There are approximately five moments in my personal history of gaming that are permanently burned into my memory, and two of them are from the first Red Dead Redemption. One was the moment I crossed into Mexico for the first time, with Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away” setting the mood. The second was a little less refined, involving a bandit inadvertently shooting himself in the nethers. Obviously, the tone of these experiences differed, but their impact was the same. Red Dead Redemption gripped me in a way few other games ever have. All this is to say that my expectations for a game have never been higher than they were when I started Red Dead Redemption 2. With each passing chapter, I expected to find something that would dip the game below the high bar I set for it, and when the game ended, I was still left waiting.
While Red Dead Redemption 2 starts out safe by connecting its story and region to that of the first game, the prequel’s emphasis on lush environments like forests, grasslands, and swamps—rather than the arid biomes commonly associated with Western dramas—was initially a bit of a shock for me. I struggled to imagine a cowboy setting without an ample supply of sand and tumbleweeds, but while such settings do get their time to shine, wholly mimicking the last game’s environments would have done the prequel a creative disservice. The new environments still effectively cater to the general Western theme while offering new opportunities for the series to evolve both aesthetically and mechanically. It also doesn’t hurt that Red Dead 2’s map is made up of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever explored in a video game, bar none.
What makes a game “good looking” generally equates to either hyperrealism or striking artistry, but Red Dead 2 manages to split the difference. The balance between the technology and art that makes up the game’s setting goes beyond the visual appeal, as nearly everything in its environments is physicalized and reactive. From leaves falling and branches bending as you pass through bushes to snow and mud deforming under your feet, the density of detail gives an impression of teeming life. The world’s lighting and colors also do it some great favors, giving the entire presentation a dry crispness that can’t be fully appreciated without seeing it firsthand. This visual design would impress layered over one small town, but the actual scale at which it can be appreciated defies reason. Red Dead 2’s map pushes industry boundaries in both size and detail, and players will find its world to be even bigger than it initially appears.
Players explore this world as Arthur Morgan, a lieutenant of the Van der Linde gang that John Marston mopped up in the previous installment. As Red Dead 2is set before the events of the first game, we meet Arthur at the peak of the gang’s infamy, with local law, the government, and rival gangs closing in from all sides. Things go from bad to worse for the gang throughout the adventure, and while Arthur always strives to be the voice of reason, he is far from being a blameless hero of virtue.
There are several instances in which I’d argue that Arthur’s actions—by his own volition in cutscenes, not my command—make him a genuinely bad person. Rather than alienating me from the character, however, these sins heightened my sympathy for Arthur. There’s an identifiable shift in the character’s world view over the course of the story that would lack the same impact if he didn’t start out as a ne’er-do-well with a circumstantial conscience. The theme of Marston’s redemption in the first game was determinedly unmistakable, and yet Arthur’s more subtle journey of redemption seems far more redeeming than his counterpart’s.
The members of the gang that join Arthur on this adventure, while lacking the same face time, feel just as human as the protagonist. When not fighting at his side, these characters live in the gang’s constantly relocating camp, which Arthur is instrumental in supporting. Money and resources collected while playing can be contributed to the camp, providing the opportunity to upgrade it in a variety of ways. Watching the camp grow serves as a pronounced and interactive metric of one’s progress. And not only do these upgrades confer gameplay advantages—primarily in the form of excess supplies—they also lift the mood of the camp’s residents, which comes across in the game’s extensive conversations.
Red Dead 2’s conversation function is practically simple but systemically fascinating. Holding left trigger next to an NPC—whether it be a camp resident, stranger, or even a friendly dog—opens up the available conversation options for that character, and navigating these options effectively is just as useful as lining up a gun barrel. Outside of objective-based scenarios, most options involve either greeting or antagonizing a person, with prompts for robbing, threatening, or defusing a target also regularly popping up, depending on the situation. It can even be used to talk your way out of arrest, should you not be in a killing mood that moment.
Beyond the adaptive nature of this tool, the resulting conversation topics are astounding. Characters remember favors you’ve done for them, or ways you’ve wronged them, and bring these up in conversation. When talking with gangmates, they’ll address current events in the camp or recent decisions you’ve made, while new faces on the open road may only give you a simple “howdy.” The network of branching possibilities is smaller than some other games, but the conversations themselves are infinitely more organic.
Fortunately for players and unfortunately for those who die, problems can’t always be solved with words, and guns will be drawn more often than not. Red Dead 2 falls back on Rockstar’s tried and tested third-person, cover-based gunplay, but something unique (at least to my knowledge) is shaking up this combat convention. Most firearms must be manually hammered back between each shot when aiming, either by pulling the right trigger again, or by lightly tapping the aim button. This may sound insignificant, but it injects a split-second delay into the rhythm of firing, which can make the difference between landing a shot or splitting air.
Lining up these shots is fairly stiff, but a quick tap of the aim button to rechamber a round also reorients the game’s generous aim assist, killing two bandits with one slug (that’s how that idiom goes, right?). Once you’ve acclimated to this process, and also accepted the viability of popping and shooting over running and gunning, it makes for an interesting challenge without being a frustrating obstacle. Few games attempt to reinvent the point-gun-pull-trigger quintessence of shooters, but Red Dead 2 achieves it with confidence and grace. Although, be warned, trying to optimally dual-wield two weapons with different bullet counts and firing rates is like playing Dance Dance Revolution with your fingers.
Another caveat gunslingers must be wary of is that not all weapons may be ready for every fight. Firearms can degrade from overuse and exposure to elements, lowering their stats, so they need to be regularly maintained. Alternatively, some of the game’s situational armaments like the silent bow, non-lethal lasso, and various melee weapons don’t have the same condition, so it’s important to always consider what tools you’re carrying. There is only space for two side-arms and two primary weapons on your person, with your remaining firearms stored on your horse. Restricting the player’s loadout, like manual weapon hammering, is a limitation that actually benefits the experience of Red Dead 2. When every option is available at all times, it’s easy to fall into a stagnant groove of your favorites. This new system encourages consideration of what weapons best suit the task at hand, which is more likely to result in trying new things.
Different weapons have different optimal situations, but every situation benefits from using the Dead Eye skill, back and better than ever in Red Dead Redemption 2. Just like the previous game, players can enter Dead Eye to temporarily slow down the world and paint targets before rattling off impeccably accurate shots in quick succession. The ability evolves as the player progresses through the game, unlocking new features such as a highlight for vital body parts on enemies. Dead Eye is the most epic slow-motion ability in the business, and it’s also an extremely useful tool when you find yourself in particularly harrowing gun fights.
To ensure Dead Eye doesn’t run out in the middle of a firefight, players will want to keep a living eye on the ability’s Core. Arthur has three Core stats that must be maintained—Health, Stamina, and Dead Eye—each with a meter surrounding its Core reserve. Burning through a stat makes its respective meter go down, while its Core amount depletes over time, as a last-resort reserve for the meter, or through other means. The lower a Core, the less efficiently its meter recharges, but Cores can be replenished with various consumable resources like food provisions and alcohol. Core management, while starting out as a bit of a nuisance, quickly becomes habitual and makes for an intriguing survival element without quite the same pressure of imposing death. It’s demanding enough to engage but simple enough that it doesn’t drag down one’s adventuring. Plus, the system gives value to resources that largely fell by the wayside in the previous game, where its comparable stats required no long-term maintenance.
Arthur isn’t the only character with Cores that need looking after. The player’s horse also needs its stats maintained, which one should do diligently, as these creatures are no longer the disposable tools they were in the last game. Players build a bond with their horse through actions like feeding it, brushing it, and riding it. The greater the bond, the tougher and braver the beast becomes, while also unlocking new moves for it, such as the equestrian version of drifting. Horses can no longer be called from anywhere, but a greater bond also increases the distance at which it can be summoned. This redesign trades convenience for sustainability, but more importantly, it makes the horse into as much a supporting character as anyone in the gang. Losing a horse means it’s gone forever, and even if that doesn’t crush your heart, the time and money you’ve invested into it will still leave you reeling. If you have a soul, though, the emotional connection is unavoidable. I’ll never forget you, Cobalt.
Much of the bond between player and horse is generated through the long treks between missions. Should the breathtaking landscapes not do it for you, and the extended travel time feel a little dull, there are a couple fast-travel options, but taking these means missing out on some of the game’s best content. During normal travel, players will frequently come across random events, which can manifest as anything from saving a kidnap victim to simply helping a vagabond with a few coins. Grateful recipients often reward the kindness with either helpful resources or useful information that leads to new experiences you may not have discovered on your own.
The step up from random events are the Stranger missions—side quests that highlight some of the frontier’s colorful personalities—with story missions topping it all off. Activities found in missions, story or otherwise, can range from tranquilly menial to frenetically action-packed, each excellently juxtaposing the other. Red Dead Redemption 2’s most memorable moments are shared between these peaks, with the former building relationships between the story’s best characters, and the latter hosting all the Wild West set pieces you could ask for, from robbing trains to breaking out of prisons and beyond. When it’s time to just kick back, players can hunt wild beasts, play a round of cards, stir up trouble with random townsfolk, and so much more. The game’s array of available activities is extensive to the point of being almost overwhelming.
Your actions during these activities and missions will dictate your Honor level, which is increased through benevolence and decreased through violent impulsiveness (specifically toward those who don’t deserve it). A high Honor level translates to discounts at shops and being more agreeable in conversation, so while baseless aggression is satisfying, it does pay to play nice. Fortunately, Honor works on a long spectrum, meaning you can get away with a few misdeeds without jeopardizing too much of your wholesome reputation, or vice versa. It’s a simple system that fits the outlaw vigilante theme and gives consequence to decisions beyond their immediate payoff.
Action and drama are helpful in building a story, but subtle details—like those drawn out by the game’s Honor system—are what make a world. The uneasy glances you get from passersby with your weapon drawn, the way your horse gets skittish around predators, or even something as simple as guns fitting perfectly on your back without clipping through your outfit- these efforts are vital for immersion, as they purge from the world that which would form schisms between players and the experience. This immersion can be even more enhanced with the game’s first-person mode, should players wish to experience Arthur’s story from behind his eyes. The game was definitely built with third-person in mind, but the first-person mode is no hack job, making yet another case for the exhaustive care and attention that went into this game.
In this industry, there are generally two schools of thought for what constitutes giving a game a perfect score: it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed under any circumstances, or there is nothing about the experience that needs changing. I lean toward the latter myself, but regardless of which you subscribe to, Red Dead Redemption 2 earns the mark. From the moment in the intro where I noticed Arthur slightly puts his hand up toward cold wind, to the stellar end-game payoff that won’t be spoiled here, nothing during my adventure into Rockstar’s newest frontier failed to delight. High expectations are always a recipe for great disappointment, but how foolish I was to ever doubt Red Dead Redemption 2.
Criticisms often come easier than compliments, but in the case of Red Dead Redemption 2, I am at a loss. This is one of the most gorgeous, seamless, rootinest, tootinest games ever made, and if you voluntarily miss out on it, you’re either not a gamer or in a coma.
M – Mature
|Red Dead Redemption 2 is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Rockstar Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Nick didn’t start gaming until mid-2006. Once his parents finally allowed a console into the house, it was all uphill from there. Starting out with a PS2, he grew an affinity for Sony consoles and moved on to the PS3, and now the PS4. He keeps his gaming palette wide, but, gun to his head, he’d have to say shooters are his genre of choice.