We here at Fanbyte didn’t get a review code for Red Dead Redemption 2 until launch day. Given how massive the game is, and the fact that Red Dead Online doesn’t launch until later this month, I’ve opted to do a review in progress. This page will house my thoughts about the game based on my 40-ish hours so far.
My final verdict won’t likely change much, but this gives me room to address last-minute issues or revelations. I’ll have a more definitive score for this and Red Dead Online in the coming days. For now, enjoy the review in progress!
Red Dead Redemption 2 is not like its predecessor. Developer Rockstar Games’ previous frontier romp had a clear purpose: to make a playable spaghetti western. It mostly succeeded. Ennio Morricone-style guitar twangs tightened slow tension. Character motivations were clear and simple; fueled by revenge, greed, or… Well, redemption. A lot of people got shot.
Red Dead 2 has its own, different motivation. Although it’s still superficially a western. Protagonist and gang enforcer Arthur Morgan wears a cowboy hat and rides a horse. Just like he carries iron and isn’t afraid to use it. But the Hollywood western set doesn’t move in a straight, obvious line. Red Dead 2 looks just like its influences—specifically Unforgiven and the Sergio Leone catalog—but it doesn’t match the way they move.
This game is more experiential. It’s about soaking in a meticulously detailed world with very particular connotations. This setting is, Rockstar posits, the last true land of the free. You can hunt, fish, chop wood, and ride horses more-or-less to your heart’s content. Maybe you’ll rob people (you’ll definitely rob people). But that’s just part of being free, isn’t it? And that nonlinear pull towards woodsy side activities is the meat of the game.
Soaking in the Sights
In practice, it’s the same batch of mini-games you’ve seen in a hundred open-world adventures. But here they’re not distractions to break up the general action. These small, vaguely connected exercises are the meat of the game.
Sure. Every once in a while you take a story mission. They pop up as golden beacons on the immense open-world map and technically offer more direct action. You rob banks and rustle cattle. But it’s all for the sake of dodging the same encroaching threat: civilization.
And by “civilization,” Rockstar specifically means the industrialized, western idea of it. The law is coming to set up roads, rules, and regulations. It’s not interested in absorbing men like Arthur, nor his fellow members of the Dutch van der Linde gang, which we learned the hard way at the end of the first Red Dead Redemption. This kind of civilization is built on violence—on destroying anything it can’t flatten down into itself.
There’s early lip service to how this existential threat already annihilated the Native American tribes of Red Dead 2’s fictional United States. But it’s an underdeveloped note in the tale of a white man versus white men, versus nature, versus society.
Pushing the Boundaries
Red Dead 2 is still a Rockstar game, after all. It doesn’t want to obliterate you. It wants to push you just far enough outside of society that you can justify toying with it. What’s the point of hunting deer if you can’t sell the skins to someone? What’s the point of having other people to talk to if you don’t have the option to point guns at them? That’s the kind of freedom Red Dead 2 offers: the ability to do what you want and be rewarded for it.
Just like the mini-games, it’s not technically that novel. Most open-world games offer the same power fantasy. Rockstar’s twist is a level of detail only this studio has the carte blanche to bring. Who else would sign off on horse testicles that shrink in cold weather?
It’s not all completely indulgent, though. The game also offers broader shades of interaction than most of this scope. I can stab a guard in the back or through the throat in Assassin’s Creed, for example, but that dude is dying one way or another. In Red Dead 2 I can antagonize someone or tip my hat to them. I can put a warning shot in the air or into their leg.
For each degree of open-world freedom, though, there’s an equally restrictive story mission. Nearly all of them begin and end the same way. You ride out to some objective. Fellow gang members fill the travel time with exposition—musings on their future under the command of father figure Dutch. There’s a sense that this once close-knit band of outlaws is coming apart at the seams, while Dutch’s slow, obvious descent into paranoia confirms it. Although nobody wants to come out and say so.
Usually they don’t have to. Fifty-man gunfights table the discussion until the next story quest and the process starts all over.
Sloppiest Draw in the West
These aren’t the only propulsive missions in Red Dead 2, but they are the norm. And they’re just not very fun. That’s partly due to repetition, yes, but there’s a greater problem bumping into every aspect of the game. Namely? The controls stink.
Gunplay is sluggish thanks to massive dead zones on the analog sticks (which you can mercifully adjust). Every other interaction, from looting corpses to mounting horses, is folded into innumerable context-sensitive button prompts. And there’s very little rhyme or reason to each.
Sometimes you pick up objects with the triangle button (on PlayStation 4, of course). But, depending on the circumstances, sometimes it’s square. Reload is mapped to circle. So is your melee attack! It all depends on where you’re standing, if you’re on a horse, whether or not your gun is out, and more.
I’ve certainly gotten confused over which is which. I definitely kicked a man in the face from on top of his own horse, because I forgot how to dismount. That little gaffe drew an entire town down on me. So I just stole the damn animal and rode into the plains until the angry mob calmed down. That didn’t stop the locals from putting a bounty on my head, of course. I had to pay that off at a post office, where a clerk admonished me for my accidental crimes.
Uncivilized in Civilization
Where did he get off talking down to me like that? That question led me to discover the door to his little safety cage wasn’t locked. I could have drawn on him then and there, but that would have put bounty hunters right back on my trail… Unless I covered my face. Doing so keeps your identity a secret during crime sprees. It also draws unwanted attention.
I filed the information about the clerk’s door away for later, though. Dutch asked me not to make trouble in town. I felt obliged to listen.
Because that’s where Red Dead 2 really shines. Dutch is a villain. So is Arthur, for that matter, but I know just how far Dutch falls from grace thanks to the “future” events of Red Dead Redemption. I shouldn’t trust him. And yet I do. He took me on a fishing trip with my other adoptive dad, Hosea, and told me a funny story. We sang a song together, dammit!
All the Little Moments
Every once in a while Red Dead 2 breaks down the walls between the two sides of itself: the systemic western simulator and the story-driven lawbreaking. That’s when you get entire missions where Arthur and company shoot the shit on a boat for 15 minutes. Or maybe our antihero just goes out on the town with a buddy; complete with a genuinely hilarious drinking montage.
These small sequences of characters genuinely connecting aren’t just my favorite parts of Red Dead 2. They’re the best scenes Rockstar has ever written. They also ground the tragedy of watching Dutch, and his found family of outlaws, fall apart.
Where this is going is all clearly foreshadowed—both in this story and by the very obvious ending of the first game. But the new connections I’m building with these characters, over a very long chunk of play time, have me emotionally invested in their plight as well.
I shouldn’t need to struggle through loose controls and dull missions (oh, and all the much-too-long skinning animations) to see that story through to the end. The game is too painstakingly constructed for this to still be an issue. But I’m willing to put up with it for now. I don’t want to stop soaking in this languid, heartfelt cowboy simulator just yet.