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SummaryAn ambitious open-world Western that fails to hit the gameplay bullseye
The Good* Beautiful, detailed recreation of the Wild West
* Open world is full of surprises and stories
* Impressive voice acting and soundtrack
* Good storyline
* Dead Eye system is great fun to use
The Bad* Combat and survival are too forgiving to feel immersive
* Heavily railroaded story missions
* Inconsistent game systems and mechanics
* Strange, unwieldy control scheme and bad player movement in standard third-person mode
* Story takes too long to get truly interesting
The Bottom LineRed Dead Redemption 2 is not only the biggest game of 2018, its one of the most hyped games of the entire generation. Its easily the biggest and most important launch of an open world game since March 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. As Rockstar’s first (and likely only) game developed for the current generation twin consoles, they are pushing the technical boundaries of what’s possible in the open world genre. Let’s not forget the fact that this is their followup to the third best selling game ever, as well as the prequel to one of the decade’s most critically acclaimed games, and you can imagine the pressure that was put on Rockstar’s shoulders. For all of the hype and acclaim however, Rockstar’s new title is easy to admire but hard to truly love. A meticulous recreation of the Wild West serves as the setting for a tale of loyalty, revenge, and redemption. All of the storytelling and detail comes with some extremely heavy costs to playability and player freedom, and judged purely as a video game it’s perhaps not as great as one might have hoped. Despite this, like an art-house movie that you still respect even if it’s not really your thing, RDR 2 is still undoubtedly an impressive technical and creative achievement that will be played, dissected, and discussed for years to come.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place over a decade before the original game, in 1899. The player steps into the boots of Arthur Morgan, a member of an outlaw gang and second-in-command to its leader, Dutch Van Der Linde. They are one of the last gangs remaining in a time when the west has mostly been tamed, riding across America and looking for the big score that can set them up for life and allow them to live peacefully away from an increasingly industrialized civiliazation. After a boat heist in Blackwater goes wrong, the gang ends up riding though the mountains and waiting out a blizzard before venturing back into the heartlands. The gang attempts to survive by committing petty crimes, but their efforts soon spiral out of control, attracting the attention of both the law and the industrialist Leviticus Cornwall. Meanwhile, as mistakes are repeatedly made and lives are lost, Arthur finds himself questioning his longstanding loyalty to Dutch Van Der Linde, whom is practically a father figure to him. The story is engaging, provocative, and even a bit emotional at times, but it suffers from repetition and is a slow burn, and it takes an incredibly long time before you really start to get invested. Luckily when you do get invested, it becomes one of Rockstar’s better stories. Some may feel that the game is unnecessarily drawn out, especially once the lengthy epilogue is reached, but even if you simply focus on the story missions you’re getting a lot of game for your money here.
Red Dead Redemption 2, much like Rockstar’s other games, is an open world sandbox with scripted story missions, random encounters, and lots and lots of side activities which can take up hours of your time should you choose. The difference here is that the game’s mechanics are flavored with semi-historical realism, an attempt to immerse players into the Western period which will engage some players but turn others off. In fact, with its obsession with detail and complex, interwoven systems, it often reminds me of this year’s underrated Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a game which did many of the same things seen here in a medieval Europe setting. Some of the missions here even remind me a lot of that game, though that could just be general historical game design tropes. Of course Rockstar’s game is far more polished and expansive than Warhorse’s, albeit with some of the quirky or inhospitable edges sanded off in favor of accessiblity and mainstream appeal, and not always for the better.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has one of the slowest starts to a AAA game in recent memory. It’s almost 2.5 hours before you get the chance to venture out into the beautifully crafted open world, which is the largest ever in a Rockstar Games title. Until that time, you are constantly being led by the hand with tutorial prompts and limited interactivity. Even once you’re in the world, you’re constantly inundated with tutorial prompts about the games myriad systems. It can feel more like watching an extended cutscene, but once you’ve gotten the learning portion out of the way the game becomes much more enjoyable. That lengthy start is indicative of the game’s slow pacing as a whole. Things take time to accomplish in RDR2. When skinning an animal, you must watch a detailed, lengthy animation of Arthur removing the fur and feathers. When looting a body, a lengthy animation where Arthur aligns over the body and picks up an object plays out. RDR 2 is not a game about instant gratification.
The L2 button is your main means of interacting with characters and items. By holding the button down, you can lock the camera onto that thing, and several options appear in the bottom-right hand of the screen which correspond to what you’ve locked onto. The most common options when talking with strangers are Greet, Antagonize, and Rob. Greet allows the player to greet the sstranger- this can also be used to further conversations once started. Antagonize threatens characters. Aiming your gun at a character while using these commands also causes different reactions. In addition, characters passing by will comment on the state of your clothes and body should you become dirty or wounded.
Your horse is everything in Red Dead Redemption 2. Not only does it serve as your main means of transportation, it also carries most of your weapons as well as pelts when hunting. You must pet, brush, and feed your horse to increase your bond with it. This will allow you to call your horse from greater distance, and unlock style moves such as rearing and drifting. Since your horse carries most of your weapons, it is important to grab what you need from the saddle before heading to the next mission point. Some missions will automatically give you certain guns, but others won’t so you’ll just have to get used to grabbing your weapons from your horse’s saddle. Horses can die if they take too much damage and you forget to bring a horse reviver, but you can always purchase new horses or break them in the wild. You can even upgrade your horse', which can give your horse extra speed and stamina beyond its base stats. The camp system is a major feature for the game. Each chpater has their own location on the map where the van der Linde gang has set up camp. The camp may ultimately be a very fancy decoration, but it connected me to my fellow gang members in a way that I wasn’t expecting. The camp has a supply of medicine, ammunition and food, and you’ll need to keep stock up to ensure good camp morale. You can also contribute money into the camp’s funds. You can then use the money to restock your supplies and buy upgrades for your camp. These upgrades increase the different types of supplies available as well as provide aditional options for craftable items and fast travel. In camp, you can grab a cup of coffee or a bowl of stew to eat. You can also perform daily camp chores to increase your honor. The camp is also where the social interaction mechanic has the strongest impact, as you can converse with any of your fellow gang members. Sometimes, they will initiate conversations with Arthur, other times they will be talking to each other. All of these interactions provide some of the best character moments in the game, such as singing songs around the campfire or playing poker with your cronies. You get a real sense that this isn’t a gang, its a family, with each member having their own particular personalities and likes. Taken as a whole, the more you put into the camp, the more rewarding the experience becomes, though there is no real punishment for not doing so.
That said, there are some pretty glaring ssues with the camp. For starters, there aren’t too many upgrades to purchase, and they don’t even really matter past roughly the halfway point of the game’s lengthy campaign. There’s also the huge issue of having your pockets overflowing with money after just a few missions, yet having nothing to spend it on since all of the best guns and gear are locked behind story progression. This makes the story feel strange since its all about trying to find cash, yet you can’t just give everything in your pockets and ship off to somewhere isolated. Finally, Arthur walks a lot slower through the camp than on other parts of the map. This can make getting around to certain things very tedious.
There are also some survival mechanics at work here. Arthur has three core meters: health, stamina, and Dead Eye. When you take damage, sprint or carry heavy objects, or use Dead Eye, the outer meters around each core go down and get regenerated from the remaining energy from each core. To refill cores, you must rest or eat and drink various foods and beverages. Cores will drain over time, and can drain faster or slower depending on various conditions, such as wearing warm clothes in a hot environment. It is also possible to get gold cores, which don’t drain for a certain amount of time. Your horse also has cores of its own, which are refilled in the same ways as Arthur’s. The core system is okay, though I really wish that some cores, particularly stamina, drained much faster so that eating and resting becomes a more essential mechanic. You can create various foods and elixirs at campfires to restore the meters, though it isn’t really essential to do this for much of the time, and in fact you are penalized during missions for using these items with the exception of refilling your dead-eye meter.
Combat is very typical of Rockstar’s titles. The auto-aim is overly generous by default, allowing you to pull off shots very easily. You have several different types of guns, ranging from pistols to shotguns to sniper rifles to use. There are also several different types of throwable weapons such as dynamite, fire bottles, and throwing knives. It’s easy to forget that these options are availaable however since guns will be your main source of damage 99 percent of the time. Certain guns must be manually cocked before firing each round, which is an interesting immersion choice. Dead Eye returns from the first game, allowing you to slow down time and place shots exactly where you want them. This is essential for not only getting headshots, but also disarming or otherwise disabling enemies.
There are a couple of new features to this combat system. The first is that each weapon has several different types of bullets that can be crafted or purchased. These increase the range, accuracy, and damage of guns, or provide special effects such as fire and poison. This gives each weapon more versatility, though in the long run these alternate ammo types tend to be forgotten due to all of the time and resources you need to use when crafting them. Most of the time, the standard ammo gets the job done anyway, so I’m not entirely sure what purpose this system serves. You also have to clean your guns using gun oil to keep them in their most effective condition. Again, even damaged guns seem to perform fairly well for the most part.
It is also possible to use stealth in some instances, though these are rare and usually only happen in scripted missions. You crouch down and try to avoid being detected by enemies on your minimap. You can sneak up behind enemies and kill them, or use throwing knives and arrows for ranged kills. The stealth system is actually pretty good, if rudimentary, so its a shame that the game only lets you use it when it feels like it. To its credit, there is far more stealth here than there was in Rockstar’s previous game, Grand Theft Auto V.
The combat is cinematic and evokes the feeling of being a Wild West gunslinger. Howver, it could have used more challenge and pizazz. The game’s damage system is very forigiving from the start and it only gets easier as you level up your health, stamina, and dead eye stats. To their credit, Rockstar designed the gold medal mission objectives based around getting headshots, avoiding detection, and not using health items, rewarding effective play. Yet despite referring to RDR 2’s world as “dangerous” in trailers it’s actually very easy to survive. I think Rockstar needed to tune the survival mechanics and combat damage to feel much more challenging and immersive, and my hope is that they release some sort of survival mode down the line which puts a greater emphasis on these systems.
Whn not on a mission, you are free to participate in much of the game’s myriad outside activities.You can go on hunting or fishing, trying to kill or catch each Legendary species, which give you materials for crafting the game’s best gear. You can play parlor games such as poker, dominoes, and five finger fillet, both with strangers and gang members. You can follow secret maps to find hidden treasure and solve mysteries. You can go exploring for collectibles such as dreamcatchers and dinosaur bones. You can even rob stores, houses, and stagecoaches, though its advised to wear a bandana while doing this as average citizens wont recognize you and won’t put a price on your head if you escape the authorities quickly enough. Or, you can visit shows and get drunk. I’m not usually the biggest fan of some of these diversions (fishing and hunting manage to be both very boring and frustrating), but outside of some story missions the game never makes you do these. Admittedly, the rewards for completing these tasks aren’t always the most useful, since the game is already fairly easy as a whole. Nevertheless its all up to you how much you want to engage these, and some of the best moments come when you stumble upon interesting activities or characters in the world.
And that world is a masterpiece. It’s what Rockstar has always been good at. Filled with lush, painterly scenery and colorful characters, RDR 2 encompasses nearly every aspect of frontier-era America in a large, yet dense space. From lush green fields, to barren deserts, and cold mountain peaks to dirty swamps, nearly every possible type of climate and geography is accounted for. The different climate types are blended together very well. Even better are the individual towns and villages which can be found out in the world. Each town has its own character which makes it stand out. Valentine is your typical Western town with a single main street, Van Horn is an Irish-influenced trading post, while Rhodes provides Southern charm. Ironically for a game about wanting to run away from civilization, the game’s best area by far is its large New Orleans-inspired city Saint Denis. Not only does it offer some of the game’s best side missions, but it also has a number of unique attractions, including a vaudeville theater, a movie theater, tons of mansions, and even a graveyard to visit after hours. At night, the city is lit by the eerie glow of street lamps, providing a glitzy contrast to the more rustic bulk of the game.
As interesting as the world and the systems are, the game does suffer from some of the usual Rockstar limitations. The default controls are pretty bad, forcing the player to constantly tap the X button to sprint. The movement is slow and lumbering, and platforming is incredibly difficult. Playing in first-person does actually relieve this somewhat, as not only is the standard movement much faster even when walking, but platforming and parkour is made far easier since you can line up the ledges to your camera and press the jump button to climb them. While it was and still is weird to play a game that was marketed and primarily designed as a third-person game in first person, it became my preferred way to experience the game once I got used to it. Aiming is frustrating, as the auto-aim on default settings is much too sticky for its own good. Yet you need to rely on it since you’ll often need to hit fast-moving targets while on horseback.
The game’s biggest issue is just how scripted the missions feel. The twin aspects of the design, the open world and the scripted missions, unfortunately work against each other more than I would like. A few missions do allow for multiple playstyles and approaches, more than in other Rockstar games, but the game can still suffer from being overly scripted, a conflict between the way the mission is designed and the rules expected from the world. In fact, the game just straight up ignores its gameplay systems at times so it can tell a particular story. I’ve been able to shoot guns out of some character’s hands, but not others, because the game wanted me to kill them. I’ve been prevented from using melee on some enemies, forcing me to shoot my gun. Even worse, many missions have insta-fail conditions, where if you try to break script or do something completely unintended, the game will force a restart from the last checkpoint, costing you the best score for that mission. There were even a couple of missions where I didn’t really understand why I was failing, and just had to replay them until the game decided I was right. This is extremely disappointing since this is supposed to be an open world game, the kind of game that ostensibly gives you all of the tools to accomplish things how you choose yet takes them away just as often.
When things do work as expected however, the game can be magical. Some encounters are not specifically marked as missions yet can lead off into unexpected adventures. For example, one moment had me robbing a store to investigate the basement below after seeing someone trapped inside. Another encounter had me eating dinner with a couple of deranged hillbillies, who proceeded to knock me out and take all of my money. It’s these kinds of moments that make the open world worth exploring, and they feel rewarding since you, the player took the time to seek them out. The side missions in general are some of the best I’ve seen in an open world game, providing quirky, entertaining diversions from the grim main plot, and fleshing out the era in interesting and colorful ways.
As you would expect from Rockstar, Red Dead Redemption 2 is both visually and aurally spectacular. Rockstar’s proprietary RAGE engine is put to great use here as each locale is highly detailed with great lighting and mostly decent textures. Everything just has that nice sparkling sheen that lets you know you’re playing a game with an 8 year development time. Little things such as shoes leaving deep footprints in mud stand out and make the world feel very believable. Animations and physics make the game world feel alive and realistic. Even better is that pop-in and slowdown are basically absent from the game. Its very smooth from start to finish, and a huge leap up in technical quality from its predecessor, which was very glitchy for me and had a tough time maintaining a steady framerate. I don’t know if I would go so far in saying that RDR2 is the best looking console title to date, but it is most definitely up there with the best so far.
Sound design is amazing. RDR2 is a game with lengthy periods of quiet, allowing you to soak in the ambient soundscapes of chirping birds and bustling towns. When the action picks up, gun sounds are scary and loud and bullets ricochet just as in the classic Western films. The voice acting is teriffic almost across the board. Some of the side characters do suffer from annoying ethnic stereotypes (a French artist you meet is particularly grating). However, your gang members are all well fleshed out and give distinctive, memorable performances.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s music plays a huge part in the immersion. The soundtrack is heavily inspired by not only Western films but also much of the music from the time period. You’ll hear ambient mixes of strings and electric guitar when riding out in the countryside. Other areas feature influences from folk music, jazz within Saint Denis, and at a few points, opera. It’s a varied and eclectic score that mostly fits the more somber tone of the game. There’s also plenty of diegetic music that you’ll discover in the environment, including passerby whistling, playing or singing folk songs. In addition, a number of original, American roots songs performed by famous guest stars also appear at certain points during the game.
I think RDR 2 works better when considered as a “Western experience” rather than a video game. RDR 2 is a lavish theater with beautiful stained glass windows, lush organ music, and an engaging story to tell. Unfortunately the main pillar holding it all up, the gameplay, is cracked in a few places, making the entirety of the experience feel less masterful despite the quality of everything else. Mechanically it’s out of step with other open world giants and it isn’t always the most interesting or fun game in the world to play. It needed to emphasize its survival mechanics more for a challenge while also allowing for more player freedom and agency during missions. Every other aspect is done well enough that it barely props up the adequate-at-best gameplay. Nevertheless, the experience the game provides just about manages to be addictive and engaging one in spite of itself, with a world that begs to be explored. You never know quite what you’ll run into next, which makes it all the more entertaining. Red Dead Redemption 2 is far from the masterpiece it has been claimed as, but it can be enjoyable if you focus on its best aspects.