Red Dead Redemption 2 review: Cowboy up
In Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games has created a living world that expertly balances a fast-paced narrative with peaceful moments of reflection.
There was a point in Red Dead Redemption 2 where the high-paced narrative became a bit overwhelming. Playing as Arthur Morgan, lead enforcer for the Van der Linde gang, I needed a break from the daily grind of murder, robbery, and being chased by relentless bounty hunters and law enforcement officials who wanted our gang of outlaws exterminated.
Early one morning, needing a quiet adventure with no stress, I hopped on my horse and headed north in search of some boars I wanted to hunt for their hides. After arriving at night, I set up camp, cooked and ate by the fire, then went to sleep. I awoke early, did a little fishing, had breakfast and coffee, and then went boar hunting. The hunt was successful, and after another night of sleeping under the stars I felt recharged and began making my way back to the gang to resume the high-paced adventure that is Red Dead Redemption 2’s narrative.
That, in a nutshell, is how the Red Dead Redemption 2 experience feels: a well-balanced mix of intense storytelling and the freedom to seek out quiet moments with nature, all set near the end of the Wild West era in 1899 America. Hitting PS4 and Xbox consoles on October 26, 2018, Red Dead Redemption 2 is perhaps Rockstar Games’ greatest accomplishment to date in both scale and quality. It borrows many of the mechanics players have seen in other Rockstar titles, but generally enhances them while building a world that feels alive. However, Red Dead Redemption 2 is not without its issues.
Balancing Work and Play
Red Dead Redemption 2 has a very long story to tell. Missions are a mix of fun side adventures, epic robberies and heists, and crucial moments where it feels like everything might fall apart if Arthur doesn’t keep moving at break-neck speed. Amazingly, nothing ever feels disconnected from the core of who Arthur Morgan is or the goals and responsibilities he has to the Van der Linde gang. There was never a point where I felt what I was asked to do was irrelevant, or that something was added in as filler to make the experience longer. The story progression and side activities are connected. Activities like hunting and fishing not only offer peace and quiet, they also provide food for Arthur and the gang, or materials needed to craft custom clothing or upgrades to the camp.
Speaking of activities, there are a lot, and each feels intuitive. Robbing trains, shops, or random people isn’t just something initiated by the story or when a waypoint pops up; all of them can be done on a whim. When riding near a train or stagecoach, approach it, hop on, then rob it, just because it was there and that’s what outlaws do. When walking into a saloon, have a meal, play some poker, and maybe get into a fight because that nonsense happens in saloons. Take a trip to town because supplies are needed at the general store, or shoot a deer that dares get too close because the butcher is on the way back to camp and Arthur could use the five bucks.
On the topic of hunting and fishing, both have a surprising amount of depth to them. Players can use Eagle Eye while hunting, allowing them to track animals by scent or blood trail. It also pays to study prey from a distance, getting a feel for what type of weapon and ammunition should be used to take it down and not ruin the condition of the hide. Shoot a small bird with a Repeater and it’s probably going to be badly damaged. Shoot a bear with a Varmint Rifle and it’s likely to maul you. You can also use bait to draw animals in, or apply substances to cover your scent and allow you to get close. When you do kill a large animal, Arthur can toss it on the back of his horse and ride home with the carcass intact. Just don’t leave it there too long, otherwise it will start to rot while still on the back of your horse.
Fishing is also quite engaging, although it took a long time to be introduced. Players must retrieve their pole from their inventory, choose the right bait for the type of fish at that location, and even consider the weather conditions for the type of fish they’re after. When trying to fish without bait Arthur will call himself an idiot, and care must be taken to properly hook the fish, tire it out, and then reel it in. It’s not a hard system to master, but it’s just challenging enough to be rewarding without becoming boring.
The Wild West Ecosystem
All missions and activities in Red Dead Redemption 2 are tied together by the shooting, moving, wanted level, and bounty mechanics, and that’s where some of the game’s most annoying issues pop up. Movement didn’t bother me much in the first 20 or so hours I played, but it felt wonkier the further I progressed. At times I wanted to gallop by a random event, but the game forced me to slow to a trot, apparently afraid I would miss it. There were instances where I would need to follow a character and remain quiet, but transitioning from running to cover in an instant led to disaster. There were more horse collisions with NPCs than I can count, and most ended up with me being wanted for unarmed assault or murder, possibly with a bounty on my head depending on how violent the crash was.
The wanted and bounty systems are good in theory, and partly in execution, but it all falls apart for me once there is a big price on my head. Committing a crime runs the risk of having a witness report Arthur to the law. It’s possible to chase and silence the witness through intimidation, and it’s satisfying when it works, but if reported Arthur will become wanted. That works like the wanted level in Grand Theft Auto V, with players having to evade the law in a designated search area. Sometimes, though, a bounty will be placed on Arthur’s head. When that bounty exceeds $100 it’s nearly impossible to move through populated areas, even if the intent is to pay off the bounty. Dozens of bounty hunters and law enforcement officials will attack, and even if successful in shooting it out, the price on Arthur’s head will probably only get larger. Huge amounts of the game world are basically off limits at that point, and the only way I’ve been able to solve this problem is by riding to far away towns where I’m not wanted to pay off my bounty in another state. Having a bounty on my head should feel tense and meaningful, but often it’s just annoying, a feeling which is amplified when the cause is a collision of horses that should just be a hilarious random encounter.
The shooting mechanics, however, are fantastic. They too are very much built in the style of Grand Theft Auto V, but with the addition of Dead Eye, a time-slowing ability that Arthur can use to get himself and his fellow gang members out of a jam. The shooting feels tight even when Dead Eye isn’t in use. It’s largely based on peeking out from cover, and there is an auto-aim function that will lock onto the target, allowing the player to shoot for center mass, or make a minor adjustment for the headshot. It works on horseback, too. Being chased (or chasing someone) across the land is satisfying because it’s relatively easy to ride and shoot, or ride and use the lasso. You can even shoot fish, pick them up, and take them back to camp, or lasso a boar and kill it with your knife to preserve the quality of the hide. If it feels like you should be able to do it, you probably can.
My Kind of Western Movie
Part of what pushes the Red Dead Redemption 2 experience from good to great is the audio and visual quality across the board. No, it doesn’t look as good on console as it will on PC, but it still looks fantastic, save for a subtle motion blur that makes identifying animals while on horseback a bit rough. It’s the landscape that does it. Moving from snowy mountains to humid wetlands, or from arid deserts to tropical islands, all feels seamless. On a particularly long horseback journey, I rode from one distinct biome to another without ever realizing it was happening.
It’s on those long journeys that the audiovisual excellence of Red Dead Redemption 2 combines by way of the cinematic camera. When on a long trip, players can activate this view and sit back while Arthur rides to his destination. Following a crucial point in the story, I used the cinematic camera and it felt like a scene from a movie as I rode home, complete with a song that convinced me I must own the soundtrack. It was another moment where Rockstar nailed the delicate balance between life, death, and opportunity for reflection.
In addition to a great soundtrack, Red Dead Redemption 2 features quality voice acting. Each character, whether main or minor, is distinct and believable. Most dialogue will run through Arthur Morgan, and players are in for a treat there. Although Arthur and I don’t have a lot in common, I could identify with how tired and overwhelmed he was, and that kept me engaged even when the story was taking its toll on me.
How the West Was Won
There was little doubt in my mind that Red Dead Redemption 2 would be fun, but what surprised me the most was how much I wanted to be in the world. Although quite long, the story kept me engaged, but the entire time I was pushing the Van der Linde gang’s interests forward, I was dying to head out fishing or hunting, just to be in the environments and explore without a destination. Soon, however, I would be itching to get back to the story.
There are issues with Red Dead Redemption 2, such as minor movement annoyances and the bounty system, but none of those overshadow the brilliance of how well each part of the game fits with the others to bring the world alive and make it feel rewarding.
Open-world games are becoming bigger every year. It’s not uncommon for them to have over 100 hours of content. Most are unable to make all that content feel important and engaging, though. This is not a problem in Red Dead Redemption 2. It wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up spending 200 hours on a single save, then loading it back up in a few months to do it all again. Whether I’m chasing the thrill of a daring train robbery, or the serenity of a solo camping trip, Red Dead Redemption 2 is an open-world game I will return to time and time again.
Red Dead Redemption 2
- Balance between story and free exploration
- Tight shooting mechanics on foot and horseback
- Hunting and fishing have depth and feel rewarding
- Wonderful soundtrack and voice acting throughout
- Story missions feel relevant to the cause
- Wait until you see how long your beard grows
- The world, wildlife, and characters feel alive
- The bounty system isn't very satisfying
- Movement can be annoying and wonky at times
Bill Lavoy posted a new article, Red Dead Redemption 2 review: Cowboy up
EG has Tech articles and videos up. Short short version:
XB1: Lowest IQ, decent performance with fairly common dips to below 30
PS4: Better IQ, decent/good performance with less dips to below 30
PS4Pro: Even better IQ, few drops to below 30
XB1X: Best IQ and almost no drops at all to below 30.
So what you'd expect, pretty much. They also specifically mentioned that asset streaming is done brilliantly, meaning no hitching when moving in the world.