Red Dead Redemption 2 Review

Watch the fall of the Van der Linde gang in this excellent prequel.

Review by Mike Williams, .

For some, Red Dead Redemption is hailed as the best title Rockstar Games has ever developed. Grand Theft Auto might be the cash cow, the game that put Rockstar on the map, but Red Dead Redemption was the masterpiece. It was an excellent tale of one man trying to get back to his family in a world that no longer needs him, married to one of the most well-crafted open-world environments. Western games are pretty rare already; a great one was something to be celebrated.

Eight years later, Rockstar Games is taking a second shot with Red Dead Redemption 2. While the first Redemption detailed the later life of former outlaw John Marston, the sequel jumps back in time. Redemption was the story of cowboys and frontiersman in a world that had embraced civilization. Red Dead Redemption 2 gives us Marston's former crew, the Van der Linde Gang, during the good old days. Civilization and the law is coming, but the gang's all here, shootin', robbin', and livin'. It's the story of how everything fell apart.

You don't play John Marston, though he and his family do factor heavily in the game's overall plot. (He's kind of a whiny dick?) Instead, you don the cowboy hat of Arthur Morgan, the right hand man of gang leader Dutch Van der Linde. Dutch is the man with the vision, his partner Hosea Matthews is an aging con man, and Arthur Morgan is the muscle.

Arthur Morgan isn't a great man. He's not even a good one if I'm being honest. There's an Honor system in Red Dead Redemption 2, where you gain Honor for good or altruistic deeds, and lose Honor for committing crimes and needlessly murdering people. But even at his best, Arthur is willing to kill to protect his people and not above a little larceny to get by. I'm not sure Arthur himself is the most interesting of characters. He's gruff, but loyal to a fault, even to members of the gang who are better off dead. Arthur's most intriguing conflicts don't come until later in the campaign; before that, he's the hammer or scalpel wielded by everyone else.

What really works in Red Dead Redemption 2 is the supporting cast. John Marston was mostly alone in his adventures in 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, moving from place-to-place to hunt down the former members of the Van der Linde Gang. But Arthur is never really alone, with a steady home at the gang's various camps. And I like the gang, they're fun, interesting people.

I really like the Grand Theft Auto games, but one of my problems is the series always lives in this mire of intense satire. In GTA 5, there were moments where Michael, Franklin, and Trevor felt like real people, but for the most part all three gentlemen and their supporting casts felt like caricatures. There's satire, humor, and outlandish personalities in Red Dead Redemption 2, but more of the cast members feel like actual people.

Dutch was a dangerous ideologue in Red Dead Redemption, but in RDR 2 he's only beginning to fall; you see him as a charismatic man who loves his people and is trying to do what he believes is best for them. Hosea is the voice of reason; he's ready for a con, but he's also beginning to wonder what the endgame truly is. Charles Smith is a reserved and competent hunter, but certain things get his murderous dander up. Lenny Summers is a young black man trying his best to prove himself to the gang. Sadie Adler is a woman who lost her husband, but she's a little too ready for a fight.

These are enjoyable people. I get what makes them tick and I understand why they're in the gang. Even the ones I hate, including loose cannons like Micah Bell and Bill Williamson, still somewhat prove themselves as worthwhile members. It's an interesting, diverse cast of characters and taking them somewhat seriously means that when the story really begins to hurt them-this isn't really a spoiler considering where Red Dead Redemption started-you feel it. The first death is like a gut punch; it was unexpected and it hurt. It's good to hold back sometimes Rockstar. Let that lesson jump over to GTA more often.

The Van der Linde gang, together again.

You engage with the gang as much as you want to. Some missions are needed to move the story forward-those are marked in yellow-while others are side activities. You can walk up to anyone and greet or antagonize them for short conversations. Arthur can play local games like dominoes, poker, or five finger fillet with his companions. You can even just sit back and let them talk to each other, allowing you to learn more about them in the background.

It’s a good cast that pushes Red Dead Redemption 2 forward, but the early chapters are a slow burn. 10 hours in, RDR 2 is still teaching you all of the things that you can do, many times in the form of missions for various members of the gang. Arthur will head out on a fishing trip with Dutch and Hosea, or rob a stagecoach for the first time with Micah Bell. Herr Strauss has you collecting debts from folks who owe the gang, or Charles will offer up further hunting tips. You'll still be doing tutorial stuff by the time you'd be completing some games.

It doesn't help that the connective tissue between some missions can end up being a bit tedious. The camp is the hub you'll keep returning to, but there's no stagecoach or train line that will take you straight there. You'll spend a lot of time riding across the landscape on your horse or a wagon, either just getting back to camp or moving an object from point A to point B. There was one mission that had Arthur riding in a cart with a lawman that took forever, because the lawman was controlling the cart and moving at his own glacial pace.

I'd hazard a guess that this is by design. First, Red Dead Redemption 2 plays out over an absolutely huge and beautiful world. This is, without hyperbole, one of the best-looking games released on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. You'll ride your horse across green pastures, desert scrub swaying in the breeze, muddy city streets in the rain, and the hanging willows and swamps of the South. Arthur will leave shoe prints in the mud, his boots will get wet only on the submerged sections, and clouds of dirt in dust bowl towns will coat his duster. The lighting is nothing short of fantastic, whether it's the sun peaking through the trees or the artificial lights of Saint Denis.

With the first Red Dead Redemption, I honestly felt that visually the game was a bit dull. It looked good, but it lacked variety, being very brown and tan. Red Dead Redemption 2 goes out of its way to fix this problem. You'll jump from the depths of winter, to rolling hills of grass, to stony mountain peaks, to the parched red clay of Rhodes, the bustling metropolis of Saint Denis, and the classic Southwestern desert. Hell, there's a whole section of the map that remains closed to you for most of the game.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game where sometimes it feels good just to space out and ride. Not doing any missions or robbing anybody... just riding. It feels like that's what Rockstar wants you to do, and it's why the studio throws in the back and forth riding. Because goddamn is the world beautiful. At points, it almost feels like RDR 2 is a simulation, not a game.

The world of Red Dead Redemption is littered with Strangers, who are like mini-stories that play out in front of you in a few minutes. You can let these lives play out, or intercede. You're usually not given enough information to make an informed decision, so these Stranger moments generally have you going with your gut. As an example, I saved a lady from two bounty hunters because I felt she was making a good case from the back of the wagon. Was she truly innocent? I'll never know.

And for most of your journey, your horse is your constant companion. I didn't pay much attention to horse testicles, but it's clear that someone on Rockstar's staff was a big fan of horses. There's a number of different varieties and Red Dead Redemption 2 places a heavy focus on bonding with your horse. With a specific horse, the more you ride, feed, and take care of them, the stronger they get. Horses can even drift if you've bonded with them enough. (How?) Rockstar wants you riding, because it wants you to fall in love with your horse... before you inevitably kill it by running off a cliff or something.

Red Dead Redemption 2 just goes on and on in terms of things you do. You can rob almost anyone: random passersby, shopkeepers, any train or stagecoach. You can rustle cattle or steal stagecoaches to sell to a fence. Capture nefarious folks by heading into town and finding bounty hunting posters. You can fish or hunt, with the latter being a huge part of the game's progression system. Hunting has a full tracking system that even takes into account scent being carried on the wind. The world of Red Dead 2 is out there saying, "Go ahead, do whatever you want."

There are some annoying bits though. Like Grand Theft Auto 5, you will find yourself randomly getting into fights or killing someone. The first time I entered Saint Denis, I died within 10 minutes because someone walked in front of my horse, died, and had me flagged for murder. I've beaten so many into death or unconsciousness because I accidentally bumped them while walking and there's no way to de-escalate once they've decided that scuffing their boots is worth their life. And since accidental murder leads to a Wanted level, and being Wanted can lock you out of missions or shops, it can feel like a few extra minutes of frustration over relatively small actions.

The controls fight you occasionally. Rockstar planned for a number of situations, but it's still difficult to do basic stuff like follow a partner while shooting targets behind you. I love Rockstar games, but the play isn't tightest part of them. RDR 2 is improved over the first Redemption, but it's not the best third-person combat system I've messed with.

I also ran into a few mystifying bugs and issues. Early in the game, I put down a rare bear pelt in the camp, intending to come back later and take it to the Trapper. I left camp, then decided to come back immediately, but the pelt was gone. I hadn't even gone that far away. Likewise, an enemy dropped a new weapon and I was switching between weapons to see which one was better. After the second swap, one of the weapons just disappeared completely. None of these were game-breaking problems, but minor bits of frustration.

Part of the problem with writing a review of a game this large is I can keep going. I haven't gone in-depth on the crafting system or the impressive amount of weapon customization. I mentioned hunting, but not the huge amount of animals, fish, and plants you can track and collect. Or the other gangs who will ambush you in their territory, whom you can deal with definitively by attacking their hideouts and strongholds. I never covered the challenges, like killing rabbits with your horse, or holding up townsfolk.

It's hard to sum up everything Red Dead Redemption 2 is in a single review. So I'll follow with two statements that may seem antithetical to some folks. Is Red Dead Redemption 2 better than the first game? Very much so. Is Red Dead Redemption 2 perfect? No. Rockstar Games has crafted this huge, beautiful world with an attention to detail that's astounding. There's a high level of craft here, but that's also why some of those small annoyances or more obtuse systems stick out more. Despite those small issues, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a fantastic game that should keep players satisfied for another eight years.

Eight years after the masterpiece that was Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar Games is taking a second shot. New protagonist Arthur Morgan gets a better supporting cast, an absolutely beautiful open world with more visual variety, and a ton of things to kill or collect. There's some occasional tedium in travel, and a few bugs and annoyances, but nothing that prevents Red Dead Redemption 2 from being an excellent game.

4.5 /5

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Mike Williams Watch the fall of the Van der Linde gang in this excellent prequel. 2018-10-26T23:45:00-04:00 4.5 5

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Comments 19

  • Avatar for WiIIyTheAntelope #1 WiIIyTheAntelope 26 days ago
    I guess it's about time I paid full price for a game again.

    Though I already know future me is going to be salty once they completely ignore supporting the single player game in favor soaking up that microtransaction money for the multiplayer.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #2 Kuni-Nino 26 days ago
    And that’s why you work 100 hours a week. To craft a masterpiece. I hope the game sells a ton and those people get rewarded.
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  • Avatar for Vodka-Tonic #3 Vodka-Tonic 26 days ago
    I mean, considering the mentality in the old west, I think it's authentic to have people upset about "scuffed boots", Mike. Everyone was carrying, and shooting someone was a daily occurrence. If someone takes my hat, or scuffs my boot, they'll certainly be introduced to my pistol. xD
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  • Avatar for chilon #4 chilon 26 days ago
    @Kuni-Nino 4.5/5 is no masterpiece, and plenty of 5/5 games were built without making people work like dogs.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #5 Kuni-Nino 26 days ago
    @chilon Mike gives it a 4.5 so it’s no masterpiece. I forgot USGamer was the sole arbiter for that type of thing. Oyy, you people.

    I’ll also laugh at people working like dogs. These programmers and artists aren’t exactly out in the hot sun picking oranges for 60 hours. Making games is hard, but they’re getting paid for it pretty damn well by a wealthy company. Middle class people bitching about exploitation. Get outta here with that noise.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #6 NiceGuyNeon 26 days ago
    Deleted 4 weeks ago by NiceGuyNeon
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  • Avatar for chilon #7 chilon 26 days ago
    @Kuni-Nino Moral absolutism is for dummies, cut it out. No matter how much you're paid you don't deserve to be pressured into giving your time away to a job. Only the senior Devs at Rockstar are on $100k plus. Nobody is calling this game a masterpiece, not usgamer or anyone else, and even if it was it doesn't excuse taking advantage of people.
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  • Avatar for docexe #8 docexe 26 days ago
    I have to disagree with the part about the first RDR being visually dull. I get what Mike says about the color palette of the first game being repetitive, but the vistas of the desert landscapes and other areas were so beautiful that it's one of the few Open World games where I have deliberately avoided the fast travel options. In that sense I wouldn't mind taking the long road in RDR2, given all the screenshots and videos I have seen point to another really beautiful world.

    A shame that all the reviews that I have read so far remark that Rockstar still hasn't quite nailed it yet when it comes to the UI and the controls, but I suppose that's par for the course by this point.

    Seems like a great follow up in any case.
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  • Avatar for docexe #9 docexe 26 days ago
    @Kuni-Nino I want the game to succeed because it would be worse for everyone involved if it failed. Doesn't mean things like 100 hours of labor per week should be applauded.

    "Other people have worse jobs and less compensation" is a bad argument in this case. Simply put, if any project or organization demands that much overtime, it's because something has gone catastrophically wrong, either with the project, with the organization or with the person itself.

    For that matter, the idea of the artist who overworks themselves to death in pursuit of their magnum opus is one of those romantic ideals that are fascinating to read about but should not really be emulated.
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #10 nadiaoxford 26 days ago
    @Kuni-Nino As someone who spent a good portion of her life working very physical jobs that eventually wrecked her knees and left her with TB, I’m in a position to confirm tech / desk work can also take a huge toll on your health.
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  • Avatar for Drachmalius #11 Drachmalius 26 days ago
    Great review Mike, looking forward to playing this in a few hours. I'm glad they put some variety into the environments, there was a lot of desert in the first game. It made sense and it didn't bother me at the time, but it is a welcome change. This'll keep me busy for a long time, and I'll double dip if they ever put it out on PC most likely.

    And: since the game is so well made and great, the people who worked on it should be treated better. They shouldn't have to come in on weekends just to keep up appearances, and only work as much as they absolutely need to. That "culture of fear" BS is something I've experienced in blue collar work and it is toxic and kills people's spirit. I honestly don't know how/if unions can help but its worth a shot.
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #12 mattcom26 25 days ago
    @Kuni-Nino I’m not in video games, but as a digital designer in my late 30’s I’m at a cross roads where I may have to change my career due to the snowballing physical issues brought on by long hours at a desk/computer. It’s certainly no laughing matter — I’ve been to doctors a record number of times in the last year to treat chronic back pain, carpal tunnel, vision damage, and I don’t work anywhere near 100 hours. Desks and screens can ruin a person just as surely manual labor.Edited 4 weeks ago by mattcom26
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #13 Kuni-Nino 25 days ago
    @mattcom26 Sure, there’s a physical toll to anything if you do it for a long time. Human beings aren’t meant to spend years of their lives in front of a computer just like they aren’t meant to work years inside a coal mine.

    But man, doing what the Housers do working 100 hours editing scripts is a wholly different thing from people who work 50 hours doing construction. There’s enormous differences. And yet we still have silly people acting like Rockstar is running a sweatshop. Last I checked, people aren’t dying at Rockstar because they were creating HD assets.

    The whole thing is immensely overblown.
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  • Avatar for joshepthomas #14 joshepthomas 24 days ago
    masterpiece. can i get a free copy.Edited 4 weeks ago by joshepthomas
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  • Avatar for NightingaleXP #15 NightingaleXP 24 days ago
    @Kuni-Nino this is just a "people overseas have it much worse, why are you protesting" argument, fyi

    Something else being wrong does not excuse this by virtue of it appearing less harmful to you.

    Beyond the physical toll people have friends, families, and a lot of life outside of work that is expected to be sacrificed when this is the culture. That's real no matter how cushy you think they got it, and I don't know why you keep saying "but what about" as though it's anything but a smokescreen on that simple point.
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  • Avatar for Maxbeedo #16 Maxbeedo 24 days ago
    Just want to say that this was an excellent review Mike. There are some outlets that have blinders on regarding this game (though a few of those have been upfront about it), giving it a perfect score and not mentioning the legitimate issues it has, but you mentioned several of them. By most accounts, it seems like the best way to play is to focus on the story and characters, because the gameplay and travel options look to have some pretty annoying time-wasting design decisions (which you would think would be more of a point of emphasis for an open-world game, make the free-roaming exploration part of the game as much fun and annoyance-free as possible), though these could obviously be fixed in the future.
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  • Avatar for ojinnvoltz #17 ojinnvoltz 24 days ago
    I admire how the game doesn't mince words that you are doing chores. And for that reason I'm out! Played for a while yesterday at my friend's house and I found it to be a bit tedious.. It's a very impressive world though and I might pick it up at some point.
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  • Avatar for cochiese379 #18 cochiese379 20 days ago
    i think a dem or lib has never been to the country to hunt fish or ride or shoot a gun, i love the cowboy games, it is a good one , but man you guys need some help simplifying the menu and storage, and in using weapons, if you kill a animal with poison you can not eat it, you have tainted the meat to eat, so only good for hides and skins if you poison them. just saying i thought that was silly. Says the Texas , Alabama,tennessee florida hunter and fisherman,and gun enthusiasts. peace tweak it man and make it a skyrim, it then can last forever, and don't forget the modding community and creativity for apparel for men women and children, thats big these days. peace. bethesda fan all day.
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  • Avatar for hakim20 #19 hakim20 17 days ago
    @cochiese379 "Le 6 février 2018, nous avons publié un article dont la source était un document d'entreprise confidentiel.
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  • Avatar for beyonslay #20 beyonslay 8 days ago
    A long, beautiful, exciting game, a masterpiece that will mark his time. A total immersion in the wild west that is worth getting involved in.
    The details of the city is just bewildering.

    ShowBox TutuappMobdroEdited 3 days ago by beyonslay
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