Red Dead Redemption 2 is the tale of how the west was won, and lost. A story of outlaws and bandits, driven to the brink of extinction by an irresistible force that not even an army of six-shooters could stop: The march of progress. With the wild west having finally been tamed as North America began to recover from the wounds inflicted on it by a horrendous Civil War, Red Dead Redemption 2 is both a prequel to the myths that shaped a nation and an ending to the age of the gun.
More than that, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a familiar sandbox of gunpowder and vast swathes of hostile frontier that still have some fight left in them. On the other side of that coin, Red Dead Redemption 2 is also Rockstar’s deepest and most satisfying game yet thanks to a reinforcement of the world around you and the personal stake that players develop with not only the lead protagonist of Arthur Morgan, but with his friends, family and even the foes that he encounters along the way.
Beyond even that, Red Dead Redemption 2 is an investment. An investment of emotion and time, for a game that serves as a love letter to the wild west that was immortalised in history and film. What Rockstar Games has created is not only a swansong to an era, but also their own unique take on the online action still to come in Red Dead Online.
Indeed, Red Dead Redemption 2’s surface appeal might strike returning players as an almost carbon copy of a game that first saddled up and rode west in 2010. Eight years later, and certain core ideas are still firmly rooted in place. Players can choose to behave as thieves with honour, or pursue a more reckless path of self-destruction as a bandit with no moral code, robbing his way across various counties and towns.
Bounties still offer a lucrative and engaging experience to players looking for a diversion, strangers will pop up seeking help and a diverse cast of lawmakers and lawbreakers still exist for Arthur to interact with. Even if Red Dead Redemption 2 was nothing more than a carbon copy of the first game but updated with the latest visual technology, it’d still be a treat to play.
It had to be more than that, however, if it wanted to live up to its own insane hype that it had rustled up out on the internet prairie. Fortunately, Red Dead Redemption 2’s greatest asset isn’t a stereotypical sequel tendency to go big or go home on a superficial level, but a more introspective path that forces players to slow down and enjoy their time out on the range.
The first few hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 might seem tedious and even languid at times, but it’s a necessary approach that forces players to actually pay attention to their surroundings. There’s a gorgeous world waiting to be explored in Red Dead Redemption 2, one of swampy bayous and claustrophobic cities that spews forth the black smoke of industrialisation as players find themselves caught between a deceptive look at civilisation that society offers and the more rugged but honest experience of living in a world far removed from progress.
It’s a world of danger and mystery, where players can truly choose to be the cowboy that they want to be. Prefer to spend your time out in the wilds, hunting animals and selling their skins for a profit? You can do that. Prefer to spend your time in towns hustling yokels and keeping the area safe while you turn a profit? Plenty of opportunities await you.
Or maybe you’d prefer to make cash the easy way and just rob a train instead, which you totally can do. Dozens of hours later, and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of Red Dead Redemption 2 and what it has to offer. I’ve given aid to strangers in need, I’ve tangled with the Klu Klux Klan in some bizarre scenarios and I’ve run afoul of Irish gunslingers who have set traps for me.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s lands may be wide and wild, but they’re also juxtaposed by the sheer depth of Arthur himself and the predicaments that he finds himself in as a member of the gang he’s in that is led by Dutch Van de Lindt. Arthur may be a thief and a murderer, but he has a code of honour and the presence of a Colt Dragoon silencing the battlefield when he talks. He’s an enigma in leather boots, ready to die for his extended family yet not a blind follower to a cause that he believes may be a fool’s errand.
He’s also a hell of a fighter, able to outdraw even the slipperiest desperado when it comes to filling his hand with iron. Arthur is a two-fisted brawler when need be and a savvy negotiator when the situation calls for it, provided that players actually care for the character on the screen. Arthur isn’t just a visual representation of the player’s moral standing in front of them, but he’s also a fragile reminder of how all the bluster in the world is nothing without some tender love and care on the side.
Arthur’s wellbeing is directly tied into his two primary health and stamina cores that players can upgrade as they experience the game. It’s a system that sounds like an odd match at first for the type of sandbox that Red Dead Redemption 2 gives you, but it’s also a system that shows Rockstar’s pitch-perfect talent for balancing interesting new ideas with components that are designed to enhance, not hinder.
Every positive action has a positive reaction, slowly increasing Arthur’s talent for survival or running away from the law, while ignoring his needs and not slowing down from time to time will result in a fatigued and more vulnerable cowboy tackling missions that he quite frankly isn’t ready for. Rockstar’s take on the survival system is a fine-tuned series of ideas that won’t have you thinking about them 24/7, but they’re just persistent enough to make you realise that every once in a while, it’s a good idea to head back to camp and take a break.
Heck, even Arthur’s hygiene plays a significant role in how other people react to him, as strolling into town reeking of blood and cow crap is a sure-fire way to get the populace to avoid you. That level of detail extends even further, as players can see the effects of time reflected on Arthur. His hair grows constantly, resulting in a character who can be tailored to look like the grizzliest mountain man this side of the Rocky mountains, or you can take a few minutes to ensure that Arthur remains clean-shaven and dapper as he infiltrates high society.
It’s a remarkable evolution of character design and investment, made even better by an upgradeable third core in the Dead Eye system of combat. While players can choose to slap leather and draw a variety of iron death-dealers, their approach to combat is entirely up to them. Sure, you could choose to run into the fray with six-shooters blazing away, or you can take cover behind some crates and pick your shots.
Dead Eye adds to that choice, giving Arthur enough adrenaline to slow the world around him down as he paints targets and unleashes a one-way ticket to the brimstone gates of hell itself for anyone who gets in his way. What starts with a simple slow motion pull of the trigger begins to evolve into a deadlier focus, as Arthur soon finds himself able to see weak spots and take advantage of an extended Dead Eye duration. Heck, if you want to go full Lone Ranger you can even flex your reflexes to shoot the guns out of the hands of would-be assailants, thus preserving your honour.
Honour, a resource which seems to be in short supply in Arthur’s extended family. While Red Dead Redemption 2 may focus largely on Arthur’s exploits, there’s also an equal emphasis on the gang who he belongs to. People with their own personalities and flaws, who you’ll have to care for by taking the time to upgrade your facilities and unlock beneficial bonuses that will aid not only your closest allies but Arthur as well. Invest some cash in certain members, and you’ll find yourself not only well-stocked and well-fed – but more than prepared for the harsh world outside.
If Red Dead Redemption 2 is a thoroughly deep and engrossing experience to play, then it’s even more amazing to watch and listen to. Everything about the game just explodes quality. The wear and tear on Arthur’s body, the filtering of lazy sunlight through a forest of trees and the beauty of an early morning mist that hides danger within.
Towns have a hustle and a bustle to them, an eye for detail that is outstandingly accurate and a world that truly feels distinct in how it reacts to your presence. Even better, every possible sound effect in the game has a certain pop to it, that’ll tickle your eardrums and keep you glued to the screen as ambient noises help sell the Old West appeal.
With a cast of voice actors who absolutely nail the roles they’re given, from Roger Clarke as Arthur Morgan to Benjamin Byron Davis as the turbulent Dutch Van de Linde, Red Dead Redemption 2 plays out like a western that is comprised of the best shades of Eastwood and John Wayne at its finest moments, while also giving its players a character to care about and a world that is worth exploring.
Last Updated: October 25, 2018