Red Dead Redemption 2 review: A long but rewarding ride

Credit: Rockstar Games
Credit: Rockstar Games /

Red Dead Redemption 2 might not have the smoothest mechanics, but the game’s realism, immersion, and storytelling set a new bar for open world games.

Title: Red Dead Redemption 2
Developers: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platform: PS4 (version reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: October 26, 2018

Making the long trek from hunting in the mountainous northern regions of New Hanover back to base camp, I heard the frightened screams of a man off the beaten path. I quickly went to investigate, drawing my revolver as I tapped furiously on my controller to make our protagonist Arthur Morgan stumble up the hill towards the yelling. Arriving just in the nick time, I made short work of the vicious wolves attacking the poor fellow. The man graciously thanks Arthur for saving his life. But little does he know Arthur also has a $75 bounty on his head, and he was a tad short on cash to pay it off.

So I did what outlaws do best – I robbed the poor man blind, then beat him up until he promised not to rat on me. A quick whistle and I was back on my horse, $2.50 and a pocketwatch richer than I was five minutes prior. As our gang leader, Dutch van der Linde, would say, “We will survive! We will flourish!” We have to collect enough money so we can get the hell out of here, once and for all.

Red Dead Redemption 2
Credit: Rockstar Games /

Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 tells the story of a group of hooligans and criminals that commit unpleasant acts for supposedly valid reasons. At least, that’s what Dutch keeps preaching. The gang is a family, a diverse cast of outcasts dreaming of a grandiose life free from the law: a mix of young and old, men, women, and children, from all sorts of racial and ethnic backgrounds with wildly different personalities and motives. But the country is evolving, and the rough ‘n’ tumble way of life this crew bleeds for is starting to come to an end.

Whereas the first Red Dead Redemption game was focused mostly on John Marston, its sequel brings much more of a community feel. You learn more about each member of the gang as you play through the story, but the real intimate connections occur on your own time; both for the better and for the worse. Just because you’re all a “family” doesn’t mean things are always peachy. Whether you are helping a fellow gang member rob a house or are just playing dominoes, your relationships with these characters slowly grow.

In fact, the game moves relatively slower than you might expect, especially early on. The first twenty or so hours of the game felt tedious at times, especially when it comes to travel. You should expect a solid amount of time traveling on horseback from location to location. This is where the new cinematic camera really shines. This mode allows you to put your horse on autopilot as he/she follows the path to your marked destination. I never had a problem using this method of travel, despite what many others have been reporting.

Red Dead Redemption 2
Credit: Rockstar Games /

This mode helps give the game a more picturesque feel. The conversations that happen on these trail rides really help present the story from multiple perspectives. Plus, it’s nice to just relax for a minute and take in the beautiful world Rockstar has crafted in Red Dead Redemption 2. And the game does everything in its power to make sure you take it all in. Fast travel is locked behind expensive camp upgrades, and the train system is relatively limited. It takes a lot of time going from point A to point B, whether on a mission or not.

Red Dead Redemption 2 helped reiterate to me throughout the game that it’s okay for a video game to take things slow. I think this is actually where the game really shines. Slowing things down helped immerse me in this world. It made me want to go out and explore and find things to do, not rush from story mission to story mission. This lead to some of my favorite moments in the game.

Red Dead Redemption 2 helped reiterate to me throughout the game that it’s okay for a video game to take things slow.

The random chance encounters were varied, and the optional pop-up missions were flavorful. From murder mysteries to treasure hunting to archaeology to hunting legendary animals to visits by aliens, the game has it all. Even the locations widely vary, from snowy mountains to muggy swamps, to southern country plantations to bustling cities.

Some of the game’s most interesting interactions weren’t even marked on the map, but just occurred randomly and naturally. The world felt like it was living and breathing more so than other open world games I have played, and certainly more so than the first Red Dead Redemption.

These interactions certainly weren’t always perfect, with the occasional glitches and strange NPC behavior. But once you got the hang of the controls and could avoid accidentally shooting strangers instead of talking to them, it turned into a minimal but still welcoming addition to the series.

Red Dead Redemption 2
Credit: Rockstar Games /

As with previous Rockstar games, the user interface at times was a bit busy. Having to balance reading the popup tips in the top left with the interaction choices shown in the bottom right plus keeping an eye on the actual action in the middle of the screen was sometimes an exercise in patience and speed reading. Early in the game I completely missed tutorial hints that made it unclear how certain gameplay mechanics worked until I read the help menu myself later.

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The controls are the weakest point of Red Dead Redemption 2, which honestly didn’t come as a surprise. Not much has changed in terms of quality since Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V in this department. Moving Arthur around still feels clunky, with and without his horse. The shooting and combat are mediocre at best, relying too much on the slow-mo Dead Eye ability and aim assist. Even getting the right gun out or using the right item in your inventory can be a bit of a burden due to the number of nested menus.

Once I got a better feel of the flow of combat, though, it really started to grow on me. Yes, the animation times are just a millisecond longer than you might want. But Red Dead Redemption 2 is also a third-person RPG, not a fast-paced FPS. I felt like I was commanding Arthur on what to do, not fighting the battle myself. Which is different from many games, but I found it a refreshing change of pace and tone.

Red Dead Redemption 2
Credit: Rockstar Games /

There is definitely some room for improvement, but I felt like the game provided serviceable fighting that did its best to keep the immersion while still maintaining the gunslinger fantasy. It’s hard to not feel badass shooting five baddies right in the head in Dead Eye, then the game showing an awesome slow-motion animation as they fall dead thanks to Arthur’s sharpshooting.

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But nothing puts a damper on things than losing the ability to use Dead Eye mid-battle. The new “core” system is an example of something that I found could definitely be improved upon. You have a health, stamina, and Dead Eye core, which controls how fast its related stat regenerates. These are restored by consuming provisions, like eating a can of beans or chugging some whiskey.

I felt like this ultimately boiled down to just playing “meter maid.” There are some interesting concepts within this system, such as keeping Arthur at a healthy weight and wearing weather-appropriate clothing. His well being affects his core levels, but it was such a mundane and simple task to get his status up to par again. There is an entire crafting system involving cooking food to maintain your health, but I never even felt like I needed it. Anything from the local stores, food or weapons or ammunition, seemed sufficient enough.

Red Dead Redemption Wildlife 1
Rockstar Games /

Despite its simplicity, the horse bonding mechanic was perhaps my favorite new addition to the series. Your horse also had its own stamina and health cores, and again you had to perform a related action like feeding your horse to keep the cores topped off. But the concept of bonding with your horse was an interesting one that, as an avid animal lover, I greatly enjoyed.

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  • I become very attached to my Palomino horse “Chip,” and would go out of my way to brush her and feed her snacks. The sheer amount of customization available just for your horse was a nice addition that again had its roots in showcasing a more realistic wild west. Your horse can die if you don’t take care of it or if it gets injured in battle. Not only would you lose a buddy, but it’s a real pain to get around without one. When Chip died during one mission, I purposefully killed myself just to restart it to avoid losing my loyal steed.

    In between all of the exploration, customization, and just taking in the beautiful graphics, it’s easy to forget there is actually an underlying story. The pacing of the story is a bit of a roller coaster, especially early on in the game. Things start pretty slow, with a mixed jumble of action-packed missions along with slower tasks that set the overall scene and tone of the game more so than progress any real overarching story. The main story (plus epilogue) is truly 60+ hours long, so it’s not surprising there is a little fluff thrown in.

    Red Dead Redemption 2 added some choices in the story as well; another new addition over its predecessor. You can make small decisions in combat, like choosing to take the lead yourself or letting your fellow gang members do the dirty work. You also have to make some larger decisions throughout the story, which change the availability of some mission content.

    I felt like these choices were not as hard hitting as they could have been, save for the final one towards the end of the game. A lot of these decisions felt like the illusion of choice because ultimately the story would progress in the way it was scripted. While I also appreciated the added interactions with NPCs, you were still very limited on what Arthur could do or say.

    Red Dead Redemption 2
    Credit: Rockstar Games /

    Similar to the first game, the player gets a historical look at life during that time period in America. Since the game takes place in the deep south after the Reconstruction, you will come across all sorts of social issues, from women’s suffrage to racial tensions to Native American rights. Throughout it all, Arthur seems almost ignorant of many of these societal problems.

    Throughout it all, Arthur seems almost ignorant of many of these societal problems.

    He has to have it explained to him why a black man feels uncomfortable in his everyday life. Arthur doesn’t react when a random stranger on the street is handing out pamphlets that were supposedly proving the differences between races using “science.” He doesn’t understand why a hot air balloon pilot says “flying ruins a woman’s vapors.” Perhaps the only issue he fully comprehends is the Native Americans losing their land and the horrors of war.

    The game throws all of these topics at you pretty haphazardly, and while Arthur plays a part in all of them, he’s more of an innocent bystander than an integral part of them. Other characters, such as the badass widow Sadie or the Native American Chief Rain Falls, carried the story when it came to these social injustices. The game showcases a changing America and the struggles that come with change, but ultimately this is not the main point of Arthur’s story.

    Red Dead Redemption 2
    Credit: Rockstar Games /

    The focus is more on Arthur’s inner conflict with his way of life, and the direction Dutch is leading the gang under the guise of survival. They are constantly running from the law while getting into seemingly more and more trouble, fighting for that one big break so they can leave and start a new life. The game shows that deep down, Arthur is a good man at heart, despite the killing and the robbing. The game’s morality meter is a way to gamify this feeling, but the story itself is what drives home this inner conflict.

    Once you hit chapter five of six in the story, it picks up the pace and the game’s story starts to shine. The ending will tug at your heartstrings, no matter the decisions you ultimately make. Without going into spoilers, the latter part of the game completely changed my feelings about the storytelling in Red Dead Redemption 2 for the better.

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    When Rockstar named this game Red Dead Redemption 2 instead of giving it its own unique title, I expected more similarities in gameplay to the first game. But the added effort to make the game feel like a more realistic outlaw simulation was a huge improvement. While I found menial missions early on dull and tedious, they grew on me by the end. The excellent graphics, the sound and music, the ability to interact with so many aspects of the world, the attention to detail, the character design, and especially the storytelling were masterful.

    The game is obviously not without its flaws, but I found myself overly invested in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2.  Some of the new systems fell short, but Rockstar has crafted a beautiful and interesting world to explore and be a part of, even if sometimes you felt more like a bystander than a player. The attention to detail and the immersive storytelling made up for its occasional clunkiness. It actually made me question some of my more violent actions earlier in the game. So forgive me, random stranger from New Hanover, maybe next time I will think twice before robbing you.

    . Red Dead Redemption 2. 8.5. <em>Red Dead Redemption 2</em>‘s attention to detail, engaging storytelling and beautiful graphics make it a must-play game. Despite some clunky control schemes and questionable new features, <em>Red Dead Redemption 2</em> was a wonderful experience that offered a nice change of pace that separates itself from other open world games.. Rockstar Games

    A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.