Red Dead Redemption 2 Review – Living the Outlaw Life
Red Dead Redemption 2October 26th, 2018
Whenever Rockstar Games is about to release a new game, the games industry practically stops for the event. Retailers gleefully rub their hands anticipating the revenue, gamers literally can't wait to be able to dive into their virtual worlds and fellow colleagues in the game development community are eager to take a look at what the top-tier studio managed to accomplish this time around.
That's no coincidence. In the last two decades, they've produced some of the best-selling and most critically acclaimed games released on any platform. Grand Theft Auto IV ended up with an average review score of 98/100 on Metacritic; Grand Theft Auto V stopped at 97/100 but far surpassed its predecessor when it comes to sales, going on to become the highest grossing media product of all time about six months ago.
Perhaps the anticipation for Red Dead Redemption 2 is even greater. Not just because it comes after these highly successful games, but also due to Rockstar's decision to focus exclusively on this prequel ever since the release of Grand Theft Auto V in September 2013 on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Indeed, it's been over five years since we got a brand new title from Rockstar. Granted, they haven't exactly been idle. They had to port GTAV to PC and then to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, not to mention the ongoing support of Grand Theft Auto Online (which continues to be among the most played online games). Still, fans had become used to getting quicker releases and even smaller titles in between the big open worlds. Bully and Max Payne 3 are two such examples.
Now they're more ravenous than ever given the long 'starvation' period. With Red Dead Redemption 2 they're about to get an exquisite and suitably wild-tasting meal, that's for sure.
The beginning isn't necessarily the most exciting, though. Rockstar chose to craft a mostly linear first chapter which serves as an introduction to the game and most importantly to its main characters. It's not entirely unusual to do so, even in the open world genre. However, be prepared to listen to lengthy conversations and slowly venture out in the thick snow for the first few hours.
Once the second chapter begins, the world fully opens up for exploration and may initially be a little disorienting. Not only for its size but also because it takes a long time to get anywhere. The first horse you get isn't the fastest one, for instance, and you need to bond with it as part of the deep horse system to unlock more moves and increase the whistle range. That's right, unlike most games where your horse will magically appear wherever you are located in the blink of an eye, Red Dead Redemption 2 will leave you on foot if you've left the horse too much behind you.
And of course, running and sprinting are also very much limited at first due to the low level stamina of your character. Travel itself is slow, then, and fast travel is basically non-existent early on. You can eventually unlock a camp upgrade which installs a map in Arthur's tent. Accessing the map lets you select a town you've been to, though once again Rockstar tried to make this transition as cinematic as possible. A cutscene triggers with Arthur packing his horse for the travel and then showing him pass through some of the locations on the way to his destination.
Then again, to do otherwise would have been to betray several tenets of the Western setting. It was a much slower world overall in every regard, after all, and this is properly reflected here. There were no cars, bikes, planes or helicopters. There were stagecoaches and trains and they're both in the game but they'll have to be unlocked first by visiting new towns.
Red Dead Redemption 2 simply isn't meant to be as accessible as Grand Theft Auto. That might translate to fewer unit sales, but it's a risk the developers were clearly willing to take. Ultimately, this is all part of Rockstar's ambitious grand vision, one which they've accomplished in my opinion.
As you slowly get access to faster horses, more travel points and chiefly the fast travel map back at camp, everything feels a little more at your fingertips. By then you've almost assuredly been spellbound by the game's excellent writing and charming protagonists, both arguably at the very top of what we've seen in games yet. Without spoiling anything, it's an epic, memorable and engrossing tale of the last outlaws trying to survive in the civilized world long enough to make the money needed to disappear for good.
Arthur and his fellows of the Van der Linde gang have been brought to life by the concerted work of the writers and the voice actors who've played their parts. Each one has a unique, distinct personality and demeanor that makes them impossible to forget. Arthur has plenty of chances to bond with them not only through the main and optional missions but also via the brand new interaction system, which here is used to great effect to trigger additional dialogue with friendly NPCs. There's an absolutely incredible amount of custom dialogue in Red Dead Redemption 2, mostly back at camp as the rest of the gang will comment on almost any meaningful event, but also elsewhere in the world. For instance, if you've helped someone out in the world you can keep talking with them for a while.
The interaction system is worth expanding on as it's possibly the single most game-changing feature of Red Dead Redemption 2. It may sound relatively simple and straightforward (though it surely must have been hard to implement in the game's code): you can now interact with (almost) anyone by holding the left trigger on your gamepad and then choosing one of four options.
The options are largely contextual. Generally, they include robbing the 'feller' (Arthur is an outlaw, after all), greeting or antagonizing him/her, and obviously pointing the gun as an intimidation. If the NPC gets angry with you for whatever reason, the greeting option is quickly replaced by a 'defuse' option to try and calm them down.
Granted, not all of those interactions actually lead to something deep and meaningful. Developers would probably need access to much greater computing power devoted to AI routines for that to happen, something that could soon come to fruition via the cloud.
When it works, though, it's just great and natural in the 'why weren't we allowed to do this before?' way. Quite frankly, I expect that this will shortly become a standard in open world games going forward, allowing players to interact with any and all non-player characters (NPCs) seamlessly rather than through cutscenes.
This system also lets you choose how to handle the situations. While Arthur will still remain an outlaw whatever you do, there's plenty of chance to make him an honorable outlaw or a ruthless killer. You can choose to help those in need in various different ways, by rescuing them from dangerous situations, giving them money or simply behaving in a polite way. Being honorable has several perks, such as discounted prices in stores. In some cases, you might even encounter once again a random NPC you've saved from a bear's trap or a snake bite. They'll thank you for the help and offer a reward in the form of a free item on their tab from a nearby store.
Beyond the Honor system, there's also a Wanted system linked to unlawful actions such as the obvious murder and robbing, but also bumping into someone with your horse. In Red Dead Redemption 2 you have the additional option of trying to stop a witness before they've revealed your crime to the authorities. Sometimes you're able to just scare them into silence, other times you'll be forced to kill them to avoid getting the bounty.
If you're going to do anything unlawful, you should first equip the bandana to make it harder for anyone to detect your identity. Once Arthur has a bounty on his head in any area of the game, getting jumped on by a group of bounty hunters is a real possibility. These can be some of the toughest firefights as they can catch you utterly unprepared, but they're also thrilling and rewarding if you're able to survive the assault. Those who want to be more relaxed when going out for a stroll can pay off the bounty at any post office.
Content-wise, one would be hard pressed to be anything less than amazed. There are so many different things to do, from the side activities like hunting the 200 species of animals, fishing in lakes and rivers and playing minigames (dominoes, poker, five finger fillet and more) to the masterfully recreated theatrical shows Arthur can visit in towns just to relax a little. You can also follow treasure maps, storm outposts and hideouts of enemy gangs, and of course rob stores or even trains or stagecoaches, with fences all too eager to take the stolen goods out of your hands for a price.
Arguably the stars of the show are the 'chance encounters', anyway. These will appear as blips or question marks on the map and a surprising amount of these are unique. I highly recommend to check them out whenever possible as they are some of the most fun, yet weird encounters you'll have in the game. Overall, it's a world that just begs to be explored from top to bottom and it will take a long time for players to discover all its secrets and easter eggs.
The main missions are also great, for the most part. My minor gripe is that there's little room to play them in different ways, using other approaches as is increasingly common nowadays. That's also essentially true for side missions and overall, the stealth system simply isn't viable enough unless the mission specifically requires that approach. This allowed Rockstar to craft some spectacular setpieces, but it would have been nice to empower players with more options.
Still, with Red Dead Redemption 2 Rockstar demonstrates it understands the importance of establishing strong connections between the player character and NPCs. The Van der Linde gang is the focus, naturally, but the same concept has been applied across the board. You'll often encounter again the same NPCs in different situations and have the opportunity to see their relationships with Arthur evolve over several quests or missions. Many open world games just shove a whole host of new characters into the player's way upon moving to a new area and then they're quickly forgotten, which is definitely not a good way to make them matter to the player.
Regardless of the direction you want to take with Arthur, there's going to be a lot of shooting involved. The gunplay feels very satisfying, although it doesn't quite dethrone Rockstar's own Max Payne 3 in this regard. Here, too, you'll have to be mindful of maintaining the weapon's condition (just as Arthur himself needs to eat and sleep) to keep its stats from decreasing. Also, while the selected revolvers and pistols are always in your holsters, bigger weapons like rifles and shotguns are stowed on the horse and have to be actively picked before dismounting or they'll remain on the horse.
The cover and melee systems aren't quite on the same level. The transition between covers is not as smooth as it should be, though luckily you won't need to do that often. On the other hand, melee feels good and punchy but isn't very deep. The same button is used for both parry and dodge, and there's no option to punch people harder with a 'charged' blow. You can, however, try to choke enemies out (provided you're not interrupted by another foe).
Of course, the outstandingly beautiful world featured in Red Dead Redemption 2 is a critical component of the game's immersion factor. While human character models didn't see a massive improvement compared to Grand Theft Auto V in 2013, the environments are simply breathtaking in every way. They're incredibly detailed but also amazingly designed so that they look cohesive and as such, the locales of Red Dead Redemption 2 give you the impression of a real place. That's not something that can be said for most other open world games, even triple-A ones. The artists and the programmers deserve equal praise here for their astounding work.
Whether you're taking in the sights of a beautiful sunrise out in the woods or strolling by night in the well-lit streets of the industrial city of Saint-Denis, Red Dead Redemption 2 truly is a sight to behold almost at every corner.
The variety of weather conditions is also impressive. These are so well made that they shine a new light even on the locations you've already been to. There's anything from morning haze to light or heavy rain, overcast, gloomy and many more nuanced variations. Once I found myself wading through a thick fog in the middle of the night and it was honestly hard to see anything ahead of the horse.
Speaking of lights, Rockstar Games added an excellent Global Illumination (GI) based lighting to their RAGE engine. Being able to exploit the additional horsepower of the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X must have been nice for Rockstar developers, as usually their worlds were only able to truly shine whenever the PC version got released. This time, though, the beefed-up mid-generation console refreshes offer a new opportunity for them to showcase a finer rendition of their work.
Earlier I mentioned that human character models haven't seen as big of an improvement as other elements of the graphics. That's true in terms of raw detail, but the animations here certainly set a new high for Rockstar and probably for the whole medium. The review fact sheet mentions over three hundred thousand individual animations and ten times the amount of custom animations that were in Grand Theft Auto V. This absolutely shows in the game and majorly contributes to the game's herculean effort to feel real in each and every aspect. It works in concert with the Euphoria based physics to provide excellent interactions between humans, animals and objects. Let's just say that running with the horse at high speed into a tree, for example, almost felt painful to watch.
To round off the technical side of the review, it's time to speak of the frame rate. Historically, previous Rockstar titles have struggled a bit to keep a steady 30 frames per second target at all times. Red Dead Redemption 2 has a sizable advantage over Grand Theft Auto, though. With the notable exception of Saint-Denis, the only true city you'll find in the map, there are usually very few NPCs or animals on screen. There still are some slowdowns here and there, usually in the wonderfully detailed interiors or in the busier areas of a town. Overall, though, at least on Xbox One X they are not a problem that can harm the player's experience in a tangible way.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the fantastic music scores that the game triggers at the most appropriate times. The sounds of the wild have also been captured eerily well as little animals brush through grass and make tiny, but recognizable noises. Audio is a department that's too often left on the sidelines by gamers, but Western fans know how critical it was for the genre's Golden Age thanks to Ennio Morricone's music. It's good to see Rockstar paid as much attention to it as they did to everything else.
Red Dead Redemption 2 also includes Red Dead Online, though the multiplayer component is not available at the moment and will enter Beta at some point in November. Rockstar didn't reveal much about it yet, but after playing the single player I'm confident that the slower pace of Red Dead Redemption 2, if maintained in multiplayer, could be very well suited to attract even those who disliked GTA Online's often chaotic action.
Reviewed on Xbox One X (code provided by the publisher). You may purchase the game on Amazon.
Red Dead Redemption 2 may not be perfect, but its minor shortcomings are like tiny blemishes on a stunningly beautiful face. In a way, they only serve as a reminder of how this world isn't made for perfection. Every single aspect of the game will put you into the very shoes of an outlaw roaming America with his gang as they try to escape the law long enough to make the money needed to disappear for good. It's an epic, memorable and engrossing tale which also elevates the open world genre to new heights with the brand new interaction system, a cast of unforgettable characters and a ton of high-quality content to play for a long time.
- Beautiful visuals thanks to the lighting and environments
- Excellent music scores, sounds and voice dubbing
- Big, lively world that's ripe for exploration
- Great writing and unforgettable cast of characters
- Loads of varied, high-quality content to play through
- The new NPC interaction system will likely become a new standard in games
- Slow beginning
- Cover and melee systems aren't as well realized as gunplay