When you see that Rockstar logo on a game’s cover you know that you’re in for a game that you’ll play and struggle to find much else of similar quality. A Rockstar release is a massive cultural event in the world of gaming and Red Dead Redemption 2 is the next addition to Rockstar’s long line of amazing sandbox games.
As I’m sure everyone knows, RDR2 is a prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption and tells the story of Dutch van der Linde’s gang. The same gang that RDR protagonist John Marston ran with before having to hunt down in the first game. Set in 1899, Arthur Morgan, Dutch’s lead enforcer in the gang is our protagonist this time around and it’s through his eyes we get to see how the gang gets to the point it’s at when John has to hunt those that are left in 1911.
A good hour/hour and a half long tutorial contained within the Western Grizzlies part of the map introduces you to all the basics such as the new NPC interaction mechanics, gunplay and cores. It also serves as the stage to prepare you for the main story, giving a little background on the botched robbery that led the gang there in the first place and introducing you to its members. The area that you’re trapped in amongst the snow covered mountains will seem quite large as you ride around the area doing missions to keep the gang going until enough snow thaws. It pales in comparison to the open world you’re let loose in after the introduction however.
You’ll find yourself setting up in some woods in New Hanover, near the small town of Valentine for your starting point once you’re unchained and allowed to wander freely. RDR2 takes you from this small patch of woods to great, open plains, murky swamps, giant plantation fields, the industrial city of Saint Denis, massive lakes or even back up to the snowy grizzlies if you want to return to where you started the game. All of these environments are put together and transition amazingly and offer no shortage of things to do, be it small secrets to uncover, random encounters or animals to track and hunt. There was so many times I was on my way to a mission and found myself getting sidetracked because I saw an old building to the side of the road or had a run-in with an enemy gang.
I really don’t think I can put into words the sheer amount of content that is in this game. 60 hours for the main story content is already up there with some of the longer games when it comes to single player but I’m going to confidently say it’s around 150-200 hours before most people will get close to seeing most of the content and that’s without any guides. Random encounters are everywhere and offer Arthur many chances to leave his mark on the world and other character’s lives. You may find someone on the side of the road bit by a snake, a wolf pack trapping someone on top of a rock, a bar fight involving a fellow gang member spill out onto the street, or walk into a trap set by other outlaws. These are just a few examples of what Arthur can encounter but there are so many others that if I listed them it would take all day. Thankfully you can always look back in the compendium on the main menu for equipment and animal information, amongst other things, or read back through Arthur’s journal to check the drawings of landmarks he’s done or even a summary of key events written entirely from his point of view.
Choosing to help someone in their time of need may lead to information on robbery targets or even allow Arthur to get free items from stores as a reward when he next encounter’s the NPC. Being less honourable and performing bad actions like antagonising people repeatedly, robbing shopkeepers or being a general nuisance in a town will leave its population with a negative perception of Arthur. Sometimes random townsfolk may yell at you to leave town or a store owner may beg you to not cause more trouble. Where other games will set up for the player to intervene in events purely for side-missions that never go away they can easily just carry on without Arthur’s intervention and really build the world around him and give life to the environment. Very few games can say they have this level of world building with NPC’s remembering the player and their actions.
Exploring a world of this size and taking everything in requires a slow pace, rushing means you’re able to miss so much be it a random encounter with a stranger, a chance to do a camp activity or even an animal to hunt. So naturally Rockstar really slowed the pace down from the racing about in super cars and jets we was used to on GTA V. The interactions with NPCs obviously really slow the pace if you stop to interact with anyone you find interesting, animals have to be tracked by following tracks or finding broken sticks they’ve left behind, fur and other hints of their presence. Anything you hunt in the wild also has to be stowed on your horse and taken to a trapper or butcher. Looting bodies has Arthur take time to check the pockets of each victim; items have to be picked up and placed in Arthur’s satchel one at a time while drawers and containers have to be opened individually also. A great feature carried over from L.A Noire is the ability to interact with anything you can pick up and inspect it, allowing you to inspect labels and branding on foods and goods, read letters straight off the paper or even admire a gun you have customised.
Not only has how you traverse and interact with the world been slowed down but so has the combat. Every shot of a revolver, repeater or bolt action requires a second pull of the trigger to pull the hammer back on a revolver, cock the lever on your repeater or pull the bolt back on your rifle. Taking a small amount of time after readying your weapon grants better accuracy, promoting slow, methodical combat and gunplay. Even the way damaging enemies and animals requires you to take your time and pick your shots with critical points such as the head, neck, lungs and heart all providing quick kills or at the least immobilising the target whereas shooting the stomach can take 3-4 shots, maybe more. Arthur can also only carry four guns at a time. Two small arms, like a pistol with a revolver once you have the off-hand holster and two larger firearms such as shotguns or rifles. Another new feature is weapon degradation which occurs from overuse of your gun or exposure to the elements without keeping it oiled and clean. These small details really mimic the rhythm of shooting for the time and help Red Dead establish its own unique gunplay away from the run and gun style of GTA.
By no means is the slower pace a bad thing. It really helps ground Arthur in the world, making him feel like he’s just like everyone else without the magical ability to carry 50 guns in his pocket or carry around the entire zoological compendium’s worth of pelts just on his person. Arthur also needs to perform basic tasks such as eat to keep at a healthy weight or have baths to keep clean. Having to cook meat or brew coffee at a campfire, carry an animal carcass to your horse or even just wait for Arthur’s hair to grow so you can give him that glorious maximum length beard makes the world feel like a real world as much as it can without ever being tedious or feeling like a chore. Sure, how much you eat has an effect on your stamina and health depending on your status and refusing to have a bath can repulse people if you leave it long enough but the game never punishes you for neglecting these things. This also applies to the camp and it’s interactions. I must note though that you are punished for neglecting your Cores which are an extension of your health, stamina, deadeye and horse stamina and health. Very little effort is required to keep your Cores full however you must keep and eye on them.
Arthur can return to and leave the gang camp at will. Most of your missions will come from here and so will a lot of unique interactions that give plenty of character building or even just a chance to do something like go fishing or sing around the campfire. A donation box found next to Dutch’s tent and the ledger next to it that appears after a short while allows Arthur to purchase upgrades that I have various effects on the camp. Arthur’s tent can be upgraded to have plenty of ammo stocked, grooming supplies to keep yourself looking nice and even a fast travel map for when you need to cross the map quickly. Other upgrades include a camp boat to unlock fishing activities with other camp members, a horse station that acts like one of the stables in towns or even just general improvements such as more food stocks so you don’t have to go hunting as much to keep everyone happy.
The Gang has a colourful cast of characters each with their own individual backgrounds, personalities and opinions. The loose cannon Micah is quick to antagonise and be violent, Charles is more patient, respectful and methodical as a Native American or you’ve just got jokers like the irishman Sean and returning character Uncle that provide laughs all around. Every member in the camp will have their own comments about Arthur and his actions. Sometimes members will make requests for certain items they want or just ask you to come out on an activity with them. None of these activities are compulsory but they really open up chances to give the characters way more depth than they already get from the main missions or small interactions you get from passing by. Arthur doesn’t even need to necessarily be the person they’re interacting with. Many one-off interactions occur that Arthur can miss if he isn’t around at the time after certain story events. Sometimes Abigail and John will be having an argument, Dutch may be consulting with Hosea about plans or general advice or other times you may catch Bill and Uncle having a drunken conversation. The work put in to making these characters and the voice work for their interactions with both each other and the player make it a feel like a cast of characters you are really getting to know. Of course, the same praise is definitely deserved for the people who voice the various townsfolk you have multiple encounters with and the strangers for the stranger missions also.
Honestly I didn’t really know how Rockstar was going to pull RDR2 off well with it’s story. Everybody knows how RD1 ends and the fate of the gang so it was very interesting to see how Rockstar dealt with the gang and it’s members fates. The result of Rockstars work is seriously one of the best and most engaging stories I’ve ever played. A perfect blend of missions that have you doing small day-to-day tasks that really help develop the characters or grand heists that have you constantly on the move worrying about if you’re going to lose someone; and trust me, you’ve always got to be worried because this is a journey you know you’re going to lose people on, as established during the first mission. The added small interactions you get between missions and great cinematic moments, facial animations, visuals and camera work all just blend together to show the very best of what Rockstar is capable of.
The visuals and audio are up there with the best I’ve ever seen and heard on a console. Character models react to light with small details such as light passing though ears, causing them to appear red when blood vessels are highlighted. Amazing work on the volumetric lighting has environments look almost lifelike and really sets moods, especially for eerie setting like having moonlight pierce the fog in Lemoyne’s bayou. So many animations are in the game that you’ll very rarely see repeated animations until you’ve put tens of hours in. Of course running and reloading etc. are a given but little things such as NPC’s chopping down a tree, moving planks while they build a house, a gang member falling off a chair while drunk or even just a small adjustment to Arthur’s posture when rain is blowing into his face. Small little details and large variety in the animations go the extra mile in helping bring the world to life. The same goes for audio such as the sound of a free falling, the snap of a twig underfoot, a wire being spooled or the one-off conversations that you might not even hear around the camp or in towns.