Perfect games do not exist. There’s always room for improvement. Yet, as I sat down to begin writing this review, I struggled mightily to come up with a single complaint about Red Dead Redemption 2. Rockstar’s latest open world epic is an unparalleled masterpiece, a truly stunning achievement in every respect. It’s Rockstar’s best game, the pinnacle of a studio that’s already among gaming’s most lauded. But it’s also the defining game of this console generation and one of the greatest games of all time.
Rockstar’s magnum opus looks and plays so much better than the barrage of open world games before it that it feels as if the studio is using technology from the future. The world is breathtaking. The animations are almost ludicrously detailed. The gunplay is impactful, satisfying, and strategic. The design and writing are second to none.
Through its 100-odd missions, RDR2 never ceased to introduce new mechanics, new wrinkles, new ways to surprise. The ambitious and ultimately moving story of the Van der Linde gang is expertly weaved within the missions in a way that no other open world game has managed.
Red Dead Redemption 2 not only exceeds expectations but blows them away. It moves gaming forward as a medium. All its pieces —story, gameplay, characters, world, systems, animations, direction, and music — come together to form a nearly flawless experience.
Loyalty, and all that comes with it
Red Dead Redemption 2 is an epic Western set at the tail end of the 19th century. It follows the Van der Linde gang, a group of outlaws on the run following a job that went south. Arthur Morgan, the lead muscle, has been with the gang since he was a boy, taken under his wing by the group’s leader, Dutch. The gang hopes to make enough money to settle down somewhere far from trouble
If you’ve watched the trailers, you know Arthur will become frustrated with Dutch’s leadership. There’s genuine strife in the 23-member gang, a growing uneasiness that permeates throughout the outlaws’ small society. That, however, is just the start of a more ambitious tale. It wades deep into themes of loyalty and betrayal, love and loss, family, personal discovery, and the gray area between right and wrong. Methodically paced and written so decisions truly shape the story and your understanding of the characters, this an endlessly interesting saga.
Arthur Morgan is among the best gaming leads ever, a man whose motivations and ambitions are hard to pinpoint. You can partially mold him yourself, but there’s so much already there that the game compels you to think like him, to understand him.
The cast surrounding Arthur, including Red Dead Redemption’s lead John Marston, also comes to life. Few games have more than a couple of compelling characters. RDR2 has dozens of wonderful and diverse characters, all of whom are given room to grow with exceptional acting performances and pitch-perfect dialogue.
I shot a rival gang member off his horse and watched as a different horse trampled him to his death.
The story avoids the pitfalls of most open world games by making each mission a unique experience that sheds light on the characters and plot. Even stellar open world games like Marvel’s Spider-Man have a few tedious missions that don’t add to the story or feel repetitive. RDR2’s 100-odd story missions are almost universally fantastic and weave characterization seamlessly into the action.
You’ll soon be waist-deep in bank heists, train robberies, bar fights, encounters with wild animals, wild west shootouts, and tense chases, all broken up by quieter events like fishing. Even a horseback ride to an objective can entertain thanks to the conversations you have with fellow riders. It’s not hyperbole to say that 80 or 90 missions in, you still don’t know what the next one will bring
Gunslinging and traversing with the best of them
Admittedly, not everyone cares about the story in a Rockstar game (or any game, for that matter). Red Dead Redemption 2, you’ll be happy to hear, feels amazing in action. Whether you’re lighting up a group of lawmen with your rifle, sneaking up for a stealth knife kill, or riding your horse across the countryside, you’ll feel in the thick of it.
A sizable portion of your time is spent shooting. The game is set in 1899, so you’re limited to variations of old-time shotguns, rifles (some scoped), and revolvers. You’ll also have a bow in some missions and, occasionally, artillery weapons. The developers captured the sound, look, and kick of old weaponry to a tee. The Dead Eye system, which brings time to a crawl for pinpoint aiming, makes a triumphant return. No matter how many times I unleashed Dead Eye and took out three or more enemies in quick succession, it felt ridiculously cool.
The gunplay is heightened by weak points and stellar animations. Shoot an enemy in the kneecap they’ll reach down to grab it. Shoot them in the chest with a rifle and they’ll lurch backward. Shoot them in the head, and they’ll drop like a rag doll.
I shot a rival gang member off his horse and watched as a different horse trampled him to his death. You can even see exit wounds on dead bodies. If you shoot an enemy point blank, it’s possible to see droplets of blood on your jacket. The gunplay feels great, but the way enemies react to the placement of your shots takes it over the top.
RDR2 also has a cover system, like most third-person shooters. In this regard, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but sneaking from cover to cover works well with the era’s firearms and the Dead Eye system.
Gunplay is only part of combat. RDR2’s surrounding systems offer a degree of strategy, too. You must maintain your firearm by cleaning it regularly with gun oil. You also have three main stats: Health, stamina, and Dead Eye, which fill both naturally and when using items. If you forget to eat, Arthur loses weight and becomes more susceptible to damage, which I found out the hard way after going on a lengthy trek that culminated in a quick death by a group of bandits. Your outfits affect your stats, too, as you must adequately dress for the climate. These systems add survival-lite gameplay to keep you grounded in the world.
You’ll begin recognizing areas based on a notable tree, or an odd boulder, or a dilapidated barn. It’s that obsessively detailed.
Your horse, which you can lovingly name, has a health and stamina core. Running horses too hard can cause them to freak out and throw you to the ground. And if your horse dies, you must get a new one. The risk of losing your horse emphasizes your relationship with your trusted animal. There’s even a bond system that affects the maneuvers your horse can handle. My trusty steed, Huey, almost died a few times, mainly from running into trees. My apologies, Huey.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s lets you experience its world in your own way. The sliding Honor scale dictates how the world and everyone in it treats you. Rob and kill innocents and you’ll soon be considered a menace by townsfolk. My crime spree in one idyllic town not only attracted the police but, the next time I returned, I overheard negative comments made about Arthur. People feared him, were angry with him and angry with me. It’s a wonderfully nuanced system of consequences. Many other games, such as the recent Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, have choice-based gameplay, but it’s often reduced to a single decision point. Here, your choices become visible throughout the game world.
So beautiful, it looks like it’s from the future
To add another layer to its excellence, the story, gameplay, and missions exist in a sterling depiction of America’s heartland. RDR2’s world, which moves you further east than the original, offers a mesmerizing amount of detail.
It’s a vast and a dizzying sight to behold. Much of it is open land filled with trees and hills and small bodies of water. There are several small towns and a few industrialized ones, each of which is undeniably splendid, but much of it is the natural world. Even so, you’ll start to notice how unique each area is, even when they initially appear to be somewhat similar.
You’ll begin recognizing areas based on a notable tree, or an oddly shaped boulder, or a dilapidated barn, or a peculiar fork in the road. It’s that obsessively detailed. If you become lost, the folks around you can help you out by pointing you in the right direction. You can use the mini-map, but you often won’t need it.
Need a break from gunslinging? Head to the theaters and watch live action performances and animated shows.
There’s a wealth of fine detail, too. The grass is lush, the flowers are colorful and sway in the breeze, and you can see the cracks in the bark on trees. The snow in the mountains flakes and sways under the hooves of your horse. If you roll on the ground and get mud on your slacks, you can watch it change from a dark brown to a faded tan while it dries. I could go on and on.
It’s no surprise that every character animation in RDR2 was motion captured. Even subtle twitches of the finger and slight facial movements register with incredible realism. Arthur’s beard and hair grow over time, so you’ll have to shave, go to the barber, and bathe if you want to look clean. When tired and dirty and underfed, you can see the fatigue in Arthur’s body movements and the weariness on his face.
Apparently, no detail was deemed too small. For that, Rockstar has created the most lifelike video game of all time. It only takes a few minutes of playing to come to this conclusion, though you’ll find startling new details for a long time. It’s a new high point for virtual worlds. We’ve seen a recent rash of beautiful open worlds in 2018, including Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and God of War. While those both impressed, RDR2’s world has an unmatched level of detail that shows in both big and small ways.
While the main campaign will keep you occupied for at least 50 hours, that’s just part of the appeal. You can happen upon strangers under duress in your travels. Being a good Samaritan and helping them out can lead to monetary rewards and an Honor boost, but on one occasion a man I thought needed help wanted to swindle me of my hard-earned cash. I recovered my money from his corpse.
If you want to stay on the right side of the law, you can pursue bounties posted in town for rewards. Personally, I learned the greatest thrills come from committing less than legal acts like holding up the shopkeeper. Train heists often have the best hauls, because rich people take the trains.
For more innocent fun, you can head over to the theaters in towns to watch live action performances and animated shows. Seriously. You can watch period-accurate animated shows for a quarter a pop. Several table games such as Texas hold ‘em and Five Finger Fillet (the knife game) add to the activities you can experience in RDR2.
For completion enthusiasts, you’ll find over 100 Cigarette Cards to collect, roughly 200 plants and animals to discover, and many other boxes to check in your compendium.
The background comes into view
A scene from Red Dead Redemption 2 that I’ll remember forever happens when Arthur rides on a horseback after a key swing in the story. All throughout the game the rich soundtrack, filled with twangy guitar riffs and understated orchestra arrangements, remained in the background. Here, though, a soulful vocal track played while I made a long trek by horseback across the country. In that moment, a moment of reflection, it felt like anything and everything is possible.
That’s what places Red Dead Redemption 2 among the best games of all time. Even in its quietest moments, when you’re not shooting your gun or jarring with fellow outlaws, it’s great fun. Red Dead Redemption 2 gets the big picture right, yet it ties everything together with a thousand small, memorable moments.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a magnificent open world game and one of the greatest games of all time. Its world offers unmatched attention to detail, the combat is excellent, and the story is among the best in a AAA game.
Is there a better alternative?
No. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the best open world game of all time and the greatest PS4/Xbox One experience available. It also surpasses The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the previous standard-bearer of open world games.
How long will it last?
The campaign took us about 50 hours, but the world is brimming with stuff to do and places to explore. You could easily spend over 100 hours doing side missions and making your own fun.
Should you buy it?
Yes. You should buy Red Dead Redemption 2 immediately.