A meticulously polished open-world ode to the outlaw era.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a sprawling Western tale of loyalty, conviction, and the price of infamy, chronicling the inevitable collapse of a motley crew of Wild West holdouts kicking against the slow march of civilisation and industrialisation. Set in Rockstar’s most authentic and lived-in open world ever, there are so many things to do, so many people to meet, and so many places to explore it’s giddily overwhelming. Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t just Rockstar’s greatest achievement to date; it’s a game so lacking in compromise it’s tough to know where best to start discussing it.
So let’s start at the beginning: It’s 1899 and American outlaws are an endangered species. Dutch van der Linde and his gang are on the run after a botched heist in the growing town of Blackwater and they’ve retreated high into the mountains where an atrocious blizzard is covering their escape. We slip into the spurs of Arthur Morgan, an exceedingly cool and capable outlaw who was found by Dutch as a boy and raised on the wrong side of the law, and settle in for a roughly 60-hour story.
It’s a self-contained and linear introduction but it’s a clever one. The slick cinematics make a hell of first impression, embedding you in the gang and bringing you right up close to the characters who are doing their best to bellow over the howling wind. It also placed me in a distraction-free bubble while I learned some of Red Dead Redemption 2’s early controls and systems, which heightened the impact of having the full map open up to me a few hours later. The conditions on the mountain are almost claustrophobic, with visibility at a premium and thick snow trapping Arthur’s feet. Being set loose in the true open world after toughing it out in this intentionally oppressive environment really underscores the incredible feeling of freedom the full map offers.
The Big Country
And what a world it is; broader, more beautiful, and more varied than the one we explored in 2010’s Red Dead Redemption by a massive margin (though parts of that game’s map are also included). There are snowy peaks and dank, alligator-infested swamps. Thick forests and open plateaus. Quaint homesteads and grand plantations. Narrow streams and great lakes. Dusty gulches and dim caves. There’s the muddy livestock town of Valentine, with its wooden buildings and rustic charm, and then there’s the imposing city of Saint Denis, a grimy and growing metropolis full of modern extravagances like electric trams, paved roads, and Chinese restaurants. The vast assortment of ecosystems and environments seamlessly stitched together here is nothing short of remarkable.
Red Dead Redemption 2 does an exceptional job at slowly rationing out reasons to visit every corner of its huge world, too. I was still led to areas of the map I hadn’t yet visited even in the closing stages of its 60-hour main storyline. Because so many cards are kept up its sleeve, the joy of discovering new parts of the world is maintained throughout.
The ability of this game to keep itself fresh after so many hours is extraordinary
The ability of this game to keep itself fresh after so many hours is extraordinary, and not entirely due to just the size and diversity of the world; it’s how alive all of those places feel. While the largely rural world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is far less dense than the likes of Grand Theft Auto V, it’s absolutely brimming with wildlife to discover, people to interact with (and potentially help), and places to scrutinise. The best kind of open worlds are those that seem almost indifferent to your presence in them; like life goes on whether you stick your nose into proceedings or not. I’ve sat and watched lumberjacks felling trees at a bustling logging camp and curiously tailed a perturbed Englishman wandering around town looking for his mate “Gav.” None of this is crucial to the progression of Arthur’s story; it just helps build a world around him that made me feel like a visitor rather than the centre of the universe. Red Dead Redemption 2 nails this in a way that few – if any – games have before.
In a Valley of Violence
The slower pace of Red Dead Redemption 2 compared to something like the slightly more breakneck GTA V is also a big part of how it encouraged me to drink in all the world has to offer. Bodies have to be manually looted, and Arthur needs to physically manhandle a body to do so. Single-action pistols need to be cocked before firing. Guns Arthur isn’t currently carrying need to retrieved from his saddle. Coffee needs to be brewed before drinking it.
I suspect some folk may regard this sort of stuff as chore-like, but I really dig it. There’s something methodical about it that really helps ground Arthur in the world, rather than have him feel like he’s gliding through it. For instance, I love the deliberate and mechanical process of cycling a new cartridge with a lever-action rifle via a second pull of the fire button – you can even pause for dramatic effect halfway through. Rockstar’s designers didn’t need to factor that in but I think they understand that tiny, almost trivial instances of subtle control like this subconsciously seat me into the world as Arthur even more.
The unhurried pace of checking vanquished enemies for goodies is an interesting design decision but I quite like the risk versus reward loot loop, to be honest. Do I dart around and pickpocket a dozen dead guys or do I just get the hell out of Dodge? They’re consequences you have to be prepared to accept either because your attention is needed elsewhere or because lingering around the scene of a crime naturally puts you at further risk of being discovered. Bounties don’t always come cheap. Did one of those fellas have a gold nugget in his trousers? Perhaps you’ll never know.
About my only major logistical gripe is that the weapons I was previously carrying are regularly swapped out for others. Oftentimes it’s clearly mission-related to ensure you go into a task with a scoped rifle or bow when required, which is fine. More irksome are the times I end up with mismatching pistols for dual wielding, with the game trading out my preference. The admittedly brief bit of time it takes to swap back did elicit the occasional grumble from me.
I spent a good deal of time off-mission simply moseying around, bingeing on the world like a virtual museum
At any rate, it’s seriously worth settling into the pace Rockstar is trying to set here because there’s just so much to see and hear. You’ll hear unique, one-time conversations that occur in camp after certain missions, as well as other bespoke bits of dialogue that reference recent events. Strolling through camp, I’ve been privy to everything from a heated bust-up between John Marston and his partner, Abigail, to the good-natured con man Hosea Matthews regaling the young Jack Marston with stories of his latest fishing adventure. This is all happening around Arthur whether you pause to eavesdrop or not. It makes the camp feel like a concentrated version of the world at large, a place with people going about their business and interacting with one another completely independently of you. I can’t understate the genuine feeling of life this injects into the overall experience for me.
Elsewhere in the world there’s still plenty for those who care to stop and smell the roses. Newspapers sold on street corners touch on the aftermath of Arthur’s exploits, as well as other things going on around the world. Much like in GTA V, you can visit theatres and take in some old timey entertainment. Dogs can be patted. I spent a good deal of time off-mission simply moseying around, bingeing on the world like a virtual museum. There’s simply too much to list.
How the West Was Won
The main story missions themselves are a cocktail of high-stakes heists, deadly shootouts, desperate rescues, and thrilling chases, mixed with a lengthy list of other activities. Many of those function as organic ways to teach us about new side hustles and activities that can be undertaken, from selling stolen horses to playing poker or fishing.
It all feels great to play, similar in a lot of ways to its immediate predecessor but injected with a pile of new animations and multiple layers of interactivity. It asks a lot of the finite amount of buttons on a controller, but once I became accustomed to which commands require a tap and which require a press-and-hold I had few hassles. Shootouts are supremely cinematic thanks to plenty of gun smoke and the same style of on-the-fly, ever-changing death animations that have characterised Rockstar games since GTA IV. You can even shoot off people’s hats and pick them up later for yourself.
I think there’s a common presumption that Red Dead Redemption is just GTA on a horse, but that’s a bit reductive. Certainly the GTA DNA is here, but with far more primitive firearms at your fingertips gun battles are more intimate and anarchic. I love the close range clashes, hunkered down behind bits of cover exchanging lead with enemies often just yards away, or slugging it out in bareknuckle scraps. It’s exciting and fun. Combat from horseback is equally well-handled and it’s always a grisly highlight to watch unfortunate saps go limp and tumble from the saddle in a seemingly endless number of ways. I think Arthur feels a fraction heavier than any of the GTA V trio, but I would not say that I found his movement cumbersome. I really like how connected Arthur feels to the world. I’m not a particular fan of that old-school, skating third-person feel – like the player character has no inertia – and that’s certainly not present here.
Dead Eye returns, naturally, as it’s been part of the series since Red Dead Revolver. It’s had some upgrades this time, the most useful of which highlights critical hit areas on a target (very useful for clean kills while hunting). It’s still a very effective way to make you feel like an unstoppable gunslinger and the gruesome ballet of slow-motion death-dealing remains disturbingly satisfying.
I didn’t engage much with the available camp upgrade options – not the aesthetic ones, at least. There are some practical upgrades I acquired that had gameplay benefits attached, like a boat to go fishing in or a map at Arthur’s quarters that unlocks fast travel. I don’t feel like I missed much by opting out of purchasing animal skulls and rugs and such. This stuff feels a little more like a primer for Red Dead Online, the multiplayer component coming at an unspecified later date.
I chose not to do a huge amount of crafting, either, and I was never really punished for it. You can craft tonics and satchels, and recipes can be discovered throughout the course of the story. However, I mostly made it through on purchased items, restocking in camp, and religiously ransacking dead bodies for liquor, health tonics, and cigarettes. (I created a lot of dead bodies.)
Two new elements I did take quite seriously were horse bonding and the honour system. The former is an inspired method of making you treat your horse with realistic respect instead of riding the poor thing off cliffs or parking it on train tracks for giggles. All horses are unique, and only the ones that trust Arthur can be relied upon to stay calm and not kick him off in the face of a predator or in a gun battle, and that trust is built by riding, brushing, and feeding it. I liked having to click in the thumbstick to reassure my horse when he was scared – it makes him feel real and establishes a physical-to-digital bond between you two. Your horse can die, too, and there’s no bringing him or her back if that happens. I kept the same horse from early in the game all the way to the finale and was truly attached to that big guy. Some of the other folk here have been less lucky and have had to endure the gut punch of euthanising their equine comrade (always pack some horse revivers, people).
Meanwhile, Arthur’s personal honour is something that’s in the background at all times, rising and falling based on his actions in the world. In practical terms, being an outlaw who refrains from killing in cold blood and who helps regular folk around the world gets you discounts in shops and generally means you won’t have to look over your shoulder quite as often for bounty hunters and lawmen. Playing through as a vicious monster is also possible, although it’s not entirely clear to me whether there’d be some dissonance between that approach and Arthur’s actual story. I still need to investigate further, but I’m really happy with how my playthrough turned out and the outlaw-with-a-soft-side Arthur I chose to inhabit.
Once Upon a Time In the West
Red Dead Redemption 2 is an undeniably pretty game across the board. The lighting is fantastic, particularly in dark, misty situations where shafts of moonlight stab through the trees, and I love the way it handles Arthur leaving weakly-lit interiors into the temporarily blinding sun outside. The sunsets are especially spectacular and seem to vary depending on the weather system. Some are harsh and beaming while others are warm and soft. The facial animation is a noticeable step up from GTA V, and the level of granular detail is almost absurd, from the way blood smears on Arthur’s shoulder after carrying a kill to the way individual strands of his majestic mutton chops quiver in the breeze. The way wagon wheels become caked in mud. The way rust builds up on a poorly-maintained firearm. It’s another long, long list that speaks to a high level of attention to detail.
No matter where you look, everything feels meticulously handcrafted. Every consumable is labelled and can be picked up and inspected. Every catalogue in stores is full of custom text and illustrations pointing to products available for sale or old timey advertisements. Hallways are decorated with framed pictures I’ve never noticed repeated throughout the world. Remember: this is the game where horse testicles shrink when the weather is cold. More than once I found myself temporarily hypnotised by the musculature and skin creases on my horse’s butt. That’s a weird sentence, but you’re going to spending a lot of time looking at a horse’s butt. It might as well impress you.
No matter where you look, everything feels meticulously handcrafted
Horses are astonishingly well-animated and feel like genuine living creatures as they swing their necks, stomp their feet, and shudder their bodies on their own accord. That said, it’d be nice if the same self-preservation skills horses display when galloping towards a ravine kicked in when careening towards an obstacle in front – I definitely clattered into a few posts and fellow riders before figuring out my steed generally wasn’t going to avoid those on his own.
Equally impressive is the audio, from the sound effects to the voice work to the huge library of music. Whether you’re expecting the satisfying metallic crunch of a reload, the iconic twang of a Hollywood Western ricochet, or the subtle squeak of a hotel floorboard, it’s all there. Bullets fired on mountaintops ring with cracking echoes, completely different to the sound of bullets fired indoors. There are a wide range of unique sounds that have been recorded to appear just once or twice across the whole of Red Dead Redemption 2, like the squeak of detonator wire being unspooled or the clink of bottles in the back of a moonshine wagon. They’re all constant reminders that little seems to have been missed.
I also love how the world seems to be prepared for pretty much any action you can think of
I also love how the world seems to be prepared for pretty much any action you can think of. Turn around and walk straight back into a store you’ve just left and the shopkeeper will likely make a comment about how you’re back so soon. Leave a theatre before a film is finished and the ticket clerk will quip, “Seems you didn’t like that.” Shoot a polite howdy towards two people standing together and Arthur will use a plural term rather than a singular pronoun. It all contributes to a feeling of rare polish that’s even rarer in a game of this girth.
And the music? It’s outstanding. Woody Jackson’s original score is top notch – an evocative mix of jangling Ennio Morricone-esque guitar and more soulful pieces better suited to patiently trotting through the world absorbing its mixture of beauty and ugliness. There are also a few occasions where non-instrumental tracks are used to excellent effect; one artist, in particular, was a big surprise to me and sings an impactful track during a key moment late in the story.
The Wild Bunch
The plot thread holding Red Dead Redemption 2’s astonishing array of systems and gameplay opportunities together is Rockstar’s most serious and earnest story to date, and certainly the best written. It’s not essential to have played Red Dead Redemption to appreciate and understand what’s going on here, especially since this is a prequel story that takes place 12 years earlier, although I found it very rewarding being familiar with the larger plot as it connects to the eventual fate of the enigmatic Dutch van der Linde. Arthur’s relationship with Red Dead Redemption protagonist John Marston here is also particularly fascinating to me as a fan of the 2010 game, and it’s very well-handled. Marston is a crucial part of the story but Rockstar has been restrained enough to not spotlight him at Arthur’s expense.
We get to watch an incredibly nuanced performance as Dutch’s confidence ebbs and his restraint fades
Even better, however, is watching Dutch’s gradual descent from being the charismatic, successful, and clever leader of a gang of deadly outlaws to someone on track to become the cold-blooded and beaten man being hunted down by Marston 12 years later. We get to watch an incredibly nuanced performance as Dutch’s confidence ebbs and his restraint fades. Excellent, too, is main man Arthur: Not only is there an infectious authenticity to his low and smooth tone of voice, which seems perfect beneath the swept-back hair and enormous mutton chops I let him sprout by only ever shaving his chin, but when Arthur himself is a far wearier man by the story’s climax his delivery is doubly potent.
The whole cast is great, really. Antagonists like the Pinkertons on the gang’s trail are a little thinly painted and something about young Jack Marston’s sing-song voice didn’t sit right with me, but Arthur’s partners in crime all get swags of screen time; certainly enough to feel like convincing, three-dimensional characters that Arthur has a real relationship with. What’s more is that despite representing a wide range of folk from a variety of disparate cultures – from Irish thug Sean Macguire to Native American brawler Charles Smith – they all feel like credible human beings and not caricatures.
Combined with strong writing and direction, the result is a game that’s sincere instead of satirical, and funny while remaining capable of some supremely well-earned emotional moments, especially throughout the truly excellent crescendo and epilogue.
And even after completing the epilogue, which is split into two parts and longer than many whole games I’ve played in recent memory, I still have a stack of strangers that need helping, gangs that need killing, cheats to experiment with, and fish that need catching. There are 30 different types of fish in this game about cowboys. I’ve caught four.