So Red Dead Redemption II is a game I have waited eight years for. I adored the first RDR (Redemption not Revolver) and was more than happy to declare it my favourite Rockstar Games title… closely followed by Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. In short RDR was a masterpiece of game design, the graphics, the story, the characters and the most important bit – the gameplay were all top notch stuff. It was a perfect coming together high quality ingredients to make a hearty meal.
This sequel had a lot to live up to and the 26th of October 2018 couldn’t come quick enough. I had my copy on release day, installed the game on my Xbox as soon as I was able and when all was done with the game was ready to play, just seeing the title screen put a big ole’ smile on my face. I did a quick first impressions article a while back where I played the opening few hours of the game. But that was just a taster, a quick glimpse at a small section of this gargantuan game.
Now, things are a little different. I sit here in front of my laptop having just completed the game. So now I have a bit more gameplay under my belt and even seen the story out until its climax. But was it ultimately worth eight years of waiting? I suppose a quick synopsis of the game in in order.
So you play as Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van der Linde gang. A rag-tag gathering of murderers, thieves and con-men (and women). The gang is lead by Dutch van der Linde and after a particularly messy bank job that goes badly wrong in Blackwater, New Austin (from the previous game), the gang find themselves wanted dead or alive and on the run from the law. Hiding out in the snowy mountains of New Hanover during a vicious snow storm, the gang find rudimentary shelter as they hide away. They eventually make their way to a more habitable environment as they move out of the mountains and set up camp. You then embark on a series of missions to gain money so the gang can leave the country crossing paths with all new characters as well as some familiar faces from the previous game all while still being hunted by the police and bounty hunters.
Okay so I’ll include my usual SPOILER warning here as I’m about to cover elements the whole game from start to end. However, I’ll keep story spoilers to a minimum and while the ending will be mentioned, I’m not going into details. It’s time to look at the good, the bad and the ugly of Red Dead Redemption II.
The game features stunningly beautiful graphics, animations and an amazing attention to detail. Quite honestly, this is the best looking game I’ve seen to date. There are times while playing when I’m not actually doing anything to further the story and just find myself admiring the scenery instead. I’ll hop on my horse and just go out for a ride for no reason other than to take in the vistas. From snowy mountains to lush green forests and arid deserts – there’s a lot to take in and enjoy before you even get to any gameplay.
Speaking of the gameplay, Rockstar have crammed a hell of a lot into this game. outside of the already sizeable story there are so many side-missions and distractions that you can spend hour up on hour just enjoying all the game has to offer without touching the story at all. Fancy a spot of hunting? Well this game has you covered and it’s a pretty in-depth hunting mechanic too. It’s not just a case of simply pointing a weapon at an animal and killing it, now you have to track the animals and learn about each species. Plus depending on how you kill an animal (pepper it with a shotgun blast, multiple rifle rounds or a single arrow) affects how much damage you do to the meat and pelt, which in turn will alter how much you can sell the items for. The hunting distraction in this is better than most full priced hunting games. And the hunting is just one example of many, many distractions you can lose yourself in outside of the main story. You can go play some poker or dominoes. Take a break from the action with a spot of fishing. Hang out in a saloon and knock back a few drinks, get drunk and start a mass bar brawl. You can even go out robbing folk. From just holding up a random NPC walking around to taking on a train. You can rob your way across the Old West in numerous ways.
The level of customization is also impressive. Arthur can grow his hair and beard or you can maintain him by visiting a barber for a trim or even a whole new look and style. I let my Arthur’s hair grow and he began looking like a member of ZZ Top in my game…
Your clothes can be customized too. From pre-set outfits to you designing your own unique look, change belts and even gun holsters. Hell you can even add little modifications like rolled up sleeves, open shirts, etc. Clothes along with Arthur will get dirty and you can change your duds or even take a bath… or you can stay dirty and smelly through the game if you like which will have NPCs making all sorts of comments about your hygiene. Honestly, there’s a lot to cover in terms of customization and details – I’d have to write a separate article to cover most of it. In short RDR II is a hell of a detailed game. But there is much more to cover.
The story is very compelling. I wasn’t too sure about it for the first few hours, but after a while the game and story really opens up. It’s around the 55 – 60% mark of the story when Arthur begins to question Dutch and his leadership and things get really interesting as the gang begins to break up. Arthur also learns something about himself (as do we the player) that really elevates him from slightly boring henchman following orders to a genuine and well crafted character you begin to feel something for. Everything comes to a head in the final act of the game as the fractured gang begin to fall out with each other. The ending (no spoilers) is a very satisfying one and brings everything together nicely connecting to the events of the previous game. I’m not sure If I prefer this ending over the one in RDR. See I loved RDR‘s ending, it’s my favourite game ending ever. So this one really had to pull something special off to impress me… and it kind of did. I remember being so pissed off with the finale to the last game that it took a while for me to realise just how genius it was. As I’ve only recently finished RDR II, I need a little more time to take it all in and mull over what I’ve just witnessed. It’s crackling finale no doubt about it and well worth the long slog through the game to get to it too. I’m more than satisfied and it brings Arthur’s story to a wonderful conclusion… and then some. I might leave it a few weeks and let in all sink in then do an article disusing the pros and cons of the ending.
Which brings me to the man himself, Arthur. I loved playing as John in the previous game. He was a charming and charismatic guy. But right from the opening, he had no secrets, no real surprises. Pretty much his entire story was laid out from the off. John was a man wanting to change his outlaw ways by hunting his ex-gang members. That’s clear from the start of the game up to the end. With Arthur though, things are different. He’s a loyal and honorable gang member at the start. He follows Dutch’s orders without question and to be honest, I found that a little dull. But it’s later in the game when Arthur begins to doubt Dutch and some if his ideas/decisions where he really comes alive as a character. Arthur is a slower burning, deeper character and we really don’t get to know him fully until after the halfway point of the game. I honestly preferred playing as John form the first game more as his charm and personality goes a long way. But I’ll happily argue that Arthur is a better written character that shows some depth and wonderful characterization thanks to some impressive writing.
But it’s not just Arthur who becomes a compelling character. I also have to mention Sadie Adler who you do a handful of missions with and along he way she reveals more about her history which leads to a sensational shootout as a finale. Josiah Trelawny is a flamboyant and charming conman always looking for new ways to earn some money and often gets you tangled up in his schemes. Hosea Matthews who is Dutch’s oldest and closest friend who is loyal to the gang leader until the very end. And then of course there is John Marston from RDR who has some of the best moments in this game from missions to amusing dialogue and even some foreshadowing to events for RDR. Plus there is the relationship between Arthur and John which slowly develops as the game progresses. At first, Arthur does not like John. He feels he is not trustworthy, not dependable, a poor father to his son Jack and an even worse husband to his wife Abigail. There is a divide between the two characters that is all too clear – however as the story flows, the relationship between Arthur and John grows and they eventually become pretty close to the point that… well I’d be getting into some serious spoilers here so I’ll stop now.
There’s a huge amount of variation to the missions and how you choose to complete them. As an example, there’s one mission where you have to break a gang-member out of jail in a small town. How you do this is up to you. Do you use dynamite to blow a hole in the wall, use a (conveniently placed) steam engine with a rope to pull the bars off the window or do you just walk in the front door of the jail with guns blazing for a more direct approach? It’s really up to you as all three options both have positives and negatives. This idea is used for lots of missions, some are linear and give you little room for improvisation while others allow you to experiment and mix things up and try different tac-tics. Some missions will have you going in gung-ho and others will have you using stealth. One mission will have you dressing up in a tuxedo and on your best behaviour to attend a high class party, while another will see you causing (very funny) mischief after getting paralytic drunk in a local saloon with another gang member. Oh and of course there’s shootouts, lots and lots of shootouts.
The gun-play is pretty impressive with a few new features added from the previous game. You have the basic dot telling you where you are aiming, but then there is a reticle that begins large and gets smaller the longer you aim giving you more accuracy for each shot. So you can’t just spam the shoot button over and over as your shots will fly around with hardly any hitting your target. Plus you have to cock your gun after each shot too. Press shoot once to fire and again to cock your gun ready for the next shot. It makes the shooting a little more methodical and gets you thinking about your next move instead of just being able to reign hell fire down on your target.
The map itself is huge. I thought the one for the previous game was more than enough and it was. Well the old RDR map, New Austin is included within the new one for RDR II. There is so much to see and do that your eyes will be tired from all the movement. Then on top of the fact you really have two maps in the game, New Austin from RDR and RDR II‘s New Hanover which are joined together to form one huge map… there’s yet another “secret” location not included on the in-game map. As during the course of the story you’ll find yourself on a Cuban island with its own unique wildlife, missions and locations. Seriously, this game is huge. And the variety of locales on the map(s) is equally as impressive. From the typical muddy roads, wooden building kind small towns you’d expect that the typical Wild West, dirty cowboy and women of ill repute to populate – to larger, sprawling cities with brick buildings which attracts a more “higher class” of citizen. There’s even a working tram/trolley system in one of the larger cities.
There’s just too much that this game offers to cover in detail here. I’ve not even mentioned the home heists, legendary hunts, horse customization and maintenance. The way you build a bond and relationship with your horse. The various interactions with NPCs from just saying hello or antagonizing them, you can try to defuse a disagreement or just call them out for a dual. How the weather can affect your health and stamina from being too hot or cold and how there are different clothing items to suit different weather conditions. The eating mechanic and how being overweight or underweight affects your health. Using gun oil to clean and maintain your weapons. What about the random encounters or stranger missions? I bulldozed my way through the game just so I could complete the story, so I’ve missed out on a lot of what the game offers. The list of things to do in this game goes on and on. I’ve only really lightly touched on a few of it’s features and there is so much more to enjoy.
Okay so RDR II is not a perfect game and it has it’s issues. Some of which I’ll cover now. But before I do point out the bad, I just want to say that I don’t necessarily agree with all of these bad points – I’m just highlighting issues some players may have as a warning. Many of the negatives I’m about to bring up, I actually quite enjoy…
So let’s get the big one out of the way. The game is slow. It just has a much more laid-back approach to it’s storytelling and pace. I know some people will most definitely find this game a bit of a grind. Due to the size of the map, it can take a good while to get from one place to another. A journey from the area you find yourself in to where you need to pick up a mission then to the location the mission actually takes place can (sometimes) be a drag and you’ll find yourself traversing the map for 5+ minutes or so from one mission to the next. There is a lot of traveling to do in the game too and as the majority of it is on horseback, some trips can drag on a little. Still, there are various options to speed things up a little. You can put the camera in cinematic mode and let the game do the travelling for you. Maybe you’d prefer to go by train or even stagecoach? There is even a fast travel option that becomes available when you upgrade your gang’s camp. Plus you can break up the longer journeys with a little hunting, maybe find a random encounter and so on. Yes there is a lot of traversing, but I never found any of it dull. Still, I can see some people finding it all a bit tedious.
Some of the animations begin to grate after a while, especially when it comes to the hunting. Having to watch Arthur skin an animal can take 15-30 seconds depending on the size of the animal. Then there’s the crafting and cooking parts where you can set up a campfire and create food, medicines and ammo. Each and every time you have to watch Arthur (when cooking) stick the food on his knife, hold the knife over the fire for a while and then watch Arthur as he eats the food. You see how long it took you to read that? Well it takes even longer to watch it and you have to watch the same animations every single time Arthur cooks food or makes some medicine or ammo or skins an animal and so on. So prepare yourself to watch the same animations over and over and over.
The are some light RPG elements that will affect Arthur as the game progresses. Your health, stamina and Dead Eye (the slo-mo thing) all have their own depleting bars the more you use them. But on top of the standard ever decreasing bars, each of the three stats have cores. These cores will also deplete and the lower the cores are, the less the bars will refill. So you need to keep topping up the cores and you can do this by sleeping or eating. Then there are similar stats for your horse too and those stats also have cores you’ll have to top up. Yes there is an eating mechanic and I can see some people getting annoyed with it. To be honest with you, I never paid much attention to topping up my cores when I played the game and the only time I really ate was if my health was dangerously low. So while the eating mechanic is there, I personally never found it to be intrusive and you can play through the game without really worrying about it… I did. Then there is the providing for the camp. Your gang camp has three main supplies that need topping up. There is food, ammo and medicine. This is where the hunting and crafting side of things come into play as anything you hunt, make or even steal can be donated to the camp to keep morale up. Again, I can see this slowing the pace of the game down a little. But again, this is something I never really bothered with during my play-through. I didn’t even donate anything to my camp until I was around 70% of the way through the game and I only did that to get the fast travel upgrade I never used. Like the cores, its just another element of the game that its nice to have there and can be used if you really want to – but it can just as easily be ignored too.
The controls can be more than a little finicky. As there is so much to do in the game and so many variables, that means the game needs a lot of button presses. Sometimes, there are too many button presses to do something relatively simple and at times it feels like a console’s controller is not up to the job. Like talking to a random NPC as you’ll need to hold down a button to lock-on to the person you want to talk to, this then brings up another load of button press options that’ll pop up at the bottom right of the screen for you to choose from. As it’s not as simple as just saying hello and depending on the locale, the NPCs themselves and even your situation at the time, what you can say to the NPCs changes so you need to keep an eye on that bottom right corner of the screen to ensure you give the appropriate response. Honestly I’ve turned a peaceful little town into a bloodbath just because I pressed the wrong button in response and accidentally antagonized some random guy when I didn’t mean to. Never mind trying to talk to someone while riding on a horse…
There are restrictions to what and how many weapons you can carry. In the previous game, John could walk around with a small arsenal of weapons in his pocket. Multiple side arms, rifles, shotguns and others all ready and you were able to change between them as and when needed. This time around you are limited to only carrying one side arm (two when you unlock dual wielding), two larger guns – be it a rifle or a shotgun or a mix of the two, your throwing weapons like knives, dynamite, etc and a melee weapon like a knife. And that’s all Arthur can carry. But your horse can carry any and all weapons you have in the saddlebags. So you now have to think ahead and pre-plan the weapons you want for the mission coming up and decide what to carry before you get into the action. But if you do find you’ve equipped the wrong kind of iron, then you could always go back to your horse and change your load-out. This can be a little annoying if you find yourself in the midst of a gunfight and realise you need a long range rifle when you’ve come with two shotguns instead.
To be fair, this section is a little light on content. For the most part RDR II is a very handsome game in both its look and design. Yet there is still a touch of ugly mainly from minor bugs and glitches I have found while playing.
I was once doing a mission where I had to be stealthy and was accompanied by a gang-member. While I was crouching being as quiet as I could, a bug meant my companion was standing up-right with his arms out in the shape of a cross. There was no animation when he moved and he just slid around the map attracting all sorts of unwanted attention. Another bug saw Arthur’s ears coloured in bright red and that lasted for several cut-scenes. There are a few clipping issues especially if you let Arthur’s beard grow to its full length. Sometimes horses will spawn in unusual places.
One time I went into a post office to pay my bounty and as I walked through the door, the graphics for the back wall hadn’t loaded in and you could see outside through the wall but the wall was still there as I couldn’t walk through it. My horse got stuck in a rock and I couldn’t get it out no matter how many times I whistled or tried to pull it out via holding the reigns. A common bug is certain gang-members not appearing at the camp when you need them.
I have come across a few minor issues that could do with a fix from graphical glitches to a few audio ones too. But nothing game breaking, just a few things that kind of annoyed me. Still, with a huge open-world game like this, you’re always going to get some niggles.
I guess the most obvious comparison for RDR II would be GTA V, makes sense given the fact they are both Rockstar games and a lot of the same people worked on both titles. However, I think RDR II is more like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. They both have similar problems with the slower pace, the finicky controls and the amount of traversing (especially on horseback), etc.
I really didn’t think much of The Witcher 3 when I first played it for the very reasons I just stated. But the more I spent with the game, the more I fell in love with it until it finally won me over. RDR II is just like that too. The opening was good and I enjoyed it… but it still felt a little stale. Yet the more I played RDR II, the more I enjoyed it and by the time I got to the 50% mark in the story – I was hooked. It’s a slow burner for sure but well worth sticking it out.
In short, RDR II is a masterpiece just like its predecessor only much more refined and a lot more to do. I can see some of the slower elements not working with other people. The traversing can be tiresome, but I always found something to see and do along the way. The scenery of the game always kept me entertained as I galloped through forests and open land just in awe of what I was looking at. The light RPG elements can be ignored just as much as they can be embraced, just like the gang camp management. Spend time building your camp and trying to keep everyone happy if you wish – yet you don’t actually need to do any of it. I think this is something RDR II does very well. There are parts of the game that can be embraced and played around with, but you don’t necessarily have to and you can ignore many of the distractions to just plough through the story… I did.
I loved my time with the game even though I missed out on a lot of what it has to offer by blistering my way through it. There’s some impressive and engrossing writing from a character point of view as I went from not thinking much of Arthur to really enjoying playing as him as the story progressed. He’s no John Marston, but he’s close. The story itself is one I enjoyed and seeing how the Van der Linde gang go from a twenty two strong posse at the start of this game to the broken and disillusioned handful of people they are when the previous game kicks off was fantastic. It all builds to a very satisfying climax that ties everything up nicely and still offers a great little something to get your teeth into even after Arthur’s story is done.
I’ve been thinking of a way to quickly sum this game up and I think I have it. There have been some great games released this generation. However, none of them have truly blown me away and they’ve always felt like last gen games with improved graphics. RDR II looks and feels like an evolution in gaming, a genuine “next gen” game. I just feel sorry for all games that will be released after RDR II. Yes this was well worth the eight year gap between games and Its has left me wanting more RDR games in the future. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to start a new game. Only this time instead of speeding my way through the story, I’ll be going a much slower pace and taking in all the game has to offer. Play around with the distractions, do the side missions, etc. It’s time to head into the Wild West once more.
And I just got through an in-depth look at RDR II without talking about horse balls.