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.
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.