Back in 2010, Rockstar crafted a masterpiece in Red Dead Redemption. Known as one of the best games of that generation, they certainly had big shoes to fill a whole 8 years later. Going against usual trends, the sequel Red Dead Redemption 2 is actually a prequel, telling the story of the Van Der Linde gang before they were driven apart, and ultimately hunted down by John Marston.
With the giant leaps in technology since then, and the major strides in storytelling over the years, Red Dead Redemption 2 came with a huge wave of hype and expectations. Did Rockstar manage to create another masterpiece? Strap yourselves in partners…it’s going to be hell of a ride!
A New Gunslinger
With an epic game like this, and so much to talk about, where do I even start? As most people would know, you don’t play the role of the original’s protagonist- John Marston. Instead, the Red Dead Redemption 2 journey is told through the eyes of Arthur Morgan, a sort of right-hand man to the gang’s leader Dutch Van Der Linde.
At first, Arthur may seem like a bit of a generic cowboy, simply doing the bidding of Dutch and members of the gang. As you progress through the game though, Arthur will really start to grow on you. He’s got this sarcastic wit about him that’s very endearing, but he’s also a modest man with a bit of heart.
Even though he does bad things (even more so depending on how you play), he still eventually wants to make amends. By the game’s end, you can really see he’s grown as a human and your attachment to him is felt. At least for me it was.
The Van Der Linde Gang
Being in a gang though, you’re already introduced to a large cast of characters. They range from the ambitious ‘man with a plan’ Dutch, the motherly figure Susan, the useless old man Uncle, and reverend Swanson- who seems to be battling his own demons.
Throughout the game you’ll interact with almost each and every member of the gang, whether it be completing a mission with/for them, or just simply chatting with them in camp. I do wish there were more moments of getting to know them more personally. Having chats with them is fine, but I wish they were all more fleshed out, and this could have been done in missions specific to them.
Even still, this minor criticism didn’t halt the feeling this game gives you of actually being in a gang. At times they feel like your family, they depend on you, and you really start to care for them. Most games make you feel like it’s you vs the world, but in the case of Red Dead Redemption 2, you feel responsible to your gang and they take top priority.
It’s this shift in gaming mentality that helps make this game feel special. By the time I finished the story, I would often reflect back over it and genuinely miss being a part of this family. It’s the also the way Rockstar has made the gang feel like a living group of people that makes it really stand out. My favourite memories were arriving at camp at night, and some people were sitting around the camp fire, singing songs, telling stories, and it all felt so real.
I don’t remember any repeated dialogue during these moments. It’s just incredible the amount of dialogue this game contains. You can just sit with a group and simply listen to what they’re saying, or have chats with everyone around you, and it all feels genuine. I’ve never experienced anything like it in a video game before!
A Living, Dynamic World
The whole gang dynamic is one thing, but it’s the rest of Red Dead Redemption 2’s world that seriously raises the bar in open world design. What Rockstar has done here is create the closest to a living, breathing, dynamic world that you will ever see. NPCs (Non-playable characters) aren’t placed in the world just to populate it, they actually feel like they’re living in the world.
They don’t just aimlessly walk around like in most open world games, they’ll go about their daily lives, chat with other characters (including yourself) on the streets, and generally feel like they’re real people. You can interact with every one of them which helps in making them feel alive.
After playing Red Dead Redemption 2, I’ve gone back to play other open world games and you can immediately feel its impact. Every NPC just feels like filler, like they’re not real characters, but just there for the sake of it. A new high standard has been set for this genre and I’m doubtful whether many can pull it off this well.
Apart from just the characters, there’s plenty of events throughout the world that help make it a dynamic one. Almost everywhere you go whether it be towns , the outskirts, or even forests and swamps, there’s generally something happening for you to take part in.
Someone may have just been bitten by a snake, got themselves caught in a bear trap, or are being mugged by bandits- so there’s always some kind of event for you to interact with. Or you can easily ignore it, the choice is yours. Every interaction though feels unique and authentic.
Speaking of the world that Red Dead Redemption 2 is set in, it’s an absolutely beautiful one. The visuals and views are spectacular, but it’s the little details that help bring it to life. There’s so much you can interact with. While it might not be on the same scale as an Elder Scrolls or Fallout game, what sets this game apart is the fact that there’s also a unique animation for every interaction.
This is both a good and bad thing. While seeing Arthur physically interact is cool to see, at times it feels very slow and can take a while to do even the most mundane tasks. While I’ve been praising Red Dead Redemption 2 for the most part so far, this is the first major criticism I’ll bring up next.
Gameplay and Controls
There’s no denying the realism and interaction this game has to offer. It helps make the world come alive as I’ve said before. But sometimes the realism can come at the cost of the game being fun. Waiting for animations to finish can be annoying when you just want to quickly loot everything and be on your way.
It’s not just with looting and interacting that feels slow and tedious either. Simply walking around camp and indoor areas is ridiculously slow. Waiting for Arthur to hop on his horse is slow too. Maybe this slow way of playing is Rockstar’s way of making you appreciate the detail they put in, but after playing for many hours, sometimes you just want to get on with it.
Even the controls for the game are worth mentioning because they tie into both the game’s realism and slowness that I’ve talking about. Almost every button that you use will have multiple uses which changes depending on the context.
Having almost every button do different things during different situation really shows you the level of detail this game contains. When interacting with a detailed world, having each button do just one thing only doesn’t allow for a whole lot of interaction. So while this is great, it can also get confusing and can even get you into trouble.
For example, I was simply trying to get on my horse and ride away, but because that same button can also rob people…well, you can guess what happened to me then. Before you know it, I was running away from the law over a mistake I didn’t mean to make. So as you can see, having every button with multiple functions can allow for greater interaction, it can also cause you grief at inconvenient times.
When it comes to movement and controlling Arthur, I can understand why slowing him down makes it all more realistic. But the downside to this is that the controls can feel clunky and unresponsive. When you’re suddenly ambushed by other gangs, you’re going to want to run like the Road Runner to either get out of there, or to find cover to fight back. I’ve died plenty of times because Arthur (and even my horse) was too slow to react and do anything useful.
Also in an effort to raise the game’s realism are the different cores that Arthur (and your horse) possess. Along with your health, stamina and Dead Eye gauges, there was a core to go along with it, which controls the regeneration rate of those gauges.
There are many factors that reduced these cores, which all adds to the realism, but I feel like it’s another feature that proves that realism can hurt a game, not improve it. It simply didn’t need to be there.
Red Dead Redemption 2 also contains some survival/crafting elements. Usually when games have this type of system, I’m all for it. Whenever there’s something that can be upgraded, I love collecting what I need in order to upgrade, and make the game easier for myself.
But unfortunately I just wasn’t getting into in this game. This is mainly because I never at any point felt the need to upgrade anything. This makes me wonder why bother having this system in the first place? Even crafting items was something I never thought of doing because it never felt necessary. There’s no harm in having these elements there, but at least make me feel like upgrading will be worthwhile!
The Story and Mission Structure
The mission structure is very similar to all other Rockstar games. You see a marker pointing you to a character who gives you a mission and you go to them and receive your mission. While this structure has been around for quite a while, I feel like it’s in need of an overhaul.
It’s funny for all the improvements Rockstar has made to the genre, it’s this mission structure that they made popular, still feels stale and needs an upgrade. My main complaint is that some mission-givers aren’t even important to the story, yet the game will tell you they “need to speak to you”, and then they end up not even being part of the mission anyway!
That’s really all there is to say about the mission structure because it’s all too familiar, but what I really need to go into is Red Dead Redemption 2’s main story.
I’ll do my absolute best not to give anything away, but I’ll need to go over some areas of the story. The epic journey of Red Dead Redemption 2 is all about the Van Der Linde gang’s origins. It’s a story about the Wild West being tamed essentially by civilisation.
The game is set in 1899, the turn of the century, and gangs are being wiped out to create a safer world. You obviously being part of a gang, will constantly be on the run from the law/agents trying to eradicate you. Over the course of the game you’ll be forced to set up new camps to avoid detection.
In order to help the gang ultimately survive and be free of this cat-and-mouse lifestyle, the gang’s leader, Dutch, has a plan that he’s trying to carry out for the sake of safety for his gang. His main goal is to gather as much money as possible so everyone can travel to another country and live peacefully.
Obviously being a gang, getting hands on this money always involved committing crime after crime, where a large portion will always go towards to gang’s savings.
So while the story seems good so far, it actually takes up the bulk of the overall story, and that’s when my enjoyment of it eventually started to wane. My main problem with it is that it just wasn’t engaging enough. Committing random crime just to make money for your gang, in a way, feels kind of lazy.
I remember plenty of times feeling quite bored with the story because essentially that’s all it was. Even the main goal of the story never felt certain, and meant to be a game’s ultimate goal to pull you through. I never really felt this pull though because it lacked the urgency a compelling story should be providing.
Of course, because there was a lack of urgency felt, it allowed you to free-roam and explore the world without having to feel like you have to move on to the next mission straight away. So I can see the bright side of this style of storytelling. But on the flip side, I hardly felt compelled to move on to the next mission, and that was a problem for me.
I remember moving on from mission to mission, waiting patiently for the story to pick up and have more purpose, but sadly it didn’t come until at least halfway through the story. The second half is where things get a lot better and more exciting, but was it too little, too late by that point?
Thankfully though, each chapter you play through has its own self-contained story. I suppose this is what was meant to pull you in, but it did only loosely connect to the game’s main story. Still, it was something, and I did enjoy these chapter-specific storylines.
Of course I have to mentioned the actual mission design and this is another reason why Red Dead Redemption 2 shines. Each and every mission are well thought-out, carefully designed, bite-sized stories. There are no missions that feel like filler as each one feels like it could be a scene in a movie. While I wasn’t feeling the game’s main story, it was each mission that I undertook that was able to pull me in, even just for a short time.
The impressive thing is that there are over 100 missions, that being both main and side missions. So to come up with that many different stories and memorable moments is quite an achievement. I suppose I could also argue that each mission played out in very similar ways. They all start with a long horse ride alongside a lengthy conversation, and generally ended up with a gunfight. Despite this, they still managed to feel unique in there own way.
Even though I’ve had both positive and negative things to say about Red Dead Redemption 2’s story and storytelling, I will end it on a positive note. When I finished the entire story, and I mentioned this earlier in the review, I was able to reflect over the whole thing and finally then realised just how amazing it was.
It’s strange that I was able to enjoy the story more afterwards rather than during it. My guess is that the story was told very slowly, not so much to always be focusing on an end-goal, but to help you live in the moment and not be too concerned about what they were trying to ultimately achieve.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is all about the journey, not the destination. I wish I had realised this during my time with the game. Rockstar created this world for us to almost live in more than anything. I still think the main story should have attempted to have more purpose, but I can understand the direction they went with.
Red Dead Redemption 2 Summary
Now even though I have my fair share of complaints about Red Dead Redemption 2, I still consider this game a masterpiece in game design! Rockstar have crafted one of the most detailed gaming worlds you’ll ever experience. The sheer amount of effort, care, and love that went into almost every aspect is undeniable.
That being said, it’s not perfect like it really tries to be. I admire everything this game tries to accomplish and I will take a lot of great memories away from it. The lacklustre main story in the first half and a few elements like the realism and survival/crafting do detract from the overall experience.
I do believe the highs of this game overtake the lows. Maybe it was my high expectations that magnified the criticisms? Regardless, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that every gamer should experience. It has raised the bar considerably and should be seen as the next step in gaming evolution. I can only hope more games from now on will try to keep up with it.