When Rockstar Games release their latest title, they don’t just release something we can play, they release something we exist in – something we become. Everything they create pushes the boundaries of what we’ve grown to expect in video games, refusing to put limitations on what we can and can’t do, always allowing us to become the person – or people – we spend so much of our time with by immersing us in their world. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most important video game of the year, maybe of the generation. There are so many systems involved, all merged together to make your time as Arthur Morgan as realistic and compelling as it can be, and so much of the story offers you freedom to play exactly how you want to; this is a game-changer, people.
The 19th century is coming to an end, and the Wild West is evolving with the times. America is harnessing technology and economic growth through the advancements made by its pioneers, leaving many behind in its wake. Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang are struggling to adapt, and after a robbery goes badly, they’re forced to leave their home and buy into the great manifest destiny of America. Maybe things can be better, maybe there’s hope in the honesty the new world is promoting, and maybe adapting to it is the best way forward. Your main goal is to survive the American heartland by any means necessary, and time after time you’re pushed to the very limits, whether that’s through rival gangs threatening you at every turn, the federal government watching your every move, or the punishing nature of harsh weather conditions and wild animals that will do everything they can to survive too.
As Arthur Morgan, you have plenty of opportunities to do right by the Van der Lindes. You’ll find a settlement for your gang, and quickly learn how imperative it is to keep everyone alive by supplying them with food, medical supplies, and ammunition. You’ll have to rob trains, steal stagecoaches, hold up shopkeepers and civilians on the road, as well as complete missions, hunt animals, or complete bounty missions to earn your keep. On top of this, there’re plenty of other ways to earn money, such as games of Blackjack or Poker, and selling your wares to those that are interested. Your camp has a group fund to which you can donate your money, as well as a ledger where you can spend that hard-earned cash to improve the camp by upgrading living quarters, building better supply stores, and opening up the option to fast travel across the vast plains.
By keeping your camp healthy and stocked up, the benefits to your own character quickly become noticeable. If you keep the medical supplies high, the health tonics are in abundance, and if you manage the upkeep of your camp well, others will be encouraged to work harder and donate more frequently. Whilst at first it takes a while to get your head around it all, it won’t be long before you’re heading home after a hard day’s work and decide a quick hunt before bed wouldn’t be a bad thing because you haven’t donated a tasty White-tailed deer for a while. These people are your friends, and the more you get to know them, the more you feel the desire to help keep them alive. Whether it’s Dutch Van der Linde, Hosea Matthews, or Pearson, you quickly become close, and helping to keep the gang alive becomes your number one priority.
Out in the wild, or engulfed in a mission, the three cores of your character need to be kept replenished if you want to survive. Health, Stamina, and Dead Eye all need to remain high or you’ll start to show signs of fatigue. You don’t just need to keep your cores full, but the bars around them that act as standard meters need to remain filled or your performance will suffer. There are lots of ways to fill the cores and the bars, but with so many products to use it can be difficult to know which ones to stock, especially if you’re just finding them in an abandoned farmhouse or from looting a dead enemy. Freezing temperatures can affect your health greatly, so wearing something appropriate will keep it from deteriorating.
It isn’t just Arthur that has these cores. Your horse is an extension of you, and looking after it can sometimes be a ‘mare (my God – Ed). As long as you have enough food in your provisions, and remember to keep him or her clean, you’ll be OK. It’s important to bond with your horse because you’ll have access to better abilities. For example, if you’re bonded with your horse it’ll come to you from a farther distance once you whistle it to return. You can tame wild horses, or buy from one of the town’s stables, allowing you the option to choose a variety of them to help aid you differently in certain missions. You can also name them, which strengthens the bond still further.
Your horse also acts as your inventory whilst exploring, and remembering to equip yourself properly before leaving them can often be forgotten. Once you step off your horse, you can press the left shoulder button to select whether you need a bow or a repeater, as well as choose which health items you’ll need depending on the type of mission you’re undertaking. Throughout the game you’ll be able to buy lots of different weapons, as well as finding them and being given them as part of certain missions, so you’ll never be at a loss when choosing which one you take into battle. Like your horse, they’ll also need maintaining, so cleaning them from time to time replenished their stats and keeps them as good as new.
It’s a straightforward system when using the weapons and items, and switching between what you have equipped is done by holding the left shoulder button and selecting with the analogue. Much like the first game, the cover system is employed by pressing the right shoulder button behind a rock, wagon, wall, or whatever’s close by, and just as important as it’s ever been. Perhaps the most useful tool is Dead Eye, but making sure you keep it topped up with Snake Oil or the occasional cigar means you’ll have it for those intense shootouts. At some points in the game, you’ll get into a position where you have to fire off precise shots in situations where gunfights aren’t an option. Holding the right trigger softly will fill up a gauge, then once it’s filled you’ll have time to pick off enemies through Dead Eye; the softer you press it, the more time you get to take out enemies more efficiently. It can be tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a great device.
Hunting is a huge part of RDR2, as is fishing, and both can be done whenever you like. There are 178 different species of animals, so that gives you a lot of opportunities to provide food for your gang. Hunting with the bow will provide stealth, but using it on a smaller animal can ruin the quality of the pelt, thus meaning the reward will be less. You can get smaller arrows for smaller animals, which can be purchased in local towns. Of course, you have the faithful lasso to capture prey, but it’s not going to work against a grizzly bear or an alligator. Planning every hunt is just as important as robbing a train, and learning which options are at your disposal can take time, but planning that next big kill proves incredibly satisfying when done correctly. Fishing can also get you some great food for your camp, and there are lots of different baits to use which’ll help you capture a wide range of fish. Standing on the edge of a river and casting your line is a necessity for acquiring a supper, but it’s also therapeutic and a great distraction from the trials and tribulations of being a criminal.
There is so much to do in RDR2 that you’ll never get bored. It’s one of those games that has a never-ending supply of water cooler moments. You may have a mission you want to do, but along the way you encounter a member of one of the gangs and overhear them planning on a heist. I found myself intervening with a bunch of them after hijacking a stagecoach, only to kill them myself and loot their gains. Elsewhere, I bumped into two chaps sat at a campfire who asked me if I could help them find some supplies. I decided to rob them instead, but a huge chase with the law quickly ensued. There are strangers all over Rockstar’s America, and you can interact with them however you want to. Be antagonistic and abusive, or be polite and let them pass by – it’s up to you. Each person has their own idiosyncrasies, and every town or settlement you encounter has its own personality. You also have a morality meter that moves towards good and bad depending how you act, so be careful with every action because it can affect how others treat you.
You may be in Valentine and hear a load of drunken fools talking about the good ol’ days, or pass through a local farm to hear a rivalry escalating between the farmers and some local thugs wanting to take it off their hands. One of my favourite things was when I returned to the doctor’s office in Valentine a few days after I had a massive gunfight there. I’d uncovered some shady goings on in a back room, and he didn’t like it at all. I paid the bounty off on my head and returned to the doctor to buy supplies, and he said he’d rather have this go smoother than the last time. It showed that people remember, and highlighted how special this world is.
When you’re roaming through the woodlands at night, and the moonlight breaks through the trees, or a thunderstorm splits the sky as you watch from the comfort of your bed, the visual wonder of Red Dead Redemption 2 is utterly arresting. The weather systems are stunning, ranging from sandstorms to gorgeous sunlight, from torrential rain to snowy blizzards. The day/night cycle provides more realism to everything you do, and knowing that it’s almost midnight and you’re far from home gives you a reason to pitch a tent and start a campfire. You’ll often find yourself away from your gang’s camp, so finding somewhere to sleep is important, mainly because sleeping refills your health core and sets you up nicely for the next day. You can also cook meals on the fire, and pitch a tent to get some much needed shut eye.
Everything about Red Dead Redemption 2 takes your breath away. Movement can sometimes feel clunky, like many Rockstar Games can, and remembering to put your gun away when talking to innocent people could have an easier way to do go about it, but complaints are minimal. The way everything exists in its own routine, the way combat is so varied and tactical, the way you literally have an endless supply of things to keep you occupied – it’s so good. The visuals are sublime, and the voice acting from every single member of the cast makes this game feel so grand. Little touches like the cinematic camera angles, or the moments in which you get a great shot in and the camera triggers a short cinematic to see it hit, or how you can tackle the same mission in two different ways depending on what you decide, is wonderful. So much care and consideration has gone in to making this game a modern masterpiece, and it shows at every turn. We’ll be talking about this game for many years to come.
Such a vibrant living world
So much to do
Combat and missions offer plenty of choice
Characters are well-acted
Hunting is engrossing
Everything feels alive
A lot to learn
Movement can occasionally be clunky