Game review: Back in the saddle with Red Dead Redemption 2
Whereas it was fair to say that 2010’s Red Dead Redemption was a bit Grand Theft Auto on horses, the recently released sequel, Red Dead Redemption 2, is a much more complex beast.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar Games’ first title developed entirely with the current generation of console hardware in mind, and they’ve really pulled out all the stops. Whilst their amazing Grand Theft Auto V was ported across to the PS4 and XB1, from the last gen, this new game has allowed Rockstar to flex its muscles in a way that we’ve never seen before.
With the developers’ track record of releasing outstanding games, Red Dead Redemption 2, wasn’t likely to be anything but superb. So, let’s get that out of the way right now. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a superb game, likely the best game I’ll have played all year.
In saying that, it’s not perfect.
Players take on the role of Arthur Morgan, a ne'er-do-well running with Dutch van der Linde’s gang. This the very same gang that John Marston is hunting down in the first game.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to the previous game. Set in 1899 - the last years of the Old West. Civilisation is catching up with the bandits of the Frontier, who are fast becoming an endangered species.
Arthur, who has been with Dutch since he was a boy, is a loyal member of the gang. Unlike the last game, Arthur isn’t seeking to right his wrongs, he is just getting by the only way he knows, which isn’t always honourable.
As with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto games, players take the role of a villain. Still a victim of circumstance, and not without morals, Arthur Morgan is not quite the lovable rogue that Nico was in GTA IV or Franklin in GTA V, but fairly likable, nevertheless.
The main story progresses by completing missions that unlock as you play. But the game is less of a mission-based adventure and more of a full-on Wild West simulator with a mission-based narrative progression.
The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is so well realised it feels alive. Clichéd, I know, but this is something else. So much of the game experience is based on random, naturally-occurring events.
With such a vast open world, I found myself crossing huge distances with the intent on fulfilling or starting a mission. Most of the time, long the way I’d bump into someone that needed help, or get into a gunfight with a skittish fellow traveller.
Sometime matters would escalate with witnesses needed to be silenced or the law chasing me. Then there were run-ins the with bounty hunters and wild animals to contend with.
The flip side of this simulation-style environment is that the game is a very slow burn. Sure, the gunfights are frantic, but often it’s just you and your horse, riding through the wilderness. Arthur never seems to be in a hurry.
The game is packed with content, but also gives players a somewhat overwhelming amount of freedom. If you enjoy tight, structured gameplay, you may find Red Dead Redemption 2 a bit too much at times.
Despite spending a lot of the time wandering alone though the environment, Arthur Morgan is very much part of Dutch’s gang. At the camp, players can engage with the other gang members, play cards and dominos and have something to eat (be careful not to overeat as Arthur will pile on the pounds).
The camp’s cash box needs filling in order to buy upgraded facilities. The camp kitchen also needs a steady supply of meat for the stew. Every gang member must place a cut of their ill-gotten gains in the cash box, and it is up to players to hunt meat and deliver the carcass to the kitchen.
Hunting plays a large part in the game, due to the Arthur and the gang needed to be fed. Kills can also be sold to butchers in town and pelts used for crafting. The skinning animation isn’t for the squeamish, and the way that Arthur rips the skin from a rabbit is a bit confronting, to say the least.
As you would expect from Rockstar, the plot is top notch. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is full of larger-than-life, well-written characters.
As brutal as the game can be, the dialogue and situations that our anti-hero comes across can sometimes raise a bit of a titter. Of note is a particularly amusing drinking sequence that will be all too familiar to anyone that has overdone it on night out.
If you are looking for humour, you’ll find it in the little details, like the abuse Arthur cops after returning to a town that he’s roughed up on his last visit. Accidentally firing your gun and unleashing unintended mayhem. Getting hit by a passing train. Or having a head-on horse vs. horse collision and having to deal with the resultant horse-rage-induced gunfight.
The game gives you a lot of control via a complex combination of button presses and toggles. It took quite a while before I stopped feeling as if I was tying my fingers in knots and even longer before I stopped accidentally discharging my guns.
Arthur can store equipment in his satchel and on his horse. Access to all this is via a menu-system-from-hell that’ll have you cursing. Nothing about the game’s control system is at all innovative.
Shooting and causing mayhem is still great fun, though. The Dead Eye mechanic makes a return, allowing players to aim in slo-mo and fire at multiple targets.
For the Wild West, the law is particularly well enforced. An accidental (or not so accidental) killing of an innocent may send a witness off the tell the lawmen. If you get hold of them first either with a bullet or just a threat, you’ll be safe (unless there’s another witness).
If the law gets informed, they will hunt you down. Even if you slip away you may end up with a bounty on your head. If you are thinking of acting out your psychotic bandit fantasy, you are going to be in for a tough time.
The visuals in Red Dead Redemption 2 are very, very good. Playing on the PlayStation 4, some of the shadows are a bit iffy, up close. They are not quite on par with the likes of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. But the draw distance is amazing. The character animations are really well done. Arthur Morgan is full of Western swagger.
The real stars are the horses, which act in such a realist way, from trotting to the skittish behaviour when they are scared. Bonding with your horse by feeding, grooming and patting it make the horse more obedient and less likely to act in an unpredictable manner.
Right now, the game only offers a single-player campaign. But Red Dead Online is coming soon, free to anyone with a copy of Red Dead Redemption 2 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Overall, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the game that we were expecting. A worthwhile successor to the 2010 classic. Beautiful to look at, but with an unwieldy control system that’s forgivable considering the depth of this astounding Wild West simulator.