Red Dead Redemption 2 Review — Once Upon a Time in the West
Rockstar Games takes open-world games to new heights in Red Dead Redemption 2 with a deep world, excellent story, and unparalleled attention to detail.
With the release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, Rockstar Games essentially gave us the first taste of what would become the open-world game. The ability for players to take on the story and explore Liberty City however they saw fit was truly a revolutionary experience at the time, and even to this day, the game has still been the essential foundation for all other open-world games that followed it. In the 17 years since its release, the genre of open-world games has flourished not just from Rockstar’s later games, but with many other studios taking their own spin on that formula, expanding on it, and remixing it in varying ways, to greater and lesser effect.
For all the genre’s advancements in the past decade or more, only a few games have come close to the sort of ultimate, lofty goal of crafting an open-world that truly feels “living.” Many open-world games have aimed to become a place where players can not only have the chance to engage with a game world that is ripe with possibility and endless locations to explore, but to really immerse players inside a world and make them feel like a part of it. They want to be a place where players can influence its direction and truly feel like they have an impact on its characters and setting.
That’s all until Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games’ long-awaited and highly-anticipated follow-up to the 2010 Western epic Red Dead Redemption, and a title that is aiming to take the next step when it comes to delivering a truly immersive open-world experience. Coming off the heels of the previous game — one which many look back on as one of the best games of the last generation — it’s an understatement to say that Red Dead Redemption 2 has been a long time coming, and even more so to point out the unbearably high expectations that have been placed on it.
So let’s get this out of the way first before delving into the deeper parts of this review: Red Dead Redemption 2 is an exceptional game that pushes the bar for open-world titles, and will more than likely be considered one of the best games of this generation. Much like its predecessor, Red Dead Redemption 2‘s blend of storytelling, gameplay, and artistry are all working together to form a game that works on every level. In the way that Grand Theft Auto III set the foundations for the open-world genre nearly two decades ago, Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like the culmination of everything Rockstar Games has done to develop a world that feels not only grand in scope, but even deeper when it comes to the levels of interactivity and immersion that it offers players throughout its journey.
From the visuals and score that feel drawn straight from the past several decades of Western cinema classics, to a world that is full of secrets to discover, to a story that continually pulls you in over the course of its many twists and turns, Red Dead Redemption 2 truly comes as close to the sense of a “living, breathing world” that I think we have ever seen from a game before, and it’s truly invigorating to play and experience every inch of this world and see what it has to offer.
As a prequel, Red Dead Redemption 2 is set well over a decade before the events of Red Dead Redemption, which takes players into the thick of the Van der Linde gang’s story at the peak of their infamy in the great American West. Where Red Dead Redemption followed John Marston’s search for vengeance many years after the gang’s disbanding, Red Dead Redemption 2 instead follows Arthur Morgan, the right-hand man of Dutch Van der Linde, as he fights to protect the rest of the gang in their journey to stay one step ahead of the law, and the imminent demise of their outlaw life by modern society.
That last point, in particular, is one of the most significant driving forces behind the story in Red Dead Redemption 2, as the Van der Linde gang’s outlaw way of life quickly comes to a head against the advances of modern life and civilization. Taking place in 1899, the turn of the century and growing government intervention into the West has Dutch, Arthur, and the rest of the gang embark on a journey to seek refuge from the forces that are seeking to eradicate them entirely.
At the game’s beginning, a botched robbery in the town of Blackwater has deprived the gang of most of their funds and made them the top target of the law as a result. From bands of lawmen, to Pinkerton agents, to the growth of big cities like Saint Denis — the game’s stunning, New Orleans-esque urban setting — Red Dead Redemption 2 puts the Van der Linde gang’s backs against the wall, and seeing their story of survival and preserving their way of life makes for a striking contrast to what we saw from the setting of Red Dead Redemption and its depiction of the “end of the West.”
Compared to the themes of revenge and justice that drove John Marston (and the player) throughout the story of Red Dead Redemption, the shift that Rockstar puts on to the Van der Linde gang as a whole places Red Dead Redemption 2‘s storytelling in a very different context, but one that is just as compelling and engaging as John’s hunt for the members of his former gang. Despite the fact that the game is a prequel, which gives players some sense of awareness as to the fates of certain characters such as John Marston, Dutch Van der Linde, Javier Escuela, Bill Williamson, and more, the story in Red Dead Redemption 2 — without getting too thick into the weeds of spoilers — takes so many twists, turns, and surprises that it holds its own in crafting an engaging tale with so many exceptional moments to enjoy.
That also goes for the band of characters that you’ll interact with throughout the story, from both the familiar faces and the new characters that you’ll encounter while roaming through the West with the Van der Linde gang. While there’s the sheer novelty of getting to be reacquainted with characters like John Marston and Dutch Van der Linde for fans of the previous game, many of the new faces in Red Dead Redemption 2 prove to be just as memorable and engaging to interact with, such as the fierce and determined widow Sadie Adler, and the unpredictable hitman Micah Bell, who Arthur has a bit of a complicated relationship with. Over time and through your interactions with the rest of the Van der Linde gang, there is a clear sense of the gang’s camaraderie and why Arthur is so fiercely protective of them, and getting to explore and deepen these relationships with the other gang members is easily one of the highlights of Red Dead Redemption 2‘s narrative thanks to its impeccable writing and strong performances.
Of course, many of those strong character moments especially revolve around Arthur Morgan, one of the senior members of the Van der Linde gang and the character who players will take control of throughout their journey in Red Dead Redemption 2. As a man that has essentially been raised since childhood as an outlaw, Arthur owes his life to Dutch and that experience has shaped him into a fierce protector of the rest of the Van der Linde gang, though Arthur has plenty of his own conflicts and backstory that players will discover over the course of the game. While Arthur has his own proclivities towards violence and conflict out in the world, how far he is willing to push things is left for the player to decide as they control Arthur throughout the story and take action, and that’s all in part from the Honor system at play throughout the game’s world.
Every action and decision that the player makes as Arthur ends up affecting the way that other characters perceive him out in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2. From violently shooting up local sheriffs or robbing civilians, to giving assistance to a woman out on the road after her horse has died, the Honor system not only serves as a way to indicate the path that Arthur is taking morally — whether he’s a ruthless outlaw or a more compassionate cowboy — but also has more tangible effects on the game’s world on a larger level.
While the system itself will be familiar to those that played the previous game, the sense of your actions having consequences has interesting ripple effects thanks to the ways that your decisions reverberate throughout the rest of Red Dead Redemption 2‘s world. In one part of the story after completing a heist, as I ventured into the town of Valentine as Arthur and interacted with various NPCs, some of them would ask if I heard about “the robbery just outside of town,” and whispered about the fact that there were quite a few casualties as a result.
Likewise, some interactions with characters may have effects (or repercussions) that may not immediately take effect, but pay off later on in the game. In one instance, I encountered a pair of men out on the road that had escaped from prison and let them go on their way; I wound up encountering them again many hours later in my travels, and when sparking a conversation with them, I ended up hearing about the hardships that they endured on their own since I first saw them escape.
That was just one of the few examples where the game’s setting really honed in on the idea of Red Dead Redemption 2 delivering a world that looks and feels dynamic, and yet there were still plenty of other moments that genuinely had me surprised at the depth of interaction that it offers. Random encounters on the road in particular always feel like they offer some new interesting twist or story moment to remember, like when I helped a man wrangle in his horse and lassoed it back to him, or intervening as a woman was about to about to be attacked by a pack of wolves.
All of this dynamic immersion works beautifully in Red Dead Redemption 2, mostly through the ways that Rockstar has integrated so many layers of interaction and detail into its environments, characters, and how Arthur can create such an impact within the world as a whole. As much as Red Dead Redemption 2 still feels like a “Rockstar game,” in a lot of ways it also feels like it is a roleplaying game in the truest sense of the term. That’s not to say you should expect it to be Final Fantasy or The Elder Scrolls by any means, but Rockstar has gone to painstaking lengths to make its vision of the West feel as believable and real as possible, and they nail every detail that is part of it.
From the beginning of the game when you enter the bustling Western town of Valentine, to the city streets and electric glow of Saint Denis, every detail, environment, and setting is meticulously crafted and offers a ton for the player to explore and interact with. By holding the L2 button (as we played on PS4) to focus on a specific person, object, or animal, Arthur has a range of options to interact with them, whether it’s to greet a traveler on the road, robbing a store clerk, picking up an object to observe it in greater detail, and yes, even down to petting a dog or brushing your horse’s coat. These types of interactions aren’t just limited to characters that are integral to the story; you can engage with pretty much any other person or animal that you find out in the world, and having that possibility to engage with NPCs in such a way adds so much to how far Rockstar has gone to make Red Dead Redemption 2‘s world feel deep and tangible.
No matter who or what you decide to interact with in the world, pretty much all of these engagements with NPCs in the world come with some sort of insight or secret that deepens the player’s sense of immersion inside the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 and making it that much more exhilarating to explore. Some of these interactions can lead you to new missions, such as a character giving you a hint about a nearby part of the map to explore that could lead to a hidden area or secret treasure to find.
Others, such as the variety of “Strangers” you meet along the way or Random Encounters with other characters, can be more involved side missions that let you engage with some interesting, colorful new characters out in the world while completing activities like hunting, fishing, or collecting bounties and debts on wanted men. Even exploring the game’s various shops and towns can deliver some unexpected secrets to find and possibilities to discover, such as uncovering “illicit businesses” that some of the shopkeepers find themselves involved with. Red Dead Redemption 2‘s world always offers something worth finding, if you’re willing to dig deep enough and go off the beaten path. In another instance during my travels, a trail of blood I found on the side of the road ended up leading me to a mangled, bloodied corpse; investigating further ended up putting me on the path to a whole side mission that I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise if I hadn’t strayed from my path a bit.
One of the best examples of this deep sense of interaction with other characters and the environments comes from the Van der Linde gang’s camp, which shifts locations at various points in the story and provides players with a place to call home while out completing missions and exploring the world. Aside from giving the player a place to eat, sleep, and renew Arthur’s energy while out on his journey, the camp also provides ample opportunities to interact with the rest of the gang’s familiar faces — many of whom you’ll be going out on missions with — making it key to visit the camp every so often to see what sort of surprises may be in store there.
Much like the details placed into the rest of the game’s world, the Van der Linde gang’s camp always offers something new for players to discover alongside the other characters, whether that’s playing a round of Five Finger Fillet with Micah, going hunting with Charles, or having some drinks with the gang around the campfire at night and sharing stories with them. Though many of these moments are surely scripted depending on where you are at in story, the way that other characters in the camp interact with Arthur comes off naturally and believable. At certain moments when I visited camp, several characters would often come up to talk to me as they passed by, whether it was Dutch commending Arthur for a job well done on a recent heist, or Uncle drunkenly stumbling his way over to speak with me.
Aside from the story and character-driven moments that the camp offers, the camp also provides a wealth of supplies for Arthur to utilize over the course of the game, such as food provisions, ammo, medicine, and tonics. While it starts out with a meager offering of items at the game’s beginning, the player can contribute to the gang’s supplies by donating items and loot found across the world, contributing cash, or going out to hunt and fish to keep morale at the camp high. In return, the camp’s funds and supplies can be used to upgrade its food, medical supplies, and ammo stashes, provide more hitching posts for horses, and more comfortable amenities for the rest of the gang to enjoy.
Red Dead Redemption 2‘s scope when it comes to depth and detail aren’t just apparent in its world and storytelling but also in its gameplay, as the game delivers just as much in action and combat as it does in bringing players a sense of place and immersion. Expanding on many of the systems that we saw from Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V, Red Dead Redemption 2‘s combat expertly delivers the kind of spectacle that its Western setting provides. Throughout the game, players will engage in a variety of missions alongside the rest of the Van der Linde gang ranging from bank heists to train robberies and more, and while I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises in store at all, it’s easy to say that Red Dead Redemption 2 features some of the most thrilling action sequences and set-pieces that I’ve ever experienced in a game; they’re moments that truly make the game feel like a classic Western come to life.
Customization is also greatly expanded upon in Red Dead Redemption 2 with just as much (if not more) detail as in the rest of the world, in everything from altering Arthur’s hair style and facial hair length, to the features and styling of his weapons, and even down to his clothing and whether his shirt sleeves are rolled up or down, or if his pants are tucked in or out of his boots. The weapon customization in particular is incredibly extensive; while each weapon can be upgraded with better rifling, sights, and more, the layers of customization that players can put into how the weapons look — from the colors of their steel to the engravings and decoration on each part of the weapon — add that much more to the experience of letting the player fill Arthur’s shoes in the way that they see fit. You can see for yourself with a few of the weapons and gear that I’ve customized along the way:
Aside from the numerous options to customize Arthur’s physical appearance and gear, the other core relationship that players will develop throughout the game is that of Arthur and his horse. Red Dead Redemption 2 has expanded immensely on making your horse more than just a mode of transportation, and there are numerous ways that players can invest time into developing their bond with their horse and, as a result, increasing its ability to take players through this world. These actions start as simply as riding the horse and utilizing its saddle to store all of your equipment and gear between missions, but as you spend more time for your horse and care for it — feeding it, brushing its fur, petting it, etc. — you’ll be able to increase its stamina and health.
With enough time and bonding, you can even unlock more advanced riding tricks and techniques, such as rearing, drifting, and a quick turn ability. Where cars and other vehicles in Grand Theft Auto are fairly disposable, Red Dead Redemption 2 creates a more genuine relationship between the player and their horse, and given that I had a few close calls with my own horse, Marble, out on the road that almost led to its death, I would have been heartbroken at his loss if that happened.
While both the storytelling and gameplay bring Red Dead Redemption 2‘s Western world to life, the visuals and soundtrack truly stand out and make Rockstar’s newest open-world striking and beautiful. The game’s Western environments come to life in vivid detail and color, and I don’t think it will be hard at all for players to find themselves stopping to simply appreciate the little details and moments that truly bring a sense of place to this world, especially with the game’s vast ecosystem and variety of wildlife.
Sweeping vistas, flowing rivers, and stunning mountainsides are all just a few of the spectacular sights and locations that you’ll find in Red Dead Redemption 2, and seamlessly going between such varying locations and environments is astounding, other than the occasional (and small) frame rate drops I would get here and there. As the game takes the Van der Linde gang through snowy mountains, treacherous swamplands, and (eventually) deep into the heart of the big city, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a visual marvel on both a technical and artistic level, accompanied by a soundtrack that truly entrenches it in the atmosphere of the best Spaghetti Western films out there.
Red Dead Redemption 2 may just signal the dawn of a new era for open-world games, and it’s an experience that I have no doubt players will be investing tens (if not hundreds) of hours into its immense, deep world and completing its story full of action, suspense, and deeply investing character moments. Over the course of its journey, you can easily see the ways that Rockstar Games has not just focused on delivering a world that is massive in scope, but far richer in the ways that it builds on everything that the studio has done in its past games and enhances them for a new generation. Red Dead Redemption 2 aimed high in delivering players a living, breathing world, and it has surely hit its mark as Rockstar’s deepest, most immersive experience yet.