Red Dead Redemption II is a prequel to the original Red Dead Redemption, and it tells the story of the Van der Linde gang in the year of 1899. On the run and down on their luck, the gang of American Western outlaws attempt to rise to their former riches. You play as Arthur Morgan, one of the most trusted and senior members of the gang. Alongside Arthur is a slew of other gang members, ranging from young gunslingers to aging motherly figures. As an open world gaming experience, Red Dead Redemption II feels incredibly organic, lived in, and full of beauty. It’s drenched in realism, abundant beautiful vistas, and plenty of gun-slinging action. It’s a huge achievement in storytelling and is full of the signature Rockstar charm we know from games like Grand Theft Auto. Red Dead Redemption II has been hyped as absolute gaming perfection. Let’s see if it lives up to the nearly insurmountable expectations.
The narrative of Red Dead Redemption II acts as a prequel to the original game, giving us a look at the latter years of a notorious outlaw gang at the turn of the century. Led by Dutch Van der Linde, the ragtag group of shady folks feel more like a family than a gang of criminals. You assume the role of Arthur Morgan, an aged criminal with a humble but powerful attitude. As Arthur, it’s up to you to explore the ever-growing civilization of the American Midwest, helping your gang when need be.
There’s a huge cast of characters in Red Dead Redemption II, and the narrative does a good job bringing them all into your path. The main story will see you aligning with and confronting a wide array of personable characters. The game’s hefty amount of side missions and activities hold even wackier stories to explore. While there is an overarching narrative, a lot of Red Dead Redemption II feels like a slice of life at the turn of the century. You’ll help wherever possible, and while not all the work is glorious, the variety is undeniable.
In almost every aspect, Red Dead Redemption II takes a while to get going. This is especially true for the story, which takes dozens of hours to pick up steam. Meeting different characters and spending time with them is interesting, but there is rarely a driving narrative force to keep you motivated. Occasionally, a mission might spark up some action or intrigue, but the first half of the game is surprisingly slow. The story takes some pretty unpredictable twists and turns in the latter half, but getting there is half the battle. Even then, some missions feel like filler or are painfully slow paced. While the game offers players the chance to make moral decisions, these choices usually have a minimal impact.
Red Dead Redemption II is all about Arthur battling his own morality, and it’s a story that the player doesn’t have too much control over. Fortunately, Arthur’s character arc is one of the finest pieces of storytelling from Rockstar to date. While the main narrative falters from time to time, you’ll always feel invested in Arthur Morgan and his life. By the end of my playthrough, I felt more connected to Arthur than most video game protagonists. His tale is one of triumph, tragedy, and unfortunate circumstance. It’s often brutally true to life, uncompromising, and poignant. Arthur is ultimately the backbone of the narrative experience, and you’ll surely find him as interesting as I did.
Settling the Midwest
When it comes to raw gameplay, Red Dead Redemption II feels similar to other Rockstar ventures. Playing as Arthur, you explore the open world, completing missions for various characters. You’ll participate in a wide variety of experiences, including robbing trains, getting drunk at the saloon, and gunning down other outlaws. The quality of missions are hit and miss, but there are well over 100 to experience. Even with that number of different adventures, there is rarely a repeated scenario or idea. Sure, you’ll rob more than one stagecoach, but the context is usually vastly different.
Besides the listed missions, you’ll encounter random events as you explore. You might stumble across a victim of a bear trap, run into an ambush, or witness a woman being kidnapped. These events feel organic and true, and make the world feel alive and always active. It’s up to you to decide how to proceed, choosing to assist, ignore, or berate those in need. Acting civil will usually garner you some positive morality points (or in the best cases, some free gear). However, these choices lack any true weight, for reasons mentioned above. Considering just how set in stone Arthur’s journey is, your moral choices are simply overstated condiments in this ethical dilemma sandwich.
There’s an incredible amount of nuance to the gameplay, with an almost unnecessary amount of realism. Everything gets dirty and needs to be cleaned and maintained, including you, your guns, and your horse. You have to keep a close eye on your stats and keep them balanced by eating meals regularly, smoking cigars, and so forth. You can hunt and fish a huge amount of wildlife, utilizing a “hunter vision” tracking system, a variety of bait and lures, and more. Furthermore, you can harvest your kills and catches for ingredients to use in a simplistic crafting system. There are a lot of systems at play, and they range from intuitive to downright bothersome. It’s impressive to see this level of realism taken into consideration, but it doesn’t always make for the most entertaining game.
20 Hour Tutorial
While impressive, this can be tiring to keep track of. It’s also a lot to learn at once, which makes the beginning portion of the game even more of a slog. Between the sluggish story and the abundance of new mechanics to learn, Red Dead Redemption II‘s early hours can be downright boring. Gameplay features like fast travel don’t appear for at least 6 hours, which puts a definite halt in your pace. The beginning of the game is mostly linear, as it introduces you to key gameplay features. However, it opens up the entire open world map to you shortly thereafter, leading the player to believe the game has started in earnest. However, many features are still buried in missions, effectively continuing the tutorialization without informing the player. Around Chapter 3 (which is nearly halfway through the game), Red Dead Redemption II finally feels fully open.
Once you finally become comfortable with everything and settle into a rhythm, the game can be wildly entertaining. It’s also incredibly relaxing when you allow yourself to take a break and simply explore the world. Red Dead Redemption II forces you to play at a slow pace, and that won’t be for everyone. It’s a rewarding experience and full of excellent content, but it asks a lot out of the player up front.
Unlike the world of the original game, Red Dead Redemption II is much more vibrant and varied in terms of scenery. There’s a nice mixture of atmosphere, ranging from snowy mountains to dank and dirty swamps. While open fields and farmlands are aplenty, there’s enough variety in random encounters and areas of interest to keep things lively. At its worst, the map can feel a bit empty, but it’s deceptively well designed and full of great content.
The game has a very strong cinematic feel as well, with numerous photo worthy moments every minute. The lighting effects are especially noteworthy, as are the fog and weather patterns. Plainly put, Red Dead Redemption II is possibly the most visually impressive game ever made, when you consider the insane amount of detail. The fantastic visuals are made even better by a beautiful and dynamic score. In both fist fights and tear-jerking moments, the music turns great scenes into memorable ones.
As an added bonus, you can experience the entirety of Red Dead Redemption II from multiple perspectives. You can set the camera to a standard third person setting, as well as an immersive first person setting, and a beautiful cinematic mode. While the majority of my time was spent in the standard third person view, I enjoyed tinkering with the other options. First person mode makes combat a bit more hectic and intense, while also offering a better look at the highly detailed environment. The cinematic mode is great for long horse rides, or for simply basking in the beautiful atmosphere.
The Bottom Line on Red Dead Redemption II
Overall, Red Dead Redemption II is a flawed masterpiece. It accomplishes things in storytelling that few (if any) other open world games have achieved. In terms of character building, presenting an organic and realistic world, and meticulous attention to detail, Red Dead Redemption II is profoundly impressive. Unfortunately, much like the wide open countryside you often peruse, the game can feel a bit empty from time to time. Despite its abundance of gamification through various mechanics and systems, the game manages to feel realistic and organic. The pacing of the narrative can be extremely long winded, and many hours of arguable tedium should be expected. However, after spending well over 100 hours inside the world of Red Dead Redemption II, I’ve come away with a better appreciation for the amount of passion and work that goes into an experience like this. You may struggle with the controls, become overwhelmed, or even find things positively boring. That said, the bigger picture makes these speed bumps forgivable. Flaws and all, Red Dead Redemption II is easily one of the best games of this generation.