Reviews

Review: Red Dead Redemption 2 - masterpiece you might just hate

Rockstar
Some cowboys are aiming their guns at something in the distance
Red Dead Redemption 2

Eight years on from Red Dead Redemption 1, but 12 years earlier in the story of the blood-thirsty van der Linde gang and its members, Red Dead Redemption 2 has been teasing us for a year since its first announcement. Is it worth the wait?

We didn’t get Red Dead Redemption 2 because of all the 10/10 and 100% reviews. We didn’t get it early through some PR glad-handing – we’ve paid for several copies across the team. And we didn’t get it just because we’re a website about gaming and hey, with all the hype of the last year since its announcement we’d be criminally stupid not to.

We got it because we wanted it. We got it because we love Western games – the few there have been. We got it because we’ve played every Rockstar game since year dot, including Red Dead Revolver, Redemption 1, and Grand Theft You-Name-It, and although some are to our individual tastes more than others, we know that a new Rockstar game is worth having. You get them to see where the benchmarks have just been moved to.

Especially a game eight years in the making. A vast project envisioned to fulfill the widest ambitions of its creators. A game that reputedly nearly crushed its staff, and threw a wider net around the world for developers, actors, artists, and QA, than any other before it. A game that became an illogical obsession for its makers, cushioned in the magnitude of their pursuit by the biggest money-maker in town, and - you’d argue - unlikely to be repeated by any other company.

We got it to answer the question: what would happen if you gave Rockstar nearly a decade, and more or less unlimited funds, to make the best game they’ve ever made? We got extraordinary tales of relentless effort, of 500,000 lines of dialogue, of 300,000 animations, of (according to IMDB) 845 credited actors - 90 more than all the Game of Thrones series to date.

We got Red Dead Redemption 2, and we got a masterpiece of creative endeavour.

Rockstar in turn - pilloried for how it drove its staff to exhaustion - at $725m got the biggest cash take for an opening weekend of an entertainment property ever. Not quite GTA5 money (which was released midweek), but simply staggering nonetheless, all the more so given how relatively unknown Red Dead Redemption was in comparison to the Grand Theft Auto series. Let’s hope they spread that wealth to their people.

Rockstarpicture showing gun shooting cowboy riding a horse in the forestRed Dead Redemption 2

A modern telling of an old tale

So if you didn’t know what it was, what is Red Dead Redemption 2 then? You can summarise it as an open-world action-adventure cowboy game, tracing the tale of a gang of outlaws in a turn of the 19th century American West battling to stay alive and afloat as the world they know transforms around them, and frontier customs make way for progress, civility, and law.

But it’s almost insulting to call RDR2 a mere game. In that vein, Breaking Bad is just a TV show about a science teacher suffering a midlife crisis, and Sgt. Pepper was just an album by a boy band.

Where GTA5 has become a money-making juggernaut, and a thriving open world teeming with aggression and insanity, remember it reached us first (well before its online mode) as a movie-as-game tale of criminal enterprise in modern America, featuring rich rounded characters at every level with real stories to tell, displaying honest (to the character) actions in a dishonest world. Red Dead Redemption 2 does that even better.

It’s as good and engaging a story throughout as any game we’ve ever picked up, but like Clint Eastwood’s masterful Unforgiven – a film we often felt echoed in RDR2 – it is rarely if ever joyous, and as relentlessly draining and tiring as the hard-nosed world our protagonist Arthur Morgan is in.

The bloodied ties that bind

We’re spoiler free here, so we won’t go into the detail of the ruthless van der Linde gang with which Arthur runs, the antagonist rivals we will face, or the unfolding story that encompasses characters from the original Redemption, other than to say they all form the bedrock of your support system and success, and each has a part to play in your motivation and growth throughout the story.

Rockstar GamesPicture of Arthur Morgan and his gang buddies in Red Dead Redemption 2Red Dead Redemption 2

The stars of the piece are many, but it’s the gang that is the most alive with friction and interaction to drive the story forward, schemes and plans to make a little money. Of course there are innumerable (so far) side missions, quests, and encounters, all of which can shape your world a little differently, but the 60-hour or so play time that has been publicised is hinged around the main mission line – although you must be in pursuit of a deadline if that’s how fast you despatched the game.

60 hours is no time at all in RDR2 if you are easily distracted. There are uncountable decisions to be made, that all effect your play: to kill, to rob, to aid and abet, to assist, to play nice or play nasty, to play cards and get drunk, to check out your horse's undercarriage, to, urm... get an awkward hug from a war vet and make a new friend. Or to ignore the world and go for a camping expedition on your lonesome.

And nothing happens fast (well, except your death, often). Where GTA5 has madness, RDR2 has method: we often felt drained and worn out when seemingly doing not a lot, as Rockstar have made it an effort to do even small things. You just can’t play it mentally switched off. Every animal-skinning or corpse-looting is a deliberate and fully completed individual action. It’s, well, tiring.

Things have weight… heft… particularly your own movement and actions. You get a perfect feel for Arthur’s wellbeing and physicality, and everything is quite deliberate. If you want super snappy response and ground-skating speed, set down the controller: RDR2 doesn’t do it that way.

Steady as he goes

Rockstar could give you GTA5 movement, but this is Arthur’s gym-free world, down to every muddy footstep and wearisome sigh. Trudge to your horse to get your gun for a hunt; cock your single-action pistol between shots; unsaddle that heavy turtle carcass to make way for a ‘gator skin; ride alllll the way back to camp because fast-travel (when you eventually get it) is one-way only. This game is a timesink by mechanics not just story, and there are precious few shortcuts for either.

When you look after yourself your stamina increases, you run faster for longer, you become more resilient, and you shoot better, but you need to keep on top of it. The same goes for your horse: a strange horse will do less for you (and might even roundhouse kick you across the street) compared to a pampered palomino that is well ridden, well groomed, and reassured about his good-boyness. (You can pat dogs too, by the way.)

Rockstar GamesArthur Morgan riding his horse on top of a hill, overlooking a sunset.Red Dead Redemption 2

And keep yourself and your horse fed and clean while you’re at it, because it impacts the wellbeing of both. But maybe let your beard grow out, so you can trim it to make you less recognisable as a bad hombre to civilians in town, because this elephant of a game never forgets.

"We don't take kindly to strangers round here"

The world of RDR2 has a memory beyond any other of its type. Plenty of games use your decisions to effect gameplay down the line, and using the morality of your choices to effect access to services and venues, economic penalties, and the tone of interactions with NPCs, was a major part of RDR1.

But this is significantly broadened in RDR2, and no other game integrates the seemingly trivial into the fabric of your playing experience so deeply: townsfolk will remember your actions from days before, barmen will warn you to play nice long after a drunken scuffle in their premises, and you’ll get the side-eye from strangers (“Thief!”) well after you’ve paid off a bounty.

Rockstar GamesA horseman approaching a trading station in Red Dead Redemption 2Red Dead Redemption 2

If you haven’t taken a bath for a while, or chipped into the camp kitty, you’re even reminded of your whiffy slackness by other gang members – and will also chide them back for their own laziness if they're sleeping on the job. And it goes without saying, lawmen and bounty hunters are all over your legal status at all times.

Bounties really hurt. Arthur Morgan’s world doesn’t throw vast quantities of money at him – legal or otherwise – or the opportunities to get it (gold bar glitches aside). You have to work for your dollars and cents, be that by gun or activity. The economy, like the world you are in, is unforgiving. Five minutes after first arriving in Saint Denis we got pick-pocketed by a miscreant, for a whopping $9. A trivial sounding sum, but it wasn’t just on principle that we had Arthur run the crim down in a lengthy foot chase and get the money back: he needed the cash.

Mists and mellow fruitfulness

It’s a wonderful looking world, quite beautiful, and it’s easy to spend large amounts of time just staring into the life-filled horizons and landscapes – an activity which echoes the ease which the best westerns use the backdrop of America as a canvas and metaphor for the stories they portray: it’s tough out here, and if the landscape and its wildlife don’t get you, other humans might.

There are games that match it for looks in our view, Horizon Zero Dawn and God Of War for example, but what sets RDR2 aside is that it's REAL scenery, authentically recognisable as a real America, and navigable and alive too: if you head on out to that beautiful distant scenery it will be as living and life-filled, with the same hundred-and-one little things going on as anywhere else, and has to be prepared for.

Was it raining? It’ll be muddy then. Is it snowing? Dress appropriately because you’ll get covered in snow, and eventually soggy wet through when it thaws. Is it night-time? Maybe the strangers you meet won’t be so amenable to chat. Is that smoke in the distance, or crows? Best check that out – something is occurring. It’s not pretty-but-dead, it’s pretty-but-alive.

Rockstar GamesHorseback Western Mountain CowboyRed Dead Redemption 2

Beauty doesn’t come without penalties and some shortcuts, however. The extraordinary depth of life across the map comes amid discussions about the use of up-rezzed HDR (might be patched), and up-rezzed 4K on the PS4 Pro, and if that offends you feel free to dock a point for that. For us, it looks amazing because of the base art, detail, and engagingness of the world - not because it leverages technology better than any other game.

If tech benchmarks are all that matters, then bookmark this page and come back in five years because by then every game of today will now be deemed to be garbage by that yardstick. (Should we now give RDR2 a 5/10, 2023 visitor?) Or wait until it comes out on PC. Suffice to say, if it looks as good and alive as it does on a base PS4, it will be something else on a GTX2080. Toggle first-person mode with VR, and you won't want to leave.

Beauty is a beast

Beauty comes from how the game reacts to your being in it, which is unparalleled, and how minutely its character actions mirror the truth of the moment they are in. Time and again, Arthur’s face and demeanour is wonderfully and often painfully reflective of what is unfolding around him – and the character work and voicework is on a level simply beyond anything on a game of this scale before. You just know what he is thinking, and Roger Clark (Arthur) and the modelling and animation teams deserve incredible praise for their outstanding work.

All the cast do. There is a complete throwaway nothing of a moment right at the opening of Mission 2 where Abigail (John Marston’s wife… yep, that John Marston) greets Arthur in an apparently friendly fashion, to which he gives her a brief but subtle look that tells you better than any lengthy explanation that he knows some shit is about to land on his plate, that here comes trouble. A microexpression that tells of years between them. It’s detail that is replicated countless times as the gang’s and other character’s stories unfold, and not for the first time in gaming we have acting across the board that’s vastly superior to most Hollywood mulch.

RockstarRDR2 screenshot of cowboys walking a way from a church that isn't explodingRed Dead Redemption 2 - The gang

Moreover, this fantastic work in cut-scenes is not at all let down by in-play animation: on-the-fly acting is as faithfully sold amid even fleeting interactions, in nuanced and believable voice work and visuals. Arthur smiles, grimaces, and speaks in free play in a way that, for us, moves it well beyond the likes of The Witcher 3, a game which is an easy comparison: as much as we love Geralt, man now he looks and sounds wooden. That’s not to knock Doug Cockle (Geralt) – it just seems that he was forced to record his dialogue alone, without knowing the context of a moment. Geralt is stoic in freeplay because he has to be; Arthur seems like he's really there in the moment.

Take the time to eavesdrop too – the game’s moments of humour are far fewer than GTA5, but all the more surprising when they crop up (Hank, we did NOT expect that!), and we spied on a campfire scene that spilled out a glorious war story up there with Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech from Jaws. We think you’ll be coming upon surprises for years.

Acting and character work is matched by audio and sound effect work, and a restrained intelligent use of music that is pitch perfect in its ability to soothe or intensify the atmosphere of a scene. Where GTA music is core to the feast of the experience, in RDR2 it’s there to delicately but vitally season the dish. The music team is a Who’s Who of producers and composers, counting Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan as previous collaborators, and having an original Willie Nelson composition is simply the cherry on top.

Time to ponder, not pander

What does it not do? Despite all the above, and largely because of it, it’s not a game that fills you with vibrant energy when playing it. As we said, it’s hard work, neither lighthearted nor speedy.

Combat is more a grinding inevitability than a moment for kill streaks. It can be hard at times, or too easy, depending on how you’re pitched into it. Some canned combat actions (say, in a story mission) make it pretty clear to you what you have to do (“Blow the TNT!”), while others give you much freer rein to take the lead and chart your own battleplan.

Gunplay is conversely heavily-assisted and then deliberately unassisted, depending on the context. There’s no shoulder-launched rockets or mini-guns (well, there are Maxim guns), though Red Dead Redemption Online will put combat much more squarely at the centre of the experience, so it’s likely this will gain speed and fluidity outside of the story. You're meant to think it through, not go postal and hang the consequences.

Rockstar GamesA man skinning a dead animal in the snow in Red Dead Redemption 2Red Dead Redemption 2

What is portrayed much better are the consequences of combat, with some Peckinpah-esque camera cuts and brute violence (my first stealth knifing was no slick stick to the ribs, but a bloodthirsty prison-style butchering that alone probably earned the game’s Mature rating).

Customisation is also there in force, but to a far lesser level than GTA (again expect that to balloon when RDR Online rocks up), as is crafting – but far less say than Witcher 3 and mostly avoidable if that is an element you don’t particularly like and want to just buy or plunder instead.

It’s much less accessible than GTA, but much more emotionally draining and more uncompromising of small mistakes – if you bash into someone, you better get ready for a square off if you don’t apologise.

You feel more connected to Arthur than GTA5’s Michael/Franklin/Trevor (inevitable given that there is a sole lead character), despite him being true to the cowboy ilk of keeping his feelings in check and leaking little emotion. To us he feels closest to Michael of the three: weary of the violence, but no stranger to it.

In addition to the known side missions, quests (and glitches), there are already some GTA and Red Dead easter eggs aplenty, with a murder mystery bubbling up and some UFO sightings to perhaps pick at. But these are rewards for having put in the hours in both series, in a game that you ought not to be picking up (at least in story mode) to satisfy a rush of blood to the head and an urge for fast action. If that’s what you’re after, then there will be other games in your collection that do that better, quicker.

Despite these facets to the experience of Red Dead Redemption 2, we give it a 10, because we accept all the above as prices worth paying to fully explore the game and its story and its characters. In fact, they are critical to it.

And it is fun, and funny, but they come in your open world freeplay moments. It's hard not to laugh when your horse kicks a random enemy to death for bumping into it, and then slowly lets loose a river of dung on the corpse as you praise him with some more pats. We might not loot that fella.

It’s better to bracket RDR2 with epic works like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad: they are staggeringly engaging and complex visions, and bringing them to screen reshaped the creative world they inhabit. They moved the needle for what came next, spectres to haunt the knock-offs and corner-cutters without the vision or talent to reach the same levels.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a titanic achievement that bears comparison to great works in gaming and beyond, and will make most other games look small for years to come.