Red Dead Redemption 2: Equal Parts Rootin’ and Tootin’

GTA V by Rockstar Games set a benchmark in game design: An immersive world, smooth driving and gunplay, and a creative, memorable cast of characters shot it into the spotlight as one of Rockstar’s masterworks. Red Dead Redemption 2 took GTA V, built on it, cranked the quality of life to eleven, polished its riding boots, and pinned a sheriff’s star to its vest. A quick spin around the game is all it takes to conclude that Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar’s best work to date.

Released on October 26, 2018, the newest edition to the famed Western action-adventure series is the product of seven years of development and scriptwriting, as well as around 2,000 pages of planning for the main storyline alone. The game was built on Rockstar’s proprietary R.A.G.E engine, same as GTA V and the first Red Dead Redemption, and the workhorse behind Rockstar games’ signature action-movie feel.

Every battle has, for better or worse, the feel of a Rockstar title. The firefights feel crisp, with the autoaim system allowing for effective potshots. The player must also account for the enemy’s anatomy. A shot to the arm will knock an enemy’s weapon from their hands, a shot to the leg will make them move slower, and a shot to the head will, of course, kill them outright. Most guns in the game need to be recocked with another press of the firing button, but certain weapons with the right technology will cycle by themselves. The famous Deadeye system also returns, allowing you to slow time and line up targets to take out in a single sweep of your gun.

Arthur Morgan and Bill Williamson in the midst of a gunfight

The game features a hunting, cooking, and crafting system for whenever you find yourself tired of the action. Players can cook food at campsites across the world (as well as place their own in the wilderness), craft consumables, medicines, and ammo. You can also track and hunt animals for meat and hides that can be used to customize the gang’s hideout as well as the player’s kit. You can even hunt Legendary animals that can be crafted into trinkets and talismans for unique buffs.

The player is offered a range of options in decorating their character to their liking, with many stores selling clothes and hats for you to mix and match. Take note, however, that some outfits may be too hot or cold for you to wear depending on the local climate.

Horses are, unsurprisingly, also well fleshed out. You can find different breeds and customize them with different coats, hairstyles, and saddles. Every breed of horse has its pros and cons depending on your playstyle. You should also take care to feed and brush your horse to keep it in peak condition.

From a gameplay perspective, Rockstar spared no expense in making the game feel like a real, living world. The graphics and scenery, too, follow along with this. Whether trekking through snowy mountainscapes, strolling through a prairie, slugging drunks in a bar, or trading bullets with police outside a city bank, there’s always a picturesque moment to pause and appreciate.

The game’s one glaring flaw, as is the case with many Rockstar titles, lies in its controls. Shoddily repurposing GTA IV’s system makes actions bound to one button awkward and misclicks are all too frequent. Horseback combat is, quite frankly, a nightmare, often having your horse veer off the road due to the camera looking in a different direction than your horse. Be prepared to strain your fingers at many points in the game.

Where Rockstar truly breaks new ground, however, is the game’s narrative:

The year is 1899; The waning days of the cowboy age. Villages become towns, and towns become cities. As civilization roots itself in the deserts and prairies of Middle America, one fact becomes increasingly clear: The Wild West has been tamed. Every day, the law puts a tighter stranglehold on the outlaws and roving gangs that terrorized settlements and wagon caravans for decades prior. You play as Arthur Morgan, member of the infamous Van der Linde gang. After a ferry heist goes hideously wrong and innocents are killed, the band is forced to flee from the pursuing lawmen into the mountains of Ambarino. Casualties are suffered as they cross the brutal, snowy wilderness. Here, the reality of their situation becomes clear to them; They need a way out of the States, and fast. The charismatic leader of the gang, Dutch van der Linde, has a plan to get them out and retire. All they need is a little money and a little time. This is the promise he strings you and the gang along with for the majority of the story. Every heist and robbery is prefaced with it being called “the last score” by Dutch.

Dutch, enjoying a cigar at camp

Not only does the law present its issues for the group, but they’re also in the midst of a heated blood feud with the O’Driscoll Boys, a rival gang headed by one of Dutch’s lifelong adversaries. Throughout the story you’ll meet and battle against them among a plethora of other gangs in your daring escape attempt.

Eventually, you’ll come to see the gang more as a family, each with their own unique, enthralling personalities. The depths that Rockstar has delved in RDR2’s character design is rarely seen in the industry, if ever. Some of the Van der Linde gang include:

  • Dutch van der Linde, the silver-tongued father-figure of the gang.
  • Arthur Morgan, the main protagonist of the game, an expert gunslinger and a veteran member of the group.
  • Hosea Matthews, a gentleman and thief who co-founded the gang with Dutch after they both attempted to rob each other.
  • John Marston, one of the group’s best gunfighters alongside Arthur and the main protagonist of the first game.
  • Susan Grimshaw, the gang’s taskmaster and Dutch’s former lover.
  • Charles Smith, a Native American-African American hunter who fled from bounty hunters in Canada.
  • Micah Bell, a former hitman and vicious killer who represents the worst kind of person west of the Mississippi.
  • Orville Swanson, a former pastor fallen into a pitiful alcohol addiction.
  • Sadie Adler, a widow that the gang rescued and took into their care after the O’Driscolls murdered her husband.
  • Uncle, a layabout drunk and the closest thing the gang has to a court jester. Nobody knows his real name, nor if he’s actually anyone’s uncle.
Left to right: Sadie, John, Dutch, Arthur, and Charles

As you play, Arthur will become all the more relatable to you as every choice he makes is, by extension, your own. Whether you want to play as a good-hearted vigilante or a ruthless bandit lies in your actions, which you can keep track of via your Honor meter.

As you run from location to location with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, local law enforcement, gangs, and even the army hot on the group’s heels, you and Arthur must make difficult decisions about his loyalties, morals, personal well-being, and relationships to survive.

Red Dead Redemption 2 blew myself and much of its audience away with the sheer amount of time, care, and attention to detail crammed into nearly every aspect of the game. And while not without its flaws, the game represents Rockstar Games’ best title so far and a shining icon of the video game industry’s creative and technical potential: 9.5/10