Heading into release, Red Dead Redemption 2 was both my most hyped game of the year, and the one I was most worried about. The original title is one of my favorite games of last generation, but with Rockstar’s push towards more detail oriented and ‘realistic’ playing experiences, some of the game mechanics talked about before the sequel’s launch had me nervous that it’d become a tedious chore. Thankfully that is not quite the case. While there are some areas that became annoying the longer the title was played, I’m pleased to report that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a great experience, albeit not without some flaws.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Studios
Platform: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: October 26th, 2018
Players: 1 Player
Once Upon a Time in the West
Filling the shoes of Arthur Morgan, players are transported back to 1899 immediately following a botched heist in the town of Blackwater. Fleeing from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Morgan and his cohorts in the Dutch van der Linde gang are struggling to survive in the harsh environment that is the mountain upon which they have fled to.
From that moment on the game follows the events that led to the downfall of the gang leading into the situation that is present with the gang’s leader, Dutch van der Linde, in the original Red Dead Redemption.
Without saying too much as to avoid any spoilers past the game’s introduction, I’m happy to report that the story within the game is actually quite superb. Minus running a tad too long, including an epilogue that itself runs for multiple hours, the story does a great job of conveying the personalities and clashes that led to the gang eventually collapsing in on itself.
Within the tale are some excellent moments and most of the characters are phenomenally well done. This is possible thanks to a new mechanic within Rockstar’s repertoire, where the player can hold conversations with virtually anyone.
As you wander the gang’s camp, an area that is essentially a main hub of sorts, you can spend time getting to know those that you share a digital space with. This is a mechanic that is made all that much better due to voice acting that is easily some of the best of the year.
However, for as outstanding as the story and its character are, it is not without its flaws. Without getting into any specific details, one mid-to-late game detour is bound to be divisive. For a multi-hour period the game goes on a weird path that I personally just found corny.
What was most disappointing about this moment is that it follows what is easily the best and most intense mission of the game. I really can’t say too much here, but just know that what I’m talking about wraps itself up relatively quickly and then the game begins firing on all cylinders once again.
As for Arthur Morgan, he is a complex and layered man who may be Rockstar’s best lead in years. He has no problem killing when necessary, but within his actions is a person who yearns to be free of all the conflict. There are some reflective and somber moments within the game and I found Arthur to be well nuanced.
One aspect of the story is that even throughout its flaws, it takes a few risks that I appreciated. One late game character development is not only unique, but it fits the game’s theme and it pays off a series of subtle foreshadowing that builds throughout the experience.
Obviously I once again cannot say too much, but I found a specific circumstance to be nearly perfect within the confines of the plot and the overall series.
Dances with Wolves
Helping carry the story to its emotional and suspenseful highs is a soundtrack that covers a broad range of the western genre. Mixed throughout the game are tracks that tap into spaghetti, contemporary, and epic Westerns.
Nothing ever quite hit the high notes of something like Ennio Morricone’s work on ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ or ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, but even the original Red Dead Redemption subverted that expectation, so it wasn’t something that I found disappointing here.
From heist music to tunes meant to carry an emotional burden, all of the music was a good fit and I have a hard time seeing anyone being let down by the music on offer. Helping carry the game to an earful of ecstasy is sound design that is what one would expect from a game created with a budget as high as what Rockstar and Take Two invested here.
Bullets fire with a thundering pop while occasionally ricocheting is the classic sound that Westerns are so great at implementing. Animals, of which there are many, give off all the proper sounds, with one particular sound that still haunts me as I type this.
Early in the title I was practicing my hunting skills when I hit a deer with what should have been a fatal blow, yet instead of dying the creature fell on the ground and gave a chilling shriek of pain.
It was almost too realistic and it gave the sensitive person in me a moment of goosebumps filled with sadness, a sadness that only lasted so long as I then walked up to the deer and stabbed it to death. Hey! It was in pain and I needed its pelt.
Be it the voice acting, environmental sound effects, music, or the pop pop pops of the game’s constant action, I imagine it will be a difficult task to find anyone disappointed with the overall sound design of Red Dead Redemption 2.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
Pushing home console hardware to what I imagine must be its absolute limits, Red Dead Redemption 2 is easily one of the best looking and most detailed games to date.
In a year that’s already seen stunningly gorgeous graphics in such titles like ‘God of War’ and ‘Spider-Man’, it’d be too hyperbolic to claim that this game is a masterful achievement in visual design that surpasses all that come before it, but at the same time it’d be an understatement to write that this game is just simply beautiful.
The rising or setting sun invokes a sense of wonder and makes me want to lie down and stare upwards, water moves with an elegant fluidity, trees rustle in the wind and bend in harsh stormy weather, and oh my God, don’t get me started on the realism of the snow.
Seriously, the way footsteps appear in thick mud or deep snow is beyond impressive. More so because they don’t just magically vanish after you take ten steps like they do in so many other titles.
In one scene while pushing up a mountain and killing hordes of bad guys a body rolled downwards and left a thick depression within the white covered slope as it continued to tumble. To some this may seem like a small detail, but to me this added a sense of realism to an already detail intensive environment.
The world reacted around me in a way that goes unseen in too many interactive experiences. Often great looking games still give off clues that what the player is experiencing is virtual and unreal, but more often than not I found myself lost in the illustriously detailed world that Rockstar has created with this title.
Is this the best looking game ever? Probably not. But it’s one that will certainly be remembered in a year full of visual crowd pleasers.
Yet even with all that praise, there was still the odd hiccup from time to time that broke immersion and reminded me that I was not in fact Arthur Morgan riding my horse through a realistically detailed and humid looking environment but that I was Sophia, sitting on my couch downing my umpteenth energy drink binging a game like a slob.
On one occasion the game hard crashed my PS4 Pro and kicked me to a blue screen. It’s also worth noting that a second PS4 Pro in my household running a second copy of the game also froze while at a loading screen which caused my partner to lose over 3 hours of playtime due to what appeared to be a corruption of the single auto-save file that the game employs.
I’m sure this is a rare occurrence as such a thing didn’t happen to me, but it’s worth mentioning that you may want to manually save every so often as to avoid such a risk.
As for other visual bugs and glitches I ran into a small few, but compared to other open world games of equal or larger size, the number was rather low.
Oddly it was while playing Dominos at my camp that I ran into a specific bug more than once. While playing the game, whoever I was playing with would spawn up on the table and just be sitting above me. At one point while this was happening the person stood up and just walked away, and then when it was their turn again they magically popped into existence and played.
As for texture pop in, it was fairly minimal and mostly just obvious while running on horseback through an open field. Trees and mountains in the background remained stable but small underbrush and clumps of grass would noticeably appear out of thin air.
All in all, Red Dead Redemption 2 ran like a charm a majority of the time. As with any game of this size issues are to be expected and it’s certainly not worth brushing instances of glitches under the rug, but this is an exceptionally polished game that highlights the lesser quality of most other open world titles.
Outside of the visual beauty of the title, however, all is not perfect. The game has over 100 main story missions and that is where things begin to get dull. Ignoring story praise and criticisms above, in terms of gameplay the title begins to show some serious issues the longer it is played.
Too many missions follow a similar structure. I lost count of how often a mission just involved me killing waves of bad guys while on foot, only to transition to me then escaping on horse and gunning down those in pursuit.
A game with too much combat is most certainly not a bad thing, but a problem arises here because the enemy ai is very basic. They seem to offer no real tactics or strategy and if not chasing you on horseback, they just often stand still in a designated spot or hide behind cover. There’s no real communication between the nefarious NPCs and after hundreds of gun battles I got worn down.
Sure, some enemies may charge at you, but there was no true flanking or strategy whatsoever. In many ways the game is just a highly polished static shooting gallery with a great story tacked on top.
Like most other Rockstar titles there is not a difficulty option either, so the player is just stuck with what they’re given, and what they’re given are enemies that are absolutely brainless.
The title artificially raises the difficulty of certain missions by just bombarding Arthur with a ridiculous amount of enemies to kill, but that’s difficulty of the laziest sort. What would have been more interesting, challenging, and fun, would have been enemies that were designed to be tactical.
If that had been something the game did then gun battles would all feel fresh and different as evidenced by other games with good AI. Yet besides environmental changes and a few major set pieces, fights all feel too similar, and hundreds of fights that all feel the same is a huge knock against an otherwise well-made game.
In a Valley of Violence
In regards to the combat, there is a satisfying brutality to it. Things may get repetitive but it’s still hard to not cringe in glee when you shoot a guy’s head with a shot gun and watch it explode into chunks.
Unlike many other Rockstar games, Red Dead Redemption 2 is brutally violent. One of my favorite and most shocking moments came 15 or so hours into the game as I was exploring the countryside.
Using the game’s greet mechanic I decided to antagonize a guy after he nearly found me robbing his house. He didn’t take too kindly to my insults and began to charge at me for a fist fight. Not in the mood for his shenanigans I pulled out my knife, tackled him, and slit his throat. This action then prompted his dog to go on the offensive and attack me too.
A few knife wounds later and my new foe was dispatched, but this moment of relative peace was broken when what I can only assume were the first guy’s housemates pulled up on their horses and saw what I did.
They shot and me and so I pulled out a new double barrel sawed off shotgun I had recently acquired and I shot the first guy only for his entire head to explode. Not knowing this was a thing that was possible within the game I let out a sadistic shriek of glee.
Upon vanquishing my enemies I decided to test out the newly discovered ability to shoot body parts off and I desecrated a corpse. Arms, legs, and heads can be totally removed.
The incident above also highlights an area where the game can be at its best. There is a level of chaotic and unpredictable violence to the open world and all of my favorite moments outside of story beats occurred when I was just riding around and doing my own thing.
From kindly greeting the wrong guy and ending up in a fistfight that only raised my wanted level and forced me to flee, to being pursued through a forrest from bounty hunters only to be then attacked by a bear, the game can be a blast when it’s approached with no real clear goal in mind.
Also, rest in peace to my first and only horse to die within the open world. I was chasing down a witness who saw me robbing a woman and I accidentally rode it off a cliff edge. It was a tragic moment ruined by my fits of laughter at such a stupid thing to happen.
Escaping the redundancies and boredom of most current era open world games, the activities presented in Red Dead Redemption 2 are a breath of fresh air. Nothing is particularly new to the genre or even to Rockstar game’s themselves, but there is enough variety that I was always able to find something to distract myself with that I wasn’t yet bored of.
Throughout the game are the new staple of Rockstar titles which take the form of stranger missions and random encounters. All of which offer unique stories and situations. One thing to appreciate is that random encounters can take multiple forms, it was a pleasant surprise when I came across one I had already done before, and it played out completely different from my first encounter.
Outside of side quests and such the player can engage in hunting. The mechanic can be as deep as the player wants it to be. Don’t want to silently creep through the underbrush as you attempt to mask your scent while tracking a particularly large prey, well have no fear, just ride up on it as quickly as you can with your horse and use the games slow motion dead eye mechanic to shoot the beast in the face.
That tactic, while fun, will only work while hunting typical animals throughout the game. As also included are legendary hunts of which there is a finite amount, and these all play out fairly similarly as you must first locate three clues to the animal’s whereabouts before being able to actually find the creature.
Throughout the 100 plus hours a player can easily spend in the game, time can be enjoyably wasted hunting treasure with the use of vaguely drawn treasure maps, robbing houses and sticking up random NPCs, ripping off trains and horse drawn carriages, fishing (including legendary fish), bounty hunting, and more, including but not limited to relaxing and watching one of the many stage shows and films available at theaters and small tents.
Legends of the Fall
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a great game that fails to be epic because of Rockstar’s outdated enemy ai and a story that runs on just a little too long. Not helping matters is a variety of survival mechanics that became more obnoxious than they felt necessary. While it only takes mere seconds, I got tired of constantly cleaning my guns, or of my health/stamina bars not properly filling because I hadn’t recently had enough food to eat.
At the end of the day the latter becomes less of an issue as the game is not difficult to play even with my health not at 100% because of how easy the gunfights became, which only adds a larger negative to those mechanics. Maybe they could have been more impactful had they felt necessary, but not once did I ever feel compelled to play into that aspect of the title.
Overall I love this game. As I look back on my experience with it there is just so much to enjoy, and even with all the issues mentioned above, I’ll be hard pressed not to have this be my game of the year. Which is a testament to just how well crafted the world and it’s story and its activities are.
Pre-release there has been a lot of talk about a year long crunch during development and of 60-100 hour work weeks for some. If only a portion of that time had been dedicated towards improving how the enemies behave then Rockstar may have truly had the next great epic western on their hands.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a review copy obtained by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict: 8.5
- A gorgeous and fully realized world with a ridiculous attention to detail
- The open world activities are enjoyable and different enough to keep things fun
- The story and characters are for the most part wonderful
- Great voice cast with a really good lead
- The enemy AI is too simple to keep combat engaging for the 100+ hours the game takes to complete
- Weapons often disappear off your person and constantly reequipping them from the horse is incredibly annoying
- One particular story beat is corny and feels misplaced
- Survival mechanics feel unnecessary for large chunks of the game and often serve to just be more annoying than challenging or fun
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