Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t the game I was expecting, it’s also not the kind of game that I anticipated Rockstar Games to make following their five-year hiatus from new releases, however, it is far greater than I could have anticipated. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that doesn’t offer up its secrets willingly, prepare the player for the harsh realities of its enormous playable environment, or pull any emotional punches. Without being hyperbolic, it is the finest game that the Rockstar has made to date.
One of the densest systemic open world games of recent memory, Red Dead Redemption 2 provides a world bound up tightly by rules and genuine characters. A world in which the player isn’t the center, but part of. Wherever you go in the sprawling American heartlands, whether it be the rural livestock town of Valentine, or to the bustling nineteenth century metropolis of Saint Denis, the game is constantly selling you on its own reality, that this is a real place, that it could continue independent of your presence.
The game is so massive in fact, that Rockstar has had to combine their global studios and development teams in order to produce it. Consequently, the game feels like a whistle-stop tour through Rockstar’s greatest hits, with mechanics from previous titles reappearing, but developed to their limit. Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, has a more developed version of the dialogue system from Bully, the bullet dodging from the Max Payne franchise, and the open world expertise you’d expect from any given Grand Theft Auto title. Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like the game that Rockstar has been iterating towards since its inception.
This would all be for nothing, however, if the game’s minute-to-minute gameplay wasn’t as exceptionally rewarding as it is. The shooting, for example, has been significantly reworked since 2013’s Grand Theft Auto 5 and sees the full return of the Euphoria Physics Engine (familiar to those who played some of Rockstar’s titles from the last generation). Combat now has a unique weightiness to it, with bullets providing realistic physical feedback that you simply don’t feel or see in other open world titles of its ilk. The game will also cut to a visceral kill camera during scenes of high action and violence, something that it is equally likely to make you cheer as wince as you guiltily reflect on your latest homicidal rampage.
Unlike previous titles from the developer though, and to confront the player’s more violent tendencies, Red Dead Redemption 2 gives the player a wider array of tools and options to help defuse potentially heated situations, namely with the new dialogue system. All NPC’s now have tangible personalities and can be interacted with favorably or negatively by protagonist Arthur Morgan. You can talk yourself out of trouble with a lawman or instigate a bar-fight with a stranger. It all works surprisingly well and helps sell the authenticity of this open world that little bit more, you can even catch up with fellow gang members, either to have throwaway conversations or to advance the story.
And what a story it is, Red Dead Redemption 2 acts as a direct prequel to its predecessor and looks to shed some light on the final months of the Dutch Van Der Linde gang, as well as its leader’s slow descent into madness. What results is a surprisingly nuanced tale of loyalty, gang politics, and greed which rivals the developer’s best, not least due to the peerless script and acting. New characters are influenced deftly by the moral shades of their immediate environment – especially new protagonist Arthur Morgan – whilst returning cast members effortlessly portray their characters in spite of their hiatus from the screen. They are characters with history, tangible goals and vices and some of the most realistically rounded in all of interactive media. Also returning is regular Rockstar music contributor and composer for the original Red Dead Redemption, Woody Jackson, who produces a soundtrack that is as somber as it is dark; swelling and ebbing according to the actions of the player.
Moreover, the game looks outstanding. Much has been said about photo-realism in games during the seventh and eighth console generations, but it is only here that I am beginning to see these promises realized. For example, during one mission I activated the game’s new cinematic camera mode for the journey ahead and watched as the snow-capped mountains seamlessly switched into the verdant countryside, so much so that I barely saved myself from flying over an approaching cliff. On all systems, the game is a wonder to behold.
Red Dead Redemption 2, like last year’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, provides the player with a massive open world with a complex set of unspoken rules upon which the player can push, and then view the consequences. Take someone’s horse? They’ll remember you, and even thank you should return it safely. Rough up a shopkeeper? The next time you see him, it’s likely he’ll be covered in bandages. The game outlines cause and effect like no other game and consistently provides meaningful and visible consequences to the actions of the player, both in the world and across its inhabitants.
Make no mistake, the game is not perfect. For example, rigorously testing the new dialogue system does reveal the artifice of its design, with characters either not responding to you or answering a question which you didn’t provoke. Additionally, the realistic physics in the game can make precise movements more than a little bit finicky and there are also some moments of slowdown on older systems in the more densely populated areas of the map. However, these are minor quibbles when faced with the magnitude of this game and all that it achieves.
In total, I’ve played more than 60 hours of the game as well as the entirety of the story mode and even now I still need to fill the pages of my wildlife compendium, hunt down the bounties plaguing the rural townships and meet all of the strangers dotted throughout. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game of great depth and considering that the game receives its online counterpart, Red Dead Online, later this month, this is a package which will continue to deliver in the months and years to come. Rockstar has set the benchmark for open world games once more.