I finally finished Red Dead Redemption 2!
It took me months, but I finally completed this most epic of cowboy games. I wrote a premature review (calling it a review is laughable) for RDR2, which you can read right here. In that post, I promised I would do a more in-depth review when I had actually, you know, finished the game. So here we are, weeks later, and I’m going to examine several aspects of Red Dead’s gaming experience, flaws and all. Hopefully, that will give you a better idea about whether or not Red Dead Redemption 2 is the game for you. (Or, if you’ve played it already, you will see just how much or how little our respective times with the game can be compared.)
Let’s start with…
1. The Narrative
Red Dead Redemption 2 includes absolutely above-average story-telling. The characters are a notch above other characters you might encounter in a video game because their dialogue is so natural and right; it’s not just hokey Western sayings. Even some movies would be hard-pressed to compete with RDR2’s writing.
The story is told through “story missions” and “character interactions.” Accessing the story missions is pretty straightforward. You just walk your character over to the point on the map where a mission icon is located. As soon as your character nears the spot, the mission begins. The free-roaming aspect of the game transitions to a cutscene that heralds the mission’s start. These transitions are as smooth as good coffee creamer, and their separateness from the rest of the game’s world allows you as a player to have free rein of the map until you initiate a story mission.
The most fantastic thing about these missions is that they always either push the story ahead or develop the main character’s growth just a bit further. I hungered for these missions and their ensuing cutscenes like I have never hungered for a video game’s cutscenes before. Normally, I can’t wait for a cutscene to end so that I can go back to playing a game. In RDR2, I desired both in equal amounts.
You can also get more nuanced story-telling from just having your character walk around the main camp. Without any prompting, members of your gang will walk up to your character and discuss past events with him, just like they would if they had been real people. These chance encounters might not happen for every player (especially if they spend a lot of time out of camp), but they are definite rewards a gamer can reap merely from walking near side characters.
The narrative arc of the main character, Arthur Morgan, is one of the most glorious, and bittersweet, stories I’ve ever experienced in a video game. If you are a fan of game narratives, Red Dead Redemption 2 is not a game you should ignore.
I’m going to summarize and gush about it right now. There will be spoilers. If you want to experience the story for yourself, I highly recommend you scroll down to the next section without reading what comes next. You’ve been warned.
Arthur Morgan is a member of the Van der Linde Gang, a group of outlaws led by the charismatic leader, Dutch van der Linde. Arthur has been with Dutch for a long time; he’s one of Dutch’s right-hand men. As such, Arthur’s been following the outlaw lifestyle for quite some time. However, the time of lawless criminals roaming the West is coming to an end. Society has had enough of “honorable” rule-breakers, and the Pinkertons are hot on the trail of the Van der Linde Gang.
The game starts with the gang fleeing the tightening grasp of the law. Dutch is keeping the group together with promising words and their sense of loyalty, but as the game progresses, this is a losing battle. Arthur, the most loyal of them all, realizes that Dutch can’t face reality anymore and recognize that their way of life is over. As the band flees from one location to the next, Arthur becomes disillusioned with his past and changes as a person.
This change is one of the best character arcs ever achieved because it feels real. It doesn’t feel as if Arthur changes just because the story needs him to. You as the player are alongside Arthur for every bit of the gang’s downfall, and you can empathize with Arthur’s change of heart.
A huge catalyst for Arthur’s epiphany is his acquirement of tuberculosis. This fatal disease makes Arthur’s life come into sharp focus. No matter if you played Arthur as a wild and vicious outlaw who frequently goes on murderous rampages or an honorable man caught in a criminal lifestyle, Arthur’s reflections and regrets match his actions.
He is caught as a man who always believed loyalty to be a virtue, but what is he supposed to do when the man he has been loyal to his whole life is disloyal to him? What can he do when what is loyal and what is right contradict each other?
Yes, Arthur dies in the end, but his journey to that point is one masterpiece of a story.
The narrative only suffers on two points.
The first occurs during the fifth “chapter.” (The game is separated by chapters, and these chapters are defined based on where your character’s main base is located.) The fifth chapter takes place on an island called Guarma. After a bank robbery gone wrong, Arthur and some fellow members of the gang take a ship to sea in order to escape the law. The ship gets destroyed during a storm, and the band finds themselves marooned an this tropical island.
There is a severe disconnect between the events on the mainland and the events on Guarma. On the mainland, the Van der Linde gang’s decline was what drew the story along, moving the group from hideout to hideout as they tried to flee the Pinkertons. On Guarma, we’re suddenly embroiled in a revolution between the natives and a dictator that ends up having no relevance to the rest of the story. When Arthur and his friends eventually return to the mainland, Guarma just ends up feeling like a bad dream.
Though the game is able to pick up the narrative from where it left off before Chapter 5, it still feels as if the story decided to take a break and only returned after hours spent napping. If you play RDR2, I recommend you to power through the Guarma chapter. It is worth it for that ending.
The other point on which the narrative suffers is the epilogue. After Arthur Morgan breathes his last, the torch is passed on to John Marston, a fellow member of the Van der Linde Gang and the protagonist of the original Red Dead Redemption. The story picks up with John’s struggle to lead a normal, law-abiding life after Arthur basically sacrificed himself to give John that chance.
The epilogue is fine on its own, but if you haven’t played the original game, it will feel a tad off. This final part of Red Dead Redemption 2 is meant to connect this second game with the first. Since RDR2 functions as a prequel, it is meant to form a bridge to the events of the first game. In that regard, the epilogue excels. There are callbacks, explanations, and nostalgic story beats galore.
In fact, an entire section of the map is a recreation of part of the map from the first game. Many of the epilogue’s story missions do not even take place there. It exists for you as a player to explore afterwards.
However, if you never played the first game, this ending will feel like an unneeded add-on, especially since Arthur’s story ended in a perfect fashion.
2. The Open World
I’ve played a couple of open-world games before in my lifetime.
None of them have impressed me like Red Dead Redemption 2’s.
Worlds can be vast, but if they don’t have enough within, they can feel empty. RDR2’s world breathes life and atmosphere in a way that other games can’t hope to match.
What more would you expect from the developers of Grand Theft Auto?
As you ride your horse in the countryside, the environment teems with wildlife. Birds fly past you in the air, and you can see their shadows on the ground. Deer become startled by your approach and bound away as you come closer. Grizzly bears will immediately roar and attack you if you are near them, but a black bear, notorious for being shy creatures, will lumber away as quickly as they can.
The different climes of the places you visit are impressive as well. You have snowy mountaintops, wooded hills, dusty Southern fields, a bustling city, dark swamps, and rich, red deserts all on the same map. It boggles my mind. I spent days ignoring the story and getting lost in just appreciating the goddamned weather.
RDR2 does not simply leave you with atmosphere and animals though. Its towns and cities are populated with people. If you travel down a road long enough, you’ll meet fellow travelers going the same way. You can interact with these people however you choose to, either by greeting them politely or lassoing them off their horse and dragging them away. Be cautioned though. These random NPCs (non-playable characters) can be a mite sensitive with how you deal with them. Too many times have I just nudged one of them with my horse on accident and they called law enforcement on me for assault.
Plus, there are a plethora of activities you can do in the open world. I mentioned this in my first Red Dead Review, and the same holds true now that I’ve finished this game. Hunting, fishing, poker-playing, crafting, and tracking are just a few of the things you can do. Alongside the narrative, Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world is a major reason to pick up this game.
3. The Combat
This is where RDR2 begins to show cracks. The combat is a bit…abysmal.
Like you would expect from a game dealing in outlaws, cowboys, and Pinkertons, you mainly experience gameplay through some third-person shooting. Sadly, the aiming mechanics are either ridiculously easy or outlandishly difficult.
The default setting for shooting is to have this sort of aim assist turned on. What that means is that every time you press the button to aim your weapon at somebody, it automatically zeros in on the closest enemy. I’m telling you, the aiming reticle is like a magnet that is drawn toward anybody you’re fighting. So all you really need to do to kill a person in RDR2 is press the aim button, press the fire button, release both, then repeat. There is never any need to aim with your analog stick.
Alternatively, if this kind of extreme hand-holding doesn’t sit well with you, you can turn off the aim assist in the settings. Unfortunately, the aiming then becomes nigh impossible. You can hardly focus on your target, and the reticle is only a little dot, so that doesn’t help you at all.
There is no middle ground whatsoever.
Also, the cover system in the game is wonky. If you press the cover button, Arthur is supposed to slide into the nearest cover. This could be a rock or an overturned wagon. However, Arthur does not always slide to the most logical place. He’ll crouch on the wrong side of the rock and get peppered with bullets. There is also a lag time between when you press the get-out-of-cover button and when Arthur will actually get out of cover.
There’s not much you can do about the cover system. As for the aiming situation, I was fine with the ease of the aim assist because that allowed me to just speed through combat encounters. It is a definite shame the game couldn’t have a more advanced system in place, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. If you’re looking for meaningful gunplay in your games, steer clear of RDR2.
4. The Realism
Video games are not usually forms of entertainment where you go to bask in the realism of it all. You play video games to entertain yourself, and said entertainment is usually hindered by the limitations of reality. The most a video game usually sticks to realism is to have some sort of logical physics system in place.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes realism to a whole new extreme.
You have to feed and water your horse and Arthur if you want them to maintain healthy levels of stamina. If you don’t they can become severely underweight. Conversely, if you feed them too much, they can get overweight.
Your horse needs to be brushed every so often, otherwise it will accumulate so much dirt and grime it will begin to “under-perform.” If you take your saddle off a dirty horse, you will see saddle lines marking where the horse’s skin was protected from the dust.
Your weapons also need to be maintained. Using liberal amounts of gun oil, you need to clean Arthur’s guns so they can continue to perform admirably.
When you loot dead bodies, Arthur actually goes through the motions of checking their coat and pants pockets.
The day/night cycles of the game also include a lunar cycle.
This is just a fraction of how realistic the developers behind Red Dead Redemption 2 strove to make their game. Don’t even get me started on how the balls of your male horse can shrink and expand depending on the outside temperature.
This amount of dedication to realism can be astonishing and annoying. I get why many people can become irritated at how arduous the daily care of their character be, but I was one of the people who played the game and enjoyed this aspect of it. I would not count its realism against or for the game. Whether you like this attention to detail is entirely subjective.
I happened to enjoy it. I have a love for schedules, lists, and daily tasks bordering on the obsessive-compulsive. As such, the upkeep of Arthur Morgan, his weapons, and his horse pleased me to no end. It became a ritual I grew accustomed to, and I appreciated the amount of concentration and hard work that must have gone into making this game as realistic as possible.
5. The Audio
The sounds of the world around you are amazing. Red Dead Redemption 2 really nails the vibe of whatever biome you happen to be in.
I could listen for hours (and I did) to the sound of my horse galloping across dirt paths. Dudes, I freakin’ love that sound.
Plus, the animal life comes with their own unique soundscape. I nearly shit myself when I heard a passing wild boar squeal in some nearby underbrush. And, it is thanks to RDR2 that I now know what sound a fox actually makes.
The music is also fantastic. The soundtrack blends in seamlessly with whatever activity Arthur or John is doing. When going into battle, the music appropriately ramps up. The “American Venom” track and the “Train Heist Theme” are some of my personal favorites.
Along with these musical tracks, some worded songs sneaked their way into this game, to my surprise and delight. These songs come on during playable moments, so they’re not just adornments for a cutscene. You are actually riding your horse around when these songs come on, and they perfectly accent whatever is happening in the story. They are beautifully performed, and, I’ll admit, one of them caught me at a particularly vulnerable time and made me start sobbing.
If I could buy a video game’s album aside from the original Halo soundtrack, it would be Red Dead Redemption 2’s.
So that’s my final review on Red Dead Redemption 2. I heartily enjoyed it despite its wonky combat system. The strength of the narrative and the world were so immersive and enjoyable, I was able to delight in the game despite its lackluster gameplay. I would even go so far as to recommend it to people knowing in advance the kinds of flaws it possesses. It’s the kind of game I believe stands above the rest while still holding a few mistakes.
I rate Red Dead Redemption 2 a holy-hell-how-often-do-I-have-to-say-I-love-this-game-before-my-family-and-friends-get-tired-of-me-because-I-think-it’s-already-happening-since-my-sister-just-gets-this-look-on-her-face-every-time-I-mention-it-to-her-and-my-boyfriend-has-stopped-paying-attention-to-me-when-I-gush-about-it-ah-well-whatever-it’s-not-like-they-have-any-idea-how-freaking-cool-the-game-is-and-I-will praise-this game-until-the-day-I-die-because-I-LOVED-IT-SO-THERE-YOU-HAVE-IT-FOLKS.