Here it is, folks: the big Kahuna, the game that conquered an entire release season, the one you’ve all been waiting for: Barbie and Her Sisters Puppy Res…wait, no. Sorry, that was the big Kahuna of a few years ago. No, today we’re talking about the latest Rockstar Games’ long gestating magnum opus, one nearly a decade in the making: Red Dead Redemption 2. Saddle up.
The original Red Dead Redemption helped paved the way for a glut of western-themed interactive adventures, much like Call of Duty did for military shooters and Gran Turismo for authentic racing simulators…no, wait. That didn’t happen. Nearly a decade later, we see western games as frequently as lonesome tumbleweed… which makes the built-in anticipation for its sequel all the more
It’s a strange title that goes in somewhat interesting directions, but if you’re willing to work with it, you’re bound to have a good time.
In the last days of the Old West, Arthur Morgan is running with a bad crowd. Specifically, he’s running with a gang belonging to Red Dead Redemption villain Dutch van der Linde, and things haven’t been going so well lately. After a heist goes horribly wrong, Morgan and his crew are penniless, wounded and on the run from the law. We follow the gang as they try to get back on their feet and make their way in a West that’s just about done with them.
This is a story-focused game, so special attention needs to be paid to that side of things. Protagonist Arthur Morgan is just rough enough to be endearing, especially since you have more of a chance to control how he behaves than in the previous game, while the rest of Dutch’s gang proves to have their own highs and lows that make them especially interesting characters. The plot tends to be fairly standard Western fare, but it’s executed with a ton of polish and Red Dead Redemption 2 stands out from the crowd as a result.
As for gameplay, well, the focus here is immersion. At its most base, Red Dead Redemption 2 is essentially GTAV in a Western setting with all the trappings that includes, but it’s the icing on top that makes the game what it is. First and perhaps foremost, we’ve got that most beloved of modern game mechanics: the hunger and thirst nag meter, popularized by titles like Minecraft. Yes, you can’t even escape it in Rockstar games. Arthur gets hungry and tired over time and his “cores” – read: nag meters – drain as a result, so you’ll need to find or purchase refreshments to restore them before the drain results in penalties to your regeneration rate. Even horses have their own cores to worry about, so you’ll have to pay attention to your nag nag meters before they nag your nag.
I’ve never been a particular fan of this mechanic, and I thinks it adds about as much tension to Red Dead Redemption 2 as it does to pretty much every game outside of Don’t Starve: not much at all. Let’s not even talk about the sci-fi implications of managing “cores” and how that feels a little weird in a Western game. Still, being able to hunt and gather food is cute, as is the loving detail put into shopping for food and other necessities like weapons. I particularly enjoyed going through each store’s catalog, including the lengthy text descriptions of each item. You’ve got shows to check out, outfits to buy (including nag meter penalties if you don’t dress appropriately for the weather) and guns to customize to an unprecedented level for this style of game. If you want to live the Wild West life, I can’t think of too many games that offer more cowboy accouterments than this one.
Of course, immersion isn’t always the best decision from a gameplay standpoint. Red Dead Redemption 2 runs into some issues on this front, particularly with its controls. Arthur isn’t just slow, he’s practically glacial and has a turn radius on par with a Humvee. Agile he absolutely is not, and simple activities in other games become drawn-out chores here, particularly when you’re trying to take cover during a gunfight. He’s also exceptionally finicky about noticing items that you might want to interact with, and you can expect frustration when, for instance, you kill an enemy near a tree and their gun drops nearby. Trust me, just consider that gun off limits and move on.
The finicky interaction radius and the horrific turn radius combine to turn looting into a special kind of Hell more often than not. I appreciate that you have to actually search bodies individually to not miss any loot, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss just being able to vacuum up the goodies without fighting with the game for the privilege. Likewise, horseback riding is more an art than a science here, so you’ll quickly learn to stay away from anything even remotely solid lest you crash and go flying along with your mount.
Combat, meanwhile, feels a lot like the previous game, meaning it’s weighty, slow and generally satisfying. There’s something to be said for having to pull the trigger twice on most weapons, with the second trigger pull readying your next cartridge, by the way. I have few complaints with how RDR2 handles this critical aspect of western immersion.
Frustration or not, at least Red Dead Redemption 2 generally looks fantastic. You’ve seen the screenshots and video so I don’t really need to go into that, especially given the graphical horsepower of the Xbox One X that I played on; I will confirm from other editors the game looks fantastic on all platforms, right down to the stock Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles.
But I do need to mention why I say “generally.” There’s no shortage of graphical bugs to buck you out of your immersion like a wild bronco. These range from weird physics issues to the game’s bizarre loathing of black clothing, which will so regularly become grey, flashing checkerboard clothing that I eventually stopped using it at all. There’s so much issues with sound design – none whatsoever. The voice acting is fantastic, the music is fantastic, sound effects in general are fantastic. No weird grey flashing checkerboards from a sound point of view, that’s for sure.
While it’s certainly a slow and somewhat messy experiment, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Red Dead Redemption 2 is still a fascinating Western adventure that merits a look. There’s a sizable chunk of content here that will take you hours to get through and the plot is strong enough to keep you going despite the game’s quirks. When the multiplayer component Red Dead Online launches, expect even more value to this package. I wouldn’t be surprised to see many of these gripes paved over with updates and patches soon. This is Rockstar Games, after all, the company that have supported GTA5 for years and years.