The biggest game of the year is finally here, but does Rockstar Games Western epic live up to expectations?
Purely on a technical level, Red Dead Redemption II is one of the most impressive video games weve ever played. It has many other positive qualities, but the graphics are so astonishingly good it almost seems impossible. We have seen modern movies with worse CGI, and less convincing computer-generated characters, than this and yet Rockstars latest is a giant open world adventure with such an incredible level of detail that sometimes you question whether what you just saw really happened.
Its a staggering achievement and the sense of immersion that results from the combination of visuals, sound design, and interactivity is unparalleled. Its by no means a game without flaws though and some players are sure to find its methodical pacing and emphasis on storytelling is not to their taste. But the games scope and ambition is such that its impossible not to be impressed, not least in how assuredly it handles every element of gameplay and presentation across its mammoth 60+ hour running time.
But despite its enormous size Red Dead Redemption II is not a difficult game to describe, or to get your head around, especially if youve played the original or any of the recent Grand Theft Auto titles. Its a prequel to the last game, but still set towards the end of the Wild West period when the US was becoming more civilised and outlaws were beginning to find their way of life untenable. You play as Arthur Morgan, a veteran of the Old West who is part of the Dutch Van der Linde gang of travelling bandits.
By default, Arthur is a relatively principled character although how you choose to play him determines the exact nature of his personality – as indicated by a sliding scale between evil and virtuous whenever you decide to rob and kill, or not kill, someone. As usual for Rockstar the plot is left in the background for the majority of the time and revolves around a disastrous job that occurs just before the game starts and which has left several members of the gang dead or injured and all their money in a town they dare not re-enter.
Once the immediate danger of pursuit by the law (aka the tutorial) is over youre left to your own devices, to explore and exploit the game world however you want. Structurally this is achieved either via traditional story missions, optional side quests, or simply robbing and hunting as you please. Whichever path you take though will inevitably lead you back to your camp, where youre encouraged to leave a donation to help the group as a whole and also bring back food.
You dont have to do this but in return you get to use, and upgrade, the facilities and chat with your compatriots who might then offer their own rewards or unique missions. Alternatively, you can set-up your own camp wherever you want, complete with the chance to cook and craft items. But however you do it its important to get a good nights sleep, as the game monitors both your tiredness and hunger and limits your stamina and health if it gets low.
Rockstars on again/off again interest in role-playing mechanics has received criticism in the past but although these are some of the most involved theyre not nearly as restrictive as they sound and very much add to the sense of realism and immersion. After all, improving your stamina by running makes a lot more sense than just spending a skill point and the game is all the better for it.
Rockstars weakness as a developer has always been in its gameplay mechanics. Going back to the earlier GTA titles its shocking how poorly some of the games control and how fiddly and unsatisfying the combat can be. And while Red Dead Redemption II is generally an improvement even on GTA V there are still echoes of those earlier issues in Arthurs slightly clumsy movement and some finickity interface controls – with a selector wheel that seems to purposefully ignore your inputs at the most inopportune of moments.
Melee combat is very simplistic, and the gunplay is similarly straightforward, but crucially both are consistently entertaining. By default the aim assist is so powerful that headshots are almost a triviality but somehow that never gets old and the dead eye slow motion ability, which can be upgrade multiple times through consistent use, is similarly fun to use.
Much like Assassins Creed Odyssey, the combat mechanics alone arent nuanced enough to justify such a long game, although Red Dead Redemption II does much better than Ubisofts title in presenting a variety of scenarios and distractions to obfuscate that fact. There are lot of sieges and straightforward shootouts but also a number of memorably more inventive confrontations, such as a game of cat and mouse in a cornfield and a tense chase around a dense graveyard.
The historical setting means that the range of weapons is limited and in truth of none of them make that much difference that you couldnt just stick with a basic pistol and rifle and happily complete the whole game that way. But the fact that this has forced Rockstar to be more inventive with the setting and nature of combat sequences works very much to the games favour.
Riding your horse is also purposefully uncomplicated, to the point where it requires almost no real skill (there are several races throughout the game, all of which we won first time). This streamlining of gameplay elements is likely to be the games most controversial element but in context it barely registers as a complaint. Hunting the games huge menagerie of animals is probably the most difficult activity in the game, since it requires stealth as well as accuracy, but its greatest pleasure is simply using it as an excuse to enjoy the staggering landscapes and unparalleled attention to detail.
The closer gaming gets to actual photorealism the less useful the term becomes but there are frequent moments during the game where you could swear you were watching a wildlife documentary rather than playing a video game. Weve found it difficult to verify whether horse testicles really do change size depending on weather conditions (a genuine claim made before release) but we have no hesitation in believing it given how realistically things like snow and water are modelled – and the fact that part of the stealth element of hunting is knowing which way the wind is blowing.
Although the most impressive moment that sticks in our mind was when unloading an animal carcass outside a shop and accidentally dropping it in the mud, which immediately got it dirty; not just with a quick smear of brown but what seemed to be a physically accurate modelling of exactly where the fur touched the ground and how the mud wouldve stuck to it.
We expect Red Dead Redemption II will end up being compared to Zelda: Breath Of The Wild a lot, given there are many superficial similarities, but the approaches are completely different. Breath Of The Wild has virtually no story but its traversal mechanics are more intrinsically entertaining and its world, untethered from the mundanities of real life, much more interactive. Which approach you prefer is a matter of personal taste though and both games certainly deserve to be spoken of in the same breath.
On a technical level Red Dead Redemption II is beyond reproach (except for characters hair, oddly, which is often distractingly bad) and in those terms probably the most impressive video game weve ever seen. Critiquing the storytelling is more difficult but its clearly borne of similarly unrestrained ambitions. And yet the way its conveyed is very traditional. In fact, the game as a whole could almost be accused of being old-fashioned, despite its state-of-the-art presentation. Cut scenes are frequent, although generally shorter and less self-indulgent than in the last game, but they still work in the same well-established way as any other game.
Some story-orientated missions can end with the realisation that youve barely done anything interactive, let alone anything requiring any skill, the whole time. Most missions are also preceded by, and sometimes end with, long riding sequences in which one or more of the gang accompanies you and talks the whole way. Some hours into the game we began to ponder the question of whether theres lots of talking because there are such long rides or whether there are such long rides because Rockstar wants to include a lot of talking.
Its at this point that you realise how much Red Dead Redemption II has in common with walking sims, only presented in a much more dynamic way. That isnt a criticism though, indeed the only minor complaint we have about the storytelling is that it takes a long time for the game to establish its major themes. Theres some on-the-nose dialogue at the beginning about society versus savagery but its only really in the second half of the game that it begins to move away from straight plot and begins to weave a story with more thematic depth.
Eventually you begin to realise exactly what Arthur and gang leader Dutch represent, the former personifying the Old West itself and the latter the intangible promise of the American dream. Normally Rockstars best writing is to be found in its satirical radio shows and side content but here theres real substance to the story itself, and while it does sometimes seem to underplay the racism of the era the issue, as well as sexism and other bigotries, are tackled head-on numerous times.
Red Dead Redemption II is an incredible achievement in almost every way and despite some misgivings probably our favourite Rockstar game ever. Its certainly their most successful storytelling experience and enough to make you hope they never give up on single-player the way they seem to have with GTA V (there is a multiplayer mode for Red Dead Redemption II but little is known about it at the moment and its only going to be in beta this year).
Since this is clearly set to be an enormous hit anyway it seems redundant to shower the game with any more superlatives, but Red Dead Redemption II deserves them all. We have our quibbles with some of its design decisions but all the most important things it gets exactly right, and the end result is one of the most impressive video games ever made.
Red Dead Redemption II
In Short: An incredible technical achievement and a hugely accomplished Western epic that, despite a few minor flaws, represents Rockstar Games most engaging and ambitious work so far.
Pros: Astounding graphics and attention to detail. Immense range of things to see and do with well-drawn characters and interesting themes.
Cons: Controls are a little clumsy, combat is one note and very easy. A lot of the storytelling can be disappointingly non-interactive.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) and Xbox One
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Studios
Release Date: 26th October 2018
Age Rating: 18