Red Dead Redemption 2 Review

Craig puts on his boots and doffs his cowboy hat in our Red Dead Redemption 2 review

The wild west is an unforgiving place.

There’s acres of land to traverse, with many miles filled with bandits who want your wares, wolves who will sink their teeth into your flesh and strangers who are prepared to take advantage of your kindness. But what of the road in-between? For those lucky enough to encounter such a situation, there might be people who genuinely need your help after being stranded, bars where you can unwind the night away with a dram of whiskey and camaraderie the likes of which modern folk will never know.

The wild west is many things to many people and it’s this end of the cowboy era that Red Dead Redemption 2 is trying to replicate. And in many ways, it overwhelmingly succeeds.

The year is 1899 and the era of cowboys is coming to an end. Arthur Morgan is part of the Dutch Van Der Linde gang, a notorious group of no-gooders who are being chased after a heist that didn’t quite go to plan. As Arthur, the early parts of Red Dead Redemption 2 see you and the gang trying to get by in a world that’s changing. Its narrative plays on the fact that you and your gang is trying to come to terms with the fact that they’re being hunted and chased out. The time of cowboys is over and it’s time for Dutch, Arthur and the rest of your members to work out where they fit in a society that no longer wants or needs them. Their time is over.

Despite its barren appearance and vast vistas that stretch as far as the eye can see, the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is vast and plentiful. It does a wonderful job of making it not just feel alive but be alive.

As you coast on your horse from A to B, you’ll find strangers in need, animals to hunt and places to explore; many of which won’t appear as on-screen markers that spoil your view of Red Dead Redemption 2’s terrain, but merely try to pique your interest enough for you to investigate. The world does a wonderful job of not overwhelming you with things to do and places to see without ever feeling empty. Every mound, river and outcrop feels perfectly placed. While it doesn’t go as far as letting you see the world’s landmarks at every turn no matter where you are (ala Breath of the Wild) it lets you see reason behind the placement. As you progress through the story you’ll see the world build around you with construction taking places in locations that you pass and upon your return hours later, you’ll see new houses and locales taking shape.

Its world and its characters are reason enough to adorn a cowboy hat and slide on those dusty boots. Those who have played the original will feel right at home despite the lengthy gap between the games but if you’ve yet to venture to these lands there’s no need to worry. Naturally, those who rode with Marston all those years ago will pick up on small nods and reacquaint themselves quickly with some of the characters here – many of which overlap between the games – but it never once lets newcomers to the series feel lost or disjointed from the narrative.

If the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is so finely crafted, then it’s a shame that its mechanics and systems aren’t so finely interwoven. Aiming, walking, running and riding a horse are all smoother and more succinct with one another elsewhere. There’s a different button required to be pressed when you pick up a hat and an item for some unknown reason and in the opening ten hours, the game overwhelms with systems and meters, throwing a lot on the player at a time when just getting the controls down can be somewhat troublesome.

One of the little things that doesn’t help is how the game never tells you that holding the Options button on the PlayStation 4 (menu button on Xbox) quickly opens the map. Only by delving into the games’ help menus will you realise that you don’t have to pause and then select the map from there.

The cumbersome nature of Red Dead Redemption 2’s systems and controls are in a sense, by design. The game is full of nuanced ideas that haven’t been seen in great detail before. From cleaning your gun to ensure it fires true, to cleaning your horse to keep it in good health to making sure that Arthur’s eating, sleeping and generally being a human being that looks after himself are ideas that take realism in a video game to places it’s never really been to before.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but in the cold light of day, even Rockstar might admit that the realism in Red Dead Redemption 2 goes a little too far. However, as you progress through the game, you start to understand that there is a lot of give and take on many of these intertwining systems and that keeping on top of everything isn’t essential. You can still play this as a basic open world game in much the same way as the original game or a GTA. Sure, you have to tend to your needs every now and then but it’s not as labour intensive as the game initially makes it feel. The way most of these mechanics are presented to the player is in a way that makes it feel like it’s going to be cumbersome and frustrating, despite the fact that the reality is different.

The UI, in general, is also a bit of a going concern when playing the game. Holding a trigger button and then using the stick to select a weapon, item or something off your horse is at times, awkward. This also goes for the games crafting system, whereas in the early hours you’re unsure whether your handing over an item to be sold, handing it over for crafting or losing it entirely. Sure, you can find definitive answers in the game’s menus and the more you repeat an action you’ll gain a better understanding but in the game’s opening hours, you’re never quite sure what the outcome will be.

When it comes to shooting and walking, controls feel solid and weighty but for movement that requires more finesse, it’s often hard to get Arthur to stand or aim in exactly the right place. Even the targeting system (which defaults to lock onto enemies) can see your small movements easily jog the reticle up and over your targets’ head; particularly frustrating when you’re in a heated gun battle. In a similar vein, covering behind walls and boxes also faces the same issue, with a light tap of the shoulder button seeing Arthur lock onto the nearest cover spot, however, any movement after that feels like you’re stuck in mud that just refuses to let you go, it makes moving from cover-to-cover a real problem when half of the town you’ve just robbed is after you guns blazing.

Despite the issues that Red Dead Redemption 2 has with minor movements the fact that it attempts to push the boundary of how video games should be played is what allows it to overcome its issues which after a few hours play become few and far between.

The fact that it attempts to blur the line between video game and realism has to be commended; perhaps it makes it easier to try things when it’s quite clear that the game is going to sell regardless of much of the content, but being able to interact with almost every non-playable character with a tap of a shoulder button is a wonderfully forward-thinking mechanic that must have needed a serious amount of time and testing to implement.

There will be a number of people playing Red Dead Redemption 2 who will find it highly frustrating that you can’t ride horses at full pace everywhere, that you can’t jog or run in your home camp and that there are many deliberately slow animations, all developed with the intention of further immersing you into the game’s world. Personally, this level of detail and immersion is something that, for the most part, I enjoyed when playing the game. Many who want to play for a pure video-game experience as opposed to a true to life wild west/cowboy simulator (which is what this is) will be disappointed at times with the pacing and meticulousness of certain moments.

A positive example of the game’s attention-to-detail is that as you move around the world you can greet any passer-by or antagonise them. In fact, if you stumble into an area that someone else is fiercely defending, you can simply bring the menu up by holding a trigger button and defuse the situation. Just like real-life though, it’s not just a case of people taking you at face-value and accepting it. One such situation occurred for me where Arthur ventures to the beach and stumbles upon a lonely tent and fire. Upon moving closer, an old man calls this his home and starts yelling obscenities at Arthur. Despite trying to defuse the situation, the old man starts shooting, clearly unhappy that his hideaway had been found, what occurred next was a short shootout that saw the old man dumped into the sea just after Arthur had stripped him of his belongings. Could I, the player, have handled the situation better rather than just stumbling into a man’s temporary home? Probably.

The game’s way of handling situations like this (and many more like it) shows that the AI doesn’t play by set rules, just like the wild west that it’s trying to imitate, Red Dead Redemption 2 has characters so unruly it’s difficult to know how they’re going to act. Finding strangers and helping them with their problems or requests always feels good but the game constantly puts you in the position of thinking: ‘are they going to open fire on me?’

The way Rockstar have developed Red Dead Redemption 2 with quotes from some of the creators of ‘100 hour work weeks’ and ‘mandatory overtime’ in order to get the game finished, appears as though crunch in the industry has become widely accepted – a situation which shouldn’t be the norm. We won’t delve too much into this subject as there are far better people out there who have covered it but it would be remiss of me to review Red Dead Redemption 2 without making you aware of how hard the people behind the game have worked, whether through their choice to do so or not. I hope that the conversations and dialogue that people are having across the industry, can alleviate some of the issues that the industry is currently facing.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game full of life, character, charm and innovation. Unfortunately, some of the latter doesn’t come off and the controls at times can be troublesome but its world is one of the most alive ever created. With a story that lasts for well over 50 hours, plus a plethora of side missions and activities to discover, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game of the highest calibre. Despite that, little niggles, control issues and UI problems hold it back from being a truly spectacular video game. A realistic cowboy simulator? Sure. Red Dead Redemption 2 won’t be beaten on that front but when it forgets that it’s a video game, it results in my love for being in the wild west diminishing just a little bit, a situation that occurred far too often for my liking.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Conclusion

Red Dead Redemption 2 has problems when it comes to its moment-to-moment gameplay but its attempt at pushing the boundary in mechanics, interaction and narrative within an open world that’s one of the finest ever crafted, almost more than makes up for its faults.


We reviewed Red Dead Redemption 2 after receiving a review copy from the publisher and it is available now on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One
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