Rockstar Games are back after an unusually long hiatus as a developer if you consider that GTAV was actually a release on the last generation of hardware; and that those wanting more from John Marston’s exemplary Western adventure that brought us into the world of rebels, renegades and ranches have had to wait 8 1/2 years. That’s a heap of expectation to apply to a creative team, and pressure over time can create diamonds, or it can produce performance anxiety. Fortunately they know what they’re doing and have crafted the finest immersive open world and most compelling story to grace consoles this year, if not this decade, in Red Dead Redemption II.
Making a bold decision to not have John Marston as the protagonist even though he features in the story, Red Dead Redemption II focuses on Arthur Morgan, the right hand man of Dutch Van der Linde – notorious outlaw and gang leader. With the entire crew on the run from the town of Blackwater after a heist has gone bad, Dutch is trying to find a new home for everyone where they can live out their days in peace and tranquillity, whilst evading capture at the hands of the Pinkerton detective agency. Leaning on each of his cohorts skills to bring in food, jobs and money, he’s a larger than life, confident and charismatic individual that instils the family notions within the group and makes them stronger together instead of apart. In the rapidly changing West though, the time of banditry is over and civilisation is threatening to make them obsolete, and it’s this that Dutch is trying to escape from. At least that’s what he’d have everyone believe.
Dutch may be in charge, but it’s really Arthur that makes most things happen because he’s the fixer of the group, which makes for a much better player character because it gives variety to the role and is best positioned to observe the tensions that grow in the camp. At first it’s a true fight for survival up in the mountains where snow is several feet deep, the cold is damaging and food is scarce. Stumbling across an old rivals gang doesn’t help much either. When spring comes and the thaw sets in, the paths into the lower lying lands open up and the battered bandits can head to warmer climes and try and scrape together the money needed to leave the country. The story takes place across a generous open world map with several distinct areas to become familiar with, and only the Blackwater area off limits until the end game – not that it’s something particularly noticeable as all the map is hidden until discovered, just be ready for a quick death straying into that town whilst the Pinkertons are about.
Red Dead Redemption II’s structure encourages exploration of wherever the Van der Linde gang are camping to find opportunities and ways of making some extra money. Their purpose is to make enough cash to get out of the US, and all proceeds no matter how small or big (or how they’re earned) are shared with the camp. The main story missions will hand out greater rewards, and offer up some fantastic scripted sequences, but it’s the side quests, activities and random encounters that actually make the game what it is. Those familiar with the last title will know a core component is riding from location to location, and that real time travel gives the opportunity to reflect on what’s happened or what’s yet to come, and it’s the same here, though with much more detailed landscapes to enjoy on the way, and with a higher volume of traffic to deal with. Because events are set East of Blackwater, away from the plains, it feels like a much more vibrant and verdant country. It’s definitely farming land with animals roaming around and crops being grown, and there’s a steady paced country life vibe with a (mostly) friendly NPC population. It’s a genuinely relaxing experience taking a horse for a canter to just see what’s going on, and 9 times out of 10 there’ll be something that begs Arthur’s investigation.
Engaging in any of the activities is entirely optional, and even taking part in the story isn’t necessary unless you want to progress the plot and open up more things to do. It’s perfectly feasible to get past the snowbound “Hateful Eight meets The Revenant” tutorial and move to the town of Valentine, then spend the rest of the game just wandering the world and enjoying the design and the mechanics. The detail on everything is beyond impressive. From the imprints left in mud that slowly fade away as the viscous liquid oozes back, to the way shadows are cast by street lamps and shorten and lengthen with distance, and on to how sunlight highlights the translucency of characters ears when it’s caught behind them. There’s such a natural and realistic feel to the presentation that it’s possible to ramble on at length about how much effort has gone into making this a living breathing world, more so than anything that’s come before, and still not convey exactly how much detail is in here. It’s not like the actual gameplay elements have been skimped on for visuals either.
Main missions are typically (and a little predictably) ride to a location, have a talk on the way, shoot some rootin’ tootin’ cowboys, then ride home. It moves the plot along and there’s a little bit of trivialising going on in my words… the set pieces are what make these guided sections a lot of fun to play through. Get outside of these and there’s a ridiculous amount to get involved in. Red Dead Redemption II wants Arthur to be a farmer, a big game hunter, a fisherman, a highway man, a barber, a card sharp, a dominoes overlord, a five finger fillet master, a train hijacker, jockey and dressage expert, a treasure hunter, a bank robber, an archaeologist, a chef, a burgler, a munitions manufacturer, a chemist, a freedom fighter, and so many other things. It’s a little overwhelming how much is available at any one time. These are all things that come from the gang to take part in or are marked on the map as points of interest, and it doesn’t include the wealth of unique characters that pop up that need help with breaking out of leg irons or just want a shooting competition. By its very nature this is an immense time sink of a game, excluding the 60+ hour campaign and yet to be enabled online multiplayer.
It’s fair to say that with so much going on it would have been easy to drop the ball somewhere, though Rockstar’s perfectionism seems to have mitigated that. The underpinning mechanics of each activity is solid, if not up to the standard of a game that specialises in just the one activity. Fishing for bass in New Hanover isn’t going to be as challenging or as deep as hunting pike in a canal in Fishing Sim World, but it’s a lot more accessible and fun. Shooting and cover mechanics work well enough so that Arthur more than holds his own in gunfights, though there’s a niggle on the amount of times he puts his guns away just as you’re wanting to shoot; and despite holding all weapons in saddlebags on the horse and having favourites on Arthur’s back, the game decides at strange times to replace them with ones less appropriate and with no way to swap them out. Many a time I’ve leapt off Dobbin (yes, you can name your horse) into battle with my trusty Lancaster repeater on my back and Schofield revolver in the holster, only to find myself sporting a sawn-off shotgun and a bolt action rifle instead as wise old Dobbin bolts for the tree line and I get swamped by the O’Driscoll gang. At least deadeye returns and it’s been upgraded to be used for getting the drop on enemies with a slow pressing of the trigger whilst the pistol is holstered; and highlighting weak points as well once it’s levelled up.
There are more visible RPG elements built into Red Dead Redemption II that cover Arthur and his trusty steed. Health, stamina and deadeye for Mr. Morgan, and health and stamina for the horse. It’s not the most straight forward system as it relies on a “core” and then the actual usage bar, but it’s something that grows as time passes and the various skills get used. The more Arthur runs the better his stamina becomes, and the less he weighs the slower the stamina bar drains. Similarly, building a bond with the horse by riding, brushing, feeding and talking to them will add boosts to health and speed as well as how spooked it will get and how far away it will be before responding to calling whistles. For equine lovers though, be careful with them because perma-death awaits the careless. Similarly, our hero is a bit fragile as well. In a story mission with nicely placed cover and a team to help he can outgun anyone, but as a lone rider it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the wildlife as much as the bandits. If wolves decide to attack the best course of action is to run, but the camera will track the pack so most of the time he ends up running into obstacles, off cliffs, or just getting dumped from the horse then eaten. It really rams home the dangers of the old West.
A danger that might not get considered is just how easy it is to get spotted in something criminal, even when innocent. Being present at the scene of a crime whether caused by Arthur or not runs the risk of an eyewitness being able to report to the police. These can be dealt with lethally or with some *ahem* gentle persuasion, with either tactic being suitable depending on how you like your karma. A morality score is doled out for nearly every action and moves the dial up and down throughout the whole game, and it impacts on how certain events play out – most noticeably for me on the loansharking side quests, but is linked to how Arthur is perceived out on the roads and in towns. Of course, if he’s been slinging dead bodies around and riding for days then the dried in blood, unkempt beard and missing hat are going to put people off regardless of how kind he’s been. It’s another one of the details that you might not think matters or would even be something a game would consider being put in, yet it grounds the action in this gritty world where not everything is black or white and good men sometimes do the immoral jobs.
Living in the grey areas is what really pulls you into the events in Red Dead Redemption II by allowing you to imprint your personality on to Arthur so that he remains distinct yet familiar enough that you care about him. That’s what Rockstar are masters at crafting. They can write the overarching story, but it’s delivering the characters and situations with moral flexibility that bring it home and help define your own personal traits. The impressive tech in the background stays just that – in the background to make everything else seem real. Sure, there are glitches to be found if you go looking on YouTube, but the size and scope of the game means that they’re very infrequent, and it’s got to be mentioned that now 4 weeks after release there have been no patches to address any major issues (and I didn’t encounter any either). There are very few games that have me pondering the transpired events once the console is turned off, but this is one of them. Several days after finishing the main story line and heading off into the wilds of the epilogues I’m still mulling over how brilliantly the “redemption” aspect comes together in the latter chapters, and how I feel I had a hand in that. Not because the game made it obvious or told me to behave in a certain way, but because I wanted to be the hero for Arthur’s sake, and to get that entwined with a character is probably the most amazing thing about it.
A PS4 review copy of Red Dead Redemption II was provided by the Rockstar Games PR team, and the game is available now for PS4 and Xbox One. The online components are due to go into beta later this year.