The Ups and Downs of a Life on the Run
Certain games transcend genres and audiences. Everyone is aware of Super Mario Bros. 3. Pokemon is a cultural phenomenon. There are Call of Duty Jeeps. Final Fantasy is instantly recognizable, and if you namedrop Lara Croft, people know who you are talking about. Red Dead Redemption 2 is going to become one of those games. It transcends the open-world, outlaw-focused games like Red Dead Revolver and Red Dead Redemption to become so much more. There is heart and depth to its characters, beauty and character in its world, and an occasional degree of choice that makes it feel more like a simulation and examination of a lifestyle in 1899, rather than an opportunity to play cowboy and act as a plague upon the American frontier.
Red Dead Redemption 2 begins with a heist gone wrong. Arthur isn’t entirely aware of what happened, but Dutch Van der Linde and the rest of the gang screwed up big time. People lost their lives as a result. The money stolen is hidden in a town none of the group can enter. They are trapped in a deserted mining town in winter, with many members missing. A rival gang who wants Dutch dead, and vice versa, is lurking nearby. Everyone is in dire straights, and people learn to play the game as Arthur helps people recover after this disaster, deals with the looming threat of Colm O’Driscoll and his gang, and begin to understand why they should care about any of these criminals and criminal-adjacent NPCs.
How quickly Red Dead Redemption 2 encourages people to forge bonds is a credit to its writing and world-building. I did not expect the Van der Linde gang to be made up of people from so many races, ages, genders, and walks of life, but everyone fits and has a place. None of the inclusions feel forced or unnatural. These people belong here and in this world. Some characters establish themselves rather quickly, with strong personalities like Arthur, Dutch, Micah, Lenny, Javier, and Abigail defining themselves quickly. Others grow more subtly as the adventure goes on. We see how Arthur connects to all of them, even Jack Marston, and understand the importance of this group, this family. This makes the evolution of Arthur’s character, the direction of the story, and its twists even more impactful. We watch a prodigal son story play out, and see examples of possible favoritism and the resentment it can foster. The disappointment when things go wrong is palpable.
The scope of Red Dead Redemption 2’s story is staggering. Ahead of launch, Rockstar Co-Founder Dan Houser made mention of “100-hour work weeks,” then clarified and noted that it referred to the senior writing team, of which he was part. (Other stories have come out explaining how long staff members have worked to make the game happen.) After going through its main and side stories, it is easy to see that in action. Everything is connected. Things overlap. I noticed new quests would open up as others would unlock. Strangers in one story might be connected to another objective. When I would return to camp, pausing near another person would prompt them to comment on what was happening in Arthur’s life.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a tapestry. When you are in the thick of it, perhaps pursuing one single thread, you might not see the sort of effect it has on everything else until you are a few hours away from it. Will Arthur’s behavior collecting one debt connect to another plotline? How much more will we learn about his relationship with John by spending time around camp? Even the AI behaviors of people, in the way they watch Arthur and his actions, acknowledge his behavior and react, show the intricacies. I cannot even imagine how many hours Rockstar staffers must have spent going through finer details, making sure everything came together properly. There is joy, such as watching antics of characters as they get drunk on a night on the town. We have heart, like when Arthur passes wisdom and skills on to the next generation. These fall into place in a story also packed with tension, drama, fury, and pain.
This makes Arthur’s journey even more poignant. Red Dead Redemption 2 makes sure it establishes itself. You spend time with the members of the Van der Linde Gang. They become real, possibly important to you. Then, you start to see in real time how Arthur evolves based on your decisions. We see the shine and appeal of such a rugged, “free” lifestyle begin to fade. When the glamour disappears, what happens next? The game begins with harsh realities, and even more trials appear that make you wonder how good or bad things could go. People who played the original Red Dead Redemption may see the beginnings of the cracks that would lead to some of the major plot points of John Marston’s game.
The detail here extends to occasionally exceptional AI awareness. The first time I realized how alert NPCs are was not far into the second chapter. Arthur was heading to help Micah with an issue in a small town. I was about to cross the river, when I saw some deer nearby. I decided to hunt one and take it back to the camp for supplies, since I was still nearby. I drew my bow while on horseback, when another person was traveling nearby. Keep in mind, I was not targeting him. He reacted negatively and seemed to give Arthur a wide berth. Another time, I was riding through a forested area on my way to a mission. Arthur had a bounty in the area, and avoiding the main roads while wearing different clothing is a good way to avoid drawing attention. Rabbits were playing nearby. Suddenly, my horse panicked a bit, as I felt a slight vibration in my DualShock 4. I ran over the bunny, and it startled my steed as a result.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s gameplay is varied, and Rockstar introduces the options people have in such a way that it never feels like your hand is being held. Generally, it is about surviving in any way necessary as someone living outside the normal laws of society. Arthur lives in a camp with the rest of the Van der Linde Gang, having the option to donate goods, money, and food to upgrade the area and support the people around him. When you head off into the world, either on foot or horseback, you can go pretty much anywhere you can see. Criminal activities include things like train heists, robbing banks, breaking into homes, accosting people on the side of the road, stealing stagecoaches, and participating in occasionally harrowing minigames. More lawful activities include hunting for food, taking on bounties, aiding people in need on the side of the road, and watching shows. In short, there is a lot to do.
While so much happens in Red Dead Redemption 2, it is a game that isn’t afraid of quiet moments. In a world like this, something does not always need to be happening. Do not take this to mean that the game is boring or tedious. Just there happen to be stretches before fast travel options are unlocked where it may take Arthur a substantial amount of time to reach an objective. But none of these feel like the gap is too long. Opportunities may arise as distractions. The interactive score might shift to call attention to a feeling or recede so you can better appreciate the natural ambiance that comes from conversations or the sound of animals in the world.
When times like that happened, I would take in the world around him. If I watched the sky, I could sometimes see when storm clouds were rolling in. (When it does rain, watch for mud on the trails and drops falling from roofs of houses.) On foggy mornings, I could see condensation burn off. I even saw a double rainbow one afternoon. Of course, times like these are a perfect opportunity to search with a treasure map, try to work out from context where some strangers might be for certain side quests, or even pull out my binoculars to bird watch. Do you know what the fox says? You’ll know if you pay attention in Red Dead Redemption 2, because they are one of the animals you will come across.
The horse is the most important animal in Red Dead Redemption 2. You will come across many of these in your adventure. Some are ones you find in the wild and can attempt to approach and tame. Others are ones you acquire by lawful or criminal means. All of them have personality. When you first get into the saddle, a bond begins to form. Initially, a horse may be varying degrees of willful. The heavy Shire I ended up eventually using as my primary steed had a bit of an attitude, requiring more reassurance, pets, brushings, and treats than my other horses before he started to respect and like Arthur. Once my bond with him increased, I could eventually have him rear back. If you match the rhythm of their steps with the X button, their stamina loss is reduced. The game wants you to pay attention to and care about them, and I feel it is effective in making them more than just a vehicle for getting from point A to point B.
It is in these moments that Red Dead Redemption 2 can be at its most cinematic. It is a picturesque profile of 1899 America. The moments on missions when you can hold down a button to turn on the Cinematic Cam letterbox effect is transformative. It is evident the effort and how much extra time people may have found themselves putting into it to make this touch work. Once it kicks in, you can enjoy the conversation between Arthur and the people around him. The different angles open up, letting you savor the detail in a horse’s coat, the way rabbits will chase each other around a trail, and clouds in the sky that may be an indicator of foul or pleasant weather ahead. This is paired with the letterbox format in non-interactive cutscenes that is one of the features that, in subsequent Kotaku investigations, a source said resulted in crunch. These features do add extra definition, but I also considered it a constant reminder of extra work and burden placed on the game’s creators.
The optional cinematic touches are just one way in which Red Dead Redemption 2 is surprisingly accommodating. It allows you to adjust sensitivity and adapt aiming, which can make it more comforting and less stressful for those unaccustomed to the fights. Its Dead Eye and Eagle Eye systems can make it even easier to properly hit important targets or track.There are unlockable cheats. The honor system allows you to play Arthur as a generally kind and noble or reckless and selfish man. While not every story mission will give you an option as to whether you want to be honorable or dishonorable, sometimes it does happen and I appreciate that. I attempted to be as much of a pacifist as possible, and it paid off. The only time I had an issue was with one debtor mission where I consciously chose to only threaten and not beat the person, but he still had a bloody and beaten face in the ensuing cutscene.
Of course, that ties into the general Red Dead Redemption 2 technical issues. After games like Skyrim and NBA 2K19, which launched with bugs that could be game-breaking or require workarounds, this was a breath of fresh air. Did the framerate drop a few times on my standard PlayStation 4? If I was involved in an especially eventful altercation it might. Did the carriage with horses I was driving in cinematic mode in a mission get caught on some rocks when on autopilot, resulting in my failing a mission because I did not realize there was an unseen timer and could not get them dislodged? It did indeed occur in the second chapter. Was there that mission where a man appeared bloody, even though I did not have Arthur beat him? Yes. But aside from a few minor and isolated incidents, it was a stable experience at a steady framerate with none of the occasionally laughable or unforgiveable bugs people might expect from current generation games at launch.
I can’t look at Red Dead Redemption 2 without calling attention to the controversies at Rockstar Games. As I have mentioned a few times throughout this review, the company has come under investigation for its working conditions. This resulted in statements issued, employee disclosure policies relaxed, an investigation by Jason Schreier, and a “Thank you” website conveniently appearing right as the company came under fire for not listing people in the credits if someone worked for Rockstar, but left before the game was completed. This is a gorgeous game with lots of intricate parts showing how evident it is people invested hundreds and thousands of hours of their lives. While it should be acknowledged as a landmark title that does extraordinary things, people should always keep the cost of it in mind and remember what people went through, perhaps willingly or because they had to, during the creative process.
There is a constant question as to whether or not games are art. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that is going to be used as evidence for that argument from here on out. It is quite likely everything people who played Red Dead Redemption would want or need it to be. This game is, at times, a power fantasy that allows people to give in to baser instincts and revel in chaos. It is also an examination of honor and morality in a man who is callous and hardened. There are even times when it explores and embraces downtime in the same way a Studio Ghibli does, practically begging players to savor the vistas, watch wildlife, and enjoy the ride. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game where you can tell how much effort, sacrifice, and time went into it, and the people behind it deserve proper compensation and as much credit as possible.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 5.0 Graphics
Red Dead Redemption 2 looks incredible, with a detailed world with different weather effects and environments, diverse animal populations, and lifelike people living in it 5.0 Control
While having to hold buttons for a certain amount of time to trigger certain actions can occasionally be frustrating, everything else is very intuitive and context sensitive. There are even aim assist and auto-pilot options to help people who might not be as familiar with this sort of game adapt to and enjoy it 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The voice acting is fantastic, with lots of different actors pulled in and performing in multiple languages. It also has an adaptive score that changes to suit your actions and honor levels, while also knowing when to step back a bit so you can enjoy the world’s natural ambiance 5.0 Play Value
The story in Red Dead Redemption 2 goes places I didn’t expect, ranging from lighthearted and joyful to dark and heartwrenching. There are lots of story missions to enjoy, side quests to undertake, and optional activities in this massive region 5.0 Overall Rating – The Best
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best