“Listen to me,” Dutch Van Der Linde scowls in a convincing voice. “When the time comes, you gotta run and don’t look back. This is over.”
When the debut trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 surfaced two years ago and gave us a taste of Rockstar’s first true product since the best-selling Grand Theft Auto V shipped, it’s almost as if the video gaming world stopped and gave notice. We were finally getting it -- the story that would tie in with Red Dead Redemption, and tell us the story of how John Marston came to be with his gang of outlaws.
But here we are, seven hundred something days after the teaser debuted, and Red Dead Redemption II is far more than that. Yes, that particular character makes his return and shows us just how he came to be, but we also learn something more about Arthur Morgan, a cowboy with his own conscience to be weighed and burdens to overcome. And we learn more about the gang, led by a devoted Van Der Linde even as it feels like everything is falling apart at the seams, depending on a small fortune that, like happiness, is just outside reach. And the fact it’s grown so much, even beyond our already heightened expectations, shows the testament to Rockstar Games, clearing the path for what is clearly one of this generation’s greatest gaming experiences, if not the greatest.
There is just something here that digs in and grips you, and refuses to let go. Even when everything is looking its bleakest and you wonder if you’ll survive, there’s a genuine satisfaction from a job well done. From getting away with a stolen oil carriage from a well-guarded refinery to surviving a simple ambush where thugs make the mistake of trying to rob you for your horse. I played for hours on end plowing through the main story and still found myself in wonder just from riding across the countryside and discovering something new -- even fishing feels like it’s a devoted part of the game. Fishing.
The main story revolves around Morgan, who’s got his own demons to battle in the midst of what’s happening with Van Der Linde’s gang. They’re heavily wanted in a neighboring town where just stepping foot across the border is an instant death sentence. But he stays true to the course as Van Der Linde explains that the group is just “one big score away” from living the dream life. Alas, it’s a hard goal to attain, as they have to keep moving, while silencing those that threaten their way of life and saving their beloved “family” no matter the cost. An opening mission where you discover Marston for the first time has some true meaning to it, as you’re introduced to the chaotic nature of the “hero.” We won’t spoil it here, but he pops up in the unlikeliest of places.
As the gang keeps moving, the player can decide Morgan’s fate however they see fit. Moral conscience really plays a part in Red Dead Redemption 2, and how. You can decide how he takes care of witnesses (full-on murder, intimidation or even trying to reason with them in some scenarios), or even does something as simple as greeting folks that pass by him on the road. But sometimes you just have to get your pistol fired up, coming across a group of mercenaries that work for someone you robbed (“There are some folks that you just can’t reach,” a movie reminded me once) or using the traditional Deadeye mode, back and better than ever, to pinpoint that perfect headshot to get the point across to those that wish to cross you.
But the real surprise about Red Dead 2 is how every mission ties in with Morgan in some respect -- and not always with a pistol in hand. The emotional depth this game reaches is shocking at times. Even during something as simple as herding sheep alongside Marston on a crosstown run has moments of connection, you feel the weight of the conversation, and wonder what it means as a whole to your “family.”
There are a number of these missions that stick with you and really open up the experience on a level that few games can reach. One that really stuck out to me involved helping out an ex-girlfriend whose family doesn’t really approve of you, but Morgan opts to help anyway as it involves her younger brother, taken in by a group of cultists. It’s up to you how to resolve the matter (with hostile intent or better understanding of why he ran away in the first place), but it’s not something as simply resolved as “Kill all the cultists and bring the lad home happy,” as it were. The way the situation unfolded in the different ways I tried it was remarkable, right up to its conclusion, where you can see Morgan’s battle for conscience laid bare.
That’s the storytelling that Rockstar and its hundreds of employees have been tinkering away with over the last several years, and it pays off in spades. Even during the smallest of missions, the game as a whole really sticks with you, eager to see where you go next. Whether it’s helping an ally escape in a bloody shootout following a jailbreak (where you get them out by, how else, breaking down the wall -- right out of the movies) or helping out an ally with something as simple as a hunting gig, each task Morgan is given ties in to a much bigger picture. There’s something to be said with the progress you make here.
And yet, Rockstar’s team has also created a dynamic open world where exploration isn’t just encouraged, but rewarding. You can do stuff as simple as hunting small animals, skinning each one to assure better food for your camp or finding fortune that, in turn, can allow you to buy upgrades to improve your way of life. You can also find trouble from things as simple as a thug that thinks he can take you in a shootout (of course, he’s wrong) or a woman in need of assistance when a horse falls on her. It opens up new opportunities when you least expect it, really opening up the world. Even in towns where your neck is worth a few hundred dollars, you see the risk in going after a debtor and seeing just what made them a desperate soul to begin with (right down to chasing them down a train track while, surprise, one comes barreling down).
Even something as simple as building your camp shows how things can build up. You start out with mere tatters and wagons that show the toils of your travel; but with a few bucks here and there, you can open up munitions, improve quality of life with medical supplies, and even help boost morale, to the point where a singalong around a campfire has more meaning. (Yes, I loved the Black Flag shanties as much as the next person -- but a spirited round of drunken singing is just as fun here, if not more.)
Plus each member of your group actually has a personality that reflects on Arthur in a way or two. Some are simply nightmares that can’t be helped (or, wait, can they?), while others explain that they stick with family mainly because they have nowhere else to go (like Charles, who joined just a few months back). And even Van Der Linde, with his arrogance, shows the weight of his burden, while at the same time forcing him to act with confidence, even in the face of a bullet. The way Rockstar’s team has built character here is electrifying. It’s a continuing example of their work, just as Trevor was when he was introduced in Grand Theft Auto V just over five years ago.
Of course, content is nothing if the gameplay doesn’t stick. But Rockstar’s devoted group went all out to make Red Dead Redemption II feel deeper than the first. Even something as prepping for a draw of your pistol has taken a new dynamic, as you slowly press in the right trigger to prep your hand for the draw, then let loose in a nanosecond of blinding fury, drawing into the Deadeye technique (which you can also activate manually as the game goes on) and giving the baddies a taste of your six-shooter vengeance. (You don't always need guns, either -- the fisticuffs action is really something, even against tougher opponents. One wild bar brawl proves that early on.)
And that’s just one part. Running around the town can be a good time, too. In fact, one mission simply has you attempt to raise the spirits of a member who’s a little down and out, leading to a hilarious sequence where you simply try to find out where they went, hollering his name throughout as the screen distorts in a waverly fashion. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know it when you see it. (And, yes, the consequences that follow.)
Then there’s your horse. If you thought the physics in the first Red Dead were something, the sequel takes it up a notch. The natural connection with your horse is incredible, whether you’re brushing them off to keep their spirits up or calming them down after they become startled by a few gunshots. (There’s also incidents like riding off a hill a wrong way and collapsing in real time, or making the mistake of running into a wagon head-on -- ouch.) Rockstar did its homework here, as the horses are probably the best in-game animals I’ve come across in some time. They behave like the real deal and, yep, pushing one too hard will get you thrown like the punk that you are. (Maybe feed them, too -- I hear they’re a fan of food.) The way you level up and unlock little things, like more sudden stops (comes in handy when you're, I dunno, near a cliff), is an appreciative thing.
The shooting action does get intense at times, but Rockstar’s implemented a sharp control system where it’s easy to lock onto enemies and shoot away, seeing which shots injure (white mark) and which ones permanently put them down (red mark). There are times in the beginning where aiming takes getting used to, particularly in darker scenarios; but Deadeye goes a long way in lining up your targets, and the cover system works in a nearly natural manner, where you can position yourself to peek out, take down adversaries and move up as more come piling in.
And like Grand Theft Auto V, stirring the pot for trouble eventually brings more of it around. It’s not long before you attract the attention of lawmen and bounty hunters that would give everything to see Morgan at the end of a noose. Fortunately, the Wanted system makes it easy (well, sometimes -- you very, very rarely make it out alive once you step into the heart of the town where you first started trouble) to lose adversaries and try to recover in a secluded spot. Granted, you’ll still have to pay the bounty later on to avoid being hunted (if you prefer to stay out of trouble -- it’s your call). They forgive for the moment, but never, never forget. (Even townsfolk remind you how awful you were “the last time you were here.”)
The game also presents ample opportunities for the ambitious. Like the first game, you can hunt after bounties and lasso them up in style (it works so smoothly here -- I wanted to use it more in the game), or even leave them by the train tracks (yep, again) to perish at their own will. You can do stuff as simple as hunting or fishing and find new challenges, including a large bear that takes a whole lot of ammo to bring down, or a fish that requires a better kind of bait and a whole lot of effort. And even side business opportunities balance risk and reward, to the point that the more you do with it, the more you’ll flourish -- and the more trouble you’re likely to drum up.
I’ve been several hours into the game and I’m still digging into what it has to offer. That’s the true testament of an open-world experience, exactly on the same level that Grand Theft Auto V presented years ago. But it also helps if the developer puts in the effort for that world’s design so the sights you’ll see are beyond belief. And I’m happy to report that Rockstar fulfilled its purpose here, too. In fact, it’s gone above and beyond.
The world map is impressively large, to the point that you’ll spend hours just riding from point to point, coming across new locations that you’ll pinpoint later (like the office where you’ll continuously come back to pay bounties). And it’s nicely spread out between open terrain, beautiful (and tranquil) mountain lakes that make you just want to wallow in their waters, and small hustle and bustle towns loaded with townsfolk. Rockstar did its homework here, probably examining most of the great Westerns from the past few decades to get that right amount of approach. Even the banks look like, well, banks, right down to the teller cages that don’t end up doing a lick of good against a pistol.
The character design is something else, too. There’s not really a bad looking cowpoke in the bunch. Even Van Der Linde, whose decisions weigh heavily on Dutch, manages to keep a bold look about him, as if he knows he’s going to hell and dressed for the occasion. The dynamic behind character design is something else. Just take one good look at how Marston is introduced to us and you’ll get an idea of its depth. It’s really something. And the fact you can change your character’s appearance in subtle ways is great too, right down to bathing and building up a layer of filth upon you, or doing something as simple as giving yourself a shave.
There were also very few instances of glitches, which surprised me. Sure, there were accidental run-ins (like with the horse), and occasional lighting issues from a distance. But as a whole, this world just comes to life in a way that surpasses the original game. The cinematics are equally pretty, tying in with the gameplay to make a nearly seamless experience.
As for whether the game requires an Xbox One X or PlayStation 4 Pro to play...well, it doesn’t hurt. Playing on a general PS4, Red Dead Redemption II still looks razor sharp. But add 4K and HDR to the mix, and you get a somewhat smoothed out frame rate and small touches, particularly at night, that shine through. Regardless of what you have, though, you’re in for a feast for the eyes. Oh, and definitely take in that night sky when you can. It’s good to see the stars again.
As for audio, Rockstar tops itself in this department too. The original Redemption was known for its quality voice acting, but there’s so much more depth here. Even smaller characters, like Marston’s Abigail and Jack, sound incredibly authentic, from talking about where the gang is headed next to having simple conversations about what makes fishing so much “fun.”
And while some folks may be bummed that the game doesn’t have a line-up of big names (its most notable actor is Graham Greene from the likes of Dances With Wolves and Maverick, unless you count the return of Marston’s voice actor, Rob Wiethoff -- it’s not 100 percent confirmed, but it sure sounds like him), it doesn’t need them. Rockstar’s team has done an admirable job filling the roles with smaller names that bring weight to their characters. It makes the process less distracting and allows these folks to breathe life into their characters, doing something as simple as reassuring a horse that “she’s a good girl” or what have you. Even characters you normally wouldn’t care for add weight to the game, such as a nervous witness you just intimidated or a foreigner trying to attain some grasp of the English language. It’s all really good.
Add to that a musical score that doesn’t consistently pound a soundtrack in your ear, but makes the most of its moments. You’ll hear these outstanding twangs of a guitar or moody music that sneaks up on you as you face near certain death in a shootout, and it’s all perfectly timed, just as you’d find in your favorite Western film. I was also a fan of the Ennio Morricone-like themes throughout, bringing you that much closer to the Western ambience. It’s really something, if not continuous. It’s as if Rockstar wanted to pick its spots and then absolutely nail them -- and they have.
Add to that some ambient sound effects. From the dynamic sounds of your different weapons to the way your horse neighs when you’re ready to take her or him for a ride, they’ve come a long way over the original game. Oh, and the first time you hear a train whistle coming from the distance is breathtaking -- no, literally, like when it’s barreling right toward you. (Maybe move aside…?) Homework was clearly done here, and Rockstar aced it.
So...I’ve gushed for a while now, but can you blame me? I’ve been thrilled to see any aspect of Red Dead Redemption 2 since its initial introduction back in 2016, and it’s finally here. And I can’t stop smiling. True, there were moments of frustration that set in (where’s my long-range rifle when I need it for pursuing henchmen?!), but that was mainly due to the situation I put myself in, forcing me to figure out a solution to my trouble and move right along to the next one. That’s the depth that this sequel clearly shows, so that you’re never really “stuck.” You just move along and see what else tries to kill you, either with kindness or firearms.
The game as a whole really just stacks up with one great thing after another. I’ve spent a good, long week plowing through what it has to offer and I’m still digging, just to see what surprise will come my way next. The amount of replayability is through the roof, whether you want to create a business enterprise for yourself or your “family,” or just seek getting into trouble with a few shootouts and wagon takeovers. We’ll still be playing for months and finding something -- and that’s not even counting the promise that comes with Red Dead Online. Hope you saved some time for that in November.)
Throw on top of that a presentation that simply can’t be beat -- the visuals are among the best this generation has to offer, and that’s including the likes of God of War and Spider-Man -- and a level of emotion that’s unparalleled for the most part, and you’ve got a game that goes leaps and bounds beyond already lofty expectations. Red Dead Redemption II not only lives up to the hype, but exceeds it in ways that I’m pleasantly surprised by, even when I’m getting a bullet in the back.
Some of you may just be coming in to see how things built up for John Marston. But Red Dead Redemption II is more than that, and Rockstar Games once again lives up to a potential level that we can all aspire to. I hope this one goes on to sell nearly 100 million copies down the road like GTA V has -- its tireless development team of former and current employees deserve as much.
Ride high in the saddle, Rockstar. Once again, you’ve earned it.0comments
WWG’s Score: 5 out of 5.
(Dlsciaimer: A review code was provided by the publisher.)