Making a sequel to a game as critically acclaimed as Red Dead Redemption was a monumental task, particularly given its tight, character-driven narrative, and the tragic arc of outlaw-turned-rancher, John Marston.
Attempting to capture lightning in a bottle a second time at the risk of sullying the first game’s reputation by creating a sequel that doesn’t live up to its standard, must have created huge pressure for Rockstar Games. However, with Red Dead Redemption 2, the team from the house that Grand Theft Auto built have managed to deliver the impossible, and create a game that dwarfs the original both in terms of scope and ambition.
Red Dead Redemption 2 Is An Odyssey Quite Unlike Any Other
We’re delighted to say that Red Dead Redemption 2 not only lives up to expectations, it smashes them and feels like the missing half of a story we never knew was incomplete. Improving on its predecessor in every way that counts, it also reignites interest in its landmark prequel, enhancing the overall experience to an epic scale and giving gamers an odyssey quite unlike any other.
Taking place in 1899, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel set 12 years before the events of the first game. It tells the story of John Marston’s former gang in happier times, where he and Dutch Van der Linde were brothers rather than mortal enemies. Playing as Arthur Morgan, Dutch Van der Linde’s right hand man, the player gets to live through the stories that Marston told of the Van der Linde Gang, bringing new context to his relationships with returning characters Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella, and of course the infamous Dutch.
Central to this experience is a shift from the lone wanderer format of Red Dead Redemption, to having a thriving community of characters who rely upon you to contribute to the camp and make improvements through donations which unlock additional supplies, provisions and ammunition as well as services.
The denizens of the camp all have unique personalities and roles, and when not directly interacting with Arthur they wander around the camp performing tasks, talking with each other about current events and generally going about their business. We don’t want to undersell this point, because the camp system is an incredible technical achievement in storytelling.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s Characters Bring the World To Life
Donations of food or money raise camp morale which affect how the characters respond to Arthur. This can be modified based on their past interactions with him, the player’s overall morality, and the events of missions as they are completed – particularly if your actions affect members of the camp directly.
They don’t just wait for the player to interact with them to deliver exposition either. They move about the camp and have discussions with other characters, sometimes with multiple people, which occur whether or not the player is within earshot. Frequently we would wander in on a discussion already in progress that didn’t involve us, and if we stood there listening long enough, the characters would sometimes acknowledge our presence and naturally include Arthur in the conversation.
Ultimately, it creates the impression that the characters have lives of their own, rather than being entirely dependent on the main character to advance the plot, with stories that are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the game world.
This is further facilitated by a new conversation system that allows Arthur to literally talk with anyone they encounter in the world. Typically these interactions are simplistic, usually amounting to little more than a “greet” or “antagonize” action, but still allows you to sometimes deescalate a situation before it turns violent, interrogate an enemy for information, threaten them into submission, or lull an enemy into a false sense of security before you attack.
Characters have a long memory however, and some of them, like shopkeepers for example, will treat you differently if you’ve caused trouble for them in the past. Subtle changes in dialogue and reactions like this further ground the player in the world, bringing it to life in a way that few other games have ever been able to achieve previously.
Red Dead Redemption 2 Features Dozens Of Side Activities
Rockstar’s desire for realism has also led to some interesting changes to the core gameplay as well. There is now a more robust crafting system with many different types of tonics, cooking recipes, ammunition and tools available to be crafted. Typically these require the player to harvest herbs, or hunt specific animals to create, lending a survival element to the game.
Using the new Eagle Eye ability, players can see herbs that can be harvested, animals in the vicinity, or identify trails that can be used to track quarry that has moved through the area recently. While in this mode, you can also see odors emanating from Arthur, which allows you to approach your prey from downwind to prevent them from tracking you down. Any animals that you successfully hunt can be skinned on the spot for hides and meat, or can be slung over your horse and returned to a butcher or to your camp for greater rewards.
Basic crafting can be done on the go, while cooking or advanced crafting requires the player to make camp in a safe area. Once crafted, items can be used quickly from an item wheel, similar to the weapon select wheel in the previous game, or when not in combat you can open your satchel to see all items, components and documents you’re carrying around with you. Though you can carry up to two sidearms and two long guns with you at all times, you can no longer freely change your load out; if you want to swap a shotgun for a sniper rifle for example, you have to go back to your horse which effectively acts as your mobile arsenal.
Horses Are A Cowboy’s Best Friend
Let us also take a moment to praise the improvements to horses, which have been vastly improved in Red Dead Redemption 2. Gone are the curses we heaped upon John Marston’s “fail horse” in the original, where the combination of constant vulnerability and inadequate pathing AI led to many an untimely equine death.
Horses are now far more durable and will naturally avoid obstacles unless the player steers into one. You can also brush and feed a horse to keep it healthy and use tonics to maintain its stamina or heal it when near death. Customization to a saddle and tack also improve a horse’s stats and can be transferred from one horse to another as you purchase (or rustle) better mounts. All told, there are 19 different breeds of horse, each with their own stats and variations in coloration.
As your primary mode of transport, your extended inventory, and constant companion in the wild, your horse is even more important in Red Dead Redemption 2 than it was before. You can again form a bond with your horse, unlocking better maneuvers with each of four levels, and improving on reaction time and the distance at which your horse can be called by whistling.
That’s right – it’s possible to be out of range to call your horse, temporarily limiting your access to your weaponry or a quick escape. Often we would find ourselves running towards the horse trying to get into range, or finding another way to escape and coming back for it later. Luckily, it’s possible to use a temporary horse that you can save at a hitching post, or you can save up to four different horses at a stable. You can also customize their grooming with different mane and tail lengths, braids and styles to further individualize them.
Visually, the animators went to great lengths to replicate a horses’ natural behavior and body language, capturing everything from their ear swivels, to the swishing of their tails. As such, their hesitation and prancing can warn you of the presence of a predator in the vicinity, potentially causing them to throw you and run away if you haven’t sufficiently bonded with them. From the fluid movement of muscles rippling under skin as they run, to the happy way they will lean into your patting, your horse will become as important to you as any character in the game.
Red Dead Redemption 2 Is Visually Outstanding
It goes without saying that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a visual marvel with an astonishing level of detail. The lush environments seem natural, with variations in the terrain and vegetation that work on almost a subconscious level to sell the reality of the world. From the snowy depths of the Grizzly Mountains to the swamps of Bluewater Marsh, even into the uptight city of Saint Denis, Red Dead Redemption 2 presents the player with a thriving world of seemingly infinite variation.
Wildlife too is more varied and frequent, with animals, birds and reptiles of all kinds constantly present and reacting to the player’s presence and actions. In addition to a bespoke day/night cycle, there is also dynamic weather which can affect the player’s visibility, temperature and stamina loss. You can watch the clouds boil in the distance while thunder echoes across the plains while lightning causes dynamic lighting to throw shadows into sharp relief, and when the storm breaks the clouds open up to bathe the sky in crepuscular rays.
Though Red Dead Redemption 2 lacks a traditional Photo Mode (you take out a camera from your inventory, point it at the environment and take a snapshot. It doesn’t have “fancy” features seen in other recent releases), I made liberal use of the cinematic camera during long rides to take incredible screenshots of my journeys.
What can’t be captured as easily is the emotional response provoked by the incredible sound design of the game. The snatches of music that punctuate the game are subtle and airy, punctuated by the rustling of leaves in the wind, hoofbeats, and wildlife that all serve to enhance the loneliness of your journey. When danger looms however, those gentle themes can pivot seamlessly from aimless exploration to the intensity of a pulse-pounding battle.
A Soundtrack And Audio That Captures Every Moment
During critical moments in the plot, the game lavishes the player with full orchestral scoring reminiscent of the works of Ennio Morricone. From the gentle to the bombastic, the sound design constantly reinforces the incredible visuals to deliver an epic experience, serving as a stark counterpoint to the brutal violence that players have to endure to survive.
Mechanically, the third-person cover-based shooting is largely unchanged from Red Dead Redemption. However, with destructible cover, improved enemy AI, and an enhanced Dead Eye ability that takes “bullet time” to a new level, there are definitely quality of life improvements that make the combat feel tighter.
Enemies still rag-doll satisfyingly when shot, sometimes causing them to fall off horses or a tall cliff (sadly ,without a Wilhelm scream), but there is also the potential for severing limbs or decapitation if enough damage is dealt to your target. Traversal over obstacles or between cover is satisfyingly fluid, and movement seems effortless and natural, even in the middle of a harrowing fire fight.
What also stood out for us was there was little or no use of canned animations, not only for the major characters in the camp, but also a surprising number of random NPCs encountered throughout the game. Most had custom animations and dialogue to make them unique, further blurring the line between random encounters and required events. Much like the camp, it makes the player seem like a part of a larger world, rather than the axis upon which the world turns.
Over 100 Missions With Tons To Do
And a larger world it is indeed, with the largest map that Rockstar has ever created. It includes over half of the map used in the first game, most of which you won’t even be required to visit until the post game content. With 104 story missions and 20 side quests threads with multiple parts, there’s a huge amount of content even before you start hunting, fishing, gambling, robbing stagecoaches or trains, following treasure maps, bounty hunts, or tracking down legendary game to craft unique talismans.
In addition to the massive single player game, the Red Dead Online multiplayer mode will enter Open Beta in November, delivering even more missions to enjoy with friends. If the Games as a Service model of Grand Theft Auto Online is any indicator, that could potentially represent up to five years of free content updates. If this happens to include Liar’s Dice, we may be playing this game in perpetuity.
In the past ten days, we have spent over a hundred hours in Red Dead Redemption 2, and still have the urge to get back into it immediately. Simply put, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the game of this generation; an absolute masterpiece that no gamer should miss.
Need help? Check out the Red Dead Redemption 2 trophy guide.