Red Dead Redemption 2 pushes this entire medium forward in stunning ways.
Where do I even begin? With most games, it’s quite easy to begin a review. You can break them down into their constituent components, and talk about what works, what doesn’t, what makes or breaks the entire experience. With Red Dead Redemption 2, that is an impossible order, because it can’t be broken down into distinct components. Everything in here, from its world and the people that inhabit it to its mechanics and its brutal story, everything bleeds into a single, cohesive whole. It all coalesces into something that is so stunning, so breathtaking, that trying to put it all into words almost feels like a disservice. It doesn’t feel like it would be quite enough.
"Everything in here, from its world and the people that inhabit it to its mechanics and its brutal story, everything bleeds into a single, cohesive whole. It all coalesces into something that is so stunning, so breathtaking, that trying to put it all into words almost feels like a disservice."
Red Dead Redemption 2 has a stunning clarity of vision, which it showcases across the entirety of its long run time. It features what is probably the most impressive open world ever created- staggeringly massive, breathtakingly beautiful, and brimming with a startling amount of detail. More than any other game, Red Dead Redemption 2 completely transports the player into its brutal yet spectacular world. It constantly finds ways to take your breath away- it could be something as simple and minuscule as watching your fellow gang members sitting around a campfire to talk about nothing and everything, or something much more significant, like the long memories of the residents of a town, who still remember that time you almost beat one of their neighbours to death.
It’s all unbelievably convincing. It feels lived-in, like an actual world, rather than a mere backdrop to the story. Rather than existing in order to enable the player’s exploits, or as a sandbox for its bevy of systems to interact (though there’s no shortage of that), it exists simply in service of itself. Where most open world games have settings, Red Dead Redemption 2 has a world. And it’s a world that is constantly a joy to explore for these very reasons. While you’re riding around on your horse, you will come across any number of dynamically occurring events. A poor soul on the side of the road with his leg stuck in a bear trap might be crying out for help from passers-by. A person feigning to be in dire need of assistance might take you by surprise as soon as you come to a stop, pulling you off your horse and trying to run off with it. A posse of one of your rival gangs might spot you out in the open at night and try to gun you down. People who’re holding grudges might try to ambush you in unique and unpredictable ways. The firefights these situations lead to – and the gunplay in general – are thrilling and exciting, with things such as the much improved Dead Eye and the stylish, slick-looking killcams making every encounter exhilarating (though the cover mechanics aren’t always as smooth and responsive as you’d like them to be).
What also stands out in Red Dead Redemption 2 is that there’s very little dissonance. Nothing ever feels like it’s received less attention from Rockstar when compared with anything else, that a particular mechanic or a particular set of missions was prioritized over other areas of the game. The game rarely ever feels the need to throw fetch quests into your lap, or bombard you with tutorials, or prod you towards an interesting location in the map. Everything happens naturally. If there’s a poisonous herb out there that you shouldn’t be ingesting, you don’t learn that from a text box- you might meet a person out in the wilds who’s in desperate need of medicine, and if you give it to them, they’ll tell you that they got poisoned eating a particular herb. If there’s a point of interest in the world that you should be visiting, you won’t see a question mark on your mini map. Instead, while you’re riding out at night, you’ll see a campfire in the distance, or an imposing pillar of black smoke rising up toward the sky. If there’s treasure maps the game wants you to find to send you on hunts for booty, you won’t loot them from chests in heavily fortified forts- instead, you might run into a treasure hunter who’s on his own journey separate from yours, leaving you with the decision of how to acquire that map- try and reason with him, intimidate him, or just kill him.
"Where most open world games have settings, Red Dead Redemption 2 has a world."
There’s also a lot of variety in this world. If this were any other open world title, I’d be perfectly happy to throw around words like “biomes” or “topography”. But this is not a world with various distinct regions that were stitched together to create a larger map. Such a cohesive depiction of a world is rare to see in games. There’s deserts, swamplands, frozen mountains, green plains, large cities, small towns, and so much more, and each location you visit is overflowing with personality and a strong sense of identity, all of which remains respectfully consistent with the larger whole. From a settlement that is caught in the middle of an ongoing feud between two powerful families, to a city rapidly advancing towards civilization and industry while it spews poisonous smoke into the air, to a small and quaint town that is nestled in the foothills and banks on being a self-proclaimed tourist attraction, every place you visit exudes character. The term “world building” almost doesn’t do it justice.
Something else that adds to that unflinching authenticity and unreal sense of place is the fact that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that is almost entirely lacking in abstractions. To clean your weapon, you don’t go into a menu and select a “maintain” option- you physically see Arthur cleaning his gun with oil and a rag. When you’re in shops, you don’t select the items you want to buy from a menu- you pick them up from shelves manually (although you can purchase them while browsing a catalog as well). For every animal you skin, there’s a unique animation (though these can be skipped if you want). If you want to change the loadout of the weapons you’re carrying, you have to walk up to your horse and pull those weapons out of your saddlebag.
Those weapons? They don’t magically disappear into your pockets- you can always see them on your person. And that horse? If it’s ever too far away from you, you can’t just whistle and hope for it to spawn out of nowhere- you have to physically go to where you left it last. These things, these abstractions, are things that most games need, to cut out the downtime, to speed up the process of playing. But Red Dead Redemption 2 revels in that downtime, in slowing down the pace. It firmly plants its feet in grounded reality, and never budges an inch. A potential pitfall of that is that some might look at that downtime, that refusal to cut out the fat, as obnoxious or boring design. Certainly, the abundance of travelling from point A to point B can be a little wearisome at times. But that downtime serves a higher purpose- of thoroughly immersing the player in the game’s world.
"From a settlement that is caught in the middle of an ongoing feud between two powerful families, to a city rapidly advancing towards civilization and industry while it spews poisonous smoke into the air, to a small and quaint town that is nestled in the foothills and banks on being a self-proclaimed tourist attraction, every place you visit exudes character. The term “world building” almost doesn’t do it justice."
Much of that also applies to the storytelling. Red Dead Redemption 2 starts out slow, and it has no issues with taking its sweet time with things. It sets the pieces, moves them into position, and gradually accelerates. A slow paced story can often be a deal breaker, but when that slow pace exists to allow everything to be built up with perfection, it can be a powerful thing. Nothing ever feels rushed, and rarely does Red Dead Redemption 2 ever take a turn that feels unearned. It starts slow, yes, but it builds momentum constantly, and as things move towards the ending (which changes depending on your choices as a player), they keep picking up pace. By the end, it’s almost exhaustingly intense.
The writing deserves a lot of credit for that. Being a prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, many of us already know how things turn out for the van der Linde gang, but watching the fabric of the gang crumble, as it moves to a place where the previous game’s story can make sense, is utterly engaging. Arthur Morgan is also an excellent protagonist, and watching him struggle with his morality, and try to reconcile the increasingly reckless and violent actions of a group of people who’re more than a family to him, is fascinating. Beyond Arthur, the other main players in the story are written and acted excellently as well, and even though they’re all outlaws who steal, kill, and pillage as a way of life, you can’t help but feel a certain bond with them- most of them, at any rate. Interacting with these characters is also always a joy, thanks to Red Dead Redemption 2’s dialog system, which offers different ways to react and behave based on the situation you find yourself in.
All of this is, of course, brought to life in stunning ways by some of the most impressive visuals I’ve ever seen in a game. Everything is created with painstaking detail, and undoubtedly pushes the limits of the PS4 and the Xbox One to the absolute extreme. Watching rays of light shining through a forest’s dense canopy, or a barn being set on fire, or a swath of storm clouds rolling in from the distance, or forks of lightning flashing across the sky, or the wet, glistening mud after a torrential rainfall- it all looks incredible, and it’s hard to believe that Rockstar have managed to display such technical mastery so consistently in a world as large and dense as this. Some character models look noticeably worse than the game’s main characters, while there’s also the occasional glitch and animation bug, but you can pretty much count such occurrences on your fingers. None of it diminishes the fact that this is one of the best looking games ever created. The fact that all of it is accomplished in a massive open world environment only makes these achievements even more impressive. The game’s sound design also deserves special praise. Things such as gunshots, the crackling of a thunderstorm, the whinnying of horses, or the general sound of wildlife in a forest, all sound suitably authentic. And the moments when the music kicks in as a firefight begins- those will stay with you for years.
"Red Dead Redemption 2 starts slow, but it builds momentum constantly, and as things move towards the ending, they keep picking up pace. By the end, it’s almost exhaustingly intense."
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a breathtaking game that exhibits quality of the highest calibre in almost everything it does. To call it not only one of the best games this generation, but simply one of the greatest games ever made, wouldn’t be an exaggeration in the slightest. It demonstrates how to tell an engrossing, tightly written, and masterfully paced story in a rich, dense, and unbelievably immersive world, and paves the way for other games in the future to follow suit. It blends gameplay, story, and all its other aspects with a single minded drive to create an experience with a startling sense of purpose and identity. It is a landmark achievement for Rockstar, for open world games, and for video games as a whole.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
An engaging narrative that is excellently written and just as well acted; Deliberate, masterful pacing; A large and well-developed cast of characters; Lack of abstractions grounds the world in realism and authenticity; The world is massive and dense, and crammed with a ridiculous level of detail; Tons of varied locations that are all brimming with personality; Unbelievably immersive, with a strong sense of place; Everything is in service of a single, cohesive experience; Visually stunning, with very few hiccups to speak of; Thrilling, exhilarating gunfights; Contextual dialog system keeps things fresh and unpredictable; Dynamically occurring events make sure that exploration and travelling are never monotonous; Tons of fun side activities; Excellent music and sound design.
Lots of travelling from point A to point B; Cover mechanics are occasionally stiff.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a landmark achievement for Rockstar, for open world games, and for video games as a whole.