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When I think of Red Dead Redemption, I think of two things. It’s one of the best western-themed games I have ever played and horse animations. It had the best horse animations and mechanics I’ve ever experienced in a video game. When Red Dead Redemption II was announced, I was excited. Being a fan of Rockstar’s games, I knew I would get it without hesitation and for those wondering, yes, I have the Ultimate Edition unopened. Developed by Rockstar Studios and published by Rockstar Games, Red Dead Redemption II was released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in October, 2018. I purchased both versions digitally and had them pre-loaded and ready to go but up until the day before release, I wasn’t sure which version I wanted to play first. The Digital Foundry analysis pushed me to play the Xbox One version. I was originally leaning towards the PS4 version because of the timed exclusives but two of them are for Red Dead Online which isn’t available until November, 2018, and I didn’t think the Grizzlies Outlaw outfit which is available in single player was enough. I had read the Xbox One version offered better performance and that’s what cemented my decision.
Red Dead Redemption II is a very story-driven and cinematic experience. It’s also a prequel that leads directly into the events of the first game. The story is set in 1899 in a fictional and condensed version of the United States and you play as Arthur Morgan, an outlaw in the Dutch van der Linde gang. The story starts with the gang on the run from the law after a botched heist. The gang needs money to escape so they rob a train that belongs to Leviticus Cornwall, a wealthy man in the oil business. Cornwall is furious about the heist and hires the Pinkerton Detective Agency to go after the gang. The gang is constantly on the run and the leader of the gang, Dutch van der Linde, promises that one last big heist is all they need to escape for good. If you’ve played the original game, you should know that doesn’t actually happen. The plot is really a tale about how the gang dissolves and in some ways, it mirrors the theme of Grand Theft Auto V – the pursuit of the almighty dollar. The gang is always looking to rob and steal to fund their escape. I like the theme in particular because I like the idea of heists. On their quest for money, the gang ends up fueling many fires. They end up in the middle of a feud between two wealthy families, they instigate war between a Native American tribe and the U.S. Army, and at one point, Arthur and a few other gang members end up on an island near Cuba. In my opinion, the writing is seriously on point and Arthur Morgan is easily one of the best protagonists Rockstar has ever created. You’re always playing as a criminal in Rockstar’s open world games and Red Dead Redemption II is no exception. But the morals of the protagonists in their games don’t always match up with their actions, especially when the player is able to free-roam and do what they want. I can easily let it go since that is the nature of the beast because these are video games after all. The game has an honor system and you will have to make decisions that affect your honor level and how people in the world treat you. Arthur never tries to hide who he truly is and even though he has the option to help people, his loyalty is always to the gang. I really got hooked into the plot and there’s some excellent character development here. Many characters from the previous game make return like Dutch, Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella, and John Marston, among some others and the voice acting is fantastic across the board. Roger Clark voices Arthur and does an absolutely phenomenal job. His performance is easily one of the best in the game. Red Dead Redemption II is one of the rare titles that tells a story I was actually sad to see come to an end. But as good as the story, characters, and voice acting are, ultimately the gameplay is what really defines the experience for me.
If you’re one of those people that doesn’t like Rockstar’s games because of the gameplay, you probably won’t like Red Dead Redemption II. Nothing has really changed. In fact, I would say things like the controls and character movement have in some ways regressed. It’s obvious I’m a fan of Rockstar’s games but even I’m not blind to their flaws and Red Dead Redemption II has some issues. The controls are cumbersome, I’m pretty sure there’s some button lag going on, and the the game often feels as clunky as Grand Theft Auto IV. I always thought Red Dead Redemption’s controls and character movement were an improvement over GTA IV and I thought Grand Theft Auto V was a huge improvement. But Red Dead Redemption II feels like a step back. All these games give you the option for aim assist/lock-on, you have to tap a button to sprint, you can snap to cover, and the characters feel “heavy” for lack of a better word. Much like GTA IV, getting in and out of cover and other actions can sometimes be frustrating because you’ll often have to wait for an animation to finish. There’s a few buttons that are tied to multiple functions and it can be easy to fumble around with the controls. Some actions require you to press a button, others require you to hold down the button, and I frequently found myself inadvertently doing things I didn’t intend to do which becomes annoying.
The game can be played in third-person or first-person and the basic actions you may have experienced in other Rockstar games are all here. You can walk, run, sprint, crouch, jump, aim down sights in first-person, and perform melee attacks. The melee system involves pressing the attack and block buttons at the right times, but you can also grab and beat enemies as well. Arthur can perform stealth kills by sneaking up behind enemies and taking them down with his hands or a melee weapon. You can snap to cover, pop up from cover, shoot from cover, and the dead eye mechanic makes a return from the previous game. When you activate dead eye, time slows down allowing you to mark your targets for shooting, and when ready, Arthur will rapidly fire at all marked targets. The game also implements an eagle eye mechanic which allows you to track animals and clues. It’s best used when hunting.
If you followed the games development, you might think Red Dead Redemption II is a survival game. In my opinion, it’s not. It has survival elements which can affect Arthur’s health and stamina but it’s not like he will drop dead if you ignore the survival stuff. Arthur can cook and eat food, craft items, hunt animals, fish, and gain and lose weight. Luckily there’s plenty of food items scattered around the world you can just pick up and store for later and what you consume can affect your health, stamina, and dead eye. Each of these things will drain based on your actions but do regenerate over time. However, the rate of regeneration depends on the cores of each status which also drain and when the cores are empty, Arthur will start to experience negative effects. For example, when your stamina core is drained, Arthur’s movement speed will be limited. Like I said, there’s plenty of food items around and food will replenish your cores. Certain tonics will temporarily fortify your health, stamina, and dead eye bars and some consumables can positively affect one status while negatively affecting another. Another survival element is weather. Arthur can get too hot or too cold, depending on the location, and you’ll need to dress appropriately otherwise certain cores will drain faster. Ultimately, the survival elements are added in for realism but you’re never really forced to scrounge for anything to survive and you can get through the story without really focusing on it.
The primary mode of transportation is horses. Like Arthur, the horses have their own cores that need to be maintained, forcing you to actually care for your horses. Horses can get dirty but you can run them through water or brush them to clean them. They can get spooked and you’ll need to calm them down. And if they take enough damage, they’ll fall and you can revive or kill them. Calming your horse down, brushing it, feeding it, and basically caring for it will increase your bond with it. As the bond increases, the horse’s health and stamina bars will permanently increase and they’ll gain new abilities like rearing and skidding around corners, among others. When you’re not near your horse, you can whistle or call it to make it come to you and the better your bond, the longer the distance you can call it. You can feed your horse to replenish its cores and there’s plenty of horse care products you can purchase or find in the world. You can buy, sell, customize, rename, and store your horses at the stables. The stables are also where you can retrieve any horse that’s lost. If you’re horse actually dies, it’s gone, so you’ll have to break in and bond with another horse. With that said, it may be a good idea to have multiple horses stored at the stables and the horses do vary in stats. Buying a horse costs money but you can always steal one and to change your primary horse will require you to transfer your saddle which you can do yourself or at the stables. When riding a horse, it can walk, run, sprint, jump over small obstacles, and buck you off if you push it too hard so be sure to watch its stamina bar. If you’re riding with someone else or a group of people, you can hold a button and the horse will match the speed of the other horse or horses and doing that does not drain its stamina.
Arthur carries a satchel where he stores provisions, items, and resources. He can only carry a few weapons but all extra weapons and some clothing can be stored on the horse. It’s a good idea to store outfits for different temperatures. Arthur can use his lantern to see better in the dark and whip out a lasso to rope in people and animals. He can hogtie bodies and store them on the back of his horse. Animal pelts can also be stored on the horse. But do keep in mind that anything stowed on the back of the horse can affect the horse’s stamina which can be a nuisance if you’re hunting because there’s no real way to get your pelts and animal carcasses back to camp quickly. Yes, there’s a main camp where the gang resides. Arthur can sleep which will advance time, he can also shave, eat, change clothes, play games, and interact with gang members at the camp. If you donate money, resources like animal parts, or valuable items, you’ll increase the gang’s funds which can be spent on camp upgrades. You can upgrade the camp’s ammo and resource supplies and use the funds to restock them when needed. I think the two most beneficial camp upgrades are the fast travel map and leather working tools. The fast travel map allows Arthur to fast travel to any discovered major locations in the world like towns and the leather working tools allows Pearson to craft satchel upgrades. He can also craft improvements for camp lodgings. If you’re not near the gang’s camp, you can always set up a camp somewhere in the wilderness and doing so will allow you to sleep, cook food, and craft items like tonics, bait for hunting, different ammo types and arrows for your bows. You can also craft and improve certain weapons. Crafting will require resources like herbs and animal parts but you don’t really need to do any of this if you don’t want to.
Arthur is a human being and human beings have hair. His hair and facial hair will grow over time and he can shave at camp or visit a barber. The barber will also trim and style his hair. Arthur will also get dirty but can get cleaned up at a hotel. Hotels also allow you to rent rooms where you can sleep and change your clothing. Any clothing you buy or acquire is stored in your wardrobe which can be accessed at your camp or hotels. You can change Arthur’s hat, shirt, vest, boots, pants, spurs, gloves, and some other stuff. You can choose from multiple outfits or create and save your own which is nice. Your hat can fall or be shot off your head and you will need to pick it up if you want it back. If you lose it, you can get it back through your wardrobe. You can take animal parts to the Trappers in the world who can use them to craft unique clothing and upgraded equipment. The character customization in this game is pretty cool but I can see some things being a nuisance. For example, if you want to maintain a certain look, you’ll have to shave or visit a barber every so often. Also, Arthur’s hat will go flying off his head from a punch or gunshot and it can happen quite often. If you find that annoying, it may be best to just not wear a hat. Ultimately, this is all just cosmetic and you’re never required to maintain a certain appearance so if you don’t care about any of it, you can just let Arthur become a dirty-looking motherfucker.
A lot of things cost money in the world of Red Dead Redemption II and there’s plenty of ways to make money. You can rob people, stagecoaches, shops, homes, and trains or if you prefer to be a goody two shoes, you can go after bounties or sell things. Hunting and fishing is a good way to make money but they can be time consuming. Butchers will give you money for animal parts. You can find money and items in the world that can be sold to shops or fences. Anything acquired illegally can be sold to fences like stolen horses, wagons, or items. Fences can also make trinkets and talismans from specific items you provide them and these do provide special benefits or perks like reduced incoming damage, increased money from looting, increased dead eye duration, higher quality animal parts from skinning, and other stuff. You can loot dead bodies for items and cash, you may come across chests that can be looted, you can search drawers, cupboards, and cabinets for loot, and treasure maps will lead you to a good source of money.
I would say robbing and stealing is the most enjoyable way of making money but you need to be aware of your honor level. Doing good deeds raises your honor level and committing crimes will lower your honor level, or in other words, make Arthur dishonorable. If you’re honorable, shops will offer you a discount. If you prefer to be a badass outlaw and rob, steal, and kill, you can make some good money but you may end up with a bounty on your head. Arthur can put on his bandana at any time to hide his identity while committing crimes. That’s how the game describes it. Whenever you commit a crime, there’s a chance the law can come after you. If that happens, you can outrun them but there’s a chance a bounty will placed on your head. It’s my understanding the bandana is supposed to prevent the bounty. How can they put a bounty on your head if they don’t know who you are? The game specifically indicates the bandana hides your identity, yet, I’ve had bounties put on my head while wearing it which I believe is for story-related purposes but it’s annoying. Another issue I have with it is that your honor is affected. How can you be considered dishonorable or honorable if the bandana hides your identity? I don’t think honor should affected while wearing the bandana. Furthermore, the bandana will be removed during cut scenes for some reason and sometimes the game will force it off Arthur’s face during gameplay which is very annoying. Bounties can be paid off at the post office so being wanted may cost you money which can be frustrating you’re trying to be as honorable as possible. If a witness sees you commit a crime, they will run to report you to the authorities so you can try and talk them out of it or outright kill them to stop them. If dead bodies are found, the law will come to investigate so you either need to get away or hide the bodies. When the law is searching for you, there’s a red area on the map which indicates their search radius. You need to escape this radius to evade them but you also have the option to surrender. I really enjoy the wanted system here, it’s actually quite involved but the bandana aspect is flawed. The more crimes you commit raises the bounty, and if you’re really trying not to have bounties on your head everywhere you go, you’re going to have be careful and pay them off whenever you can.
In addition to the barbers, trappers, and fences, you can visit stores, tailors, doctors, and gunsmiths to buy items. General stores sell all kinds of items and clothing but if the town has a tailor, the general store won’t sell any clothing. Fallen enemies will drop weapons you can pick up, you can find weapons in the world, or you can buy them at gunsmiths. The gunsmiths will clean your weapons and customize them for you. They’ll sell you ammunition and you can pay them for upgraded equipment like upgraded gun holsters. Much like GTA V, you can change your weapon’s appearance or upgrade it’s parts to make it more efficient in combat. You can add sights, scopes, improve the rifling, increase the barrel length, change the metals or wood, and add engravings and carvings. You can acquire and customize different revolvers, pistols, repeaters, rifles, and shotguns. You can also customize your knife. All weapons do vary in stats and the firearms need to be maintained or they won’t perform as well as they could. Maintained meaning cleaned. If you have gun oil, Arthur can clean the weapons himself or you can have them cleaned at the gunsmith. Unless you mess with settings, aim assist is on by default so you’ll always lock onto the nearest enemy when aiming. You can, of course, aim manually which may be necessary in many cases since Arthur’s aim isn’t always steady at first. In addition to firearms are melee weapons and things you can throw. You can stab people with your knife, throw or stab people with your throwing knives, you can get your hands on a tomahawk, hatchet, you can throw fire bottles and throw or plant dynamite. You’re given plenty of options when it comes to killing people and all of them are satisfying.
The mission design in Red Dead Redemption II is linear overall. I would also say this is a slow-paced game. Slower than most Rockstar games. The beginning missions more or less act like tutorials to show you the different mechanics and the game does start out slow much like the previous game did. But as you progress, you’ll participate in some pretty awesome and action-packed missions. Story missions progress the story and optional story missions can be completed for honor. Many missions force you to make decisions like to kill people or not or to help or not help someone. You’ll earn medals for missions based on how many of the mission’s requirements you meet. You can replay any completed missions and try for better medals. If you’ve played other Rockstar games, the mission design and objectives should not be unfamiliar. You’ll have to kill people, follow people, interrogate people, outrun the law, and much of the story dialogue is exchanged while riding or walking with people. The more exciting missions put you in shoot outs, you’ll rob places with gang members, rescue people, infiltrate areas, and some missions force you to be stealthy. I can’t say the game is very difficult and the mission checkpoints are pretty forgiving. There’s going to be a lot of riding from one area to another and luckily, you can switch to the cinematic camera view where you can hold down a button so your horse follows the path to your objective automatically. Some missions won’t force you to ride a long distance manually but others will. Horses may be your primary mode of transportation but you can also ride in wagons, drive trains, or use boats to get around.
Red Dead Redemption II’s world is both detailed and massive. You’ll traverse through farms, swamps, mines, caves, forests, the city of Saint Denis, fields, forts, camps, and some towns and locations seen in the previous game. And the fast travel system needs to be re-evaluated. As mentioned before, once you purchase the fast travel map at camp, you can fast travel to any discovered areas like towns but it’s a one way trip. There’s no way to fast travel back to camp. Your gang’s camp will move to different locations as you progress through the story and, thankfully, they’re always near a town where you can pay a stagecoach or buy a train ticket to take a train to other towns but you can’t just fast travel anywhere. I think a lot of the game and story has you navigating from one area to another. I appreciate the world and detail as much as the next person but some quality of life improvements to the fast travel system would be welcome. It took me around sixty hours to beat the story mode and that’s with taking my time and also completing any stranger missions I came across. But I often wonder how much of that time could have been reduced had the game offered a way to fast travel to anywhere from anywhere because I guarantee you a good chunk of that play time was just traversing from one location to another.
There’s plenty to see and do in Red Dead Redemption II outside of the story. You’ll encounter strangers which basically act as side missions. You’ll help a man take pictures of wildlife, go on hunting trips with a veteran, find legendary outlaws, and complete other various objectives. A lot of the strangers have a series of missions so you’ll encounter the same ones more than once. If you don’t feel like completing missions, you’re free to roam around the world. You can hunt, fish, rob, loot, participate in cattle rustling, and/or just explore. You can play and gamble on games like poker, dominoes, blackjack, and five finger fillet. You can see a show or have your portrait taken. You’ll often be provided the option to participate in companion activities which means you can participate in an activity with one of your gang members. You can find and infiltrate gang camps which are a good source of resources. You can go after bounties which are a good source of money. If you’re out just roaming around, you’ll come across people who need help or what the game refers to as encounters. You’ll be asked to donate money, you can save people from being killed, or people may simply try to rob you. You can get ambushed by enemies so you always need to be careful and alert. The enemy AI isn’t too bad. They’ll shoot at you, get behind cover, use gatling guns, and advance on your position. Head shots are instant kills and sometimes you’ll end up in a duel where you need to draw your weapon and shoot the enemy before he shoots you. You can also shoot weapons out of an enemy’s hand. When choosing your weapon, you can switch between different ammo types if you have multiple, and they do effect the damage inflicted but in the end, activating dead eye is the most efficient weapon you have. Activate it and mark those headshots and you can take down an entire group of enemies in seconds, rendering weapon upgrades and ammo types as more of a novelty than a necessity. Even if dead eye wasn’t a mechanic, you can get through any combat situation without too much hassle. I don’t think I utilized the different ammo types until the end of the game when I remembered I could.
As you may or may not know, Rockstar likes the idea of collectibles. They hide small items around their worlds for players to find and if you’re going for one hundred percent completion, finding them all can be a tedious task. In Red Dead Redemption II, you’ll have to find cigarette cards, dreamcatchers, dinosaur bones, rock carvings, exotics, and treasure maps that lead you to other treasure maps that eventually lead you to treasure. There’s actually more collectibles and finding everything can be very tedious. I would recommend you use a guide if you’re going for one hundred percent completion. Hunting is also tedious because you need to hunt to acquire better gear. And to have a vendor craft anything of use, you usually need perfect and/or legendary animal parts. Hunting is a somewhat involved process. First you need to identify the animal and know the quality of it which is indicated by how many stars it has. Poor, good, and perfect are the different qualities. Some animals are considered legendary. You need to know that neck and headshots do more damage than body shots and you need to know what weapons are better for killing specific animals. After you kill one, you can then skin it and collect its parts. You need to keep the parts on Arthur or his horse and make sure not to sell them if you’re trying for a specific upgrade. While I think the hunting, crafting, and upgrading is cool, it goes a little overboard. It’s too much busywork and not always fun. You’ll want to use your binoculars or a weapon’s scope to scope out an area, you’ll need to be quiet to not spook whatever you’re hunting, you’ll have to use the eagle eye mechanic to track animals, and they can actually smell your scent. You can use cover scent lotion to mask your scent and you can use bait to lure an animal to a location of your choosing. If they do smell your scent, they’ll run away. But dangerous animals like wolves will try and kill you if they spot you. Hunting is a very slow-paced process which is why it can be a tedious task. You also need to be very alert to your surroundings. Add in the fact that you not only need specific animals for specific upgrades, but specific quality animal parts, and it’s just way too much busywork. You can’t fast travel anywhere, there’s no way to quickly send pelts and carcasses to a vendor or back to camp, and the world is huge so if you’re trying to craft a specific item, it may take you a while. Even fishing can be a chore. You need to acquire specific bait which helps to catch specific fish. It’s all just a bit much.
Like GTA V, the game does place an emphasis on money. Robbing and stealing are the most fun aspects of the game in my opinion. But unlike GTA V, you can actually rob all kinds of things for a good amount of money outside of story missions. If you care about not acquiring a bounty, you’ll want to rob people, wagons, or trains in secluded locations. Also, there’s less people out at night so robbing at night is safer than robbing in the day time. You can ride your horse next to a wagon or train and then jump from your horse onto them to board them. The train is easily the most fun to rob and it’s also very lucrative. Not only can you rob the passengers but you can also loot any cabinets and chests on board along with any safes which can be blown open with dynamite. Stagecoaches and wagons can offer a decent amount of money and you can rob any you come across in the world. As you progress through the story, you’ll unlock coach robbery missions where you visit an NPC who gives you tips on specific coach locations. Considering your part of gang, I am disappointed that you can’t actually bring gang members with you to rob something outside of missions. Any time you do rob a train, stagecoach, wagon, or even a bank with gang members, it’s always part of a scripted mission and you have to split half the take with your gang members and the other half goes to the gang’s funds. All I want is the option to take a group of guys with me to rob something at any time. That’s all I want.
Red Dead Redemption II is a very cinematic experience in many ways. Not just in it’s story and writing, but the presentation as a whole. The visuals and attention to detail are breathtaking and other than some pop-in here and there, this is one of the best looking games I’ve played in a while. The texture work is fantastic, the character, reload, and horse animations are incredible, and the lighting is excellent. Footsteps leave tracks, snow and mud are actively deformed as you walk through them, if a character is punched in the face you can see visible damage, blood will spray from wounds, and if a character falls in the snow, the snow will actually stick to his or her clothes. Objects will break, debris will fly around, and gunsmoke will fill the air during firefights. Foliage will sway in the breeze, dust will blow through the air, you can see lightning strikes during a thunderstorm, and you can actually witness horses take shits. There are so many details packed into this game, it’s ridiculous. If you shoot a shopkeeper and revisit the shop later, the shopkeeper will return wearing a bandage and remember you. You’ll come across bounty hunters transporting bounties, people hunting, people fighting, people carrying items, and animals feeding on dead animals. An NPC I shot actually got up and screamed in pain and before stumbling to his death and I saw an injured animal squirm and moan before I put it out of its misery. A well-placed shotgun blast can blow a chunk of a person’s head off or their entire head off. I could talk all day about the details but Rockstar has always been about details and the amount of detail here really helps to make the world feel like a living and breathing place. Most of the soundtrack is filled with what I’ll call authentic-sounding songs that fit the theme of the game perfectly and the sound effects are just as incredible as the visuals. Gunshots are loud, they’ll echo, you can hear bullets ricochet, animals will make all kinds of noises and there’s never any “dead air” if you will. Now I played Red Dead Redemption II on an Xbox One X and I would say the performance is okay at best. The frame rate will noticeably dip often, especially if there’s a lot of action on-screen. I did encounter one significant bug. An NPC wouldn’t move halting mission progress. I threw some dynamite which got him to move.
Red Dead Redemption II is truly an immersive experience and I had a lot of fun with it. However, it is a slow-paced game and if you want to experience everything it has to offer, there’s a lot of busy work involved. Rockstar has always paid attention to detail, adding a form of realism to their games which helps to make their worlds feel as lively and realistic as possible. Red Dead Redemption II is no exception. While most of the realistic aspects are just there for detail, some of it makes accomplishing certain things a chore. Crafting and upgrading gear and equipment is what suffers the most because it relies on animals you have to hunt which can be a very slow and time consuming process for a variety of reasons. The controls are cumbersome and the game shares many of the same issues as GTA IV. On the plus side, the story is fantastic, there’s plenty to see and do, and it’s the kind of game you can easily get lost in. The action is fun, the combat is satisfying, and you can become a badass outlaw. This is one of the best and most detailed worlds Rockstar has ever created although I would appreciate a better fast travel system. But at least all the navigation allowed me to appreciate the breathtaking visuals and details.
I would absolutely recommend Red Dead Redemption II to fans of open world games, action games, westerns, and to those that enjoy Rockstar’s previous titles. It has issues but I think the good outweighs the bad. It’s slow to start, it’s a slow-paced game in general, it’s a very story-driven experience, but once things open up, you’re free to roam the world and take in all the sights and activities. There are features I would have loved to experience that aren’t here that I’m guessing will be added into Red Dead Online like getting a gang together to do shit for example. But, ultimately, what’s on offer here is fun and I think Rockstar has set a new standard when it comes to detail and world design. Definitely check out Red Dead Redemption II.