When Red Dead Redemption released back on the Xbox 360 and PS3, I wasn’t all that interested. In fact, I played Undead Nightmare long before I played the base game. I’d picked it up second-hand in a game store for a few pounds and took a punt on it. I liked it a lot and so I sought out the base game. To date, it remains one of my favourite games of all time. I’ve played it through at least a dozen times (still no damn platinum trophy, though) and it’s just one of those games that makes me feel good. Riding around the desert in isolation is a fantasy for me, and Red Dead Redemption let me live that fantasy out without having to go anywhere near horse poo.
So here we are with the second game. A long-awaited second game. It’s taken eight years to get to this point and they hype has been real. Thankfully I’m far too busy to be caught up in the hype with online discussions and dissections of the game’s trailers, so I went into this one with a level head and a clear mind. And I liked it. It’s a fantastic game by all accounts, but it’s not without its flaws. Unfortunately, they’re the typical Rockstar flaws. At this point, they’re kind of expected.
Firstly, let’s talk about Red Dead Redemption 2’s controls. Let’s be honest, very few of Rockstar’s games can be called user-friendly when it comes to the controls. Red Dead Redemption 2 is no different in that regard. Arthur’s movements are slow and deliberate, and it constantly feels like you’re in a tug of war with what you want Arthur to do and what the developers wanted Arthur to do. Animations take priority here and I often found myself frustrated when Arthur’s movements were out of my control.
That’s not to say they’re completely useless, just that they’re a big part of the presentation and by not letting you break away from an animation, the presentation remains top-tier. It is, however, at the cost of player agency. It’s not always a problem, but when you’re in the heat of a fierce shootout, it can get annoying. Know this going into the game and set your expectations accordingly. It’s not immediately obvious, to be fair, as the game does a pretty good job at hiding its true colours for a while. The opening itself is a little underwhelming, but it does set the tone, and that tone is a slow burning fuse leading to a mountain of dynamite.
If Red Dead Redemption 2 is a slow burner, then the opening few hours are nothing more than striking the match. I get it and I understand the need to set the tone, but I can also see how it’d be off-putting to some. We live in an age of narcissism, addiction, and the need for instant gratification, the latter of which I myself am a sucker for.
The opening hours are your tutorial. You’ll get your introductions with Red Dead 2’s diverse cast, you’ll be handheld through a few missions, and you’ll learn the ropes – or attempt to. There’s so much going on in Red Dead 2, you’d be forgiven for getting 10 hours into the game and not fully understanding the underlying systems, some of which seem complicated for the sake of being complicated. They’re not, but they seem that way. The survival elements are, at best, an extra layer of depth to an already deeper than deep game, and at worst, an outright annoyance. Take, for example, the new system of ‘cores’. You have several ‘cores’ that you need to look after. There’s the health core, stamina core, and dead eye core, as well as your horse’s cores. If these run down to empty, then their respective meters drain faster and refill slower. You need to sleep, eat, smoke, drink, and more to keep Arthur in peak condition. Eat too little and he’ll lose weight. Eat too much and he’ll gain the pounds around his midriff. Treat your horse well and it’ll treat you right. You need to feed your horse to keep its stamina up, as well as pat and brush it to make it feel loved. This is how you bond with your horse, and it’s another layer of depth that the game really just didn’t need. Horsey not feeling loved? Sorry, I’ll just stop my epic journey across America and give it a few strokes and hope it doesn’t take a shit while I’m doing so.
Being that Red Dead 2 takes place in the dying days of the ruthless Old West, gunplay is a big part of the game. Whether it’s defending yourself against other criminals, the lawmen, or hunting wild animals for their meats and pelts, shooting weapons is important, but it’s not easy. There is a learning curve to take into account before you mosey into Saint-Denis and start terrorising the locals.
Gunplay has never been a strong point for Rockstar, whether it’s in GTA or Red Dead, though Max Payne 3 was an unusually competent effort from the developer. Unforutnately it’s not Max Payne 3 levels of goodness, though there are glimpses of brilliance.
In an effort to make shooting more immersive, things have changed. I’m torn between whether that’s a change for the better or a change for the worse. On one hand I’m a fan of the physicality behind every shot. Guns recoil in what I imagine is a realistic manner (I’m not overly familiar with guns, being a Brit and all) and there’s a satisfaction to drawing your revolver and landing a hip-fired shot right between an enemy’s eyes. It’s rare, but when it happens you feel like an absolute cowboy legend. There’s also the familiar dead eye mechanic that’s making a return – something I really enjoyed this time around, too. It’s just a shame, then, that it’s tied to the ‘cores’ system whereby you need to keep maintaining it and upgrading it. Heck, I’m not even sure how I’m ‘levelling up’ my stats.
On the other hand, it’s all a bit more complicated. Rather than pulling the trigger one to shoot, and then again to fire another shot, you’re forced to cock your weapon by pulling the fire trigger again, and only then can you fire off another shot. It effectively doubles the required input. Then again, it makes every shot count. With the weapon sway and recoil, that forced delay between shots encouraged me to line up my aim again before pulling the trigger. At first I was a gunslinging maniac with a body count to prove it, but I was constantly low on ammo. Once you’ve gotten your head around how Rockstar wants you to use Red Dead 2’s arsenal of weapons, it’s a lot more engaging and turns shootouts into something a little more refined rather than the bullet hell mayhem us gamers are so used to creating.
Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s an improvement over the original Red Dead Redemption’s shooting mechanics, but more of a side-step to a new way of thinking about encounters and how the player responds. It’s slower, for sure, but whether that’s better or not is purely down to how you feel about the game. For me, personally, I’m still undecided! There are times where a slower approach feels just right, but then there’s other times where it feels like the game can’t keep up with what I want to do, something exacerbated further by the game’s commitment to realism and Arthur’s insistence on doing what Rockstar wants him to do, not what I want him to do.
Gameplay is… not so clear cut. While the presentation is a step above anything I’ve previously played, the gameplay formula hasn’t been changed up all that much, and this is to the game’s detriment. Perhaps you’ll be able to overlook it, but I saw through it from the moment game opened up to me. It’s the same Rockstar formula of go here, speak to this person, ride to this destination, have a shootout, back to camp for tea and sympathy. There are some deviations from the norm, but the vast majority is the tried and tested formula to a tee. That’s not bad by any means as the missions are generally quite enjoyable, even more so with the characters elevating what would otherwise be a bit of a boring trek from A to B. However, I’d have liked to see something new done with gameplay rather than the game relying on the same old tricks when it comes to missions.
Where Red Dead 2 really shines is in the moments where the game isn’t running the show. It’s when you’re out on the trail that Red Dead 2 takes a step in the right direction. You’ll come across random strangers that’ll appear and it’s up to you whether you help them, hinder them, kill them, or simply ride on by and let fate (or code) decide what happens to them. More often than not, though, I chose to see what would happen. Some will claim to need help but then will try to rob you, others will open up mini missions and so on. It was one of the highlights for me, and it made wandering around the vast, empty, unforgiving wilderness a fun time. Though I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘fun’ to describe Red Dead 2.
The game is engaging and compelling, sure, but I wouldn’t say it’s balls to the wall fun. Like, cleaning your weapons to maintain their stats isn’t something I particularly enjoyed, even if it only took a few seconds at a time. But those few seconds where the game had me watching Arthur clean his revolver or rifle was a few seconds I could have been on my way somewhere else to do something productive. Again, it’s another layer of depth that’s there for depth’s sake.
The writers really did a number with Red Dead 2, and it’s obvious that everybody who touched this game did their homework. Drawing inspiration from movies and theatre, from Shakespeare to Scorsese, Red Dead 2’s tale is woven masterfully, helped in no short part by morally bankrupt cast and their scheming ways. You’re not a clear cut good guy, in fact, you’re a pretty bad dude and your gang is made up of killers and thieves. Real pieces of shit, actually, but there’s something about the way they’re written and acted that makes, some of them at least, somewhat likeable and even charming at times. The whole gang dynamic was actually quite familiar. You’ve got the leader, Dutch, and then you’ve got his second in command, Arthur, and then the rest of the lads and ladies. They’re journey across the country to survive and to avoid the law. They’re constantly on the move, hustling to eek out an existence in cobbled together camps. Sound familiar? It reminded me a lot of The Walking Dead.
There are familiar faces in the mix, with fan-favourite John Marston showing up early in the game and then featuring heavily towards the end as the game transitions to the events that lead to the opening of the original Red Dead Redemption. This story is as much John’s as it is Arthur’s, and I’d argue it’s even more of the former’s than the latter’s. But now I’m getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave you hanging there. Just know that even if you find the controls clunky, the gameplay so-so, and the graphics underwhelming (you’d have to be blind for that last point to stand), the story is worth every moment of frustration. The cinematography is, again, a step above anything currently out there. There were times where I was playing for the cutscenes. I’d rush from one point to another and do what needed to be done in order to trigger the next cinematic. They’re that good.
Cinematic is a word often thrown around willy nilly when it comes to modern games, but it fits Red Dead 2 without a doubt. The game is cinematic from start to finish, even outside of cutscenes. The graphical presentation is, at least in my eyes, unmatched on consoles. It’s a massive achievement for an open world game, so much so that at times I’d grab the Mrs and say “just look at that!”. Wide open spaces are well detailed, so much so that you can look off into the distance and still clearly see what’s happening a couple of miles away, weather permitting.
I could easily sit and write another thousand words about the game’s visuals, physics, lighting, and all the other fluff that makes the game look so damn good, but my words would never do it justice. In fact, YouTube doesn’t even do it justice. This is something that needs to be seen to be believed. There’s no substitute for having the game running on your own TV in your own home environment. It’s honestly the best visual showcase for any console currently out there, and that’s all I’ll say on the matter. Pardner.
Red Dead Redemption 2 PS4 Review
Red Dead Redemption 2 is an interesting game. Fun is pushed to the background in place of realism and a dedication to keeping the world grounded in reality. You’re a guest and you have to play by the rules, and Rockstar lets you know this by dictating everything and putting a limit on what you can and can’t do.
It’s relentless in its reach for realism but, ultimately, it hits its marks more often than not. The gameplay loops haven’t changed in the eight years that have passed since the original Red Dead. Instead of expanding, Rockstar has dug deep and committed to creating a world with great depth and nuance, but at the cost of player comfort.
It’s a fantastic game and a showcase for what Rockstar is capable of doing, but it’s equally flawed and I can see where frustrations might arise. It’s still one of the finest games of this generation so I'd easily recommend it to fans of Rockstar's previous works.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game bought at the expense of the reviewer. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Reviewed using PS4 Pro.
Chris has been writing about gaming news for far too long, and now he’s doing it even more. A true PlayStation know-it-all, Chris has owned just about every Sony console that ever existed. Trophies are like crack to this fella.