Every once in a while, a form of entertainment is released that just completely leaves you in awe, whether it’s a film, an album, a book or, in this case, a video game. Sure, there have been a lot of perfectly scored games (I myself have given an illustrious 10 to a handful of games during my time at Gaming Respawn), but this, my friends, is something different. This game may well be the game that, if possible could, could break that scoring structure and score above a 10. It is a game that in 20 years or so people will be talking about the same way we talk about, say, Metal Gear Solid today. It is a game where if you collected 100 gamers into a room and asked them to name their top 10 games of all time, this would feature in at least 90 of those lists. It is a game where, on at least a dozen different occasions, I have just stopped marvelled at the technological and artistic masterpiece that is in front of me. I am, of course, referring to Rockstar’s new magnum opus, Red Dead Redemption II.
Talk of a sequel to the first Red Dead Redemption had obviously begun pretty much straight after the 2010 release of the original, but we all knew we would have to wait a fair amount of time before we ever did see a sequel. After Grand Theft Auto V’s original release in 2013, there were some educated guesses we would have to wait for another 5 years before we could get our hands on a sequel, and then finally, in October of 2016, Red Dead Redemption II was announced to the world. It hasn’t all been plain sailing for the sequel, with a couple of pushed back release dates and the work-load controversy for the developers. With all that aside, even before getting our hands on the game, we all knew it would be a complete game changer.
Red Dead Redemption II takes place 12 years before the events of the first instalment. You’ll play as Arthur Morgan, a man in his mid-30s and a veteran in the infamous Van der Linde gang we all know so much about from the original game. Arthur is an interesting fellow, he is the epitome of someone who lives by an outlaw code. He is 100% loyal to Dutch Van der Linde and to the gang itself, barring a couple of members that Arthur would gladly see the end of. To him, it is always the gang first, and his and outsiders’ needs come very much last. There will be numerous times that Arthur will disagree with Dutch’s decision-making, but as a loyal second-in-command, he will follow his orders no matter what. All of the members of the gang do get a lot of screen time throughout Arthur’s adventure, and this has to be the most dialogue featured in a game by Rockstar. Not once, however, would you want to endlessly try and skip any dialogue, even when sometimes a cutscene can last five minutes or so. The dialogue is so well written and performed perfectly by the voice cast that, much like everything else in Red Dead Redemption II, you are just drawn into it. The benefit of having such a well featured support cast is that you generally care about them as much as you do about Arthur himself. Their problems really do feel like your problems, so doing the supporting cast’s side missions feels in no way feel like a chore. There is a slight issue, I suppose, in liking Arthur and his chums so much: They are not nice people at all. They are all murderers, thieves, and really just not the sort of people you would want to associate with in the real world. The story will truly keep you hooked from start to finish without forcing you to look at a walkthrough to see how much longer the game is.
Out of the story, Red Dead Redemption II plays as you would expect a Rockstar game to play. There is a huge map (more on that later) to explore, main and side missions to complete, games and activities to dive into, and baths to be had. Yep, you did read that correctly, baths. RDRII does feature some survival aspects, but they are by no means complicated or get in the way of your experience. Arthur will need to keep himself and his trusty steed clean to perform at a peak level, and to perform at a top level, you will need to make sure Arthur’s ‘cores’ are well maintained. Cores are split into three categories: health, stamina and Dead Eye. The cores will determine how fast Arthur can regenerate the three stats, so looking after the cores will become a central part of your play time in RDRII. Luckily, it is easily done either by eating (different foods and medicines will have different effects on some or all of the cores) or sleeping. Be careful though, do not eat too much because poor old Arthur will pile on the pounds, much like CJ could do in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. To be fair, it is a lot harder to get Arthur to balloon than CJ, but there is always that danger, and the same goes for being too skinny. The cores (minus Dead Eye) will also apply to your most faithful companion during your time in Red Dead Redemption II, your horse.
Horses can be obtained in a few different ways: buying one from a stable, finding one in the wild, or killing someone and stealing theirs. It will be your primary mode of transport throughout your adventures, and much like the supporting cast, because you spend so much time with your horse, you will really begin to care about its well being. It really is a heartbreaking moment if your faithful stead dies in a shootout, especially because some of Arthur’s most tender moments are when he talks with his horse. There are a few different breeds of horses, all with their own advantages (speed, strength etc.), but generally, when you find a horse you like, you’ll likely stick with it until the end. If you do come across a new horse you’d like to take ownership of, you can store your old horse in a stable so it will always be available for you. The more you ride your horse, the more trust you will create with it, which will unlock some cool features, like being able to skid to a stop or perform a sort of “horse drift” sort of move.
As well as looking after yourself and your horse, Arthur will also need to look after the camp itself. Early on you are told by Dutch that the camp will need its share of any money you earn. It doesn’t seem obvious or necessary at first, but after you unlock the ability to upgrade the camp, making sure the group has enough money becomes essential. You can upgrade a number of different aspects to the camp, such as upgrading the medical, food and ammo carts, having better tents for people to sleep in and even upgrading where the horses will stay (see, again with the horse love). You will also need to make sure the camp has enough food, medicine and ammo. This can be achieved either by buying from the camp ledger (where all the upgrades can be found) or donating food and medicine yourself from what you find/craft out in the wild. Yep, with the addition of some survival elements, crafting is available to Arthur. Much like the survival aspects, it is pretty straightforward and is easily achieved at a campsite’s fire. You can craft ammo, medicine, tonics, cook food at a campfire, and much like looking after Arthur’s cores, it becomes clear very quickly that this is something that needs to be done regularly for you to thrive in the harshness of the Wild West.
Part of the harshness of the Wild West is due to just how damn dangerous it is outside of your camp. Bandits, bounty hunters, and wild animals are all there, waiting to put an end to Mr. Morgan. Gunplay, much like in the first Red Dead, is tremendous, with large-scale shootouts leaving your heart racing as you try and survive an onslaught of bullets. Dead Eye is vital in coming out of a big shootout alive, which is why it is important to spend time crafting necessary tonics to allow you to refill the Dead Eye meter. Rockstar has also added a random cinematic camera for when one of your bullets hits someone in a rather unpleasant place, such as an eye, for example. It isn’t overused like it is in Sniper Elite, so when that camera does kick in, as gory as it could be, it does add to the thrill of a battle. Controls feel slick, with Arthur able to duck behind cover by simply hitting RB/R1. Hand-to-hand combat feels as brutal as ever here, with every blow feeling like you are really dishing out some damage.
There is one aspect that, above all else, lifts Red Dead Redemption II into the ‘greatest of all time’ category, and that is the world itself. Rockstar is, of course, no stranger to creating engaging, diverse and enthralling worlds to explore, but they have saved their very best for RDRII. The map itself is huge, with diverse locations ranging from snow-peaked mountains to southern swamplands. The map is a fair bit bigger than GTA V’s map but doesn’t feature endless, empty country roads like GTA V did. Yes, of course, RDRII is set in 1899, so it is ’empty’ in a sense, but no matter where you are in the map, there is always something to do. Open world games with a large scale map always struggle to make the world itself feel alive, but there is no such issue here. There are enough interactions with random NPCs to make you feel like the world is accurately populated. Wild animals are never too far (unless you are tracking one of the legendary animals) away. Towns really do feel like the social hubs they would have been back in 1899, with saloons to buy whisky and have the odd fight, to gun and general stores for all your outlaw needs. There are half a dozen or so games to waste your time with, like poker, dominoes and others to help kill the time between murders.
Speaking of murder, the world allows you to be as notorious as you see fit. Obviously, there are story missions where there is no choice but to rob and kill poor innocent people, but when freely exploring the world, it is your choice whether or not to rob the doctor’s surgery, start a saloon brawl, or steal stagecoaches for a quick and easy profit. If you do decide to commit these acts, be sure to either kill witnesses before they can tell the Law just what you have done or be prepared to pay for your crimes with your hard-earned cash. Committing a crime where the Law is aware of your actions will result in a bounty on your head. Some story missions will leave you with no choice but to obtain a bounty, like when you have to murder a whole town’s sheriff department, for example, but they are easily paid off, if you have the cash, at a train station.
What makes the world so impressive is that, like many modern open world games, Red Dead Redemption II gives you the option to turn the mini-map off. After doing this for the first time, you will not look back. Outside of going somewhere specific for a story mission that will require the mini-map, just exploring the world without the mini-map does not feel unnatural, and you will find yourself like the outlaws of old, remembering routes and planning journeys on an actual map. One activity in particular truly shines when you have the mini-map off, and that is hunting. Hunting is a VITAL part of the gameplay in Red Dead Redemption II as it allows you to get meat for food, animal hide for crafting and is a great way to make some murder-free money too. There is nothing more rewarding than tracking a particular animal for an hour or so without the mini-map there helping and finally getting your kill or possible new companion. Really, the greatest compliment I can give Red Dead Redemption II is that it makes you feel like you are actually in 1899 alongside Arthur Morgan.
Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: 26th October 2018