Review: Red Dead Redemption 2 is an exemplary piece of cinematic excellence

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I saw horses poop. I’ve never seen that in any of the games I’ve played, and you’ve probably heard similar stories elsewhere. That’s how detailed Red Dead Redemption 2 is, overflowing with tons of teeny, seemingly insignificant details that magically add up to make one of the most immersive games ever created.

Despite the ‘2’ at the end this is actually a prequel, set 12 years before Red Dead Redemption (which itself was a spiritual successor to Red Dead Revolver). It’s 1899 and the legend of the Wild West is slowly fading. Outlaws and roving gunslingers are making way for modern civilization as trains unite what was once the wild frontier. The law is reaching out, systematically wiping out bandits and other undesirables as civilization expands, which is why it’s a bad time for the Dutch Van der Linde gang.

If you’ve played the first Red Dead Redemption then most of the names should sound familiar: John Marston, Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella, and of course Dutch Van der Linde himself. Except this time, you’re playing as Arthur Morgan and the gang is working together.

Despite being called a gang the Van der Lindes are more of a family, with Dutch and Hosea Matthews serving as father figures to the rest. They may cheat, steal and murder but they’re all doing it for Dutch’s vision of a better tomorrow. It’s a weird dynamic, as Dutch’s dreams of a peaceful existence for his crew are contrasted by the decidedly violent means he uses to pursue that.

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Red Dead Redemption 2 is as much about Arthur Morgan as it is about Dutch. The gang leader is an idealistic man, slowly driven to the brink and turning into the bitter, disillusioned maniac that fans may remember him as. It’s an interesting, humanizing insight into the events hinted at in the first game;  Dutch is a much more pitiable figure here, and I even get some Big Boss (Metal Gear Solid V) vibes off him.

It all adds up to make an enjoyably great plot, though perhaps one that’s a tad heavy handed at times. The same can also be said about the rest of the game. Rockstar certainly aimed for the moon with Red Dead Redemption 2 and it shows. There’s an insane amount of detail and poop is just the tip of the iceberg. Horses get dirty, clothes get muddy, wagons leave trails, Arthur’s hair grows, animals slowly bleed out from injuries — the list goes on and on.

Of course, like any modern open-world game there are a ton of essential and optional missions to embark on. These are incredibly well-scripted with a diverse cast of supporting characters, even more so when you’re doing the optional missions. It’s part of the game’s weird charm and it’s always fun to see how Arthur gets mixed up in other people’s problems, considering he’s a wanted outlaw and all.

While the story missions tend to be rather predictable, they’re still fun to play due to the tight gameplay. Shooting with old timey weapons take some getting used to for those accustomed to machine guns and automatic pistols, but there’s much satisfaction to be had in landing tricky shots with them. The series’ slow motion Deadeye mechanic returns too, helping you nail headshots with abandon… as long as you have enough Deadeye meter, that is. While the function starts off pretty basic, it’ll evolve as you progress and will eventually let you manually mark targets and their important organs.

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These story missions are rarely one-off affairs. Even seemingly unimportant missions require multiple objectives to resolve, which is great since nearly every single one of them fleshes out the story in some way. Most of the side missions are multipart too, their quest chains resuming later in the game. While they don’t impact the main story they offer a fascinating insight into Arthur’s character, and also gives Rockstar a chance to inject some humor and wackiness into the game. After all, what game lets you escort a cross-dressing porn artist to his boat so he can escape from people out for his blood?

Not only that, but there’s also a ton of side activities you can do in-between those story and optional missions. You can fish, hunt, gamble, ride trains, or visit the barber since hair actually grows. In the mood for trouble? Rob a bank, hijack stagecoaches, or mug random travelers — it’s all up to you. There are even gentlemanly duels you can participate in, though these only happen randomly; I wish you could initiate these yourself so hopefully Rockstar patches it in.

If there’s one thing I miss then it’s a strong horror element like the old Undead Nightmare expansion. We do get some tinges of horror such as the serial killer and his dismembered victims, but Rockstar never goes all in. That’s a shame since horror-themed westerns are already hard to come by.

Although there’s a ton to do, getting to the activities themselves is quite the hassle. For such a huge world fast travel is awkwardly implemented — you can only fast travel to towns from Arthur’s room, and only after you’ve upgraded it. You could take the trains instead but the catch is you need to be at a station in the first place. If you’re going into the middle of nowhere, which is pretty much most of the map, your only option is to ride or run there.

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Speaking of riding, even that is a hassle. Depending on how much your horse likes you, you could even be too far for it to hear your whistle. If you wander off and leave your horse behind, perhaps on a spontaneous train robbery, you’re basically screwed unless you steal a new horse or do a recall from a stable or your main camp. I understand that Red Dead Redemption 2 is going all-in for detail but this is a huge counter to actually fun gameplay, especially when you take into account how huge the map is.

There are other weird niggles like this throughout the game. One good example is the Honor system, which influences how the game world treats you. It affects whether people are nice to you or flee on sight, whether they provide shop discounts and such. However, staying honorable saps all of the game’s fun. Forget robbing banks, stealing, or many of the other criminal activities available because it’ll take hours for you to eke back that lost honor.

In fact, crime doesn’t pay. Even out in the middle of nowhere, there’s a chance of someone coming around to witness your crime. Once that happens, lawmen and bounty hunters will come… and won’t stop coming. Killing them only raises your bounty, even when there’s nobody left to witness your  murders, which makes running away the only sensible option. These bounties don’t expire too, so you’ll need to pay up — if you can even afford it — or be forever wanted in that area.

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Despite the pretty believable AI dictating the NPC’s daily lives, they’re downright merciless when it comes to reporting you. How can I be faulted for retaliation when an NPC pulled a gun and shot me first? For everything the game does right, there are things it frustratingly gets wrong.

It goes without saying that there’s a lot of violence in-game but weirdly, for a game with an Honor system, there’s not a lot of non-lethal options. You have your fists, your lasso, and that’s about it. Are you saying that cowboys didn’t know how to use blackjacks or batons to knockout somebody? Fortunately, I love the fisticuffs in the game. It’s a tad simplistic, with just one button to punch and another to block, but it’s incredibly visceral and satisfying, especially when the screen flashes to signify a knockout blow.

Gunplay is fine but again, there’s a disconnect between realism and gameplay. Headshots kill instantly but limb damage is shrugged off after a stumble or two.  That means you can’t shoot enemies in the leg to stop them from running, or other strategies of the sort.

I also find the cores mechanic unnecessary and annoying. Basically, cores are your reserves for health, stamina, and Dead Eye meters, dictating your recovery from injuries and fatigue. Briefly put, you can’t regenerate a stat if it’s core is empty, forcing you to constantly eat or use items.

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If Rockstar was going all out for realism then why not make Arthur go to the bathroom and sleep too? Picking and choosing specific gameplay elements is fine, but this particular approach to food is obviously one that needs more refining.

The crafting system could use more refining of its own too. While the hunting aspect is great, crafting is pretty much a shot in the dark. You need certain animal hides to craft upgrades for your gear and hideout, but you’re never given a list to carry around. Instead, you need to head back to camp to check what the crafting or recipe ingredients are, which seems needlessly troublesome.

New to hunting is the incredibly fun, though rather basic, fishing mechanic. There’s just a certain kind of joy in landing a whopper and chowing down on the meat. I just wish there were more variety to it, such as crafted or custom rods and bait like the rest of your guns and equipment.

While we’re talking about customization, Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the few games that I enjoy mucking around with the character’s looks. Changing Arthur’s outfits or simply going for a shave is immensely satisfying as you can see these changes in all of the game’s cutscenes. It’s definitely a plus point in the game’s favor, especially since its visuals are stellar.

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True, the facial animation could use more work here and there but the environmental effects like fog, rain, and even the godrays (light streaming in through cracks) are nothing short of spectacular, especially if you’re playing in 4K on the Xbox One X. I really love how dirt and grime builds up on both Arthur and his horse — it’s a tiny detail, in a game replete with many, but one that you rarely see addressed in games.

Couple that with the great voice acting and awesome score and what you get is an exemplary piece of cinematic excellence. Roger Clark does a standout job as Arthur Morgan, while the soundtrack captures that feeling of the WIld West (though I wish the soundtrack took greater inspiration from Ennio Morricone). The sound effects are excellent too, from the clopping of hooves to the ratcheting reload of a repeater rifle. It all comes together to create a cohesive tapestry that looks and sounds incredible.

Here’s the kicker: this is just the single-player aspect of the game. There’s still the unrevealed multiplayer portion coming soon, so expect the game’s longevity to skyrocket if GTA Online is any indication.

There’s no beating around the bush; Red Dead Redemption 2 is a strong contender for Game of the Year. It’s an incredible game and a testament to the immensely talented team at Rockstar, but for all its greatness there are annoying issues that keep it from being perfect. They’re not that hard to overlook, but in a game where every little detail is fleshed out, these problems feel even more accentuated.

Still, everybody definitely should give the game a shot, even if it’s just to explore this staggering world that Rockstar has created.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is out now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Developed and published by Rockstar Games.
An Xbox One copy was provided for review.

Red Dead Redemption (Xbox One)
was reviewed on the Samsung QLED Q7FN 65-inch TV.

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Salehuddin Husin

Sal's just your average hardcore gamer. He started gaming on the NES in the 80s and has been ever playing since. Sal doesn't care about which platforms games are on, only that he wants to play them all!