To avoid spoiling anything major in Red Dead Redemption II, this review deliberately avoids revealing any plot details beyond what’s already been shown in official trailers. It also doesn’t describe any mission details beyond what you’ll discover in the first five or so hours of the game.
As ever, this review is available in both written and video format. The video shows the game in action while I read the review as a voiceover, so if you watch the video you don’t need to read the written review that follows since it’s the same ‘script’.
Rockstar Games / Rockstar Studios
Xbox One, PS4 (Xbox One version reviewed)
In an ideal world, that would be all I’d need to tell you, so I could get back to playing Red Dead Redemption 2 instead of having to force myself away from it to write this review. But you’re here for yer man Scullion’s take, so I duly oblige.
It’s been eight years since the last Red Dead Redemption, a game that blew everyone away by taking Rockstar’s impressive RAGE engine – designed for GTA IV – and placing it in a wild west setting.
Since then, thanks to Rockstar’s famously lengthy development cycles, only two more games have used RAGE: Max Payne 3 and Grand Theft Auto V, both initially released on last-gen systems. Red Dead Redemption 2, then, marks the first RAGE game created specifically for the Xbox One and PS4, and it shows.
This is obviously most notable when it comes to how the game looks. Put simply, Red Dead 2 is one of the most beautiful games ever made.
Wandering through the wildlands of 1899 America is an absolute treat, and while the game map is absolutely enormous, enough care and consideration has gone into its layout to ensure that it never feels repetitive or monotonous to explore.
Play the game on an enhanced console and it’s even more jaw-dropping: I’ve been playing it on an Xbox One X, and galloping on my horse through a forest as the sun rises in 4K and with HDR enabled is the closest I’ve come to a spiritual awakening in game form. Well, maybe not. But it’s certainly bloody lovely.
What is the purpose of said galloping? Well, you won’t find any details about the game’s plot here: it’s out tomorrow (at the time of publication) so hold fire and experience it yourself. Suffice to say though it had me gripped throughout, especially as it progressed to the later stages.
Your playable protagonist, Arthur Morgan (he isn’t really a hero in the traditional sense), is a complex character, one who already has a degree of power: in the Dutch Van der Linde gang he’s a member of, only Dutch himself has more clout.
It’s interesting, then, to start a Rockstar game as someone who’s already respected by those around him, rather than an unknown or retired criminal (as in GTA) or an outlaw left critically wounded and taken in by a family who see him as a stranger (as in the previous Red Dead). Here you’re surrounded by a host of other characters, all of whom know and respect you.
Speaking of which, as seen in the game’s trailers and other promotional materials, John Marston does indeed return here: since this is a prequel set some 12 years earlier none of the events of the first Red Dead have happened yet.
While I won’t give anything away regarding his involvement, it can initially be a bit annoying early in the game when other members of the Van der Linde gang are constantly saying ‘nudge, nudge’ things to him that foreshadow what eventually happens in Red Dead 1. Rockstar clearly wants to indulge in a little fan service, but it barely stops short of “DO YOU GET IT? BECAUSE REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM, THAT’S FUNNY SOMEONE WOULD SAY THAT, IS WHAT WE’RE SAYING”.
Thankfully, this is the exception rather than the rule, and for the most part the game’s writing is sharp and entertaining. In typical Rockstar fashion, there are a number of semi-cutscenes in which you and various other characters head off on lengthy journeys (which you still get to control) and chat with each other along the way. These are rarely boring, and it’s a testament to the quality of the writing that I – as someone who hates too much dialogue in games – had no problems sitting back and enjoying the conversations.
Sitting back is something you can do now, incidentally. During these scenes (or any other time in the game when you’ve set a waypoint) you can hold down a button to fix your horse’s speed, then hold down another to toggle a cinematic camera.
When you do this, every character involved will automatically travel along your set path, meaning if you can’t be bothered with the effort it takes to slowly trot behind an NPC you can let the game play itself so you can take in the scenery and the premium bants instead.
It’s worth mentioning that there are some elements in the script that hit a little close to the bone: despite co-founder Dan Houser recently saying in a fairly spin-heavy interview that he feels they’ve “found a sensitive way of discussing” issues such as racial and gender inequality, there’s still no escaping that this is a game set in 1899 and often reflects the attitudes of that time.
As such, you’ll still have situations where Arthur asks a woman in a bar how much she costs before realising she isn’t actually a prostitute (“Oh, I didn’t realise I was talking to a lady”, he sarcastically replies), or a fellow gang member referring to a group of black characters as “darkies” without Arthur flinching (no matter where your hero-or-villain style Honor gauge lies at that moment).
Granted, this has been handled in a far more shocking manner in other forms of entertainment – it’s still extremely tame compared to something like The Hateful Eight – but it’s still worth bearing in mind that if you’re hoping for a game that eschews 1899 attitudes in favour of something a little more palatable for today’s society, you aren’t always going to find it here.
To be clear, there are still numerous strong female characters in here and one of said black characters is a member of your gang who gets his fair share of the action. But that’s not to say there still aren’t some slightly uncomfortable lines in there. You wouldn’t want to play it in front of your grandad, basically. Actually, now I think about it, maybe you would.
I won’t get into it much more than that – at Tired Old Hack I tend to prefer to focus on how fun games are to play and as a straight white male I’d rather pass the inevitable editorials on to women and people of colour who are far better placed to use their experiences to comment on this with more authority than I could ever pretend to have. I just thought it was worth mentioning anyway, just so you’re aware of it.
Right, then. It looks great, and it’s well-written (questionable bits aside). That’s all well and good, but is it actually fun to play? Pardner, you better believe your snakeskin boots. Or something.
The missions in Rockstar’s games are always a masterclass in ensuring that what could be repetitive never ends up feeling that way. Although at its core Red Dead 2 is still a case of ‘go to this point on the map, get a mission, go to another point on the map and do it’, this is rarely limited to the usual ‘collect this thing’ or ‘shoot that prick’ you get in lesser open-world games.
Instead, the tasks here vary wildly, meaning each mission feels like an exciting new challenge rather than yet another assassination contract. Within the first five hours or so you’ll be hijacking a train, learning to hunt deer, collecting debts and saving one of your female group members from an abusive ‘client’.
There’s also the occasional silly mission thrown in there too: who’d have thought that the simple act of heading out to the saloon for a drink with your pal would translate to such an entertaining and imaginative sequence in this game? Nobody, that’s who. Which is a shame, because they would’ve been right.
These main missions are accompanied by a generous helping of side-quests, which can be found dotted around the map (mainly in towns). Many of these are brief diversions: an early one, for example, has you tracking down a travelling quack who’s selling dodgy medicine, before apprehending him, hog-tying him and bringing him back to the sheriff for a reward.
Others are mini adventures in their own right. Head to a local bar in the first town you visit and you may come across an author trying to earn his fortune by writing a biography for a once-heroic gunslinger. The problem is, he’s now a useless drunk and the author’s having no luck getting any stories out of him.
He gives you a set of photographs of other famous cowboys and cowgirls who were acquaintances of the man in question, and asks you to track them down to get more information on him, or kill them if they refuse. This mission alone can take you a good hour or two if you take your time with it, and it isn’t even part of the main game.
Of course, if you’re the rebellious type and you aren’t interested in taking on any of these preset tasks, you can just grab a trusty steed and explore the game’s huge environment to your heart’s content.
There are loads of other little things to do if you choose to go down this route. Animals roam around and you can either choose to hunt them all or – if you’re of a more PETA persuasion – simply study them up close to add their details to your animal compendium.
(Oh, and if you do decide to hunt them, you’d better have a strong stomach: the option to skin animals and keep their pelts for trading is surprisingly graphic, so if you’re a veggie then be warned.)
This animal compendium is one of eight in Red Dead 2, and while technically it isn’t 100% complete until all eight are full this also lets you shape the game how you want to play it.
In all the game wants you to find and collect 178 animal species, 72 pieces of equipment, 30 species of fish, 43 types of plant, 19 breeds of horse, 59 weapons and 144 hidden cigarette cards, all while encountering and infiltrating the various hideouts of the six main gangs roaming the lands.
Most of these compendiums also have their own little checklists of things to do before a certain species or gang can be ticked off.
For example, before you can count a horse breed as ‘100%’ complete in your compendium you have to study one, achieve maximum bonding with one (which doesn’t take too long), ride one with a common coat colour and ride one that has a less common coat.
I can’t even begin to estimate how many hundreds of hours it’ll take to tick off every task for every category and fill your compendium. If completing the game 100% is your aim, you’ll be playing it months and months after you beat the main story (which takes around 50 or 60 hours).
Hell, even if you aren’t interested in any of that pish, just wandering around that gorgeous open world is enjoyable enough on its own. There are countless little set-pieces dotted around for you to discover on your travels and you can choose to get involved or walk on.
A woman’s horse has collapsed and she’s trapped under it: will you lift it for her and take her back into town?
A couple of bounty hunters, riding by with a caged bandit, tell you to get out of the way as they pass. Are you going to bite your tongue, or hijack their coach, kill the bounty hunters and free their prisoner? And are you going to be a prick and plant an arrow in the prisoner’s head for good measure too, just so you can loot his corpse for 67 cents?
There are hundreds of little scenarios like this, and the basic but effective dialogue options – where you can choose to either greet or confront strangers, or defuse or provoke a conflict when challenged – can result in a bunch of different scenarios playing out, affecting your moral standing and the way townspeople react to you as a result.
EXAMPLE CLIP: Here’s a sequence I captured in which a bandit with a kidnapped female hostage rides past me. Initially deciding to rescue her, watch as my generous gesture goes unthanked and I decide to get my revenge as a result. Things get dark, then get silly.
Naturally, a game this size is going to have its fair share of glitches and I’ve encountered a few along the way, usually involving my horse. One particularly annoying one came early in the game, during the point where a homeless veteran in the first town you visit asks if he can hug you.
Being a nice chap, I accepted, but because my horse was standing in between us the game hit an endless loop of waiting for it to get out of the way before the hugging animation could take place. Since the horse never moved, the game essentially packed in at that point: pausing didn’t even work, meaning I had to jump to the Xbox dashboard and close the game.
Moments like this don’t sour the overall feeling, though. Those that are particularly inconvenient like the one mentioned above are rare enough to brush off, and only those who take life seriously will fail to see the humour in a horse awkwardly stuck on a cliff edge because you rode over it by mistake but tried to turn at the last minute. This isn’t the first massive open-world game to have bugs, and it won’t be the last.
Given its setting, it’s natural that Red Dead Redemption 2 has a much slower pace than GTA. It can still be action-packed if you decide you want to seek that out, but there’s a real satisfaction in a game that gives you an an enormous slice of beautifully rendered countryside and offers you the freedom to just enjoy it at your own pace if you want to. This is the first time since The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild that simply walking through a field is enough to make you feel those feels.
When I reviewed Breath Of The Wild, I explained that one of the things that defined how immersive its environment felt was the way that I shivered with comfortable delight any time I stood under a tree to shelter myself from the rain.
Red Dead 2 gives me that same feeling, not only with rain but its other beautiful environmental effects. Just look at the way the moonlight lights up the grass here and tell me that isn’t one of the most stunning things you’ve seen in a game:
The most telling thing is that I deliberately haven’t even scratched the surface here. There’s so much to see and discover that to give you a laundry list of all the things I’ve done so far would be to ruin the enjoyment of coming across it yourself without warning.
Grand Theft Auto V was a fantastic game, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece. Its well-written, well-acted and engaging storyline is only the tip of a snowy mountain containing what (at least initially) feels like an endless helping of moments, delights and breathtaking beauty.
Its more relaxed pace won’t be for everyone who craves the high-speed, F-bomb riddled antics of the GTA series, and if you felt the original Red Dead was too slow for your liking or you weren’t interested in its Wild West setting then nothing here – greatly improved though it may be – is going to change your mind.
For everyone else, this is about as essential as you can get when it comes to gaming. After all, as I said way back at the start of this review, which I’m sure feels like a lifetime ago now: this one’s special.
In order that I could write this review, I received a digital copy of the game from Rockstar. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
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