There are few names in modern gaming that demand as much respect as Rockstar Games. Their pedigree is undeniable. This is in part because unlike many publishers that churn out a multiple “tentpole franchise” releases every year with almost machine-like efficiency. Rockstar instead put a premium on the quality of the product above all else. Their release cadence is much lower than their contemporaries but as a result, it tends to make every release feel like an event. I am sure that many gamers have this Friday marked on their calendar as Red Dead Redemption 2 day. The question now is how will it be remembered?
Red Dead Redemption 2 marks an interesting change in development for the series. Red Dead development historically had been handled by Rockstar San Diego. This time around the developer is listed as Rockstar Studios and is a collaborative effort from all of the Rockstar development houses including Rockstar North (the folk who make those car stealing games). This should give an indication just how massive an endeavour Red Dead Redemption 2 was. This is an enormous game not only in terms of overall size and scope but also its depth. There is a reason the game ships on 2 Blu-Ray discs, and why I am still playing after 70 hours and still have a lot left to do.
The events in Red Dead Redemption took place in 1911, the final year of the American Frontier. Not so much the Wild West anymore but also not entirely civilised either. At that time we were tasked with assisting gunslinger John Marston in bringing some of his former gangmates to justice, including the leader of his former gang Dutch van der Linde. This time we walk in the well-worn boots of Arthur Morgan, Dutch van der Linde’s right-hand man and step back 12 years to 1899. The Van der Linde Gang have come off the back of a major set back forcing them to flee the authorities and find shelter in an abandoned mining town in the mountains. Snowed in, starving, and short on hope thus begins our adventure.
I had very high hopes coming into Red Dead Redemption 2. I adore the previous game and consider it one of the best games ever made, but as many people have noted it doesn’t hit its stride for a few hours leading to a less than auspicious beginning. With that in mind, I was shocked to discover that the opening hours of the sequel were even more of a slog. I struggled to force my way through the drudge of on-screen snow and became extremely impatient in dealing with the initial glacial pacing of the story. If you struggled with the opening in Red Dead Redemption you will likely find the sequel even more of a chore to get through. Fetch quests and on rails sequences do a poor job of getting you engaged with the game. And while gorgeously presented a snow covered mountain doesn’t feel like the right setting for a game about cowboys, outlaws, and the Wild West.
A big part of my early frustrations came from the manner in which I was introduced to all of the new mechanics. As a result, I was concerned that Rockstar were trying to make the second Redemption a survival game. This thankfully proved not to be the case as that is a genre I have no interest in and was not expecting in a Red Dead title. The foundation for these mechanics is built around three “cores” that you need to manage: Health, Stamina, and Dead Eye. Health and Stamina work as you would expect in a video game. Dead Eye for new-comers is an active skill you can activate in gun-fights to slow down time to more effectively perforate your foes. Each of you cores is drained by a number of factors, such as; how much sleep you’ve had, how well fed you are, and even if you are wearing the appropriate clothing for the region you are in, after all a light coat is going to offer no protection in a snowstorm. Your horse also has two cores; Health and Stamina which also need to be managed. Thankfully there are plenty of items, medications, and food which can recharge, or temporarily refill some or all of your cores. Sleeping also fully fills your cores, just remember you need to eat or you will suffer the consequences.
Thankfully once you leave the mountains the game I was expecting appeared and things immediately picked up. The story opens up, as does the world and your ability to interact with it. It also becomes quickly apparent how naturally the game systems interact and work with each other once you actually start using them. Rather than being distracting they actively helped me to feel a connection between the game world, my actions, and Arthur. This carries over to all of the ancillary systems that add an ocean of depth I was not expecting. This includes weapon degradation and looking after your horse. After a few hours I naturally fell into a routine when making camp. Check the horse, feed it, and brush it down. Check and clean weapons, craft ammo as required, and cook myself a meal. My weapons are now in top condition, Arthur is fed and healthy and my horse is well cared for. And caring for your horse is important. It helps to build a bond that not only provides improvements to health and stamina but also adds additional perks and abilities. This may sound like a lot of busy work but it never feels that way. The systems are so elegantly and organically integrated into the experience that I cannot imagine playing the game without them. Of course I want to look after myself and my things.
Now that I’ve got the nut and bolts out of the way, let's talk story and the world. After putting in dozens of hours I can state without hesitation this is the best open world I have ever explored. The sense of discovery is just as strong now as it was when I first came down the mountain. This is due to a flawless combination of rich storytelling and character interaction with a game world that begs you to discover it and beckons you on rather than pointing or pushing you in a particular direction. Most story missions will be picked up in camp as you interact with the other members of Dutch’s gang. This is not just a grouping of despots and maniacs, but more like a large extended family with their own stories and motivations, just with more than a usual number of dodgy uncles. The camp itself serves as your base of operations and can be upgraded to improve the living conditions of the gang as well as perks, gear, and upgrades for Arthur.
Dutch and his crew feel like real people. There is a real sense of history that ties them together and keeps them together. These may not be the most moral people in the world but they care about one another and will defend each other to the death, but that doesn’t mean they always get along. As you progress through the story you will discover more about not only the history of gang and each of its members, but also learn more about who Arthur is and what has shaped him into the man he has become. The story does go to some dark places, but Dan Houser has once again penned a story that manages to bring humanity to these characters without ever diminishing the monstrous things they have done and will do. To take characters we knew as enemies in the first game, and to be able to present them here as not only sympathetic but even likable is astonishing. Dutch, in particular, is a standout. His final moments in RDR1 have added gravitas when re-examined in the context of this game. He is a force of nature, and it is easy to see how he built such a loyal following around him. There are a lot of threads that link the two games but for the most part, they’re expressly never called out. To the observant player though you’ll likely find yourself nodding or smiling when you pick up on one of these subtle references. It is also laugh-out-loud hilarious in places and has what may go down as the greatest drunk scene in video game history.
For all of the praise I have for the core story elements, it is the game world and its activities that impresses me the most. This is not an Ubisoft or Bethesda follow-the-dot-athon. Active missions will have markers, as will important characters. Everything else you’ll have to find by interacting with the world and the hundreds of characters you will meet along the way. If you want to hunt you’ll need to use your Eagle Eye skill to pick up their trail. This also highlights plants you can collect, or clues to an event that occurred in the recent past, and even the direction your scent is wafting. Certain actions will unlock challenges from Sharpshooting, Horsemanship, Herbalism, Banditry, and more. Strangers may have information or requests for you, but you’ll need to keep an ear out for them. You’re also not the only gang out in the wilderness and you may come across an enemy hideout that needs dealing with. There are even mysteries to be discovered and solved. It is this sense of exploration and discovery that makes this game so special.
The world and its citizens will react dynamically based on your actions. Committing crimes may cause you to be hunted as a wanted man and having a bounty put on your head. Maybe you killed someone and that gets back to a member of their family, and now they’re seeking revenge. Maybe you’ve done some good in the world, if so people will know and will treat you in kind. There could also be some unforeseen additional beneficial results for your benevolent actions. Your reputation can affect how quests play out and will even affect the game’s music. This is a massive world, easily the largest Rockstar Games has ever created but it never feels too big. From the swamps, mountains, and open plains there is always something to do if you’re willing to look for it, and the brilliance here is that you’ll want to, even though there is no little dot telling you that you’ll find something if you follow it. Up until this point, I had not realised how much agency we have lost in modern gaming in the effort to make games more approachable and immediate. I cannot express how grateful I am to see Rockstar take the lead in bringing back the need to play a game rather than have the game tell you how to play it.
The final thing I want to call out is how far the RAGE engine has come since GTA V. This is the first game Rockstar has developed from the ground up for this console generation. And they went to town! While the game never manages to hit true 4K on PS4 Pro, it looks amazing. HDR was made for this kind of setting and it is nothing less than stunning, but the real show stopper here is the draw distance. Like many modern open-world games you can see for miles in every direction. However, unlike every one of those games you will not see items pop-up or draw in. I spent hours just wandering around the various environments trying to spot a rock, bush, or tree draw in. It never happened. Not once. How the engine manages the LOD (level of detail) is jaw-dropping. Terrain doesn’t ever appear to transition from low detail long-distance textures to more high-detail textures as you get closer. This is something you’ve no doubt noticed many times before on a number of games with large open environments. It was only because I was actively looking for it that I noticed a handful of larger trees transition from a lower quality mesh to a higher quality one as I moved closer towards them, I doubt most people ever will. All of this while maintaining a rock-solid 30 FPS framerate. The presentation of the game world is essentially flawless, it never distracts or detracts due to a technical limitation or issue. The colours are rich and vibrant, trees and grass react to the wind and your movement. The wildlife AI is beyond impressive, herd animals interact with each other and tend to scatter in pairs or small groups when startled. Carrion eaters will wait until you’ve moved on to devour a corpse. wolves attack in coordinated packs. The world is dense and varied, but most importantly it always feels like a real place.
There is so much more to discover that I have not talked about from various in-world games, to clothes and weapon customisation, crafting, cooking, dueling, bounty hunting and more. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a triumph and once again shows the quality of Rockstar Games.
Oh, and yes there are horse balls.