, while on rare occasions I rode for 10 minutes straight just to get to a story point. Then, after completing whatever I had to do, from beating up someone who owed the gang money to robbing a bank, I had to ride all the way back to camp again.
You can, however, take other means of travel, such as a train ride or a stagecoach, but you can only do that between towns and not back to camp. As explained in the “Living World” section of this review, the game doesn’t make a big fuss about detailing systems and because of that, I spent my first 20 hours not knowing that a camp upgrade allows me to fast-travel to towns I have already visited, straight from the camp. Pro tip: Upgrade as soon as you can.
Just like everything else in Red Dead Redemption 2, riding on your horse is not just a simplistic experience. You need to watch your horse’s stamina and tap that gallop button with a rhythm to not tire it out too quickly. There are various horses to purchase from stables scattered throughout the land with various attributes, from riding style to health core and stamina core. However, the detail doesn’t stop there.
You have to build a relationship with your horse to get the most out of it, from feeding it to brushing it. Wild animals also scare your horse, so you have to calm it down at times or risk getting thrown into the mud. Riding on a horse in Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like it required my full attention. Travelling as a whole is an experience on its own. One time, I even got sidetracked for a couple of hours, meeting strangers, all while I was really just on my way back to camp for a mission.
Travelling on horseback might not be for everyone and there are also some bugs in the game. I lost my main horse more than once after story missions and then, there’s also the small issue of some horses catching fire on a road just outside a certain town.
Living Off The Land
You can rob banks, trains, blow stuff up or kill a bunch of people if you want to, but what if you just want to head into the game to relax? Well, that’s where hunting and fishing come into play and in Red Dead Redemption 2, it feels like each of these aspects can be an entire game on their own.
Fishing requires bait depending on which type of body of water you want to try and catch something in. These fish come in a variety of sizes and can be cooked on a campfire or brought back to camp to donate to the gang. It isn’t just as simple as throwing in a lure and pressing a button when a fish bites either. Sometimes, fish just nibble and you should only pull your line when a fish actually bites. Then, you also have to fight the fish, moving your line in the opposite direction it is swimming to tire it out before finally reeling it in. This made fishing an exciting side-activity for me and at one point, I spent over five real hours just going on a fishing and hunting trip.
The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is filled with a variety of wildlife, from chickens all the way up to massive bears and everything in between. If you prefer hunting above anything else, rest assured that the game provides an amazing hunting experience. Hunting in the game is normally done with a bow, but you can also use a gun for some deadly predators. You can lure these predators with some bait, and also mask your scent with an item purchasable at the Trapper vendor.
The most exciting aspect of hunting, for me, was tracking an animal slightly. After first when you spot tracks of an animal you haven’t encountered yet, it is exhilarating to finally find out what you have been tracking and get close enough to put an arrow through its head. Early in the game, I encountered massive, legendary grizzly bear that mauled me to death. For the life of me, I couldn’t kill it with arrows, so when Arthur was much stronger, I came back, lured it into an opening and opened fire with a double-barrel shotgun. Sure, using bullets (except for specific hunting bullets used with rifles) does damage the pelts, but it was worth it to see the monster fall.
Pelts and other hunting trophies can be sold for money or used in crafting. You can even upgrade Arthur’s lodgings with some antlers, as an example. All things considered, Rockstar could have left out everything in the game except hunting and fishing, and I would have loved it as a simulator.
Red Dead Eye
Arthur’s progression comes in the form of an increased health core, stamina core and Dead Eye core. The more you, for example, run, the more your total stamina core will increase. Same goes for health and a variety of activities such as brawling. You get various tonics and other things like tobacco or food to replenish your cores. However, you should also watch that you don’t eat too much, as Arthur can become fat (which allows him to take more damage) or underweight (which gives him more stamina). I tried to keep Arthur at an average weight as to not affect my gameplay, so taking a snack on horseback was something I needed to remember. Heck, you can even take a bath, or pay someone to wash you.
I’ve decided to talk about the combat and Arthur’s progression last because, in Red Dead Redemption 2, it almost feels as if combat is just one of the many activities and not the main focus.
That’s not to say the gunplay isn’t excellent. The improved Dead Eye system sees you painting targets and unloading six rounds with your revolver, as an example. In some story sequences, Dead Eye also automatically triggers to give you a chance to react. These systems work well together and using Dead Eye becomes a necessity the further you progress into the game.
Guns and even your bow feel fantastic to use. They are all unique and you have to learn how to play with each one of them. I picked up a golden pistol from a famous gunslinger after I managed to take him down during an epic duel on a train’s roof. This weapon had different handling than your standard pistol and it felt incredible to play with. Each weapon also has different reload times, bullet range, the rate of fire and more.
Mastering a weapon is rewarding, not just because you can now kill enemies faster, but because it gives you the confidence to go into, for example, a much more dangerous task such as robbing a train. Learning how to use the environment is also important, as taking cover is pivitol if you want to survive.
Just like everything in Red Dead Redemption 2, using weapons effectively isn’t just about your skill, but about maintenance as well. I had to purchase gun oil to clean my weapons from time to time, as their effectiveness drops if you don’t clean your weapons often. Although not complicated, it is just another realistic aspect of Red Dead Redemption 2 that at first felt a bit frustrating, but became more natural the more I played.
Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t for everyone, but at the same time, it is probably the best game released this year. If you have a short attention span, or you simply want instant gratification, then the game might not be for you. However, if you put in the time and really go into the game with the right mindset, it is the most rewarding gaming experience you will have ever had.
Rockstar has created a true, living, breathing world filled with so much detail that it is hard to grasp at times. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Apart from a few bugs and glitches, as well as poor HDR implementation, I simply cannot find a big flaw in the experience. Sure, the game requires patience, but that is a virtue, isn’t it?
Everything else about Red Dead Redemption 2 shines as brightly as it’s HDR was supposed to, from a gripping story, fantastic gunplay and side activities that feel like they belong as separate, full games. Rockstar has, in my opinion, reclaimed the open-world crown with the brilliant Red Dead Redemption 2.
So there you have it, our in-depth Red Dead Redemption 2 review. If you are already playing the game, tell us what you think about it in the comment section below.
This review was based off a physical copy bought by the reviewer on launch day
Available On: PS4 & Xbox One | Reviewed On: PS4 Pro | Release Date: 26 October 2018 | Price: R999