Red Dead Redemption 2 Review
1899. The West has been won, and the Wild West has almost been relegated to history as the Old West. Almost. There are still a few gangs roaming the West, running as much from a future determined to pass them by as they are from the law. You are Arthur Morgan, a member of one of these gangs that's run by Dutch van der Linde. As the game opens the gang is on the run, driven high into mountains wrapped in a blizzard after a heist goes terribly wrong. Your first order of business is survival, not just your own, but that of your large gang, their family members, and the hangers-on that form your snowbound caravan.
Your fight for survival forms the game's opening chapter, and once the storm clears and your immediate threats have been dealt with the gang will descend from the mountains and set-up camp in one of the most sprawling worlds that you'll see in a videogame. Red Dead Redemption 2's world is a fictional recreation of the West, but it includes just about every kind of landscape that you'll find west of the Mississippi. Prairie, desert, mountains, swamp, and more are all included in the game, giving you the chance to experience epic Westerns whether they were set in the Texas badlands, Montana's prairies, Monument Valley, or California's Gold Country. Each of these areas are expansive in their own right, filled with towns, farms, camps, and plenty to discover, and they are all rendered in amazingly lifelike detail. Towns range from glorified crossroads to a small city, each with its own unique look and character. That small city, St. Denis has been thoroughly enveloped by the Industrial Revolution and looks like it has firmly planted a foot into the 20th Century. Nothing drives home the game's theme more than riding down a street in St. Denis as Arthur Morgan, a dusty and world-weary anachronism lost among the street cars, electrical wires, and factory smokestacks. There were times when I would just pause on the trail to take in the photo-realistic surroundings. After a rainstorm I even saw a double rainbow. From the clouds moving across the sky down to the saplings which brush back and then snap back into place as you pass by, details abound that make the world feel as real as it looks.
A living, breathing world isn't complete without anything living and breathing in it, and Red Dead Redemption 2 is teeming with life. Wildlife is abundant from small creatures such as squirrels and rats all the way up to large beasts such as bison and bears. The animals react to each other and to you in completely natural and realistic ways, you'll see predators stalking and chasing their prey, waterfowl taking flight en masse as you ride through a river, and scavengers picking apart carcasses. But Red Dead Redemption 2's world is occupied by more than animals. Now that the West has been won its population has increased and the trails you'll ride won't be so lonesome, major roads are as likely to be lined with telegraph poles as with trees, and you'll be stuck waiting for trains at railroad crossing more than a few times. The increased population means that you'll often encounter people on your travels, and they are actively going about their lives rather than simply making endless loops along the game's roads. You'll interact with these people in surprisingly different ways, too. There will be opportunities to provide aid to people in trouble, separate people from their money, and more in small encounters that occur during these travels. None of these rise to the level of a side mission, but the number and diversity of these encounters really help to bring the world to life. There's a surprising level of interaction available with any of the people in the game and not just those tied to the small encounters. I once paused in the doorway to a saloon to check my inventory and soon found myself in a fight with a man angered by the fact that I was blocking the entrance to the saloon and not getting out of his way. The fight ended badly for him when I pulled out my knife, but then a passerby went running to the Sheriff's office to report the crime. Before I knew it, the Sheriff and a couple of his deputies had come running out of his office and a gunfight ensued, and all of this happened because I didn't notice a drunk trying to push past me.
You can lose yourself in Red Dead Redemption 2's world and spend hours riding the trails and exploring the landscape, but there is a story here and actual missions to play. However, the game doesn't force you into a linear experience. The main missions are designated on the game's map by the initials of the character who will initiate the mission when you speak to them, and you'll often have numerous missions available to choose from. The game doesn't dictate when you should take on each mission or in what order they should be completed, but when you do you'll usually open up new missions for play or unlock access to a new location such as a fence who will pay your for any carriages that you manage to steal. When you do complete a mission, you'll receive a bronze, silver, or gold rating for it depending on how many optional objectives that you complete. Completed missions are available for replay at any time from the game's menu should you want to try them again to go for gold.
There are also activities that are essentially side missions, although I hesitate to call them anything that formal. You may pick up a tip about an isolated homesteader keeping a pile of loot in his cabin or get your hands on a treasure map, and the game will add these to a menu screen to make it easier for you to keep track of them all. However, it's up to you when and if you want to pursue them, and they unstructured activities that you are free to approach in whatever way you'd like.
The approach you do take will have an effect on your game experience, though. There is an honor system at work behind the scenes that judges the actions that you take. The game remembers the decisions that you make, so it will take note if you decide to help a man with a broken wagon wheel on the side of the road or choose to kill him and steal his wagon instead. The more honorable you are, the more strangers will treat you well and want to help you. Follow a darker path and people will avoid you and you'll find that more bounty hunters have taken an interest in ending your reign of terror. While you're free to play things from either side, there's definitely a built-in bias in the game towards being honorable unless you enjoy making life difficult for yourself by playing as a sadistic mad-dog killer. Make no mistake about it, you can't become a lawman in the game by being honorable - you'll still be an outlaw who can easily leave 30 dead bodies in his wake on the next mission. You may become honorable, but you'll still be an outlaw.
There's also an honor system style mechanic in play in your gang's camp. You can donate food and money for the common good each time you make your way back into camp. It's not really a game requirement to do so, but when you do, you'll get the same sort of beneficial reaction from your gang and its entourage that you do from the civilian population if you're honorable with them. You'll find that you have more volunteers willing to help you out and that you'll open up new mission opportunities if you're looking out for your gang's wellbeing as much as you're looking out for your own. You can upgrade the camp through crafting, although most of these updates are cosmetic, as well as craft some equipment for yourself include larger bags to carry more items in your inventory. However, crafting is more of an optional side activity than it is a major aspect of the game. To be honest, I didn't spend much time worrying about it.
One upgrade you can make to your camp will unlock fast travel, and while a big help to your game this is something that it will take you a while to unlock. The map is huge, and many missions will have you riding the trail for long stretches of time. There's no way to compress time or speed your progress while riding. The game does provide a way to keep pace with your fellow riders when you're not alone, but it doesn't work well as a horse autopilot as you'll have a tendency to ride off trail if you don't stick to steering. Towns are connected with a system of rail and stage stops which allows you to take advantage of this fast travel method between them for a price, but you'll probably find yourself only occasionally doing this as the locations that you will visit are often far outside the settlements and the missions will have you riding from place to place on your horse.
The time that you spend on your horse will help you to form a bond with it, as will actions such as taking the time to pat, groom, and feed your horse. A stronger bond with your horse will be beneficial to you, as it will make it less likely that your horse will be spooked by predators, make it possible to call your horse to you from a greater range, and allow you to perform more difficult maneuvers while riding. This all serves to help you to appreciate the bond between a horse and its rider, and while you can obtain new horses with different characteristics throughout the game, don't be surprised if you find yourself sticking to the same one for the majority of it.
There are other ways that the game tries to bring some of the realism of the Old West to life. You'll need to maintain your firearms to keep them in peak condition, for instance. And looting a body involves lifting it and sorting through the pockets, something that takes up precious time during a gunfight. The game's gunplay doesn't push for a high level of realism, though. While each gun has its own loading and firing characteristics, the game assists you in ways that a real gunfighter would never be. Gunfights are mostly a cover-based style of gunplay, and when you lean out of cover and aim you'll find that your aim will be pre-aligned with an enemy. If you're smart with your timing, you can methodically eliminate your enemies without too much trouble. Not that you won't ever find the battles to be challenging, though. Enemies are smart about moving around and finding new firing positions, so things can get pretty hectic in some of the larger gun battles.
Your weapon skills are further enhanced with the game's deadeye system. Clicking the sticks slows time and allows you to make precision shots. This combined with the location-based damage model used by the game allows you to try and disarm an opponent by shooting the gun out of his hand in addition to trying to line up a headshot. Deadeye comes into play during the game's one-on-one gun duels, giving you a fighting chance when someone tries to quickdraw on you.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is as much an experience as it is a game. It will completely immerse you in the Old West, giving you an understanding for what life was like during the end of the 19th Century and making you appreciate what it must feel like when your way of life is coming to an end in a changing world. Rockstar has outdone itself in creating such a rich and deep virtual world, and you'll love every minute that you spend exploring it.
Final Rating: 96% - As close to the Old West as you'll ever come.