Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game about consequences where you have only the illusion of choice. Yes, there are some decisions to be made, and those decisions will shape your character and the world around you. But some of the most disastrous choices were made for you before the game even begins, leaving you to deal with the fallout. And because it's a prequel to Red Dead Redemption, you also (probably) know how the story ends. All that's left is discovering what happens in between and making the most of it. To that end, you fight against the repetitive nature of missions, frequent moral dilemmas, and the inconvenience of doing what's right. For the most part, the frustration that tension can cause is also what makes the story impactful, and when it all comes together, your effort is not wasted.
At the beginning of Red Dead Redemption 2, the Van der Linde gang is already on the decline we know from the previous game is coming. After a heist gone wrong in Blackwater, they're on the run, down a few members, and on the verge of capture, starvation, and succumbing to a snowstorm. There are familiar faces–Red Dead Redemption protagonist John Marston chief among them–as well as new ones. As senior member Arthur Morgan, you're in the privileged position of being Dutch Van der Linde's right hand, privy to his machinations and included in the most important outings. Once the gang escapes the storm and settles into a temporary campsite, you're also put in charge of the camp's finances, meaning you pick out all the upgrades and supplies. If Dutch is the center of the gang, Arthur is adjacent to all its vital parts at once, and that gives you a lot of power.
With that power, you're encouraged to do as you see fit and at your own pace. A lengthy series of story missions early on introduces you to some of the ways you can spend your time, including hunting, fishing, horse-rearing, and robbery. There are a lot of systems, and covering the basics takes several hours. While they're not so cleverly disguised as to not feel like tutorials, the actual learning is paced well in its integration with the story, and the missions also acquaint you with the characters and the surrounding area. For example, the fishing "tutorial" has you taking young Jack Marston out for the day, since John is not exactly great at fatherhood. Jack is pure and sweet–and incredibly vulnerable to all the gang's wrongdoings–and the mission is memorable for it.
In addition to the mechanics of various activities, you're also presented with a few elements of semi-realism you need to contend with. Mainly, you need to eat to refill your health, stamina, and Dead Eye ability "cores," which deplete over time. Eating too much or too little results in weight changes and stat debuffs. Eating itself isn't a problem, and neither is maintaining cores in general, but eating enough to maintain an average weight is intrusive; despite experimenting with what and how often I ate, I couldn't get Arthur out of the underweight range, and eating any more frequently would be too time-consuming to justify. You don't have to sleep (though you can to pass time and refill your cores), and surviving hot or cold temperatures comes down to choosing the right outfit from your item wheel, so managing your weight sticks out as superfluous rather than conducive to immersion.
Limited fast travel options are the better-implemented side of Red Dead 2's realism, perhaps counterintuitively. There's next to no fast travel at the beginning and few methods in general, so you have to rely on your horse to get around. It can be slow, but there's no shortage of things to do and see along the way. Chance encounters are plentiful and frequently interesting; you might find a stranger in need of a ride to town or a snake bite victim who needs someone to suck the venom out of their wound. You can stumble upon a grotesque murder scene that sets you entirely off-track, or you can ignore someone in danger and just keep riding. And just as you can decide to rob or kill most anyone, you'll also run into people who will do the same to you. Even the longest rides aren't wasted time, and it's hard not to feel like you're missing something if you do opt for fast travel.
Red Dead Redemption 2's version of America is vast and wide open, stretching from snowy mountains and the Great Plains down to the original game's New Austin in the southwest. Further to the east is the Louisiana-inspired Deep South, which is still feeling the effects of the Civil War after nearly 40 years. There's a distinct shift when traveling from region to region; as grassy hillsides become alligator-filled swamps, Union veterans give way to angry Confederate holdouts, and good intentions and casual racism turn into desperation and outright bigotry. The variety makes the world feel rich, and it both reacts to you and changes independently of your involvement; new buildings will go up as time goes on, and some of the people you talk to will remember you long after you first interacted with them (for better or worse).
Incidental moments as you explore make up a large part of the morality system, in which you gain and lose honor based on your actions. "Good" morals are relative–you're a gang member, after all–but generally, it's more honorable to punch up rather than down. Helping an underdog, even if they're an escaped convict and even if you need to kill some cops or robbers to do it, can net you good guy points. In these situations, it's easier to be noble than a true outlaw. Committing a dishonorable crime is hard to do undetected, even in remote locations, and usually requires you to track down and threaten a witness, run and hide from the law, or pay a bounty down the line. While you'll earn money more quickly doing "bad" things, high honor gets you a pretty discount at shops, and you'll make good money either way through story missions.
In many ways, you're nudged toward playing a "good" Arthur. The gang members he's closest to from the beginning are the more righteous, principled ones who are motivated by loyalty and a desire to help others, while he insults, argues with, and generally reacts negatively to those who are hot-headed and vicious. The most rotten of them is Micah, who's so easy to hate that it's hard not to follow Arthur's lead and take the higher road. Unlocking camp upgrades like one-way fast travel and better supplies also essentially forces you into being honorable; although everyone donates, you have to invest hundreds of dollars yourself if you want to afford anything, and that automatically gets you a ton of honor points whether you like it or not.
One of the best, most understated details in the game is Arthur's journal, in which he recaps big events as well as random people you've met and more mundane, everyday things. He sketches places you go, doodles the plants and animals you find, and writes out thoughts he barely speaks out loud. The journal changes with your level of honor, but at least for a relatively honorable Arthur, the pages are filled with concerns and existential crises–inner turmoil over being either good or evil, for instance–that make you want to see him become a better person.
It's a lot harder to feel like a good guy when doing the main story missions, though. Arthur, along with nearly everyone else, is loyal to the gang first and foremost. This means following Dutch into trouble, busting friends out of jail, and committing a number of robberies in the interest of getting money for the gang. Even if you're trying your hardest to be good, you'll inevitably slaughter entire towns in mandatory story missions–stealth and non-lethal takedowns aren't always an option, and the snappy auto-lock aim makes shootouts a far easier option anyway. The dissonance is frustrating to play through in the moment, but it's incredibly important to Arthur's arc as well as your understanding of the gang as a whole. To say any more would venture into spoiler territory.
Like any good prequel, there's an incredible amount of tension in knowing what happens without knowing exactly how.
That extends to the structure of story missions, which start to get predictable around halfway through the game. It's not that they're boring–the opposite is true, actually, and you see a lot of action from beat to beat. But after a while, a pattern emerges, and it's easy to figure out how any given heist or raid is going to unfold. This too becomes frustrating, partially because you often have no way of significantly affecting the outcome despite any decision-making power you thought you might have had. But your weariness is also Arthur's, and that's crucial. The mid-game drags in service of the narrative, which only becomes apparent much later. There's also enough variety between missions and free-roam exploration to prevent it from dragging to the point of being a chore to play.
Like any good prequel, there's an incredible amount of tension in knowing what happens without knowing exactly how. If you played Red Dead Redemption, you know who survives and as a result who probably won't make it to the end of the game. Even during the slower parts, you're waiting for betrayals and injuries and other events you've only vaguely heard mention of before. You're waiting for characters to reveal their true selves, and watching as everything unravels is riveting and heartbreaking if you know what's to come.
You can still enjoy the story in its own right without that background knowledge, though. Some of Red Dead Redemption 2's best moments have almost no relation to its predecessor. One mission takes you to a women's suffrage rally, and a painful side mission has you facing a woman whose husband you killed and life you ruined. The new characters are among the best, too; Sadie Adler is a personal favorite for reasons I won't spoil. Another, a young black man in the gang named Lenny, mentions how the Southerners treat him a little differently; Arthur says that he hasn't noticed anything weird, to which Lenny replies, "All respect, Mr. Morgan, you wouldn't notice."
Generally, Red Dead 2 tackles pertinent issues of the era with care. Rather than defining any of its characters by the bigotry they may experience, it allows them the room to be well-rounded individuals while still not ignoring that things like racism and sexism exist. One arc focuses squarely on a very serious issue, and here, the lack of real choice in the story's direction–and your resulting involvement in what transpires–will likely make you uncomfortable in a powerful way.
While Red Dead Redemption was mostly focused on John Marston's story, Red Dead 2 is about the entire Van der Linde gang–as a community, as an idea, and as the death rattle of the Wild West. It is about Arthur, too, but as the lens through which you view the gang, his very personal, very messy story supports a larger tale. Some frustrating systems and a predictable mission structure end up serving that story well, though it does take patience to get through them and understand why. Red Dead Redemption 2 is an excellent prequel, but it's also an emotional, thought-provoking story in its own right, and it's a world that is hard to leave when it's done.