Review – Red Dead Redemption 2

It has been eight years since the first Red Dead Redemption and for me it’s been quite a hard wait for the sequel, as I absolutely loved the first game. Not only are Westerns not a setting that is often handled, but none offered a story driven experience that rivaled the fantastic Western movies. The hype was large going into Red Dead Redemption 2 especially after the first reveal and the subsequent information of all the attention to detail the game would have. Does it live up to the hype? Yes, yes it does.

After a failed boat heist in Black Water, the Van der Linde gang had to flee North into the snowy mountains leaving their money stash behind. Government endorsed lawmen called “Pinkertons” are tasked to track down the remaining outlaw gangs and it’s not long before they’re hot on the Van der Linde gang’s tail. All that Dutch and the gang want to do is settle down, set up camp, and live their life in retirement. Unfortunately, between the Pinkertons and rival gangs, they find themselves needing to constantly steal and keep on the move. And with each move, more and more things go wrong.

Red Dead Redemption 2

The Van der Linde seeking refuge from the Pinkerton’s.

You play as Arthur Morgan, Dutch’s right hand gunman, which means he has seen his fair share of death and bloodshed. Arthur Morgan is a fantastic character with a surprising amount of depth. Instead of being played as a typical hitman, he has a moral struggle within himself that grows with the story. In fact, the entire cast of the Van der Linde gang is superbly done and each member gets some time in the spotlight. Since this is a prequel, it is a treat to go more in depth with the gang we kept hearing about from the first game. Seeing John Marston’s character grow into the character we find him in Red Dead Redemption feels right.

While the story is deep and fulfilling with twists, turns, and crazy moments, there are points where it slows down to a crawl too often which causes a bit of fatigue. The pacing could have been better, but looking back on it, I appreciate some of those slower moments for the character building. The story is as much about the entire gang as it is about Dutch, Arthur, and John. It’s also kind of hard to believe that after all these events of this prequel that there wasn’t more emphasis in the first game. It’s a small nit pick and a common issue with telling a prequel directly after, but it is something you’ll think about as you play.

Red Dead Redemption 2

One of the many impactful story moments as you ride up to the Braithwaite Manor.

The story may be deep and fulfilling, but unfortunately the gameplay lacks any real depth. Now, it’s not to say that the gameplay isn’t fun, but besides the superficial layers of realism, the general gameplay is pretty standard. Like most Rockstar games there is a heavy focus on snap targeting and strong aim assist. This is mostly due to the fact that the free aim is so slow and hard to control, which can be alleviated a bit with some settings tweaks. I ended up tweaking the on-foot gun controls to where they felt good enough to turn off the snap and auto aim, but I left the standard controls on for horseback gunplay due to how bumpy it is. However, much like the first title, the Dead Eye ability makes it easy to dispatch multiple enemies quickly.

The reason the standard gunplay is so bad without snap and auto is due to the extremely long input delay that Rockstar employs. The input delay goes for all controls of the game from walking to picking up objects. I think the only input that doesn’t have a lag is the act of actually pulling the trigger. It makes controlling Arthur feel like you’re a puppeteer dragging your puppet through mud. The slower, bulkier controls make sense when you’re controlling a horse that that weighs around a ton and isn’t quite as agile with smaller actions. But humans are a different story and should be able to make swifter and more nimble movements. All that said, you do get use to the movements after a few hours of playing and it does become less of an annoyance.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Chopping wood to level up Dead Eye can get tedious after so many hours.

There is a higher level of realism to Red Dead Redemption 2 than most games and most of it is very hit or miss. I absolutely love most of these hyper-realistic features because it helped me sink into the world and allowed me to truly role-play as a cowboy outlaw character. However, actions like needing to manually cock your guns and doing camp chores to level up your Dead Eye can be a bit excessive. When I first started the game I enjoyed waking up in the camp, making coffee, having some stew, sitting and chatting with the gang, doing some chores, and then beginning my adventure. I would do this every morning, but eventually it gets a bit repetitive and I’d start skipping the chores. However, things like skinning animals, searching the pockets of your slain enemies, cooking, and shaving your beard to keep your style are just a few examples of the realism I love.

Not only is the realism in the gameplay, but it is also in the world around Arthur. Towns are bustling with NPC’s with real schedules and real objectives, they aren’t just roaming around aimlessly.  Even outside of the towns, the people you see traveling are traveling for a purpose and you can follow them if you like. There are a wide variety of shops; from the butcher stand where you can deliver your fresh kill you just hunted in exchange for money, to the local saloon where you can grab some food and drink. Barber shops, sometimes found in a saloon, can style your hair, beard, or mustache into specific styles. The Gun Smith sells, modifies, and sells ammo for your weapons. I really enjoyed how they handled the shopping by using a catalog you can flip through as it feels accurate for the time.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Using catalogs to browse stores is a nice touch.

Main and companion missions aside, there are a ton of side quests, activities, Stranger quests, and challenges to do as well. The variety of these is immense and feature treasure hunting, digging up dinosaur bones, chasing a serial killer, hunting and fishing legendary animals, crafting, bounty hunting, plus a large amount of collectibles. There is so much to do that sinking a hundred plus hours into it without repeating the same main activity is easy. Some of the dynamic things that happen can repeat here and there in unexpected ways. For example, coming up to a person on the side of the road you’ll run into the same quest of helping them or they may try and steal your horse. Other than the random and sometimes outrageous things that happen, everything else is perfectly hand crafted.

To help tie in the realism of the world and the hard hitting story are the outstanding visuals. Red Dead Redemption 2 has to be the best looking open world game I have ever seen. A lot of it is due to the small amount of details put into everything to compliment the visual flair. I played it on the Xbox One X and the clarity and draw distance is second to none. The amount of details shown from distances is really well done and with a lot of techniques, Rockstar has eliminated a lot of distracting pop-ins. If you stare very closely you can still pick up on the subtle transitions and texture updates, but all and all they are well hidden. The vast vistas of the rolling hills, the muggy foggy swamps, the dusty and muggy cities are all very convincing and complimented by a fantastic lighting system.

Red Dead Redemption 2

The large vistas are very impressive with the draw distance and beautiful sky box.

For the most part the character models are very well done, not the most realistic facial tech, but the main characters are fantastic. However, the side characters can often times be fairly shoddy looking. Not so much the side characters that offer you quests, but the random city folk or the characters during the random encounters. There is such a huge disparity in the quality of the models that sometimes it can be jarring. That being said, the visuals for the other ninety percent of the game are absolutely gorgeous.

No AAA game is complete without a fantastic soundtrack, sound design, and voice over and Rockstar knocks it out of the park on all accounts. The soundtrack fits perfectly with the Western theme with it’s slower tunes of string instruments and the more evocative hard hitting orchestra pieces for the emotional moments. There isn’t very many vocal moments in the soundtrack, but the few that are there are produced by Grammy award winning Daniel Lanois. Each song uses top talent and was exclusively created for Red Dead Redemption 2.

While the soundtrack is immediately noticeable, what ties in the moment to moment gameplay is how expertly crafted the general sound design and ambient sounds are. Horse hooves clomp with separate sound effects for mud, dirt, and paved roads. Same thing for character footsteps and cart wheels. All of the gun types are convincing with shotguns having powerful blasts and a cattlemen’s six shooter being a bit more tingy. Ambient noises like birds chirping, animals skittering around, bugs buzzing around, and even random grunts from Arthur and other characters as you roam around help tie in all the realism of the world. The voice acting is also superbly done. Roger Clark does a fantastic job as Arthur Morgan and that really goes for all the characters including the supporting roles. No obvious cases of over acting or people who didn’t absolutely own the role of their character.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a fantastic experience despite some gameplay struggles that take some time to get use to. The impactful story may take time to kick in and can have a couple areas that hiccup due to pacing, but it’s all worth the ride getting to know and understand the Van der Linde gang. The visuals, sound design, voice acting, and general moment to moment gameplay is amazing and shouldn’t be missed. If you ever want to role play a cowboy outlaw, then there is no game better than Red Dead Redemption 2.

Graphics: 9.5

The best looking open world game based on realism I have seen. Its one weakness is that the side characters often don’t match the high quality models of the main characters.

Gameplay: 8.0

The amount of realism helps sell the world, but can lead to tiresome processes. The input lag and slow movement takes getting use to and the gunplay requires settings tweaks.

Sound: 10

From the voice acting and soundtrack to the small ambient noises and various sound effects; the sound design is phenomenal.

Fun Factor: 9.0

While the story is fantastic and worth seeing to the end, there are some pacing issues. There is so much to do that you can easily get distracted at just about every turn.

Final Verdict: 9.0

Red Dead Redemption 2 is available now on PS4 and Xbox One.
Reviewed on Xbox One.