Red Dead Redemption 2 is a very stubborn game. It’s also a remarkably engrossing one. It focuses on realism and believability more than anything else, taking its sweet time to carefully pore over every lavish detail and refusing to ever budge for the sake of convenience. It’s an extremely expensive and carefully crafted game that Rockstar wants you to really soak in. It’s determined to handle things in its own very specific way, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. If you’re willing to embrace its unflinching design philosophy, you’re in for an incredible and truly unique experience.
Rockstar is one of the few developers afforded the luxury to deliver on both breadth and depth. That’s what Red Dead Redemption 2 has in abundance. There’s an enormous amount of things to do—activities to take part in, strangers to help, animals to hunt, people to shoot, mini-games to play—and all of it feels carefully and deliberately constructed in a way that builds on the already immense sense of immersion. It’s a massive and very impressive game, but one that requires you to get directly with its deliberate and methodical wavelength.
There’s a bit to contend with before Red Dead Redemption 2 becomes an enjoyable experience. It would feel like clunk if it wasn't all so deliberately considered. At times, falling in love with the game can be an arduous process, but it’s worth it. It demands a lot of time and patience, with a narrative that unfolds slowly at times, very deliberate controls, and a couple of poorly explained systems. Couple this with a relentless focus on realism and you’ve got a game that could seem off-putting. Although it may seem slow at first, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a rollercoaster of excitement, quality storytelling, and open world madness as soon as it starts.
Rockstar has always been known for their focus on characters and storytelling and Red Dead Redemption 2 is no different. The narrative centers around Arthur Morgan, the right-hand man of gang leader Dutch van der Linde. He's a simple man just trying to survive and do right by his gang. The story begins with the gang on the run following a failed robbery. The group is left hiding out in the mountains, where you’re given a series of tutorials on the basics of hunting, stealth, and killing. The pacing of the narrative is pretty slow, as it explores the themes of a group of people living an outdated lifestyle in a rapidly changing world, but it's incredibly engrossing from start to finish.
It might get dull at times if it wasn’t for the sublime degree of craft on display. Consistently excellent writing pairs with great voice acting and mocap performances that wonderfully bring the characters to life. The narrative comes together brilliantly, presenting meaningful consequences to the world as the story develops. Rockstar has never written a more believable and grounded cast of characters. Your gang actually feels like a real set of people struggling to survive, not just an ensemble of over-the-top caricatures. There’s an infectious sense of family and camaraderie that’s immediately endearing. Rockstar has loaded the game with characters with more depth than ever before. There’s an earnest variety in the characters’ backgrounds, too. The gang truly feels like a group of outcasts banding together because they’ve got nowhere else to go.
In typical Rockstar fashion, you’ll come across a huge variety of fun and weird characters out in the open world. Many of these come in the form of Strangers side missions. Coming across these in the wild makes for some of the most entertaining spontaneity the game has to offer. It’s almost impossible to go from A to B without coming across some random event. These optional missions are filled with less heavy-handed satire (there’s still a bit of that) but with grounded characters struggling in mostly believable situations. Of course, you’ll still come across your fair shares of kooks and oddballs, but even they feel dialed down and more realistic. The dynamic nature of such encounters, including the option to take part or not, help to build on the feeling of a very real world inhabited by all manner of folk.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is not a simple tale of good and evil, nor is its world one of straightforward morality. Arthur Morgan is not a good person and he doesn’t claim to be. His gang of hooligans and criminals aren’t good people either. Together they rob, murder, and maim for their own selfish needs. You’re usually not doing the right thing, but Morgan’s motives are clear. His internal debate of right and wrong vs. reality is an interesting one that permeates the entire game. He’s an oddly likable character for how much of a bad person he can be at times. His simple demeanor is undeniably endearing, which causes a lot of the people he comes across to look down on him.
There’s an honor system monitoring everything you do. You can choose between friendly or hostile interactions, but it’s all really shades of grey. There’s no “Good Karma” way to play this game. You’ll still be killing and robbing people in story missions and playing on your best behavior is all very relative compared to what the narrative has you doing. Being friendly to people in a town for the sake of honor begins to feel a little superfluous when you’re holding up a train filled with rich tourists, brutally beating them when they refuse to give in. Still, it’s fun to role play the nice guy outside of story missions, helping random strangers in the wild and greeting everyone with a hearty “hello."
It can be easy to get on the wrong side of the law. Especially when pointing your gun at someone is on the same button as interacting with them. Bumping into someone ever-so-slightly can instigate a town-wide brawl that results in the local sheriff placing a massive bounty on your head. Needless to say, that town is a no-go zone until you’ve paid off the law. It can be annoying at times, for sure, especially when the weightiness of the controls causes you to start a fight, but embracing that chaotic experience is essential for enjoying Red Dead Redemption 2. It's hard to really get mad at the game when the combat feels so satisfying and makes you feel endlessly badass.
I’ve never played in such an immensely enjoyable and meticulously crafted sandbox. The incredibly detailed world encourages you to explore its systems in a way that never gets old. It brings mystery and excitement back to the open world genre. Where other games would have you following markers on a map, this one encourages you to explore at your own pace. Feel free to investigate only when something catches your eye. It’s amazing how many weird and fun encounters I had, both big and small, that came from just hearing someone shouting or doing something weird. Some of my best experiences came from the enticing nature of the world, which makes you want to check out every nook and cranny because of how meticulous and deliberate it all is.
The truly impressive part is the sheer scope of everything. Every side mission, even if it’s just a simple bounty, feels like it could be a story mission. They all have consistently high production values and a focus on cinematic storytelling. This helps to make everything you do feel important and encourages you to take on every random event that comes your way. Some of them are minor, while some of them spin-off into bigger narratives, but they all feel meaningful and rewarding.
It’s worth highlighting just how slow the game is minute-to-minute. This may all sound fast-paced and thrilling, but looting a house is a lengthy, drawn-out affair as you carefully grab each individual object, as the movement is slow and methodical. This makes for an incredibly slow-paced experience, especially by modern standards. You’re forced to carefully and thoughtfully engage with its many systems, interacting with characters and considering your actions. It’s nice to have a game that takes its time and allows you to soak in its beautiful details, but it demands that you get in tune with its very deliberate motions.
Maintenance is a very big deal throughout the game. Although it may seem like a chore at first, it’s hard not to engross yourself in managing the well-being of Arthur, your horse(s), and weapons. You have three Cores—health, stamina, and Dead Eye (the badass slow-mo bullet time that returns from Red Dead Redemption)—that you’ll have to eat, drink, and smoke to maintain. The ring around each Core on the HUD represents how much health or stamina you actually have. The center (the “Core”) of each stat determines how quickly it will regenerate. Your horse also has health and stamina Cores to maintain. It may seem like a lot, and it certainly can seem overwhelming at first, especially given how poorly they explain the system, but it’s pretty easy to maintain. Just eat or drink when your Cores are low and you’ll be just fine.
That’s not all you’ll have to manage. There’s also the condition of your guns (which need regular cleaning if you want them to perform at their best) and your personal hygiene and appearance. A big part of what makes Red Dead Redemption 2 so immersive is the way that people will react to you differently depending on how clean and presentable you look. It's remarkable how realistic it is when blood or mud covers you after a scuffle. Walk into town looking like a mess with a big unkempt beard and people won’t react too kindly. They might not serve you and, if you look bad enough, they may even get hostile. The attention-to-detail affecting these systems is pretty amazing.
On top of all that, there’s a massive range of customization options for just about everything you could think of. There’s a huge amount of weapons, horses, outfits, and more. Everything has their own set of improvements and tweaks. Arthur’s hair, beard, and mustache can grow out over time, trimmed, stylized, and pomaded to your liking. You can mix outfits you craft from hunting or purchase from vendors however you like. Hunting can provide the materials needed for a lot of this. Especially once you unlock the option to craft bigger and better bags and aesthetic changes to your camp.
Red Dead Redemption 2 looks and sounds fantastic. The vast, detailed, varied, and gorgeous landscapes are a wonder to behold, while the characters look great, too. Sharp and vibrant weather effects can set an effective mood. The piercing lightning and pouring rain turn the land into a beautiful mess of wet mud. The technical power on display is quite incredible. Furthermore, the level and variety of intricate and detailed animations for the most minor actions never cease to impress.
Meanwhile, the sound design is subtle and minimal, making headphones a must. The music is mostly gentle and reserved, comprised largely of low-key instrumentation. It creates a joyful ambiance that envelops the player. It’s impossible to ignore how incredibly expensive the game looks and feels. The intense layer of polish and incredible attention-to-detail left me with a constant reminder of just how much much time, money, and manpower went into this game. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a monumental achievement in open world game design.
Playing the game on a PS4 Pro, I couldn’t help but feel that the native 1080p resolution let down the potential of the visuals. Although it still looked very impressive, the occasionally choppy frame rate in some of the larger towns is noticeable. The Xbox One X version seems like the ideal way to play. Although I haven’t seen it myself, it’s the only version to run at a native 4K. It also boasts faster loading times and a smoother frame rate. I’m very much hoping for a PC version, which would allow the technical power of the game to really shine.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is simultaneously weird, methodical, and beautiful. The sheer production values on display alone make it worth experiencing, but it’s the brilliantly captivating open world design and engaging narrative that makes it a must-play. It makes you want to see everything it has to offer. The entire game is built so meticulously that it draws you into every corner. At times, the laser focus on realism can be frustrating. However, it’s not enough to mar an experience that is otherwise incredible. This is Rockstar’s finest and most well-realized game to date.
TechRaptor reviewed Red Dead Redemption 2 on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is an incredible achievement in open-world game design. It's dense, massive, and beautiful. People who give this game the time and patience it needs will find Rockstar's most ambitious, best-written, and most well-realized game to date.
- Incredible Presentation
- More Grounded Characters, Less Over-The-Top Caricatures
- Massively Dense Game
- Hugely Engrossing World
- Fantastic Execution of Ideas
- Slow-Pacing And Deliberate Controls Won't Be For Everyone
- PS4 Pro Performance Can Get Choppy