There are a number of ways any development or publishing team can look at the games industry they serve. Releasing multiple games over just a few short months with a bit of a scattergun approach suits many, whilst others prefer to turn up annually with just the smallest of improvements made over the previous year’s ‘must-have’ title. More still run with a completely different train of thought and even with multiple studios across the globe, in Rockstar’s case, that thought process most definitely centres around the ‘if we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it right’ attitude. And if that means working every hour under the sun, then so be it. If I’m honest though, I wouldn’t expect anything less.
On the whole, Rockstar don’t do bad games. From Midnight Club to Bully, through all the GTA editions and covering the original Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar are synonymous with quality. But their latest baby, that of Red Dead Redemption 2, is their most ambitious project yet, one that blows the juggernaut that is GTA V out of the water with a script that doubles previous efforts, and features more than ten times the amount of custom animations seen in the huge San Andreas adventure. For anyone who has played GTA V will know, that’s a lot of script and a ton of animation.
See, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a whole new ball game; one that pushes the limits of current gen consoles further than any game ever has; one that will draw in players for days, weeks, months and possibly years on end; one that takes everything that Rockstar has become known for, and all before cranking it up to 12 to deliver an absolute masterpiece.
And let’s not beat around the bush – as sure as eggs is eggs, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece. An utter masterpiece.
Set in 1899 as the Wild West era begins to come to a close, the story and vast majority of the action centres around one Arthur Morgan and his family – the Van der Linde gang of outlaws, led by the straight talking Dutch. After having to flee the town of Blackwater, your time with Red Dead 2 will centre firmly on this gang, leaving Morgan to deal with each one of the members individually as he is torn between making the best choice for himself, helping the one individual, or considering the needs of the gang as a whole. When he knows no different, and has been raised by this group, those decisions are tougher than any you would have previously found elsewhere.
The problem is, Arthur Morgan is a bad man – or at least that is how he wishes to portray himself, because without that mindset, he’s pretty much a dead man walking – and the constant toing and froing of his state of mind throughout the opening hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 are ones that will quickly see you become fully immersed in this man’s life. Yes, it is a little slow to start with, and without sitting here spoiling even the smallest detail of this stunning Rockstar story, you’ll quite possibly be left longing for the deep winter to leave and for the snow to melt, just in order for things to crack on. But once that happens, and the world of RDR2 begins to open up, I’m not sure there is any other experience that can quite match it. And I don’t mean just gaming experiences. I mean movie experiences. I mean lifestyle experiences.
And how that experience plays out is completely up to you. Whether you want to just grab your saddle and hop on the nearest horse, galloping mindlessly through the seamlessly integrated landscapes that make up the world of Red Dead, or prefer to have some strategy in mind, a place to visit or a task to carry out, this is a world that lets you make those decisions – although the sheer number of ‘optional random extras’ that play out see those initial plans very quickly put to one side.
It is these random open world events that really see RDR2 come into its own. You’ll find yourself hunting animals when all you really wanted to do was save that young maiden from being kidnapped. You’ll see your plans for taking down a rival gang interrupted by the draw of the nearest tavern and the fine ales that it holds within. You’ll even be prepared to throw that full house poker hand down to one side, losing money in the process, as you get interrupted by a full-on gun fight that just needs your participation – no matter whose side you are on and no matter how fierce the action is. You see, Rockstar have once again created a world that lives, breathes and feeds off of not just your own actions, but those which go on around you too. And as easy as it is for me to sit here and say that it’s always best to try and keep a focused mind, when so much intrigue is being created elsewhere, it’s super difficult to ignore.
And being completely honest, that is probably the only downside to this outlaw’s life. For as much as you want to try and carry out a task, there is just a bit too much going on for you to ever be able to fully knuckle down and play these things out to the very best of your ability. What if you never set eyes on that bear again? What if the train passing by has a stack of loot in its carriages? What if the newspaper seller sells out and you never get to see the latest headlines? What if the luck of the gods means that now is the only time you should be playing dominoes? What if. What if. What if. Red Dead Redemption 2 is full of those moments.
Of course, with the size of Red Dead Redemption 2, and the amount of activities, tasks, objectives, challenges and money making ventures on offer, there is little chance you will ever want to find yourself walking from pillar to post. And this is where your horse comes in. Or should I say, horses. It is these fine four-legged friends who ensure that traversal through the lands is a joy to behold, pushing on when you need them to and holding back to turn away from that predator in the bushes. You’ll come to love your horse and no matter which type you choose to spend the day with, bonding with them becomes an essential part of life. As does trimming their mane, braiding their tails and ensuring that they look the part for the most affluent of outlaws. Much in the same way as you will need to spend time ensuring that you yourself are up to scratch too, visiting the local barber for a haircut and shave so that you are in an appealing state is just as important as finding a new way of making money and getting on with life.
And as much as you need to look after yourself, eating, drinking and taking tonics to ensure your health and stamina cores are kept high, your horse too will require the odd carrot every now and then. You’ll want to make sure that neither of you eat too much though as being overweight – or underweight should you neglect the basics – will impact on a whole range of stats.
It’s not as easy as just finding the nearest bush and grabbing a bite to eat though, and whilst that is entirely possible, crafting and cooking is essential. Eat a bit of raw meat and you’ll feel the effects and so kicking back with a roaring fire in your pop-up camp, creating all manner of tasty items is something that needs to happen on a regular basis. So regular in fact that it does occasionally seem like a bit of a ball-ache to bother with. But then, micromanaging is a key component to how RDR2 plays out and ensuring that both yourself and your horse start the day with a hearty breakfast is essential. With a huge variety of recipes ready to be knocked up, once again the best laid plans that you may have had for the day could well be scuppered as you search the undergrowth for a new type of berry or the plains for some tasty meat treat.
The latter comes about by hunting animals and there are no less than 178 different types making this world of Red Dead their own – and that is without mentioning the fish. From slithering rattlesnakes to vultures, and collie dogs to gigantic bears, the variety is huge and you’ll quite easily be able to spend more hours than you probably wish just searching for new species. Again, with a super deep compendium that teaches you everything and keeps track of all knowledge in place, searching out each of these is an essential part of life and even though you won’t want to maim the dogs, hunting and killing the more vicious wildlife is all tracked. You won’t want to go into a fight with a bear with just a crossbow though – that won’t end well – whilst using your most powerful rifle to take down a little snake may well see nothing left to eat as the poor bugger is obliterated. This is where the super important scanning comes in and silently sitting in a bush, tracking said animal to understand more about it, before waiting for the opportune moment is all part of the hunting process. Thankfully a rather nifty Eagle Eye feature allows you to track the scent of your prey, along with any valuable plants and herbs that may come in handy.
Should you find yourself rocking up against something that fights back – another outlaw gang perhaps? – then the combat found in RDR2 is fluid and frantic. Yeah it’s not on the same scale as a proper dedicated shooter, but the cover system works well, and popping out from behind a rock to knock a headshot into a bad guy is brilliantly done. But getting overwhelmed with enemies is a fairly regular occurrence and this is where the stunning Dead Eye system come into play. Again, you’ll need to ensure that these levels are kept topped up and in the positive but slowing down time, popping off some critical hit placements and turning the tide of any battle your way is always appreciated. It is this system which holds the entirety of any fight together, ensuring that it can become a strategic gun shooter should you so wish. That said there is nothing against just running on in with as many weapons blazing as possible, or sending your outlaw mates in to soften things up before you deliver the conclusion.
RDR2 isn’t just about grabbing the best weapons and piling a load of bullets into the nearest bad guy though. See, you need to work with these guns in order for them to work well for you and keeping them clean is a must should you wish to see their life extended. A dirty gun is an inaccurate gun, and an inaccurate gun may as well not be in your hands; using and abusing weaponry is very much frowned on. Again though, much like every single other element of Morgan’s life, how you go about dealing with the intricacies is down to you. There is no right nor wrong way to play Red Dead Redemption 2 and so if you prefer to go into battle with a dirty gun, then that is your call.
In that same vein, how you go about dealing with other humans is your call as well. Whilst there are some very bad men in the world, not all will need a swift bullet to the kneecap to shut them up. Many of the NPCs found in the towns, out in the scrublands or just wandering about minding their own business can be dealt with in a couple of ways – nicely (or as nicely as Morgan’s demeanour allows), or aggressively. Rocking up and pointing a gun to a shopkeeper’s head will usually see you gifted with coinage, but then you’ll find the whole ‘Honor’ system that keeps things flowing moving into the negative, particularly if a witness sees you and the Wanted system comes in to play. Having the opportunity to play Red Dead Redemption 2 how you see fit is very much the par for the course but in my eyes you reap what you sow and so being civil with those who wish to be civil back is a personal preference. Besides, putting your fists into the face of a one-armed veteran ain’t really the best way to live out your life – outlaw or not. And if you do you’ll probably never get to hear the stories that can be told between friends either. And believe me, there are a ton of stories to take in. 500,000 lines of dialogue, anyone?
I could sit here and go on about how deep and complex the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is forever more; delving into the finest details for eternity and telling personal stories – those which probably won’t happen to others – until my grave. But all you really need to know is that Rockstar have completely and utterly pulled one out of the bag with RDR2. It’s not just about the story or the interactions that you can have though and from the stunning visuals that draw your eye from the toes of your boot to the farthest horizon, the complete lack of break between any cutscene and gameplay, with one flowing into the other with ease, and every movement and animation being buttery smooth, on point and super realistic, things are great. The audio is pretty much on the same level as the eye candy, with the smallest tweets of a bird to the biggest gun fights going off without a single hitch – the music is stunning too and really does draw you into the world as a whole.
It must be said however that there are a few very slight issues with the occasional mistimed lip sync, and there is a strange reddish glow that afflicts the odd character face in a cutscene. These are very minor points though and they can – and if anyone is being honest with themselves, should – be happily overlooked. Combined, the visual, audio and gameplay delights will mean that your time with Morgan, the Van der Linde gang and anyone else that you may happen upon over your adventure, will be a good one. Actually, scrap that, it’ll be a great one. In fact, you could probably stick that in the bin too and say you won’t find one better for a good long while. Maybe not until Rockstar kick in to gear again in fact.
No matter whether you are are sitting back with your mates in camp for a few hands of poker, plan on hopping on a train, wish to spend five minutes taking in a weird but wonderful town show, want to rob some illicit store for all its worth, need to cook up a treat, are trying to track down some new bounties or have found yourself stalking that elusive bird you’ve been after for days on end, Red Dead Redemption 2 delivers the goods in a way that very little else has done before it, or quite possibly will do again.
It’s a world that is alive with opportunity, it’s a world that will chew up and spit out the weak like some crappy tobacco, and it’s a world that will see you not wanting to leave for months on end. There aren’t many games that keep this 40-something year old up past the witching hour, but the one that contains the life of one Arthur Morgan has done just that.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that Red Dead Redemption 2 comes with the quality that only the likes of Rockstar can produce. Immersive, deep, funny, serious, dark, strategic, and completely open it may be, but those aren’t the reasons why this adventure will take over your life. See, it’s all about the outlaw’s life; it’s all about Arthur… and he’s a bad, bad, man.