Red Dead Redemption II Review

Richard Walker

Life as an outlaw is hard, tireless, and entirely dictated by an unending quest to acquire as much money as humanly possible. In Red Dead Redemption 2, you play as Arthur Morgan, a key member in the close-knit Van der Linde gang, a family of outlaws all wanting the same thing: survival and, maybe one day, a life of comfort and security that isn't hand-to-mouth. Of course, this is something that's never going to happen, and Red Dead 2 is a story of the gang's constant struggle, and Arthur's role in striving to keep everyone together.

Where the first Red Dead Redemption was John Marston's own personal tale of revenge, this prequel yarn sees Arthur a man treading water in a world where the gang is constantly wanted and doggedly pursued by Pinkerton agents and bounty hunters alike. And that's the least of their problems. There's also the matter of a violent blood feud with the O'Driscoll family, an age-old beef that hangs over the Van der Linde gang and runs through Red Dead 2's narrative like writing through a stick of rock.

Like any good Rockstar story, however, things take unexpected turns, and although the game is something of a slow-burner, narratively speaking, once you hit the latter part of Chapter 3 (just over a third in to the game's more than ample running time), things really start to gain momentum. That's not to say that everything that comes before that isn't compelling; quite the opposite, in fact. You'll get caught up in a squabble between the Grays and Braithwaites, two rich plantation houses that you can exploit for your own material gain; tangle with the rough and unscrupulous bandit group, the Lemoyne Raiders; run moonshine; and end up with a huge bounty on your head.

The writing in Red Dead 2 is exemplary too, Arthur one of Rockstar's best-drawn characters yet, hiding a chequered past behind a wry, sardonic wit, and an honest demeanour that greets all and any praise with “I'm a bad man.” You're inclined to believe him. It's the open-world that proves truly mind-blowing, however, the rugged American heartlands a rich, diverse environment that takes in sprawling, grassy plains, mountainous terrain, meandering rivers, mosquito and alligator-infested swamplands, and even a bustling city complete with vertiginous, smoke-belching chimney stacks.

All of this is underpinned by a litany of detailed systems that ensure the world is a living, breathing one. Normally, the promise of a 'living, breathing' world never quite holds true, but in Red Dead Redemption 2 there's never been a more apt description. You genuinely get the very palpable sense that if you weren't present, then Red Dead 2's world would just carry on without you, and when you do interact with the world and its inhabitants, everything makes you feel like you're firmly rooted within it.

Quite how Rockstar has managed to not only create one of the most complex open-world games we've ever seen, and make it look completely stunning at the same time, defies explanation. It sets a new benchmark by which all other open-world games should be judged, and to date, GTA V is the only other example that even comes close. You can do pretty much anything you want within Red Dead 2's framework, so if you want to grow your hair long and cultivate a huge beard, go hunting, hold up and rob a train, stagecoach or homestead, enjoy the 'deluxe' bath at the nearest saloon, knock back a whiskey, start a bar brawl, rob the local general store, shoot the sheriff, pat a dog, or just gallop down the trail getting into scrapes, you can. The degree of agency the game affords you is unparalleled.

Alongside the core story missions, Red Dead 2 harbours a plethora of distractions, including more tasks involving Strangers that often prove to be the most offbeat, interesting or just plain weird activities the game has to offer. There are challenges centred around hunting, collectibles, participating in certain sidelines like playing poker, blackjack, dominoes or five finger fillet, picking flowers and herbs, chasing down bounties, going fishing, and learning more about the native fauna (cougars, bears, deer, squirrels etc.), so as such, it's easy to be coaxed off the beaten path. We could ramble on forever about the myriad of stuff you can actually do in Red Dead 2, but there are certain things that are best left for you to discover on your own.

Despite the breadth and depth of content that Rockstar has stuffed into every square-inch of Red Dead 2, there are a few niggles. Character movement can feel a little clunky at times, and the combat mechanics are still slightly woolly, while switching weapons can be a headache when the game always defaults back to your sidearm. Often, we also found that AI allies would get themselves killed all too easily, which to be fair is only a minor setback as checkpoints are invariably fair and auto saves are frequent. Occasionally, you're also a slave to the game's auteurs during cinematic moments or when you're visiting your camp site, restricted to a leisurely walking pace.

It's sometimes easy to forget certain things too, like keeping your weapons clean to ensure they work properly, brushing and looking after your horse, remembering to eat, drink and rest regularly to keep Arthur's health, stamina and deadeye cores at capacity, or contributing to camp to maintain a stock of supplies. Red Dead 2 is almost too intricate, even if there are certain elements that you can ignore if you're so inclined. That's easier said than done, and given Rockstar's propensity for oddball, unusual characters, you can't help but be drawn to them like a moth to the flame. You can interact and talk to absolutely anyone in Red Dead Redemption 2 (and we mean anyone), and you'll want to see how far you can push some of these interactions.

Like Marston in the previous game, the decisions you make as Arthur's and his resulting behaviour dictates his Honor standing, and a number of different facets are impacted by your fluctuating Honor level. How people react to you, the entries Arthur makes in his journal (he's a sensitive soul), and the way in which his slow-motion killcams are presented (brilliantly heroic or revelling in violence) all tie into the Honor system. It's not just a throwaway feature, but then nothing really is throwaway in Red Dead 2. That said, the hunting is fairly inconsequential, unless you want to wear a dead fox on your head, keep Pearson the camp cook happy making hearty stews or deck the camp out in animal hide-covered furniture.

While the central narrative, framed by Woody Jackson and co's transcendent soundtrack, is never anything but wholly absorbing, it's the stories you'll generate yourself within Red Dead 2's lived-in world that will also live on in the memory long after the credits roll (after about 60-odd hours). Conceivably, you could play for another 40 hours once the final denouement plays out, living the cowboy life forever more, admiring the scenery or robbing banks.

A towering achievement, Red Dead Redemption 2 is far and away one of the finest things Rockstar has turned its hand to. A deep and brilliantly intricate portrait of changing times and one man's struggle to live an honest life in a morally bankrupt world, Red Dead Redemption 2's jaw-dropping world is also something truly special that demands you drink it all in and experience it to its fullest. A masterpiece.

Red Dead Redemption II

A stunning, elegiac western that features some of Rockstar's best writing to date, Red Dead Redemption 2 is also the studio's finest open-world to date, handcrafted with real, tangible care and attention, defying the boundaries of what a video game can be. Arthur Morgan will also inhabit a special place in your heart, as a likeable, relatable rogue striving to find his way in the world. Good ol' Arthur.

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Giving Ennio Morricone a run for his money, Red Dead 2's score is at times beautiful, mournful or upbeat, but always brilliant. The performances are also universally outstanding, lending real gravity to the unfolding drama. Rob Wiethoff is also back as John Marston, which is a big plus. Superb.


Normally, you'd expect an open-world of Red Dead 2's scale to compromise visually. Miraculously that isn't the case here, and despite rare glitches now and again, every square-inch of the map is drenched in rich detail. You can even see the bristles up Uncle's nose.


There's some generous auto-aim at work when engaging in gunfights, but overall the shooting mechanics are robust. And the brawling, while not particularly complex, is still great fun. Horse riding is enjoyable, although you're guaranteed to come off a lot. There are minor flaws, but none are especially glaring.


Gargantuan in every sense. The map is truly colossal (thankfully, you can cover large distances by train or stagecoach), filled with meaningful stuff to do, and the storyline itself is epic, lengthy and engrossing, not once outstaying its welcome. The attention to detail is astonishing too and the story is superlative.


Sadly, there's nothing that can hold a candle to Red Dead's 'Dastardly' achievement, but this is nonetheless a solid list that lends added impetus to exploration and leaving no stone unturned. Prepare to dig in for more when Red Dead Online arrives in November.

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