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Red Dead Redemption II – Review
Red Dead Redemption II is like watching a train wreck happening. The train track exploded, the train tries its best to stop from falling off a cliff.
You already know it won’t end well. But you just cannot take your eyes off. You want to see it the spectacle unfold anyway.
The game is a straight prequel to Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s 2010 open world game that took the GTA formula and applied it to the dying breaths of the Wild West.
The conclusion to the story of John Marston and his former associates, the Van Der Linde gang, is known. In Red Dead Redemption II, we get to see how this former glorious gang of outlaws slowly crumble, 12 years prior to events of the previous game.
You play as one of the gang members, Arthur Morgan, a well-loved protege by leader Dutch Van Der Linde. And through this bruiser’s eyes is how you see this wonderful new living open world Rockstar has crafted.
Stunning. Simply stunning. Not only the new open world map is massive, it is also teeming with life. Each region within the five states have different biomes with its own ecology of life. The wide plains in heartlands of New Hanover is where the mighty bisons roam. Down south is the marshes and bayous of Lemoyne, with parts filled with dangerous gators contradicted with the rise of civilisation, the huge city of Saint Denis.
It is a bit odd to see a game about cowboys but not spending time in the Wild West proper, but the scenery is worth it and the story justifies it.
I love the lighting effects being used. God rays and fog are very prevalent. Nights are really dark that carrying a lantern out helps you see better. Heavy storms begin ominously by the dark clouds looming far in the sky with some thunder rumbling. But when it hits the rains looks and feels thick, with lightning brightly shining in a flash so quick it’s hard to get the right screenshot. Tress sway aggressively to one side in the heavy storm. Arthur and his horse soaks heavily if he’s out in the rain.
Arthur can not only go wet. He can get blood stains on his clothes if he carried a dead animal or a dead man. Mud will be sticking on him. His hair grows naturally so you need to shave or get a haircut once in a while. Or grow them all out like a hobo if you want, though it will take a while to grow.
The game looks spectacular but at busy locales or very intense gunfights with explosions all around, the otherwise solid 30fps can tank. Playing on a base PS4, the textures are not as crisp and objects at a distance look muddy. If you have a PS4 Pro or an Xbox One X, it should look more beautiful.
The soundtrack is excellently done. It may not be as striking as the licensed Spaghetti Western film scores like in Red Dead Revolver, the soundtrack is here to accentuate the mood. For that purpose it works. Ambience music fades in and fades out as you ride on horseback on a cross-country trip.
In the many scripted missions, the dynamic music adds and removes layers of songs. I emphasises the loud, important moments and tones it down when the action stops. The variety of music is great too. Music that makes you sad. Music that rekindles a past romance. Music where everyone working and all happy. It’s all well done, without needing to be on the center stage mostly.
The times the music that got center stage, it stole the show- there is at least one equivalent to the Mexico scene, a powerful, emotional moment, from the first game. Woody Jackson, the lead composer for previous GTA games and Red Dead Redemption, returns for the same role here with tons of collaborators including Grammy-winning artists like D’Angelo.
What’s on the center stage is of course the voice acting. Arthur is a course, sometime cynical man and his voice suits the large man well. But he can show compassion, just listen to him praising or apologising to horses, there’s so many ways to say “Boy..” and “Girl…” with this man.
The hundreds of NPCs also have voice acting of a similar quality. There are various accents and some folks even speak different languages, all sound at authentic at first glance.
The large cast that is the Van Der Linde gang is all memorable with fleshed out characters that make you care more about the the whole story more than you would imagine. Especially if you take time and see the small details. These folks live in the moving camps the gang has and you can hear them banter, share stories, sing along, having a good time together and share their lowest moments together.
Despite being outlaws, the gang has a set of ideals they live with. They regard crimes with children off-limits and they see no difference in colours, in world where racism is still prevalent. There are social commentary, some still relevant today like women’s rights and labour work (heh), but the game handles it subtly and reasonably. But more importantly, it adds character and make you care more about these folks.
At a glance, Red Dead Redemption II definitely can be just described as “GTA With Cowboys” but to say that means we are brushing off the many refinements and small touches that the game has added. But the statement is still true.
For one, the mission variety is excellent. Or at least the mission designers did a great job to not make each mission too similar. Some mission unlocks while you are in a different mission, mentioned in a dialogue. Sometimes it started by someone you did not expect in the camp before being called by a different person to talk about the mission proper.
During these missions, Arthur can be presented with some simple choices. Kill the person or have your gang member do it? Do we go quiet or go guns blazing? These are simple choices, with the impact of the choice explained clearly but nothing too consequential in the long game. Some missions can be extended should you wish.
There’s one involving a fishing trip but suddenly you got roped into capturing fleeing prisoners. By the end of that sequence, you can choose to end the mission there or continue to the fishing trip.
As a result, you don’t get to bring gang members out to hang out in a systemic way, like in GTA IV and GTA V. There’s no heist planning system like GTA V either. Rather, most of your activities with them are tied to linear, critical path story missions or optional activities.
Arthur himself has his own ideals, some is set in stone as part of his character, though some manifests through the player via the Honour system. Do good like refusing rewards or saving innocent folks and get honour. Rob someone or kill horses and your honour will drop.
It’s a clear-cut morality system but it does not do anything much in the story aside from slight ending changes. It mostly just affects how people see you and how the camera kill cam will look like.
Combat has some significant tweaks this time. Hand-to-hand combat now is a bit more involved as a combination of the punch button and a direction changes the kind of punches you throw. For weapons, you have four slots for them, two sidearms and two larger guns.
It’s still the familiar cover-based shooter, though the change of arsenal gives it a different feel. Some weapons need an extra button press to cock in bullets into place, like how guns of the period used to be. You can just have the lock-on do most of the work, but it is not efficient as you can survive more than a few gunshots from a revolver.
Unfortunately Red Dead Redemption II still has the same clunky controls that just doesn’t work that good in tight closed spaces. I can’t say I enjoy not getting into the right cover. Movement is slow and fiddly indoors and that makes both shooting and looting items (a new feature) hard.
The wanted system gets a slight revamp too. Witnesses can report your crimes and you can defuse the situation without killing them. Masks and bandannas can be equipped while committing crimes and the law can recognise your face and attire if you just recently escaped them but still linger around town. You can even just surrender and spend some time behind bars for a while.
There’s a lot of many little details that try to make the game more immersive. Skinning animals look brutal. There’s an improved hunting mechanic that requires you to use specific weapons for the cleanest kills. If not you can hear the tragic cries of a dying animal. You can browse in shops and buy items on display. The game be played entirely in first person and has a good cinematic camera this time. There’s more ways to interact with NPCs and fellow gang members. You can form bonds with horses that can permanently die.
There are so many little details to even mention them all, but each makes the illusion of a living open world slightly better.
Content & Longevity
With over 104 story missions, Red Dead Redemption II will keep you busy for a long time. The estimation of at least 65 hours just to complete the story is accurate, though it can easily go further than that should you engage with all of the side content on offer. Not to mention mini-games.
Each mission, story or optional, is so engaging. Either through the dynamic or unexpected delivery, or the fear that something horrible and pivotal to the plot might happen keeps you on your toes each time. This is still a tale of how an outlaw seeks redemption, and by the end of the game, you will be emotionally invested with the characters involved in this epic tale.
Not many AAA games go this long today, but it works for Red Dead Redemption II. The slow burn makes the end of the proverbial train wreck even more impactful.
The map is overtly huge. So huge that the main game doesn’t even really utilise all of the created space for the Story Mode. It’s easy to see why. Red Dead Online is coming later this month and for sure it will have enough map space to make content for at least five years to come.
While Rockstar insisted Red Dead Online is a separate product that should be reviewed separately, access to it still require Red Dead Redemption II and that alone may entice you to keep the physical, two-disc copy for a long time.
Red Dead Redemption II is a masterpiece of this console generation. The remarkable open world has enough interaction can make you immerse and lose yourself for hours. The gripping tragedy of the Van Der Linde gang, littered with mission variety and structure, will keep you glued right until the end to see it to its natural conclusion.
Red Dead Redemption II is not a genre-defining game, but rather a reminder how high the bar is for an open world action game.
It has its faults. The open world is not as systemic and is still is a facade that makes the player all the focus. The old controls scheme from previous Rockstar games is still imprecise. Occasional bugs do hamper the experience.
And let’s not forget, the working culture that leads to the creation of this magnificent game is far from perfect. Please give the men and women involved in this the right treatment they deserve.
Red Dead Redemption II demands your time to enjoy it. And should you oblige, it will be one of the best 60+ hours of your life.
Review done on a base PS4. Review copy provided by the publisher.