First Impressions: “Red Dead Redemption II” May Be the Best Game of This Console Generation
It’s been eight years since the first Red Dead Redemption hit shelves and in those eight years I’ve played and replayed the game countless times. I put so much time into it and explored so much of its open world that I got to a point where I had seen all that there was to see in the game. So naturally when the sequel was announced in 2016, I was stoked to sink my teeth into more great western-inspired action.
Now that the sequel has finally come out and I’ve played it for a bit, I find it incredibly difficult to believe that I will see all that Red Dead Redemption II has to offer in only eight years. Not because it’s a bad game, but because it is so expansive and massive that there is easily hundreds of hours of content packed into this $60 game. I’ve played roughly 10 hours and I feel like I have barely even scratched the surface.
This is a big reason why outlets like IGN, Game Informer, The Telegraph, and The Guardian are showering it with praises and perfect scores. It’s a game that redefines the open world genre as a whole, creating something completely unique from anything that has come before it– even it’s predecessor.
The game takes place in a fictional representation of the American West in the year 1899, when the “Wild West” began to become a whole lot less wild due to the rapid increase of technology and civilization. You play as outlaw Arthur Morgan, a senior member of the Van der Linde Gang, a notorious motley crew of idealistic desperados, as they grapple with this harsh reality of a changing world.
The game opens up with the Van Der Linde Gang fleeing from the law through blizzard covered mountains after a botched robbery forces them to leave their old camp behind. This section, which takes up the first few hours of the game, serves as a linear tutorial that teaches the player the basic mechanics and introduces us to the central characters. After that the world completely opens up and you’re free to explore it as you please.
And what a world it is. Rockstar, well known for their open world series Grand Theft Auto, have really outdone themselves with this one. It’s both the most beautiful looking and most authentic feeling open world I have ever experienced. It contains vast landscapes packed with amazing vistas and teaming with realistic human and animal AI that makes the world feel truly lived in. There are also numerous side quests and activities you can participate in. You can help strangers, go hunting and fishing, track down bounties, take on rival gangs, or just ride around and cause mischief.
One thing that differentiates Red Dead Redemption II from its predecessor is its attention to detail. You have to eat and sleep regularly to keep your health and stamina up, you have to perform routine maintenance on your firearms to keep them working properly, you have to hunt to make sure your gang is well fed, and you have to bathe and groom to keep people in the world from making fun of you. These features sounded incredibly tedious when I first heard about them, but they really aren’t that bad. They take a minimal amount of time and effort on the part of the player and I would argue that they add an element of immersion to the overall experience.
One thing that is tedious in this game however, is that there’s no real means to freely fast travel all over the map like in the previous one. This means you’ll be riding all over one of the largest maps in the history of video games for the majority of the campaign. It seems like the developers are trying to pad the run-time, but the world is so polished and amazing looking that it’s forgivable.
I did run into a few glitches along the way. Some hilarious, like a cowboy riding in mid-air with no horse under him. And some frustrating, like trying to talk to an NPC and having their cutscene refuse to show up, causing my character to awkwardly stand in place while I hopelessly mash ‘X’ until I give up and reboot the game. Thankfully these instances are few and far between and the game’s autosave feature prevents you from losing a lot of progress.
The most frustrating part isn’t a glitch at all, but a baffling decision on the developer’s part to make the button used to interact with people in the world the same as the button used to aim your weapon. With AI that isn’t too keen on getting their lives threatened, you’re going to have a lot of unnecessary altercations if you press the button at the wrong time. But honestly, there isn’t much wrong with the game and everything negative I’ve said feels like a callous nitpick.
The gameplay is as good as any Rockstar game out there, offering tight and satisfying gunplay that leaves you feeling like a real badass gunslinger. It feels similar to the original Red Dead Redemption, but it also adds more elements to contribute to the realism like realistic recoil, longer reload animations, and the ability to only carry a limited number of weapons at a time.
Great gameplay is important but what I really loved about the first Red Dead Redemption was its ability to tell a compelling story within the context of a wild west, open world, adventure game. It made the player look at important pieces of the human condition– acting as a commentary on our society at large.
It centered on themes like nature vs. nurture, the inherent exploitative nature of capitalism, and the importance of questioning authority. The game also addresses the view of the U.S. as the proverbial “land of opportunity” and “land of second chances;” asking the player: are second chances even liberating or fulfilling within our society, or will our prior actions always haunt us, no matter what we do to escape them? It was incredibly moving, deeply complex, and a testament to what video games can do as a storytelling medium.
Needless to say I had big expectations for Red Dead Redemption II’s story, and the plot seems promising so far. The majority of the second chapter focuses on further developing the characters of Arthur’s gang. There are over 20 different members of this gang, each with differing personalities and characteristics (for better or worse). It’s hard to see how well all of them will develop as the plot goes on, but as I mentioned before, I’ve only played a relatively small chunk of this game.
The pacing has been great, Arthur has served as an effective anchor thus far, and as long as the story remains centered on his struggle and conflicted motivations then it should be pretty good. I have faith in Rockstar’s storytelling ability especially with Dan Houser, the lead writer for the original Red Dead Redemption, as the lead writer of this project.
So far, Red Dead Redemption II seems to be the masterpiece Rockstar set out to make. When it’s all said and done, when this console generation has come to pass, and people create their lists of the best games of the era, don’t be surprised to see Red Dead Redemption II at the top of most of them.
Review by Josh Stickrod
At a Glance:
Red Dead Redemption II
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Studios
Platforms: Playstation 4 & XBox One
ESRB Rating: M