Ain’t No Trouble
HIGH The best fog effects in the history of gaming.
LOW The momentum-killing epilogue.
WTF We’re still holding a face button to run? What year is this?
By now, everyone’s likely familiar with the gargantuan effort it took to create Red Dead Redemption 2. It was a seven-year journey that took the combined efforts of every studio at Rockstar’s disposal, supposedly culminating in 100-hour work weeks that sparked a discussion about “crunch” in the industry. But while I’m not thrilled about the manner in which RDR2‘s world was created, there’s no denying that it’s a marvel to behold. Spanning five fictitious states and segueing perfectly from mountain to plain to bayou, RDR2’s sandbox isn’t the biggest ever built, but it is almost certainly the most detailed.
One expects a fair deal of repetition in a third-person open-world game like this, yet every trip into RDR2’s wilderness seemed to yield different results. Maybe I’d see something new, or maybe I’d see something familiar under a different lens, be it through the morning fog or in the purple hue of a sunset. A plume of smoke on the horizon may lead me to a group of rival gang members, or just to a friendly camper who’ll invite me to sit by the fire as he recounts stories from his travels.
There are so many unique sights, sounds and mechanics within RDR2 that it would be a fool’s errand to try to name them all. Every inch of this game feels like it received special attention, and if there’s one developer with the resources to pull that off, it’s Rockstar – after all, their most recent release is five years old and still regularly tops bestseller charts.
What makes RDR2 such a pleasant surprise (even by Rockstar’s standards) is that their writers and designers have finally found synergy with each other. Rockstar takes its cast seriously here, but not so much that the urgency of their plight is at odds with the average player’s desire to take this world in at their own pace. The prequel format set prior to the events of Red Dead Redemption turns out to be the perfect fit for Rockstar’s design philosophy. Since we know where things will end up, RDR2 enjoys a more relaxed pace. There’s no grand, overarching objective here – just a string of strong character beats, absorbed at the player’s leisure.
Set in 1899, twelve years before the last game, RDR2 follows the final days of Dutch Van der Linde’s gang. As civilization moves west, Dutch’s lawless way of life is continually threatened. When the story begins, the group is already on its last breath – a job went wrong, and in outrunning the authorities, Dutch and company find themselves stuck in a blizzard. When that ordeal is over, the question remains as to how a band of outlaws can survive in a world where smokestacks tower on the horizon and the Old West is dying.
Since we already know what fate awaits the gang – no happy ending in store for them – RDR2’s source of drama isn’t whether or not Dutch will find an answer to that question. It’s in knowing that he won’t, and watching through the cracks between our fingers as a charismatic leader repeatedly fails to deliver on his promise that they’re just “one score away” from getting out of their life of crime for good. Our new protagonist is Dutch’s right-hand man, Arthur Morgan, and the dynamic that these two share is easily the best character work Rockstar has ever produced. There’s enough warmth and kinship to their relationship that as Dutch slowly unravels, we can see the clear conflict between loyalty and pragmatism that Arthur faces.
The writing is strong across the board. Each member of the gang fills a particular duty without fitting a type, and the dialogue sounds period-specific thanks to the cast speaking with broken grammar but also using unwieldy words like “colloquial” and “ablutions.” The campaign’s epic length – spanning 40-50 hours at minimum – gives everyone a chance to flourish and develop. Rockstar characters are usually criminals and murderers, and that holds true here as well, but RDR2 manages the challenging task of making them sympathetic anyway. They’re people clinging to the only lifestyle that they know, facing the realization that this world may no longer have a place for them.
As such, survival is a key theme in RDR2, and yes, this means that players will have to hunt for food, maintain deteriorating equipment, and all the rest. But it also means that some of the luxuries we take for granted in sandbox games are stripped away. For example, RDR2 has one of the most restrictive fast-travel systems in the genre because every journey away from camp is meant to feel like a days-long ordeal. If we stir up trouble with the law, don’t expect them to forget as soon as we leave their jurisdiction – until the bounty is paid off, it’ll be hanging overhead every time we re-enter that state.
Rockstar has a history of relying on convoluted control schemes where every button seems to have five different functions depending on whether pressing or holding it, or whether I’m holding another button at the same time, et cetera. I’ve grown to dislike this approach in Grand Theft Auto – a series that once stood for light, unconstrained mayhem – but it’s a much better fit for the tobacco-flavored Wild West, where every movement feels meticulous and drawn-out, as if taken from a Sergio Leone film. I’d often walk into gunfights poorly-equipped because I forgot to manually pull my favorite rifle off of my saddle. RDR2 is full of extra steps like that, and weirdly benefits from it.
However, that deliberate pace doesn’t stop RDR2 from being exciting or lovingly indulgent with Western tropes. Dutch’s group gets into constant clashes with both Pinkertons and rival gangs, and stays afloat by staging every manner of heist imaginable, almost always ending with chases, gunfights, or both. What’s great about RDR2’s incredible open world is that it doesn’t force players to wait for the story to introduce these big moments. If I see a train roaring past, I can gallop alongside it, jump aboard, force the engineer to stop, rob it, and attempt to hold off any lawmen who show up.
In many ways, RDR2 is a testament to what triple-A games are capable of, and evidence that sandboxes of this scale don’t need to be stuffed with copy-pasted checklist busywork — that every exchange and encounter can feel crafted and lived-in. But before the credits roll, it still finds a way to remind us of the industry’s fixation on excess.
There comes a point in RDR2 when the story reaches a natural conclusion that’s beautiful, even poetic. Unfortunately, that’s not where the game actually ends. In fact, according to the progression tracker, this happens around the 75% mark. Obviously, I won’t spoil what occurs during the hours-long epilogue, but this tedious section kills the story’s momentum in an effort to needlessly tie up every possible loose end before transitioning directly into the first Redemption. It’s a sour final note in what otherwise would have been a storytelling masterstroke. A developer with all of the resources in the world still needs to know when to stop.
While I’m slightly disappointed that a game reportedly containing 500,000 unique lines of dialogue still isn’t interested in telling a tight three-act story, RDR2 is without a doubt Rockstar’s best game to date. It offers their strongest cast of characters, their most detailed open world, and an appropriate pace to allow both to coexist. Rockstar more or less invented the modern sandbox game, and it’s a joy to see them finally breaking new ground again.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Rockstar Games. It is currently available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PlayStation 4. Approximately 65 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. A multiplayer mode titled Red Dead Online is set to launch later this year, but was not available at the time of review.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language and Use of Drugs and Alcohol. This is as M-rated as a game gets, and absolutely not for children.
Colorblind Modes: There are three colorblind modes available in the options for protanopia, deuteranopia and tritanopia.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available for all plot-relevant dialogue, but plenty of incidental chatter isn’t covered. There’s also a lot of important in-game dialogue in the heat of combat when players likely aren’t able to focus on reading text, though the game is very clear about communicating objectives. Directional sound is useful in locating events in the open world, and while noises often appear as blips on the radar, they’re easy to miss.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. Like most Rockstar games, Red Dead Redemption 2 has very complicated controls with virtually every button serving multiple functions, and text prompts constantly inform players of the interactions they can make. The alternate presets allow players to swap the functions of the shoulder buttons or analog sticks.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.