Red Dead Redemption 2 Review – Life on the American Frontier (PS4)
It all begins with a cold open—quite literally—that feels heavily inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. That’s something that reverberates throughout Red Dead Redemption 2. Cinematic themes and influences repeatedly come up, but it’s more than just a scene lifted here or a set piece laid out there. These things are ingrained directly into Red Dead Redemption 2’s DNA. Every moment, whether cinematic in nature or a random encounter in the open world, is crafted with that careful touch. Red Dead Redemption 2 raises the bar and sets it in a whole new place that games will be trying to reach for years to come.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has a story to tell, but it doesn’t just have the one story. It’s not just the story of Arthur Morgan. It’s not just the story of the Dutch van der Linde gang. It’s the story of the American frontier in 1899. It’s every single conversation that you overhear or quest that you undertake. The world doesn’t just serve at the whimsy of the player character. The world exists naturally for the player character to fit into immersively. Like any great ensemble film or TV show, while things may center on Arthur, there exists a great many stories outside of his own interests. And perhaps just as important as any scripted narrative the game has to offer are the moments that the player gets to craft for themselves through a natural, living, and breathing open world. The most natural, living, and breathing open world I’ve ever encountered.
You’ve all heard of the infamous horse balls by now—Rockstar’s tech that makes horse testicles shrink in colder weather—but that silly example is just one of many such things that heighten the immersion in the world. It’s a feature that you might never actually notice, but consider the fact that I spent well over ten minutes one day just looking at how birds flew through the sky. A slightly skewed V formation shifted and danced through the air, looking as natural as if Rockstar had cast real birds for the part. The whole world is alive with an ecosystem that feels more natural than programmed, whether it’s the animals out in the wilderness or the ongoing lives of the people in town.
The Devil Went Down to Georgia
I found myself down in the swampy southeastern area of the map. I had just helped a retired gunslinger fend off bounty hunters from her bayou hideout (complete with some spectacular explosives) and been mauled by a gator. I wanted nothing more than to get back to camp with my hard-earned gator skin, but a man came riding down the road moaning in pain and fell off his horse. His arm was bloodied and he asked me to get him to a doctor before passing out. I begrudgingly set down the perfect gator skin I had labored so hard to get in order to do the right thing. I pulled him onto the back of my horse and we rode to the bustling metropolis of Saint Denis.
Once in the civilized city of Saint Denis—a clear allusion to a New Orleans-style city—and despite the doctor urging me to leave, I stayed around to watch the injured man get his arm amputated. Any other game would have hidden this moment behind a forced exit and a closed door, but not Red Dead Redemption 2. After the arm landed with a thunk in the trash barrel, I headed over to the theater to see a show. A magician took the stage and asked for volunteers from the audience. He needed someone to shoot him. He would catch the bullet in his teeth, he claimed. I reluctantly stood up from my seat, and as the spotlight shone on me, I took aim and pulled the trigger. I fully expected that I had just murdered the man on the stage in front of me. After a few brief moments of panic, he lifted his arms and smiled, bullet clutched firmly in his mouth.
Hanging out in the swamplands and a southern town may not seem like Red Dead Redemption, but that’s only a fraction of the American frontier that you can explore. Rest assured that there are plenty of the more traditional Western environments that you’d expect to see. And here’s the kicker. Everything about my journey into the heart of the marshy southeast wasn’t even part of the main story. The gunslinger. The gators. The man getting his arm amputated. My participation in a magic show. All of these things were random events ingrained within the world. These things were part of my discoveries and my story. Even the gunslinger “side mission” came about by randomly wandering into a saloon in a town halfway across the map.
Discovery is a key theme that keeps Red Dead Redemption 2 constantly feeling immersive within the unknowns of the land. The player knows what Arthur Morgan knows. Tasks aren’t handed to you in a pretty little checklist. They are discovered through conversation, action, and in the case of a hunt against a brutal serial killer, randomly stumbling across the mutilated corpse of one of their victims. Bread crumbs are left along the way, and having an entire camp of people ready to feed you intel helps in moving the action forward, but I’m sure there are plenty of secrets the world holds that I haven’t even come close to discovering yet. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a sandbox with purpose, and there’s a lot to play around in.
Too often, open-world games can feel like a chore, a repetitive task list of things to do that fail to add meaningfully to the experience, feeling instead like excuses to fill in the world. Every piece of Red Dead Redemption 2 feels naturally embedded into the experience. It’s so easy to get distracted, but I would hardly call these things distractions. Everything plays like a natural part of Arthur Morgan’s story, whether it’s taking a short detour to hunt a legendary animal or stopping by a washed-up gunslinger’s pig farm to confront him about the old days. Let me just say that dynamite and piles of pig shit make for an interesting combination.
Stop to Smell the Roses
It gets old when open-world games take shortcuts with the details, instead focusing on the bigger picture of the entire open world. This leaves more linear experiences like Uncharted to zero in on the little details of individual scenes. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a macro game with those details at a micro level. Everything within the world is actually modeled, so when you loot a cabinet, Arthur will actually pick up the tonic or pack of cigarettes inside it. Looting a body isn’t a half-hearted animation. It’s Arthur leaning down and lifting the body to check its pockets. Washing off blood in a river sees the water turn red around your body. The attention to even the smallest of details makes the game feel far less like a game.
Rockstar worked a fine balance between gamification and immersion, providing just enough in the way of conveniences to maintain the fantasy while keeping players engaged in the world. Say goodbye to some of modern gaming’s conveniences like traditional fast travel. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that wants you to take it slow and immerse yourself in the details of the world. Every decision feels heavier because those conveniences are gone. Want to help someone like that guy with the injured arm? It might take you far off your intended path, and there’s no easy way to immediately return to camp. You could take a stagecoach or a train, but it’ll cost you, and the stops may be less than ideal. I once had to take a woman back to a town in the exact opposite direction of where I was headed, but those tough decisions I had to make reinforced Arthur Morgan’s difficult life.
When I met the man who set me after the retired gunslingers, I had to examine their pictures and read about them before the location would be marked on my map. Even then there was some sleuthing required to get their exact location. It takes some effort and work. This level of immersion can feel like a chore in other games, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is so highly detailed that it would almost feel criminal not to have that nuance in the quests.
I worried that I would grow tired of this slowed-down nature of the game, but over 40 hours in, and I honestly feel that it would be more disingenuous to have included those shortcuts. Eventually you can unlock fast travel from the camp out to places that you’ve already been, but it requires a hefty investment into the camp’s coffers and doesn’t provide a quick and easy way to get back. Everything is in service of making the game feel the least like a “game” that it possibly can, while maintaining high levels of player interaction and choice with just about every scenario and situation. And it succeeds. Red Dead Redemption 2 is outlaw life simulator and it would have a hard time feeling more real if you were out there on the plains yourself.
In talking about immersion, I would be remiss not to mention the game’s incredible soundtrack. With more than 190 dynamic tracks that work contextually with the large variety of activities and locations across the game, the music is always driving the perfect emotion for the moment. Whether it’s sneaking into a plantation to deliver a letter to a forbidden lover or blowing up a bayou moonshine outfit, I was always catapulted into the moment by the music.
The voice acting gets a nod here too. Whether it’s a cutscene featuring Morgan, Dutch, and Marston, or a random conversation overheard outside of the general store, everything sounds like it was approached with the same level of attention. In fact, the consistent and clever banter throughout the game speaks to the brilliant writers who wove together the threads of these characters, their personalities, and their lives.
Survival on the Frontier
As a huge fan of the original Red Dead Redemption and John Marston’s story of, well, redemption, there were a few things that made me nervous about Red Dead Redemption 2. Numerous survival elements seemed like they would require annoying levels of micromanagement. Arthur’s weight can increase or decrease depending on his eating habits, and that affects his stats. Your horse can be meticulously cared for, brushed, fed, calmed, and bonded with. You have to wear the right clothing for the proper temperature of the environment. Even things like not washing blood off of your clothes can impact how other characters interact and respond to you.
If it all seems like too much, ignoring these things for a bit doesn’t have too great an impact on the moment-to-moment gameplay. While it’s always good to pay attention to those kinds of things, there’s a great balance in place to reward players who do want to engage with those systems without punishing the players who don’t. I highly encourage playing around with these elements however. They will heighten your own connection to and awareness of the world and your place within it. Find yourself dying a lot? Might be because you aren’t eating all that much, and your underweight body has slightly less survivability.
I also feared for how the tale of survival of an outlaw would translate when there was an entire gang involved. The experience never feels encumbered by the base camp, letting Arthur freely explore as he pleases. Actually, having the base camp and the gang strengthens Red Dead Redemption 2, giving Arthur a strong foundation to lean on. Just as Marston had his ultimate goals of escaping the life and creating a better one for his family, Arthur has his own motivations. A loyalty to a gang that has quite literally been his life is set at odds with the increasingly erratic ways that some of the members—particularly the leader, Dutch—choose to conduct themselves. But they are still his family. Arthur’s life as an outlaw feels justified as a man that rides the line where the law is typically hazy anyway. It’s not always easy to get audiences to cheer for an anti-hero, but Morgan is a charmer. He’s just a man trying to get by in a changing world that doesn’t seem to have a place for him.
Being a prequel to the first Red Dead Redemption, we know where the Dutch van der Linde gang ends up in 1911, but this allows us to see them at period when their roguish outlaw nature was more befitting of a somewhat honorable Robin Hood comparison, as opposed to that of cold-hearted killers and thieves. We even get to interact with Red Dead Redemption’s main protagonist John Marston quite a bit, seeing what befell this brotherhood. I worried about stepping away from Marston, but I’ve come to realize that he’s had his time in the light. Arthur Morgan makes for a fine protagonist, and while we may know the fates of many members of the Van der Linde gang, Morgan’s remains a mystery to be discovered. Through his eyes we get not only his story, but the stories of the world and people around him.
Red Dead Redemption 2 redefines the open world genre. Arthur Morgan’s journey through the late 1800s American frontier never reveals the stitches at its seams. Whether you’re engaging in a massive shootout in a saloon or quietly enjoying a moment of reflection while fishing on a lake, it all feels like a part of Morgan’s life. The level of detail is unsurpassed, and it’s a game that wants you to take it slow and enjoy those small details. Rockstar took some risks in eliminating traditional gaming conveniences, but everything pays off in service of the greater experience. Red Dead Redemption 2 sets a new benchmark in detail, immersion, and cohesion that will be heralded for years to come. It’s just about as perfect as a game can get.
Red Dead Redemption 2 review code provided by publisher. Version 1.02 reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy.