Red Dead Redemption II: Review

Every Rockstar Games title aims to be a masterpiece, and almost every one does achieve that status.  Red Dead Redemption II is no different, offering what could be this console generation’s defining title and yet another expansive and detailed reimagining of the old Wild West.

Following up on Red Dead from 2010 was always going to be a tough task, and as that’s one of my favourite games of all time I knew that all too well, but they’ve done a sterling job that surpasses it on many levels, although misses the mark on some others.

The story itself follows Dutch Van der Linde’s gang just after a heist gone wrong, that sees them move from the kings of the Wild West to a rag-tag bunch of on-the-run outlaws desperate for their luck to turn and escape their pursuers.  This makes it a prequel to the first Red Dead Redemption, where Dutch himself is one of the main antagonists, and indeed the game does feature the first title’s main character John Marston in all his glory.

Here you play as Dutch’s enforcer Arthur Morgan, a slightly older and slightly rougher version of John Marston whose loyalty to Dutch stays strong and his ability to get the job done remains second-to-none.

Much like any Rockstar game, the story will take you on a journey through an incredible world full of deep and interesting characters and stunning places.  This is where Red Dead II is at it’s best, boasting perhaps the most fully-realised open world we’ve seen in games before, which is bursting at the seems with wildlife, plants, mountains, snow, rivers, lakes, hamlets, villages, towns, cities and, most importantly, people.  No matter where you go you will always see or hear something to speak to, engage with or, perhaps, shoot.  There’s no “dead space” anywhere, the entire map grounds you an immersive setting and it really is a testament to the work of Rockstar’s developers how realistic it feels to be setting across the plains on a horse and feeling like you’re there.

All this is also to say that the graphics are as good as they’ve ever been, with amazing levels of detail right down to the smallest blade of grass.  Comparing to the old game is like night and day, and this makes everything feel that bit more exciting and realistic because of it.

One area that hasn’t changed all that much is in terms of the actual gameplay, and in particular the gun mechanics.  Naturally, working with old-fashioned guns does suggest a less delicate approach to the movement here, but shooting isn’t exactly a joy throughout the game.  There’s been more work here to make sure different weapons have a different feel, and while there was fantastic work on the sounds and visuals of the guns, and the ability to customise them at will, the general aiming mechanics are still not up to the standard we’d expect of a shooter in this day and age.

Coming into the story itself (keeping things spoiler-free for now, but with added discussion on the next page), it features a long and winding tale about the Van der Linde gang’s trial and tribulations.  Led by Dutch, they enter into myriad schemes and raids to earn the money they need to stay alive, or better yet escape the Wild West with their lives, but time and again things go wrong.  The set pieces themselves are generally very good, and the missions are fun, but at times the direction around them seems rather aimless (although that plays into the character’s feelings towards leader Dutch himself).

The highlight of the story itself are the characters you meet along the way, with the gang itself having many incredibly likeable and well-detailed personas.  They all serve to play a part in the camps that are formed throughout the world as the story progresses, which provides a nice way of collecting people for conversations and light-hearted set pieces.  The highlight for me is Sadie Adler, a widow met early on who is adopted into the gang, going from inconsolable sadness into inconsolable anger and revenge, and becoming the most badass woman in almost any game I’ve ever seen.  There’s also lots of good moments with Lenny, particularly a drunken mission towards the start of the game, and Charles, who seems to be the most reasoned of the gang despite his young age.  All of these characters have very believable personalities and motives, which all feeds into you feeling loyalty towards them, which I believe is a key component of the story’s theme.

There’s a fair amount of twists and turns in the game, most of which keep you on your toes and help define some new antagonist or direction in which the game goes, and these are generally the highlight of the game.  However, some of these are more well-presented than others, and a particularly key plot point is, for me at least, given far less exposition than it needed to be.

The story also features a rather fitting epilogue, which for me was actually the most enjoyable part of the story, which helps set the scene for the events of the first Red Dead Redemption and brings the story to a rather good conclusion.

Taken all together, I think the story is good – with a good level of pacing, some really fun and exciting missions and plenty of material to keep you interested, but it does fail in some ways to deliver the presentation and story-telling elements that could really make it a classic.

For me the most fun parts of the game, and the reason I’ll keep going back to it, are the parts outside of the story.  There are always random people on the street asking for help, or waiting to attack.  There are always animals to hunt or fish, or towns to visit.  There are always games like poker, blackjack or dominoes to play.  The game is packed with things to do outside of the main story, and with the elusive 100% still in this title and lots of interesting challenges required to get there, it’ll keep me engaged for a fair while even though I’ve completed the main campaign.

The online offering is still technically in beta, allowing Rockstar to make more sizeable tweaks to the gameplay and missions of the game, but is already shaping up to be a rather predictable blend of GTA V’s incredibly popular online platform and Red Dead gameplay.  It come along with its own unique story, more missions in the form of dedicated “strangers”, as well as all of the trappings you’d expect such as team deathmatches and other objective PvP modes.  As yet it doesn’t feature everything that you can do in single-player, with gambling being an interesting omission given the ability to buy currency in the online world with real money, but no doubt it’ll be expanded upon readily as the year(s) go by.

From my first impressions it does seem fun, and its posse system works much in the same way as GTA V’s multiple businesses to group players together, but it will be interesting how they envision the game in the long-run and whether they aim for it to match GTA V or not.  My guess is that they’ll struggle to maintain an online player-base as fervent and as keen to replay missions as they were in GTA V, and that that game will also prove more lucrative for them, so they’ll keep developing there, but there’s still hope that Red Dead Online can carve its own place in the online gaming sphere.

Red Dead Redemption II is a classic of its time, managing to push the boundaries of its Wild West genre and open world gaming and produce a story that’s worthy of its predecessor.  It’s not without its flaws, but these still don’t detract from what might be one of the most complete experiences you’ll find from a video game for years.

For more in-depth story discussion move on to page 2

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