There is nothing more synonymous with America than the cowboy. The cowboy was the foundation of our country, living hard and dirty off the land. The iconic rough rider, astride his trusty paint, helped build the first towns, and panned for gold, all with a six shooter on his hip. Sometimes, he and his six shooter lawlessly robbed those who seemed to have a little more than they did. It was a tough, sometimes violently shortened life full of uncertainty where Pinkerton Detectives, bounty hunters, and fellow rough riders could end your life just as easily as exposure, starvation, or rattlesnakes. Red Dead Redemption 2 aims to bring this world to life in a way that transcends the mythology of the American cowboy, pushes the envelope on what it means to be an sandbox title, and showcases exactly how Rockstar intends to break all the rules in their latest game.
As always, I’ll do my best to try to avoid spoilers as much as possible in this review. That said, there will be some necessary to set up the structure — but I’ll do my best to keep em light, partner.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place in 1899, making it a prequel to the first game, which occurs in 1911. A robbery goes south in the town of Blackwater, leaving protagonists Arthur Morgan, John Marston, Dutch Van der Linde, familiar faces Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella, and the rest of the Van der Linde gang fleeing deep into the mountains. Beset by wolves, hunger, and bitter cold, they eventually descend down to the fictional wild frontier that Rockstar has created to scratch out a living. While Dutch is pretty clear that they should keep their head down, with so many mouths to feed, it doesn’t take long before the gang is donning masks; up to their old tricks again. Everyone would be happy to enjoy peace for a spell, but they’ve got a powerful need to eat.
The year 1899 is not a coincidental choice for Red Dead Redemption 2. At this point in American history, settlers had completed their sojourn west for the most part, towns were beginning to crop up, and state lines were beginning to get carved in stone, though much of the southwest was still up for grabs. It’s also the time of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, Tom Horn, Pat Garrett, Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan, Bill Doolin, the Sundance Kid, and many more well known outlaws. Of course, the term “outlaw” is written from the perspective of the law — through Rockstar’s lens, we might just know these folk as folk, and that’s precisely what makes Red Dead Redemption 2 so amazing.
Mechanically, the Rockstar team has given us new ways to interact with the world around us with a conversation engine. As anyone who walks, rides, or rolls past you, pressing a shoulder button lets you focus on that person, giving you an option to greet or antagonize them. If you bump into them and they get upset, instead of greet you’ll get “Defuse” where you can attempt to talk down the person you just offended before things get violent. Similarly, if you antagonize somebody, you can shake them down for their money and valuables. It’s also the same system that lets you calm down your horse if it gets too close to a predator, as an example. You can even calm or scold a dog, though I have no idea why you’d do the latter. Pulling out your pistol and leaving it at your side while having a conversation with someone changes the tone of that conversation, as you might imagine, even if you don’t point it at them. Realizing that it’s a very long ride to the next town, you might want to be mindful of brandishing iron around your local watering hole.
This new conversation system ties heavily into Rockstar’s fresh take on honor. Arthur is going to have to make some choices, and he won’t always find himself on the right side of the law. Occasionally, people are going to have to die, and sometimes the camp’s need for money necessitates getting his hands dirty. Despite his previous actions, Arthur’s honor meter starts dead center, and your decisions move it to the positive or negative. While robbing someone with a mask on might let you get away from the law, it’s still a black mark on your honor. If you help people out, even (or especially) when they don’t deserve it, that’ll push you a notch towards the positive. Having a good reputation with the local town can yield discounts from friendly shopkeepers, whereas having a poor reputation may make people afraid of you, removing any discounts that “heros” receive. I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but it also has a direct impact on story elements, encouraging you to pick a path and stick with it instead of riding the center.
To say that the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 has a tremendous amount of things to busy yourself with would be a horrible understatement, but it’d also be a bit of a mischaracterization. Most games have activities to break up the story, or otherwise used as padding to round out the title. Here, they are more a natural extension of the world. Rattling them off seems somewhat superfluous as they are precisely the things you’d expect in a feature-rich world, but I’d be remiss in my job if I didn’t. Naturally, there’s holding up businesses and robbing their proprietors (though now you can even chase down their side hustles for additional income), robbing trains and waylaying their passengers, robbing banks and cracking their safes (or for a louder option, dynamite), and leaping onto carriages and fencing them (once you can find someone who will accept your illicit goods). You can now also catch wild horses and sell them, take pictures, play Poker, Dominoes, BlackJack, Five Finger Fillet, do a bit of fishing, hunt wildlife for pelts and meat, wrangle livestock for auction, rob homesteads, mug passersby at gunpoint, and bring in bounties for the local constabulary. Better still is that these feel like organic choices as a consequence of a living world instead of necessary distractions to “keep the player busy”.
The mechanics in Red Dead Redemption 2 have received a complete overhaul from its predecessor. Arthur’s primary stats are split between health, stamina, and dead eye, the latter of which serves as a sort of slow motion that will allow you to sight in specific targets that will unleash once you suspend dead eye, or the meter runs out. Like a good RPG, the more you use these skills, the more they level up and expand. What’s different here is that the system is now based on a blend of your core and the attached meter. While your meter will replenish over time, should you ease up on incoming damage, stop running, or stop engaging dead eye, the core will not. It represents that bone-tired feeling you get once you go well past your breaking point. Once you’ve done this, the only way to replenish your cores is with rest, or with consumables. It is a great way to get people to use the consumables, and it makes stat growth feel meaningful.
On a related note, there’s also the matter of you stinking like a two-dollar whore. The more you ride through the dirt, get knocked into the mud, slog through the Louisiana swamps, and otherwise get raked through the muck, the more what I’m affectionately calling the “filth meter” runs out. It represents your cleanliness, which affects how others treat you, how nasty you look in these amazing cutscenes, and how fast your stamina depletes. I guess that nasty crust you’ve developed slows you down a bit. Beyond needing the occasional bath, you can also shave, cut your hair and apply a generous schelacking with some Pomade, and otherwise decide how “frontiersman authentic” you’d like to look. Your horse needs similar attention, needing the occasional run through the stream to get clean, and a brush every now and again, lest their nasty crustiness slow them down as well.
Speaking of horses, they are far more than simple conveyance in Red Dead Redemption 2. In games like Grand Theft Auto, cars were fun to trick out, but you never really felt a lot of anguish if they took a dent. Here in Red Dead Redemption 2, the first time a rival gang member shot my horse I was downright angry, immediately gunning them down in rapid fashion, going so far as to pick up their bodies and dumping each into the nearby swamp for the gators to eat. There are nineteen types of horses, each with different speed and acceleration stats, but once you let me name an animal, and then spend time bonding with it (bonding unlocks the ability to rear up, drift, or prance sideways), all bets are off. Sure, you get extra stamina, health, and you can summon him from a longer range at higher bonding levels, but I’m gonna unlock a bucket of buckshot into the first sum’bitch that shoots at Buttercup!
Looking the part has always been a staple in Rockstar’s games, and Red Dead Redemption 2 is no exception. When you’ve gotten enough cash in your pockets to the extent where you can afford to be a bit more frivolous with it, you can visit your favorite General Store and pick out some threads. The difference between this and other Rockstar titles is that they now serve more than a cosmetic purpose. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is absolutely massive, and that means multiple climates. Traveling up north will cause Arthur to become cold, and conversely heading down south will require lighter clothes lest he overheat. Your horse can hold three outfits without having to return to camp, leaving you more freedom to stay out on the range for longer periods of time.
Clothing is split between hats, jackets, vests, pants, boots, shirts, and accessories. You can mix and match your outfit to your heart’s content, but should you collect a full outfit set, these can convey additional bonuses. For example, the Horseman outfit set provides a health bonus, whereas the Explorer outfit set will provide a bonus to deadeye. These require rare crafting materials, making them a challenge with their own reward.
Much of your crafting resources come from hunting, and that aspect of the game has received a massive overhaul from the first title. You can certainly stand off at a distance with a scoped rifle and tear a hole through a whitetail doe, but there’s as likely a chance you’ll tear up the pelt, ruining it. The best way to collect the necessary pelts is to crouch down, use the new Eagle Eye mechanic to visually see the smells of your prey (and your own, for that matter), and hone in on their tracks. With a bow and arrow, you’ll follow their scent and tracks, slowly moving in until you have a clean shot at your prey. A clean shot is necessary, too, because the first time you hit a doe in the shoulder instead of the neck only to have it run off and then fall over, wailing in pain as it slowly dies, you’ll make sure that every shot matters from then on. Collecting perfect pelts may also require a specific weapon using a singular type of ammunition (e.g. a varmint gun for squirrels), so one size weapon does not always fit all.
If you do enough hunting, you’ll eventually stumble across Legendary animals. Taking them down (and that’s quite a challenge) will give you pelts and parts that you can craft into talismans and trinkets that provide additional stats. One example is the Beaver Tooth Trinket which provides a permanent slowing of weapon degradation, and another being the Elk Antler Trinket which offers an extra 10% to money you loot from the dead. Rest assured, the game doesn’t turn into a stat juggling RPG — these various charms are extremely rare, keeping the game firmly rooted in reality.
Larger and more dangerous prey (and certainly the Legendary animals) will require bait to lure. Bait can be purchased or crafted, and when combined with certain scents or scent suppressants, are the key to the more difficult hunts. Similarly, fishing has a whole tackle box full of lures and bait to consider when pulling in that big Chain Pickerel or Rock Bass.
To help you tackle the wild, wild west, you’ll be able to spend your hard earned (or ill gotten) gains on upgrades for your camp. These can be as simple as better food options, or additional medicines for the group, or something more comprehensive as better tents, chicken coops, or maybe a nice boat to pull in a tasty, flaky fish. The rest of the camp won’t pull their weight, as you’ll see in the ledger, or when you are doing other camp chores, but that’s the way it goes.
My only real complaint with Red Dead Redemption 2 is the Wanted system — a familiar foe in Rockstar games. Most of the time, it works precisely as intended, and you can talk down folks from escalated encounters, but occasionally it’ll shift into overdrive and go full on Grand Theft Auto on you. Case and point, I nudged a passerby with my horse, he swore at me, screamed, and I found myself with a $40 fine and several lawmen in tow. I’ve also bumped into somebody while entering a store causing the storekeeper to flee in terror. It’s a nuisance compounded by the fact that your bounty does not wear off — if you have a $300 price on your head, it’s gonna stay there till you are dead, or you pay it off.
Truthfully, I could wax poetically about Red Dead Redemption 2 for many more paragraphs. The incredible graphical presentation, Woody Jackson’s phenomenal musical score, over half a million lines delivered by over 1000 voice actors, open world events that feel like main story elements, the cinematic camera (which makes even a basic ride feel like a cutscene), treasure maps with the promise of discovery, the amazing juxtaposition of the electric lights in Saint Denis versus sleepy towns like Valentine, and much, much more are all worthy of praise. All of these elements just further illustrate just how complete and whole Rockstar’s newest world really is.
You’ll notice that this review hasn’t covered anything about multiplayer, and that’s on purpose. Red Dead Redemption 2 is an entirely self-contained single player experience with no equivocations or compromises. We’ll get our first glimpse at what that online experience looks like in November, but you’d be perfectly justified in buying this title to enjoy the 60+ hour world even if you never stepped online.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 raises the bar for sandbox adventure games. It’s organic in a way almost unseen in any genre, creating an authentic open world that is as cohesive as it is compelling. This title will set the bar for action adventure games for years to come.