What would you want from a game eight years in the making?
Red Dead Redemption 2 has a lot to live up to, not least because it includes people and places from the previous - and much beloved - game. It’s a strange beast, this one: enormous, glorious-looking, and boasting some of the best voice acting ever committed to the medium.
Perhaps there should be poetry to describe its beauty. A world devoid of the constant buzzing of electronics you can’t live without in the present day, where nature is the only sound aside from the echo of shotgun fire and the random shouting of strangers stood in dankly lit shacks. Offering you sanctuary, and often met with mistrust and suspicion.
One thing is true, with no light pollution spoiling the views, 1899’s American wilderness is something to behold.
But the game also goes all in on simulation in a way few others do, and it never offers apology for how impressed it is with itself. This game is often deliberately slow in its pacing, and if you aren’t okay with that, then it’s prepared to show you the saloon door.
I’M A COWBOY
Red Dead Redemption 2 is very much Red Dead by way of Grand Theft Auto V. The movement still retains a slightly stiff feeling, and you can faceplant very easily while on horseback. This is a systems-heavy game, and there are things you need to know.
But let’s get you up to speed. You play as Arthur Morgan, a key player in the Van der Linde gang. You’re a posse full of people out of time in a world that’s moving towards civilisation. A huge bank job has gone wrong, and you’re running from the law, just trying to exist in a society that no longer wants you.
It doesn’t matter hugely if you haven’t played the previous game, but it will help, and there’ll be no story spoilers here, because this is one you don’t want ruined. Scene set? Good. Back to those systems…
EAT, SLEEP, REPEAT
Health, Stamina, Deadeye, Horse Stamina, Horse Health: these are the five cores to Arthur Morgan’s world. Surrounding your cores are “meters” which will drain on use, while your cores will drain over time and, actually, with use too. Confused yet?
Certain consumables recover cores, some do meters, others do both. Yet more will recover certain cores while damaging others. Whether this is pouring convoluted systems on top of systems in a game that, frankly, didn’t need that kind of treatment, is debatable, but it is confusing and it does feel needless at times. Crucially, though, none of it feels like a game-breaker.
Dead Eye, on the other hand, is indisputedly fantastic. Slowing time and painting targets to then swiftly pull off headshots galore and leave your enemies in the dust is rewarding, and as brilliant (if not better) than it was last time around. Not all missions require guns, mind you, while sneaking around is just as satisfying as the shooting is.
THE ULTIMATE OPEN WORLD
When you’re allowed to just exist in the world, it’s absolutely magical. You’re warned early on that as you bond with your horse, things get easier, and that until then you might end up being bucked off if your steed gets spooked.
Upon encountering a boggy marshland, I decided to take a shortcut across the area. It was then that an alligator introduced itself, scaring my horse enough to dump me off and bolt. I eventually calmed my Good Girl down, but not before wrestling myself from a ‘gator’s clutches.
Of course, given the nature of the game, there’s also the option to just run about murdering and robbing folk, but to do so you’ll want to wear the mask that hides your face. If you go onto someone’s property they’ll either greet you well, or tell you to get lost. After spending ten hours or so being Mr Goody Two-Shoes, I decided I was sick of fools pulling their guns on me, and I put the mask up, threw up the devils horns, and blew this farmer guy away.
The guilt hit me like a truck. He had so little. Some canned food, but no money to speak off, just his farm animals - he died for this? I had done something horrible, and I felt awful, and the fact the game’s world can elicit such a feeling is nothing short of miraculous.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is at its best when in these moments, and they crop up with just the right amount of regularity, and just the right amount of variation on the common themes. It’s simply one of the most incredible game worlds ever created.
Because the world is so good, it reacts to you, and so do the people. You might walk into your camp (to which you can donate money, upgrade, and even do chores to improve your standing in) and be greeted by friends and even some of your gang you aren’t pally with. The natural way in which each story mission is started never ceases to impress, and it helps that the voice acting is next-level good.
It’s not what they are saying, and this goes for any character you’re talking to. Rather, it’s how they say it. The natural delivery is welcoming to the point you forget it’s a game: these people are real. You trust some, others you are dubious of. But it can’t be over egged; the fact these thoughts even form about on-screen characters is phenomenal.
Being able to hold L2 (on PS4) to greet or antagonise anyone lends believability to the world. Arthur’s voice will change if you decide to make him greet a lawbringer; a genuine nervous tombre will make him sound less a badass, and more someone who knows damn well he’s on the wrong side of the law wherever he goes. Whether you’re robbing a train or posting a letter, the voice work is some of the best you’ll ever hear in a game.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
That said, being so single-minded in the life-sim aspects means you can’t skip a thing. Before hitting the sack for the night you can use your campfire to craft or cook, and every single item will be shown to you in a painstaking manner. Morgan will pull out the meat, cook it slowly on the fire, and then (your choice) eat or stow it. Medicine will be heated in a jug, and then you’ll see the animation of Arthur pouring it into a bottle to store for later.
Skinning animals will show lengthy animations: the bigger the animal, the more you’ve got to skin, and then you'll have to put the skin onto your horse for ease of transporting. Rockstar wants you to see the world it’s created, and it doesn’t want fast animations for pulling up trees or plants that let you get back to the game quicker.
Some will find this infuriating, others will adore the attention to detail, because part of what makes this title so special is that dedication to detail. If you don’t want to engulf yourself in its world, talk to the people, discover the magical moments off the beaten track, then, well... there are other games available.
ARTHUR MORGAN, HUNTER
Elsewhere, hunting is a major mechanic. Vendors can craft you items, but not unless they have the resources that make up the parts. The challenges from the last game return, as if there wasn't’ enough to do here already.
There’s a detective vision-type ability called Eagle Eye that lets you study and track animals, and if you want the best skins you’ll even have to use the right weapons, even specific ammo, to get the perfect pelts.
On top of that, the exhaustive list of things to do includes playing games like poker, blackjack, or five finger fillet; hunting bounties, helping out strangers, fishing. There is never a dull moment, and it’s all there for you to find at your leisure.
SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE
That said, the pacing is such that you can sometimes be ahead of where the develop expects you to be. If you can’t buy or do something, then it’s likely you aren’t supposed to be doing it yet. It happens few times, but I failed one particular side mission roughly 15 times, then when I succeeded I didn’t really know what I'd done right that time.
But all is forgiven when you move away from your gang and just immerse yourself. As day turns to night and the ambient music plucks out a few acoustic chords, you are Arthur Morgan. This is a living, breathing world that feels every inch the “next-gen Red Dead” we all hoped for.
It begs to be explored - tamed, even. Decisions you make will come back to haunt you, and you’ll help people who run away and you’ll wonder “what if” over and over again. Hours will pass before resolutions are offered, and you can truly be a badass gunslinger, or good-guy Arthur the wanted, but repentant criminal.
RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2 VERDICT
So what do you want from a game eight years in the making? It’s highly likely this sequel is actually everything you wanted in a follow-up to one of the best games of the last generation.
Believable characters, a world to lose yourself in, voice work to die for, and a story that intrigues all the way through. Warts and all, with quality of life improvements ignored from other games, this is Rockstar both at its most arrogant but also at its most powerful.
Little things will wind you up, but they’re forgotten quickly. Red Dead Redemption 2 trusts you to explore, to grow, and to let its world seep into your consciousness. This is a special game and, ultimately, one that was entirely worth the wait.