Over 100 hours, countless emergent moments, and dozens of sunrises later, Red Dead Redemption 2 still continues to impress. While Rockstar Games’ latest is a prequel, it builds heavily on the concepts of the first game and in most cases blows them out of the water. Narratively, mechanically, and even stylistically, this is a version of Rockstar that is mature, ambitious, and exceedingly creative. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a once in a generation type of game and it left me transfixed.
To go into any one facet of Red Dead Redemption 2 with proper detail could fill up its own review. From the design of the open world to the story to the gameplay, Rockstar has packed this game full. Every time it feels like the game has shown all it has to offer, a new scene appears to prove those assumptions wrong. Few can say that the game is lacking in any facet, even if it has some areas that aren’t entirely perfect.
At its core, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a story about Arthur Morgan, a high ranking member of Dutch Van der Linde’s gang. His tale is subtler and more nuanced than John Marston’s, and the game gives Arthur plenty of time to develop as a character. More importantly, players are given ample opportunity to learn about and bond with almost all of the members of the Van der Linde gang, as well as a handful of quest givers, which helps players decide the morality of their Arthur and gives Rockstar a chance to flex its narrative muscle.
The scope of the story is expansive, as Arthur and the Van der Linde gang try to find their place and survive in a world that reviles the outlaw. It’s at times exciting, as the gang pulls off incredible heists and survives intense gunfights, and then somber, as hope gives way to futility. There is plenty of Rockstar Games’ signature DNA at work in terms of how the missions are structured and the side characters are written. Everyone has a story to tell and each character (from top to bottom) is well written and acted. It’s rare that a side quest feels like it was given as much attention as an essential story mission but Red Dead 2 gives every story its own purpose. Some of it is, admittedly, pure entertainment but other times players will find a compelling narrative off the beaten path.
But where it matters most, with Arthur’s story, Rockstar has crafted an epic tale that fits the time period, the Western genre, and its own sensibilities. The studio takes the time and patience to let story beats develop over the course of several missions and then pulls the trigger (literally and figuratively) when appropriate. There are a few story beats that come along a little quick, but ultimately the central development of Arthur and the evolution of his relationship with the gang, specifically, Dutch, is expertly executed. By no means does the story unfold in a way that is wholly predictable, or even satisfying, but that is the nature of this genre
Mechanically, there is so much in Red Dead Redemption 2 that it’s hard to cover everything. Hunting is a game unto itself, as is bounty hunting, or gambling, or simply making sure the gang’s camp is stocked with supplies. There is so much to do in the game that it is overwhelming at first. However, none of those elements are essential to the story. Players can choose how deep they want their Red Dead Redemption 2 experience to be, and trust us it can get pretty deep. Rockstar has made sure that every detail did not go overlooked though – every action has an animation, every interaction has a reaction, and almost any distraction is worth pursuing. At times the depth and dedication to realism do feel a little like a step backward – being able to carry only one animal carcass can be a pain – but it all goes back towards making things feel realistic.
No doubt it will take players time to acclimate to everything that’s going on, and the game doesn’t explain everything that well, but eventually it becomes part of being Arthur. This is still a game, of course, but Rockstar tries to hide as much of the game-yness as it can, to the point that players can turn off the HUD and get directions the old-fashioned way. Even shopping becomes its own experience, as players flip through a catalog to select items from a table of contents.
If there is a deficiency for Red Dead Redemption 2 mechanically, it’s the gunplay. Once again Rockstar has relied on its lock-on-based cover shooting with an option to go into first person outside of cutscenes. The lock on makes the gunplay serviceable but is hardly an ideal situation. Turning the lock-on off, however, feels even more clunky. By now Rockstar fans have come to accept that this is the gunplay in these games and it’s serviceable even if you hoped for something better.
Luckily, Dead Eye is back to give the gunplay a much-needed punch. Things start out fairly basic, but as Arthur’s Dead Eye ability evolves it becomes supremely satisfying to use. Rockstar has even borrowed the slow-motion glory kill camera effect to let players know when they’ve hit a nice shot. Where the core gunplay gives off a very, “This again?” feeling, Dead Eye feels like reconnecting with an old friend.
But even with some mechanical elements that are less than perfect, Rockstar packages everything in an open world that is such a joy to explore. Visually, Red Dead Redemption 2 is stunning, to the point you have to stop and stare at regular intervals. What’s more impressive, though, is that the game allows the various biomes to breathe, giving them enough space for players to explore and to give the impression that these areas are vast but still connected. Rockstar smartly uses the map to make sure that players see as much as possible and understand just how much detail went into making this feel like a living breathing world. Small towns like Valentine have character, sure, and an Old West feel, but so do the snowy mountains to the North.
Hand in hand with the map design, the level design and AI work is some of the best seen in an open world game. Every corner in the more developed town of Saint Denis is packed with detail and fun elements to uncover, and then there are citizens all around to interact with. Most AI citizens are not going to give Arthur much in the way of conversation, but there are plenty of emergent conversations happening all around. Players might happen upon a science nut spewing his theories about technology in a mining town or come across a secret “KKK” meeting in the middle of a forest.
Missions take that attention to detail and blow it out to include exciting set pieces and beautiful story moments with the members of Dutch’s gang. Rockstar takes the time to develop as many characters as possible before eventually letting the bullets fly. Every mission is as much an opportunity to spend more time with these characters as it is a fun Rockstar-fueled ride in this incredible sandbox. It’s rare that you want to talk to NPCs, but I often found myself regularly checking up with everyone to see how their demeanor had changed.
There are so many facets of the Red Dead Redemption 2 that feel like games unto themselves that’s staggering. You could spend hours hunting Legendary animals and feel wholly satisfied with that experience. Or sit down at a poker table and lose plenty of time and money trying to earn a little cash. Almost to a fault, Rockstar has tried to deliver an experience where every action, every detail, every character has a purpose and exists in this world.
But even if you chose to ignore the peripheral elements or get annoyed by the looting animations, Red Dead Redemption 2 offers a great story at its core, filled with memorable characters and exciting moments. Its story has weight but it is paced in such a way that the focus isn’t always on the central plot. And by the end, it’s impossible not to be invested in Arthur’s development and his own personal road towards redemption.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that could only be made by a developer with the success and clout of Rockstar. Thanks to decades of success, Rockstar has been entrusted with crafting a game that is bold and ambitious and never backs down from a central goal of realism. There’s a clear devotion on display, both to a type of storytelling that doesn’t cut corners and a style that puts the player into the role of a morally conflicted outlaw.
It’s simply incredible how much Rockstar has accounted for. But even beyond the jaw-dropping visuals, the diverse score, and the gameplay, the story is something special and memorable. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a must-play for its entertainment value, its boundary-pushing, and its place as a landmark moment in video games.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is available now on PS4 and Xbox One. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.
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