If there are any people left who haven’t bought Red Dead Redemption 2, this gigantic review is for you. If you didn’t pre-order the game sometime in the middle of this decade and want to know why gamers feel a little short-changed by the ‘six stars out of five’ reviews, this is definitely for you.

Gunplay and horseplay are not strong points – combining the two is usually a bad time

Morgan hopes to achieve the ultimate American freedom by living in the purest expression of autocratic communism seen in fiction to date

Rocking the Prologue

In the grand Rockstar tradition, the first hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 are excellent. The game shows off some incredible weather and lighting effects as a blizzard confines us to a remote mountain camp. As the weather improves we move further, bringing our camp with us while learning a bucket-load of new mechanics.

Our protagonist, Arthur Morgan, is the right-hand man of a charismatic crime-cult leader dragging a band of folksy types across the horizon of ‘civilised’ America in search of freedom from the tyranny of guv’ment and maybe to avoid being hanged pending lawful judgement of their peers.

Attention to atmospheric detail is superb – these Daguerreotype-style loading images are one of many of these little touches

Camp morale, supply and utilities are all fed to us as important at this point but they are a little overemphasised. Supplies run down slowly, I didn’t really collect ammo from our little depot (bar the exotic stuff on occasion) and the camp members were cheery all of the time. Maybe too cheery but more on that later.

The non-campaign elements of the game are mostly worth your time if you are in the area

Manifest Destiny Moves Slowly…

Red Dead Redemption 2 begins with ‘Dutch’ van der Linde and his gang of merry men being chased to the edges of America by the Pinkertons and the guv’ment. In 1899 America was about as far as fake Montana which straddles some of the 1911 fakeMurica seen in Red Dead Redemption.

Way more talkative than Heath and Jake

Visiting Blackwater and seeing it in its awkward teenage phase is a memorable trip for those familiar with the newer, old West. Discovering a little more about John Marsten and some of the people and places of RDR1 is more than an homage however. Rockstar deserve praise for how they have tied the two titles together, even if Marsten’s 1911 level of local notoriety (or lack of) doesn’t seem to match his deeds in Red Dead Redemption 2. No spoilers and excuse the vagueness.

The pace of the first 15 hours of the game will be divisive. Some will use the extra downtime to explore, some will fill that time out with hunting or robbing, some will just want the story to pick up a bit. The non-campaign elements of the game are mostly worth your time if you are in the area but the lack of a proper* ‘Fast-Travel’ mechanic coupled with the sluggish traversal speed might discourage a few players from venturing too far from wherever the game takes them.

*To avail of what limited Fast-Travel there is, click here [Balls.ie]

During an AMbush, our Morgan can dash for cover like Usain Bolt but when we are in a hurry to buy a new duster in Valentine, he walks like he has rickets

…And So Does Morgan

Red Dead Redemption 2 does a mostly good job at toeing the line between cinematic adventure and old West playground. One large area where it fails is in Morgan’s movement. Between sluggish walking/jogging pace, inconsistent covering and aiming mechanics, Red Dead Redemption 2 goes for a deliberate and realistic style that becomes a bit of a nuisance in the vast and inviting game-world.

Vistas like this are common but never lose their lustre – RDR2 has beautiful skies and lighting; probably the best in a game-world this large

Glitches when covering or aiming around awkward objects are infrequent in the main battles. But in random battles with O’Driscolls, Lemoynes etc., sticking to the wrong cover, being prevented from shooting or hitting invisible walls is far more frequent and often fatal. Combat can be noticeably less fluid depending on the importance of the encounter. Morgan is slow to aim too – it feels like combat takes place in treacle. Even in Dead Eye with the highest sensitivity, I felt like I was wasting the brief window trying to hop to Victim #2.

Morgan has a strange walk when in a town or camp – too slow and lumbering to be considered realistic and quite frustrating at times. During the many ambushes of Red Dead Redemption 2, our Morgan can dash for cover like Usain Bolt but when we are in a hurry to buy a new duster in Valentine, he walks like he has rickets.

Brushing down and feeding your steed is, again, made a big deal of but these survival aspects don’t impinge upon or deepen the adventure, depending on how you view it

Survive If You Fancy It

Survival and maintenance aspects integrated well into the game – items and actions are intuitive and mirror the real world. Sleeping or eating will restore your ‘cores’; health, stamina and Dead-Eye and each of these will refill at a different rate depending on the state of said core. There are special items that can temporarily buff certain stats or cores and again, these make sense and add to the role-play.

Breaking wild horses is a better prospect here than in 2010’s Red Dead Redemption – worth your time for the experience and a sweet ride

However, the punishment for neglecting these aspects isn’t all that great. It’s arguable that these mechanics aren’t applied hard enough to foster real immersion but as devices for conveying the harshness of life off-the-grid in 1899; they work. A player will be thinking of a meal or a bed whether or not they will need one in the next real-time hour or two.

The effects of extreme starvation or gluttony are actually give’n’take with stamina and damage absorption taking a buff or nerf depending on your BMI. It’s clear that Rockstar wanted to allow players to make their own version of our hero rather than reward any single type of playstyle.

The penalty for neglecting guns is more severe however. More or less all metrics will erode given enough time and moisture. Players can fix their firearms to a high degree where they stand using gun oil but the heaviest soiled of weapons will need a quick visit to a gun store.

Following ‘Cinematic Camera’ is one way to avoid traffic crime in most scenarios but it’s much slower than going your own route and you will still crash the odd time. But at least the testicles look great, right?

Horse-Play

Another of the game’s mild survivalist pretensions comes in the shape of a horse. Brushing down and feeding your steed is, again, made a big deal of but these survival aspects don’t impinge upon or deepen the adventure, depending on how you view it. Your horse won’t die from neglect or whither away from a lack of action. Red Dead Redemption 2 does help players develop a sense of value and a relationship with their fake horse though.

Players can only ‘Fast Travel’ from the map at camp – the rest is cinematic mode or going manual

What can affect the adventure is how inept the horses are at navigating at any useful speed. Other horses in other games display basic senses of self-preservation. Red Dead Redemption 2 has flashy rearing animations at the edges of cliffs but will gladly crash you and your horse into trees, carriages, people or other horses if you dare trot in anything less than an open space.

This wouldn’t be so bad if any living being outside of Morgan wasn’t made of glass; you’ll kill or maim people, their horses and your horse on the reg if you gallop into town or let the horse guide itself for too long. Following ‘Cinematic Camera’ is one way to avoid traffic crime in most scenarios but it’s much slower than going your own route and you will still crash the odd time. But at least the testicles look great, right?

Deficiencies in control and movement aren’t helped by a brutal and unfair crime system. Bumping into folk or even walking near a few paranoid pilgrims will start a fight that will see the bounty hunters after Morgan regardless of who started it. There is no consistency when it comes to diffusing these minor altercations – accidentally getting on the wrong horse is a bad as accidentally drawing a gun in a shop. Especially when there are witnesses around.

There is a greater sense of being inside the environment than in both GTA V and Red Dead Redemption – it’s not quite a sense of living there but it’s immersive nonetheless

Condensed Majestic America

The game-world is nothing short of stunning to behold from a moderate-to-long distance. The lighting and shadows are the best you will see across the huge distances visible over the large map. The distant areas we spy from elevations are filtered to look close to realistic. Sunsets and sunrises are the life-affirming spectacles you would expect. The expanses of desert, jagged peaks, tepid swamps and lush forests are all beautiful in their own distinct way and give Red Dead Redemption 2 a surprising aesthetic variety.

The usual, welcome blend of tried and tested mission-types and weird s**t

The weather effects similarly add to this variety as well as altering the gameplay and feeding into the survival mechanics. Morgan can get too hot or too cold and need to change clothes accordingly. Dense fogs or high winds make it easier to sneak and harder to shoot – perfect time for collecting ‘perfect’ skins.

Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t look as purdy up-close though. Fabrics, furniture and rock textures are passable but let the game down in first-person, indoors or the many occasions when the third-person camera will be forced close to objects. However, the majority of the game’s vistas are stunning. And besides, we aren’t indoors too much and the direction during the mandatory indoor sections is excellent at hiding the game’s minor graphical shortfalls.

Too Blank a Slate?

The aforementioned attempt at an open path through Red Dead Redemption 2 is a double-edged sword. 1899’s old West and RDR2‘s expanded mechanics are made for patient exploration. There is a greater sense of being inside the environment than in both GTA V and Red Dead Redemption – it’s not quite a sense of living there but it’s immersive nonetheless.

As previously noted, players are given the opportunity to play as themselves as much as the precast protagonist. The problem is that Arthur Morgan is boring. John Marsten had a mysterious backstory that unspooled itself to eager players in 2010’s RDR and kept us interested in him in the eight years since.

Classic Rockstar comedy mission – still don’t care that much about Lenny though

With so many choices in our hands here, we can more easily become Morgan but since a player could also create contradictions for a deep protagonist with an extensive backstory, Rockstar just made Morgan really plain. And what we can know about him is not even that interesting.

To be fair, Morgan’s tale is secondary to that of the story at large, Dutch and the gang – not necessarily a bad thing but the gang’s personality and characters are wafer-thin. The band of desperadoes and sociopaths sound like loving simpletons most of the time – probably to foster some moral greyness in a game where even an ‘honourable’ Morgan slays dozens of innocents.

Despite being forced to sit through many, many chats, conversations and tête-à-têtes with most of the gang on the way to missions or just sitting on a chair, I cared only a little about one or two of them. No spoilers but I was only getting to like one of them when they eh, “upped and left”.

Red Dead Redemption is still a worthy 70-hour hole to crawl into but it has faults that many gamers will not be able to ignore having seen a 97 Critic score on MetaCritic

Motivation, Means and Ends

At first, Morgan hopes to achieve the ultimate American freedom by living in the purest expression of autocratic communism seen in fiction to date and following orders from everyone. One of the main seams in the narrative stems from Arthur himself running against his main motivation for most of the main campaign. No spoilers.

Our hero is rendered a lot more accurately than some people – a minor fault but Arthur Morgan looks like Nathan Drakes borther

The freedom spoken of by Dutch, our glorious leader, is no more than a freedom to do crime. You could argue that is the point but Arthur and our camp members never really become disillusioned with the contradiction of ‘means’ and ‘ends’ until it genuinely hurts themselves. No spoilers.

A friend and I genuinely chuckled at how little this allegedly-likeable group became curious about all this murdering in the pursuit of the liberty and justice; and only when a macguffin gets kidnapped by a different band of thugs. The kidnappers are probably a bunch of nice lads looking for libs & juztyce too. Maybe we could murder up some freedom together in RDR3?

Can’t actually remember if this is first-person or just the camera going rogue

Just after this, John Marsten thinks that feeding a comic-book villain’s corpse to a wild animal is the definition of ‘too far’ having spent the entire chapter till then on a murderous rampage to retrieve the aforementioned macguffin. This disconnect happens a lot during the main-questline.

As an open-world action game, there are a few too many problems with navigation on foot, by carriage or horse to overlook

Gaslighting

While Red Dead Redemption 2’s single-player campaign is a great journey based solely on its own merit, it isn’t the best open-world effort this year nor is it Rockstar’s best this decade.

Am I crazy or is this not a 97?

Arthur Morgan is the blank slate that players probably needed to ‘enter’ the world in a meaningful way but he isn’t the ‘protagonist on a mission’ that the plot needed. Secondary characters that lack depth and fold on their convictions at the drop of a plot-point further detract from the impact of the story.

As an open-world action game, there are a few too many problems with navigation on foot, by carriage or horse to overlook. Red Dead Redemption is still a worthy 70-hour hole to crawl into but it has faults that many gamers will not be able to ignore having seen a 97 Critic score on MetaCritic.

Sneeki-breeki is surprisingly easy wearing jangling spurs and creaky leather

Formats: PlayStation 4(reviewed on PS4 Pro), Xbox One
Price: £59.99/€69.99/$64.99
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Studios
Release Date: 26th October 2018
Age Rating: PEGI 18

Review code provided by publisher