Having one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the year on your hands and then subsequently delivering on its promise is no small feat, but Rockstar Games has done it again with Red Dead Redemption 2. Out now for Xbox One and Playstation 4, we used a Playstation 4 Pro to test the game.
Despite the likes of Black Ops 4, Battlefield V and FIFA 19, Red Dead Redemption 2 has been the clear frontrunner in terms of the biggest releases this holiday season – and it’s been that way ever since the release was announced. This is no surprise, partly because of a lack of major platform exclusives on PS4 and Xbox One and the fact that games like Cyberpunk 2077 aren’t even close to release either. But that would not be giving Rockstar enough credit, as much of the anticipation has also been based on their stellar track record when it comes to open world adventures – the original Red Dead Redemption included.
It was funny to me, for that reason, that the community response to earlier trailer was lukewarm at best. I read a ton of feedback saying it looked boring, for instance – it’s typical of this day and age to disregard that entire track record based on a trailer, but there you have it. And yes, the trailer in question was toned down in terms of action and emphasized mood and atmosphere – rather than going in the direction of a Hollywood movie trailer.
And even though there’s plenty of action, that quiet and reflecting tone is also present in the finished game. It works great though, as a counterbalance for the explosive story-driven sequences and many optional activities and side quests in the game. And no, it’s certainly not padding for an otherwise short story campaign either – Red Dead Redemption 2 is well over 40 hours long even if you skip ALL of the optional content – our first playthrough ran to almost 60 hours.
Contrary to what you might expect, Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t a direct sequel to the first game – it’s a prequel story. It has a different narrative focus as well, focusing on Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang rather than John Marston. Marston does feature in the story though, popping up at regular intervals and more frequently so in the later stages of the narrative. The writing is excellent, and even though the story ties into the first game this is a game that can be enjoyed without ever having played the original Red Dead Redemption. Then again… if you haven’t, what’s your excuse?
Morgan’s a more introverted character than John Marston was, which I suppose echoes into that trailer I mentioned. You can see this in the fact that a lot of character development happens in more subtle ways than just dialogue and action, but rather in subtle facial gestures and non-verbal reactions – the facial expressions showcasing how far technology has come. This isn’t just true for Arthur Morgan by the way – the entire supporting cast, and even minor characters you only see once or twice, look stunning and highly detailed.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s tale is epic both in scope and in detail, and it keeps up its incredible cinematic momentum through its entire lengthy campaign. Narrative scenarios are absolutely top notch, but (partly) optional activities like robbing a stage coach or engaging in other heists types are so engaging that you’ll undertake them even when you don’t really need the money. The same can be said for the “Stranger” side missions, which are well designed and can even impact the main storyline in subtle ways.
Performing heists will, in true western form, also often put a price on your head – which can cause bounty hunters to engage you even when you’re not expecting it (like far outside the confines of a town). To escape unwanted attention, you can strongarm a witness, pay off a bounty or try to disguise yourself – which can be as simple as growing out your facial hair.
The incredible level of ambition that Rockstar has had with Red Dead Redemption 2 translates into a somewhat convoluted control scheme, which still tripped me up from time to time even after dozens of hours of gameplay. Most buttons have multiple actions mapped to them based on situational context, and “how do I do this again?” thoughts do tend to happen – and experimenting (or guessing) can lead to unwanted scenarios just jumping to your death unintentionally.
These are minor issues though, and don’t detract from what is a stunning experience from start to finish. This is on account of the excellent gameplay and narrative design, but obviously it doesn’t hurt that Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most stunning PS4 game I’ve played this year. Some of that is that we didn’t get a Naughty Dog title this year, but I’d say that Red Dead Redemption 2 is on par with the likes of Uncharted 4 anyway – The Last of Us 2 has a lot to live up to next year. The character models, facial animation, vast open spaces and towns all look excellent. I suppose that explains that last bit of anticipation I had before playing – waiting for a 100 GB download to finish. Luckily, Red Dead Redemption 2 is worth every kilobyte. Aside from the complex controls, this is videogaming at its very best.