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Red Dead Redemption 2 Review

Edited by: Tiffany Lillie

As far as single-player experiences go, the original Red Dead Redemption holds a very special place in my heart. I was part of the crowd that desperately wanted a PC release even years later, where I would have happily dove back into the boots of John Marston and done it all over again. That day never came, but now us PC players have finally been given the epic, Rockstar-developed Wild West experience we’ve all been clamoring for in the form of Red Dead Redemption 2.

After spending a few weeks with the sequel, I have many thoughts and many more feelings. There’s more content in Red Dead Redemption 2 than most franchises have in their first trilogy, so I was given a lot to chew on. I believe that we have quite an excellent sequel on our hands, but the problems that it has are very much worth considering for anyone thinking about buying it.

The camp and characters

The events of Red Dead Redemption 2 take place before the first game, so you get to see John Marston and the legendary Dutch Gang live in action. This time, however, you take control of Arthur Morgan, a long-time companion of the complicated gang leader Dutch van der Linde. After being run out of Blackwater through a brutal blizzard, the gang forms a small camp in the woods, where they are simultaneously recovering and plotting their return to Blackwater to retrieve a large stash of money they left behind.

From the start, you are entrenched with a gang of diverse outlaws. In most games, made by most development teams, that would mean that you have a large camp of mostly non-descript dudes with guns meandering your home station. But Red Dead Redemption 2 puts together an ensemble cast of distinct personalities that feel like complete people, not just quirky vendors and faceless quest-givers.

You can play checkers with Leopold or Five Finger Fillet with Lenny. There are long days of outlawing where you return to camp and find that some folks are sitting around the campfire having a sing along and getting drunk. You’ll be interrupted by Susan on your way out of camp because she needs you to grab some fresh herbs when you come back. These interactions happen rather organically. It’s not like Skyrim or even Fallout where a character approaches you and beams you into the conversation screen, halting whatever you were doing before. Susan just approaches you as you walk by and the conversation starts. You feel the social contract kick in so you stop and listen even though you’re video-game-cowboy-man with lots of shootin’ and robbin’ to do. These secondary characters feel more real and compelling than most games' protagonists.

The storytelling in this game, as people have come to expect from these flagship Rockstar titles, is excellent. The story is on par or better than your typical Hollywood western, and there’s a few surprises along the way. Even as a jaded gamer that’s unimpressed by nearly all writing in video games (and movies, for that matter), I felt the narrative here was solid right down to the end. I won’t get into spoilers here, but there’s a good few twists that tug at your heartstrings in a way that so many games can’t or won’t.

(Almost) masterful worldbuilding

There’s a lot to love about Red Dead Redemption 2 when looking at the content as a whole. The sheer amount of content is impressive on its own, but when you realize how much detail has gone into small bits of dialogue for very specific side quests and rare events, as well as the subtle but unique landmarks throughout the map, you appreciate the effort put in to make the world feel so real. Nothing here is half baked or glossed over, and that says a lot about how skilled and dedicated this development team was. 

That being said, there reaches a point during gameplay where the detailed, immersive world they’ve built becomes a detriment to pacing. For all the high-quality storytelling and action sequences, they are largely spaced out by long sequences of riding your horse through the desert while listening to ambient music. Granted, the landscapes can look terrific in some areas, and the music is about as good as it gets when it comes to original video game scores, but I don’t know how much substance these long road trips are adding.

Famously, the first Red Dead Redemption had an early sequence where John Marston galloped toward a gorgeous sunset on his way to Blackwater, where many of the game’s big events are centered, all while a José Gonzalez song played in the background, setting the mood of the game in an absolutely perfect way. In Red Dead Redemption 2, you are treated to many of these beautiful landscapes while listening to an outstanding soundtrack. So many of them, in my experience, that these moments begin to lose their impact. I know that games don’t have to be constant waves of stimulus, and there’s something to be said for giving players a reprieve from all the shooting, stealing, and gambling of the Wild West. But when these traveling sequences are this regular and, at times, drawn out for several minutes, I’m not getting a reprieve from chaos — I’m just getting bored.

A remedy to some of these large gaps in excitement are the roadside events that pop up in your travels. There’s true variety in the events you stumble across on the trail. Most games would simply plant a “Help me!” NPC on the side of the road and you’d go clear out a cave of bandits or find their missing jewelry, because that’s what NPCs are always asking of you. You’ll certainly run into those moments in Red Dead Redemption 2, but then there was that time that I stopped to help a man crouched next to his horse on the side of the road that taught me a lesson. To avoid spoilers, I'll just say it was truly surprising.

Some stale mechanics

For all the polish and detail that you see put into the worldbuilding and aesthetics, the way Red Dead Redemption 2 feels and controls hasn’t changed much since its predecessor. The loose cover system that’s still used in Grand Theft Auto V is more or less brought over wholesale to Red Dead Redemption 2, and movement feels a bit old and stiff. I found myself often sticking onto cover I was trying to break away from, and unable to switch from one cover to another with a fluid, satisfying motion. It doesn’t feel bad, but I was really hoping for a dramatic step forward in the game’s combat and controls, and this feels a bit more like a lateral move.

I chose to play using a keyboard and mouse, as I assume most PC players will. On a controller, I’m sure this inventory feels more intuitive with all the wheels you use to navigate through your items. On a keyboard and mouse, it feels like there could have been some modifications made to utilize all the extra buttons. Even the basic ability to cycle through your guns using the scroll wheel on your mouse would have taken some burden off all the awkward tabbing through menus. But the annoyances of the inventory system are relatively minor. Eventually, if you’ve been playing games on PC long enough, your fingers will just start learning the moves for your most used items. 

The horse mechanics, however, kept bothering me. There’s a very particular design choice that seems flawed to me, although maybe it worked better on controllers: When riding your horse, you’ll occasionally want to flip your camera around to see what’s behind you. When you do this, the keys used to turn your horse right and left switch in the middle of your turning motion. I can’t tell you how many times this sent me diving off a cliff because I wanted to take a quick shot at the lawmen in pursuit.

That, and the fact that my S key doesn’t slow my horse down(but Alt does), had me riding my horse all over the place. I remember thinking how slick the horse mechanics felt on console years ago, so this was an unexpected hiccup. I think this problem can be fixed simply by changing the angle at which this left and right key switch occurs, and making it so that the switch doesn’t happen in the middle of your camera rotation. 

A “more is more” approach

While the quantity of content and unique interactions is impressive, not all of it is as exciting as it ought to be. For example, one early quest line for one of your campmates, Leopold Strauss, is to go find some debtors and shake them down for the money they owe. One of these debtors is a nervous Polish man that claims he doesn’t have the money. After a short cutscene and a brief beating, he tells me I can have whatever I can find in the house, which was true whether or not he told me that.

The next two minutes of gameplay is just looting drawers, chests, and cabinets by holding the R button and watching my character go through many different rummaging animations while the Polish dude complains that I found his good booze. Thematically, I guess the situation is a fun trope to send your protagonist down. From a gameplay perspective it’s a little tedious and uninvolved. As I searched that house, I didn’t find anything interesting that leads to a bigger story or cool interaction. I just held R until I left. 

From a character-development perspective, I don’t think I was ever given an option to work something out with this guy or have a clever little outlaw-with-a-heart-of-gold kind of moment. My mission was to beat and rob a frightened immigrant, and that’s what I did. I appreciate the grit of this world and the harsh nature depicted in this Wild West, and I appreciate that you're allowed to be a bastard if you want to be. But, if I’m being honest, I just didn’t want to hurt that guy. He seemed cool. It would have been nice to have another option.

Every physical action your character takes has a beautiful, articulate animation to go along with it that’s impressive the first few times you see it, and mildly aggravating the thousandth time. Every time you loot a body, Arthur Morgan and his heavy, bow-legged body saunters over the corpse, lifts them by their shoulders, pats around their pockets, snags something, and sets them down. The whole animation takes two or three seconds, but when you just wiped out an entire compound full of dead bodies, crates, chests and other nonsense to loot, the whole thing starts to feel laborious. I found myself leaving things untouched and abandoning potentially valuable loot for this reason.

Red Dead Online

While I enjoyed my time with the first game’s multiplayer, I found it to be an afterthought to what was one of the most engrossing single-player experiences I’ve ever had. Considering the astronomical success of Grand Theft Auto Online, there’s no way Rockstar was going to let Red Dead Online be an afterthought.

Red Dead Online has many of the same highs as its single-player counterpart, but without the narrative drive that inspired me to care about the universe and the people in it. There are NPCs with dialogue and a base level of storytelling that one can only expect from a narrative with a silent protagonist. This made me feel even less connected to, and even less engaged by, Red Dead Online's world than the campaign.

To be fair, I think a lot of the draw here is being able to gang up with your friends and run amok out in the Wild West. None of my friends have this game, so much of my time spent on Red Dead Online felt a bit hollow. I was doing many of the exciting things that the game’s single-player offers, but I didn’t feel like my actions had the same kind of impact. The progression grind seems long, the microtransactions many, and I don’t know if I’ll put enough time into it to really get a satisfying experience.

7

The Verdict: Great

Red Dead Redemption 2 is an imperfect game that a lot of people will be pouring hours into over the coming months. There are a lot of big, cinematic moments that Rockstar has mastered over the years, and it has a world that really wants you to get lost in it. There will be exciting bank robberies and hilarious interactions with weirdos at the saloon, contrasted with long-winded animations, tedious mission design, and a lot of horse riding. Ultimately, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a very well-made, fully-realized Spaghetti Western experience. It’s big and ambitious and detailed and wonderful.

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Adam Wheeler
Written by
Tuesday, 28 January 2020 05:59
Published in Adventure

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Adam Wheeler loves his computer, his cat, and his work-from-home lifestyle. When he feels the motivation to put on pants, he tells jokes on stage. With no real distractions in his life (friends, relationships, a reason to go outdoors, etc.), he is able to provide in-depth analysis of games and the culture that surrounds them. Adam almost never has anything better to do.

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