Red Dead Redemption 2 review

I wanna be a cowboy, baby

I’m sorry to announce that the sequel to the critically acclaimed Undead Nightmare is, in fact, a cowboy game. Nah, I kid, but Undead Nightmare was great, right? Luckily, Red Dead Redemption 2 is also pretty great, even if it’s not about zombie cowboys.

If it can make me say something like that, it’s definitely got something going for it.

Those days are over

Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place during the decline of the Wild West. Yes, I know that Red Dead Redemption took place then, and that this is a prequel. It’s slightly less decline-y than Marston’s story.

You play as Arthur Morgan, right hand man to Dutch van der Linde, and outlaw extraordinaire. You’re also a weirdo who runs around wearing a pirate hat and a wolfskin coat, gives every horse he owns a cool red mohawk, and has the most gloriously outlandish moustache in the West.

Your mileage may vary, but I’ve been having fun.

RDR2 is a game of highs and lows. There are plenty of highs, of course. The characters are wonderfully developed, with each being a believable person, complete with their own goals, ideals, and reasons for joining the gang. Some of these people are more likeable than others, and some are basically caricatures of themselves.

Sean isn’t as bad as Irish was, though, so still winning over RDR there.

Time for change around these parts

The core of Red Dead Redemption 2 is, well, Red Dead Redemption. While John Marston of the future (woooooo!) was more overtly on the side of the law most of the time, Arthur and co are outlaws through and through. You tie, threaten, rob, and wreck your way through the encroach of civilisation. While I mostly try to play as White Knight as I can in these games (for the perks, yo), it’s significantly harder to do this time out. Well, unless you want to stop and help every Snakebite Sammy and Horse-Crushed Harriet on your way across the map; random encounters with strangers often have Honour points tied to them, and ignoring their pleas for help make you more dishonourable. What’s actually changed, though?

Well, it’s slower. A lot slower. And prettier. A lot prettier.

My favourite parts of any Rockstar game is the humour. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City remains one of my all-time favourite games, and much of that can be attributed to its tongue in cheek approach. San Andreas and GTA 4 lost that, and even RDR suffered from its own sense of self sometimes. Red Dead Redemption 2 breaks out of this a bit, as did GTA5, and often gets you laughing with, or at, the game.

Crafting has been added in, because of course it has, but it genuinely makes sense in the Old West setting. Crafting snake oil and horse medicine is handy and lore-friendly, as is improving some ammo to make it more powerful and accurate. You can also cook a variety of delicious meals; rich venison steaks, flaky fish, or wolf burgers… OK, no wolf burgers. At least not until the werewolf options in Undead Nightmare 2 (please, Rockstar?).

Weather effects mean that buying and crafting clothes is also a big part of the game. Cold weather? Get that wolfskin coat on, son. Too hot? Well you don’t need a coat at all! Little touches like this really make the world more believable, for good or ill, and make you think hard about what you’ve packed on your trusty steed.

Speaking of horses, I love my horse. I was hunting a magic bison and found her. My bonus content horse got hit by a train and I was very upset, but the pain is healing now. But yeah, horse permadeath; watch out for that.


There ain’t no more cowboys

I’m not sure I’ll ever actually finish RDR2. This game is immense, intricate, and incredibly irritating at points. Oh yeah, I love it, but the annoyances drag me out of enjoyment too much to not mention them.

First, the controls. I don’t know why the touchpad on PS4 changes the camera perspective. Frankly, I don’t want to know. It should be the map. It’s ALWAYS the map (even on Xbox One the map can only be accessed via the pause menu). Why isn’t it the map, Rockstar? (Ben – C’mon Brian it’s because they not so subtly want us to download the app).  I can imagine that every player of RDR2 will be using the map roughly 800% more than changing into first person perspective; we did not need a very prominent button for that. Also, I keep dismounting my horse without my weapons. Please stop constantly unequipping my weapons. I need them for shooting things.

Next, fast travel. It is unreasonable for a game of this scale not to have a robust fast travel system. And while you can take trains, stagecoaches, and fast travel from camp, it is not possible to fast travel TO camp. Or to trappers, both of which I visit regularly to offload animal pelts and the like. Sure, it’s dedication to realism, and I appreciate that. But also, if you get shot six times in real life, eating a tin of salmon won’t fix that, so let’s not do the realism in video game debate again, yeah? Fast travel is a quality of life thing, and I think Rockstar were remiss to truncate it so much.

Finally, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a silly name for the third game in a series, especially when it’s a prequel to another. Red Dead Requiem was right there, Rockstar.

Everyone from Blackwater to Timbuktu has praised Red Dead Redemption 2 as a masterpiece. On this, my friends, we disagree. It’s a good game, a great game, but it’s honestly a bit much.

When the map opens up for the second time, I was horrified. Sure, I expected it, but the sheer scale of the game finally hit me then. This was already big, but once New Austin showed up I couldn’t believe the amount of space this thing offered. And it’s not all empty; random encounters, teeming wildlife, cute little points of interest all make an appearance. But it feels like Rockstar thought a lot about what they COULD do in a game, rather than what they should.

I’m a simple man; I like my coffee hot, my cider cold, and my open world games to not be the size of a small country. There’s too much. I know it’s a strange thing to focus on, but there is too much happening in too large a space for me to fully get to grips with RDR2.

Understandably, a lot of people will love everything about Red Dead Redemption 2. But I spend five hours – five goddam hours of my life – trying to find a perfect cougar. I don’t care how great it is, how cool my new satchel is, or how much better the game gets; I can’t go on.

Realism is important, as are gameplay and enjoyment. Personally, I feel the scales are a bit too unbalanced for me here. You’re making a game, Rockstar, not a documentary. This was a deeply frustrating, unpleasant experience, and I did not enjoy it.

Problem is, I REALLY want to keep playing it. If something can piss me off so much, bring me to the absolute precipice of despair, and I still want to engage with it, you KNOW it’s gotta be good.

Only men with violent hearts

So besides all the controls, RNG grinding, and style over substance, what do I think of Red Dead Redemption 2?

It’s pretty darn good.

It sounds like I’ve been tearing into the flaws here, and I have. As a reviewer, that is my purpose. I still wholeheartedly recommend this game, because it is excellent, but maybe temper the wild, rabid optimism if anything I’ve mentioned above gives you pause.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this game. Even during the CougarPocalypse, there were some wonderful organic moments; I watched a guy get mauled by a bear, accidentally knocked a guy off a cliff, threw MYSELF off a cliff because my horse skidded and tripped, and threw some dynamite through a random window.

The next time I knock, you’d better open the damn door.

The world opens up around you and, while I found it overwhelming, I had fun in a lot of little pockets. You’ll lose your life to this game; Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar’s magnum opus, of that there is no question. This is a vibrant, gigantic, living world crafted from pixels and dreams, and hours go by in the blink of an eye. It’s flawed, but God damn it’s an experience and a half. You need to play it.

I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, but it’s probably as close as Rockstar will come to perfection.

Outlaw country!
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