In many ways, Red Dead Redemption II tells the same story as the first game. The dying romance of the old West, the price the country paid for America’s Manifest Destiny, and the ever-fading sunset rogues and outlaws try to ride off into. Bad men trying to do good, whether out of guilt or the desire to outrun a past rapidly catching up to them. It follows the life of Arthur Morgan, a man accustomed to violence and reluctant big brother figure to John Marston himself as they ride together in Dutch Van Der Linde’s ragtag group of thieves and killers. It’s a prequel and an expansion all at once, utilising the power of modern consoles to bring the brutal world of Red Dead to astonishing life.
The story of Red Dead Redemption II begins with a bottleneck. The game knows full well what it has promised – free roaming across the open West – and traps you atop a frozen mountain for the first six hours or so as a response. Snow carpets the ground, making it hard to walk. People keep dying or going missing, and there’s not an awful lot of that freedom to be found. It starts us off in the same position as the gang, desperate for the wide open plains and the option to do something other than plod forward and scrabble for survival. It’s certainly intentional, and when the training wheels come off it’s as though the fog finally clears and you can breath again. That’s not to say you know everything there is to know about the game at that point – twenty hours in you’ll still be getting an education on the many different systems and mechanics that all work together to hold up gaming’s most convincing open world yet.
Red Dead Redemption II is big. Really big. You’re looking at a bare minimum of 50 hours to see the main story to its close, and, of course, there’s a wealth of additional Strangers to meet, legendary creatures to hunt, and standard open world distractions in great excess. Red Dead takes itself much more seriously than Grand Theft Auto, and though there is levity from time to time, there’s much less room in the story for wacky antics or goofy oddballs. This is a big, bloody story of loyalty, betrayal, lofty dreams laid to waste, and, of course, redemption. It’s hard to like Arthur at first. He’s grumpy, doesn’t seem to care too much for most of the gang he runs with, and quick to anger. Violence comes easy to him because it’s all he’s ever known, and he’s a sharp contrast to the younger, more complicated John Marston we see, who’s tussling with fatherhood and his place in the world as an idealistic outlaw. The gang is unflinchingly loyal to Dutch and his endless stream of schemes and plans to get them all riding into that sunset away from the tightening government noose. Dutch is always talking, always planning, leading by charisma and confidence, taking young men in and teaching them to live in line with his ideals.
But, of course, this is a prequel, and we all know what becomes of Dutch and John, which makes the story’s moments of despair and hope all the more bittersweet. Arthur, too, undergoes some serious character development, with even the optional side stories reflecting Red Dead’s running theme of men trying to survive a world that has no place for them any more, fighting for a second chance that may or may not exist. That’s the inherent pain which comes with both of Rockstar’s genre defining Western tales. Life as they know it is changing, and progress doesn’t give a damn about the dreams of a few scruffy outlaws.
Red Dead Redemption II burns slowly, until it doesn’t. Everything takes time. The map is huge and even riding from your camp to the nearest town can take five minutes. Weapons aim heavily and take a long time to reload. You have to loot corpses and objects individually, but again, this all feels intentional. They don’t want you hurling yourself full throttle at everything. This is a measured experience. You can only carry a handful of weapons, relying on your horse to lug your arsenal around. If you don’t eat and sleep regularly, your health and stamina bars won’t regenerate as quickly, which is a mechanic just present enough to add realism without becoming laborious. Little touches like cleaning your personalised guns and bonding with your horse over time are prevalent throughout, but they’re never overdone – just a few extra steps here and there which serve to integrate you with life in the West. The game has moments specifically aimed at cashing in on these smaller attachments, on strangers you never thought you’d see again and decisions you didn’t foresee having any impact. Save a man from a snakebite and he might be sat outside the gunsmith looking to pay you back in a few days time. It’s this slow burn that makes the explosive drama all the louder, and contributes to what has to be one of gaming’s greatest triumphs in storytelling.
Red Dead Redemption II may also be the Xbox One X’s first essential. Despite the extra heft it has over the rival PS4 Pro, it’s rarely utilised to its absolute fullest, but that additional grunt is applied liberally to making Red Dead in 4K one of the nicest things you’ve ever looked at. Even on the regular consoles this is an absolutely stunning work of art but playing it in 4K just adds that extra layer of “my eyes are bleeding and I’m totally okay with that”. Every moment – whether you’re strolling through a crowded city or riding hard across an open plain – is an incredible snapshot waiting to be taken. The visuals combined with excellent voice acting and motion capture throughout make it a story populated with people you want to see succeed and survive, despite knowing in your heart everything will go to shit. It’s like supporting England in… well, anything, really.
Red Dead Redemption II takes place in a truly open world that eschews a lot of the usual sandbox expectations to keep the experience tight and genuine. One of the biggest issues with Grand Theft Auto V was that the way we’re used to playing games like that just didn’t make sense for two thirds of the playable characters. Actions have consequences in Red Dead. Walk around town in a mask or waving your guns around and store owners will refuse to serve you. Ride your horse recklessly through a crowded street and you can be damn sure you’re getting a bounty put out on you for disturbing the peace or unarmed assault. Sure, you can rob and pillage to your heart’s content, but more than ever, you’re a part of this world, and life is going to be spectacularly difficult for a reckless outlaw. It doesn’t always work perfectly. The game is happy to slap you with high bounties following story missions which feels unfair, and at first cash is hard to come by. You’ve got a bandana in your inventory to hide your identity when you’re committing crimes but it seems like it’s there as a roleplaying choice because mask or not every stranger you pass on the trail can identify you regardless. At first I was mercilessly killing and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down, but as the story wears on and the dream slowly dies, it’s harder to justify it in the context of Arthur’s magnificent character arc.
The game’s economy is also strange to say the least. At first you’re struggling to break even on the bounties you incur robbing trains and stagecoaches, but pass a certain mission and the game starts hefting thousands of dollars at you like it’s nothing. The most expensive things are horses, and even the fanciest, fastest steed I could find only ran me about $900 with a little bit of a “you’ve been a good boy” discount. I bought all the guns and their relevant upgrades – plus a big chunk of cash on fancy customisation options – and from that point onward the dollars just mindlessly accumulated with nowhere to go. Ammunition and other supplies are both readily available out in the world and for an appropriately tiny amount of cash and it just seemed to run a little awkwardly alongside the “We need a lot of money to get the hell out of here” narrative. Arthur was sitting on upwards of $2000 and essentially just shrugging it off every time the gang arranged the next big score.
We have never seen a game on Red Dead Redemption II’s level before. We may never again. It doesn’t just transcend genre, it transcends medium. It stands alone as a moment of creative history, the result of blood, sweat, tears, and insane amounts of resources poured into its development. We can draw obvious comparisons to lessons learned from other open-world games and that inescapable Grand Theft Auto DNA, but it stands apart. I would urge anybody with lingering doubts to cast them aside and just lose yourself for a few days in this meticulously curated experience. It’s not GTA with horses. It’s not The Witcher with guns. The story and the unbelievably detailed world it takes place in are inevitably going to become a benchmark for so many games to come, but this kind of depth is incredibly hard-fought, and Rockstar won’t be dethroned easy.
The Red Dead Redemption II TL;DR:
- Wide open plains, frontier towns and bustling cities, all ripe for exploration as the Van Der Linde gang plunders its way across America.
- You can rob and murder at your leisure but it’s just as fun to journey into the mountains for a few days to hunt and fish.
- Prequel doesn’t do it justice – this is a massive expansion on the Red Dead world and a second chance to spend time with some of its most loved and hated inhabitants.
- Certainly Rockstar’s greatest achievement and a historic moment in the gaming industry. If you never touch a Rockstar product again, play this.