Red Dead Redemption II review: The country mile
Grand theft remains but the Mustangs are horses.
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I'm gonna fire from the hip early and give you an up-front verdict on this. It'll be a straight shot, pardner. Because I've been lucky enough to have played this game, nay, existed in this all-consuming experience, for a full 10 days prior to launch. That said, it's fair to say my appraisal will be more accurate than most as my dead eye is open on Red Dead Redemption II (RDR 2). I can confidently say that this is one of the best games I've ever played in my life. I think you'll feel the same way too.
This is essential.
As a semi-jaded connoisseur that's not a claim I make lightly. After thirty years of gaming I've played a heap of titles that belonged in a tier I'd call the bottom of the barrel, a whole bunch more are grouped in the ok ...corral, and then there is a more exclusive herd of must-buys worth a few dollars more. RDR 2 exists in the quality strata above all of these. It's got magic in it that pushes our medium forward. It's in my top three of all time. This is essential.
Rockstar's latest is a watershed moment for two reasons. First of all, this developer has delivered an unforgettable experience in terms of storytelling and sheer player immersion, plus RDR2 is a marvel purely from a technical and visual standpoint.
Let's lasso the narrative first. Confusingly, what we have here is a sequel that's actually a prequel to 2010's Red Dead Redemption. Though that title was slightly tarnished in its infancy by runaway bugs and a bit of behind-the-scenes controversy, it patched into being one of the all-time greats of the generation. It chronicled the life and times of John Marston, an ex-outlaw and reformed family man forced to hunt down his former comrades in the Dutch Van der Linde gang. While you don't need to play RDR to get your bearings in its sequel, I would personally recommend you do it. Backwards compatibility on Xbox One X with 4K support is currently the best way to go. I also hope Rockstar decides to reissue it again for current gen. Possibly as a “ReMarston...ing”.
RDR2 is set decades earlier when Dutch, John and the dozen or so crew were operating in their final days. It's a Reservoir Dogs intro – an unseen score has gone wrong and the gang has been chased by the law into the extreme wilderness during winter. From here, you slide into the weathered boots of Arthur Morgan, a grizzled second-in-command outlaw to Dutch, a charismatic leader and father figure who's constantly chasing a mirage that is the “last big retirement score”. As fans of the original game already know, the loyalty of the group is sorely tested as their fortunes decline.
And by God, you'll care during the hard times. Over the course of 50 odd hours (!!!), Rockstar will make you fall in love with every member of Arthur Morgan's dysfunctional family of persecuted strays, grifters and dyed-in-the-wool sociopaths.
Nestled between some of the best heists and set-piece moments are incredibly tender scenes where you'll chill out in the gang's ever-evolving campsite. You can socialise as much or as little as you want using the new dialogue options – which boil down to greet and antagonise, defuse or intervene. Mind you, I think even the most action-oriented, cutscene-skipping player will stay their thumbs as the cockles of their heart are slowly infiltrated by these folk. When the hammer does fall on them (permanently) it'll happen in an instant and the shock will be real. It's been days and I'm still mourning a few, beating myself up about not taking them up on an optional side-jaunt.
In happier times, Arthur Morgan participates in some of the greatest Western shenanigans imaginable. It's like the best GTA V heists have been taken to the next level here thanks to the addition of incredibly deep horsemanship, satisfying gunslinging and that indefinable cowboy swagger cool. Expect to rob stage coaches, bust peckerwoods out of jail, hit banks, raid steaming locomotives, get your Casino Royale on a riverboat, and so much more. The broad strokes of these plans are set, but the variation allowed by your choices, and the RAGE engine's phenomenal AI and Euphoria animation system, makes for very unique outcomes (and paydays).
It's worth mentioning that the olden days setting affects the gunplay and your getaway options considerably. Forget the Los Santos-based street-spraying gats of GTA V. Morgan is packing pistols and revolvers, rifles and repeaters, that means low count magazines and longer reload times which equals intensely personal gun battles. This is especially true when you factor in the cost of what's within range of your enemies. It might be an old friend or a beloved horse you've taken the time to rename “Krudler” and spent double-digit hours levelling up. The stakes are high in this game.
If you do plan on becoming a man as bad as the gun he's using, best take the time to put on your mask to minimise identification, keep Morgan's three “stat cores” in peak condition, and make crucial shots with the slow-mo Dead Eye system. Alternatively, maybe seek to verbally defuse fights before they spark off, or prevent further backlash from the law dogs by cowing or eliminating any witnesses to misdeeds that were unavoidable. Whichever way you go, know that RDR2 rewards players with better results if they maintain their weapons and mount (not to mention their facial hair and body odour). Your soul needs upkeep, too; morality choices will shape Arthur Morgan's path in meaningful ways.
You can always take a break from the heavier decisions in the main thread to go sniff out a ridiculously large cache of side content. You could tinker with your guns to OCD Texan levels at a smith, micro-manage your stable of thoroughbreds, go fishing, win big at poker/dominoes/blackjack, give yourself an extreme manicure with Five Finger Fillet, go rustle cattle or break in wild mustangs. In true Rockstar fashion, each of these seemingly minor pursuits has been polished to the point where they could be transplanted out, printed on a disc and be sold as a serious threat to whoever is the king of that particular niche genre. For example, the hunting and tracking experience in this is so solid, whoever owns the Cabela's license needs to be soiling their britches right about now.
And that's not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to side diversions. Large swathes of RDR2 take place in a pristine wilderness, but Rockstar is constantly nudging dynamic moments your way. You might need to save somebody from wolves, rescue an Irish outlaw from a (literal) paddy wagon, suck the venom from some Woody wannabe who actually had a snake in their boot, or aid a proto-paleontologist with her wild theories. Honestly, if you're a stop and smell the roses type, RDR2 is your Graceland, your Floriade. This is easily a triple-digit hour experience if you're a completionist. Couple that with the forthcoming multiplayer add-on, and the value for money here is off the charts.
This is especially true if you're a graphics-centric gamer. If you're an avid photo mode snapper you'll be found months from now, dishevelled and malnourished. Your hard drive will be filled to capacity with JPEGS, your main story progress will be barely 10% and you'll be perfectly happy about it. Because this game is a looker, designed to completely fool you as to the authenticity of this sandbox. Every time you push this simulation it'll push right back because no expense has been spared nor any corner cut. Thanks to the power and seamlessness of the Euphoria animation system you'll become Arthur Morgan and inhabit Rockstar's interactive Westworld. And you had better believe these violent delights have violent ends.
I don't even have the words for how vast and breathtaking this playspace is, nor can I explain the voodoo that Rockstar has chanted to make current gen consoles output these sort of results. Better yet, all the prettiness is backed up with astonishing stability and craftsmanship. It's like the bigwigs at Rockstar had a personal vendetta against pop-in and rough edges.
I'm certainly not saying this game is perfect (I found maybe three incredibly minor eyesore bugs in 50 hours of play) but what we have here exudes polish and care. In comparison, RDR2 is embarrassingly better made than the last sandbox I was in, Assassin's Creed Odyssey. I can scarcely imagine how much more gorgeous this could all be if Rockstar allowed it to be run on a modern PC. Hopefully, that comes to pass, but it's hard to be disappointed with what's in front of us now.
This review can't be closed without mentioning that fans of RDR's “Mexico moment” – the unforgettable instance when Jose Gonzalez's “Far Away” filtered in – won't be disappointed here. I counted three such instances where licensed tracks blended in and tugged on heartstrings I didn't even know I had. And, even outside of the more emotionally climactic moments of Morgan's tale, the soundtrack delivers top-notch ambient accompaniment. I'm not one for buying OSTs, but this is on my Christmas list.
Speaking of purchases, you'd be nuts to not saddle up for Red Dead Redemption II. Rockstar's first truly current-gen game will blow your mind quicker'n six cylinders worth of hollow-points fan-fired at your face. Technically unparalleled, beating with an emotional core and overflowing with emergent gold in them thar hills, Rockstar went the country mile with this and then figured they'd go another for good measure.
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