I’ve played a good handful of video games based on the Western genre, but few have captured my attention the way Red Dead Redemption did. Before 2010, I thought cowboy simulators couldn’t get any better than Law of the West for the Commodore 64. With Red Dead Redemption, I was transported to a time and place where technology was limited to steam- and coal-powered machinery, with land still largely untouched, and where people solved their differences with their fists or from the barrel of a shootin’ iron. Playing cowboy was more fun than I expected, but I was left wanting so much more, and I’d hoped more studios would pick up the genre and do more with it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Thankfully, Rockstar has come back to the Wild West with Red Dead Redemption II, a game that takes full advantage of the lessons learned from Grand Theft Auto V. There are a lot of surprises to discover, but none are as striking as how much this sequel outshines Red Dead Redemption in every conceivable way.
The year is 1899, and the federal government is cracking down on America’s “wild west”. With the game set twelve years before Red Dead Redemption, we are introduced to the Dutch van der Linde outlaw gang at a pivotal moment in their existence. After a bank job in Blackwater goes sour, they are forced to leave everything behind and flee as Pinkerton agents hunt them down under orders of the government. The charismatic Dutch leads his crew of reprobates to the promised lands of the west, where they can be free from the law and do as they please. To get them there, Dutch relies on Arthur Morgan, the grizzled and more than a little sharp around the edges player character.
Arthur is much more than a 2018 analog for Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston. In fact, the two men couldn’t be any more different. John behaved himself, was family oriented, and acted a gentleman for the most part, whereas Arthur isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and hurt others to protect his people and fund the gang’s journey across the country. He is capable of patience, and as the player, you’re allowed to make him as mean or friendly as you’d like. Still, he is at odds with the younger, more earnest members of the group that push back against the old way of doing things (re: less talk, more violence and displays of force). Even with his predilection towards murder and mayhem, the gang looks up to Arthur and seek his counsel. And from that, he quickly learns that everyone shares a growing sense of distressed self-awareness towards the changing world that doesn’t tolerate their kind. By all accounts, the party is over.
The structure of the game is right out of the Rockstar playbook, but with a few interesting changes. Interacting with the main characters is done inside a campsite the gang sets up after the initial tutorial. As a hub, you can pass the time with restocking supplies, drinking, gambling, chatting with your gang, contributing money to earn more amenities, and donating items in exchange for special customization options. With enough money, the camp can be upgraded to offer better supplies and customized with unique cosmetic features, the latter of which are entirely optional and don’t change the story or character. Initiating contact with gang members leads into story quests that involve schemes to bilk money from unwilling people, banks, and high-class muckety mucks. Outside of camp, Arthur can rub elbows with strangers, non-story related characters in need of help to advance their own goals and complete unique errands, like tracking down old gunfighters for a book or finding fossils for a paleontologist trying to break through the gender barrier.
The random events that made the frontier landscape of Red Dead Redemption worth exploring are back and have been beefed up considerably. At any given time, commotion, gunfire, or the shouting of panicked citizens will clue you into something happening close by. Or, you may just stumble upon groups of people minding their own business and willing to have a brief conversation with you. A lot of these events don’t require any intervention on your part, leaving you to observe as a chain gang tries to break free, a drunken brawl breaks out in the muddy streets of Valentine, or a young man tries to pan for gold. With the exception of offering money to injured Civil War veterans, the hours I spent have yet to show me the same random encounter twice.
Life in the frontier is fraught with peril and it’s a good thing that Arthur is a pretty capable gunfighter. Gun combat doesn’t stray too far from Red Dead Redemption (or Grand Theft Auto V, even) and you shoot and move in and out of cover to blow away bad guys and lawmen with an assortment of pistols, revolvers, and rifles. Firing from the hip makes weapons shoot faster at the expense of accuracy, but triggering the Dead Eye mechanic slows the action down to give you time to mark vital body parts, like shooting someone’s legs out from under them or going for a quick headshot kill. Sometimes Arthur lets his fists do the talking and while it is fun to get into dirty brawls, I thought them to be a bit clunky as you try to block enemy hits while trying to land your own blows. As a result, I developed a tendency to avoid fist fights unless forced into one or, to my horror, hit the punch button on accident and slug my horse in the face.
However you choose to commit violence, enough of it will draw the attention of The Law, who actively investigates disturbances and murders by proximity or through witnesses. Witnesses will make a run for the nearest lawman if they see you commit a crime, but catching up to them to threaten bodily harm (or just killing them) will make them forget they saw anything. Otherwise, Arthur becomes wanted and, like Grand Theft Auto V, he needs to flee the scene (marked as a red circle) and stay out of trouble long enough for a “wanted” meter to disappear. If things get really bad, towns and their surrounding area will go into lockdown and be actively patrolled by bounty hunters and lawmen until the bounty is paid off.
There’s a good amount of material that Red Dead Redemption II shares with the first game, but for every one thing it brings over, it adds, changes, and modifies a host of other mechanics. One is a new “core” system that controls how quickly Arthur’s health, stamina, and Dead Eye regenerate over time. Their effectiveness is affected by hunger and even the weather. Food and drink are a great way to keep the cores topped off, but certain vices, such as smoking and drinking alcohol, can grant a boost to one core at the expense of another (chewing tobacco, for example, adds to Dead Eye but drains a little bit from your health core). Too much food can make Arthur overweight, slowing stamina regeneration, and getting drunk really isn’t a pleasant experience to begin with. As for the weather, wearing heavy clothes on warm, sunny days can influence how the cores generate. I was a little concerned about the core system, afraid that I’d find myself in situations where I have to break away from what I’m doing just to go eat. Thankfully, the whole “you gotta eat” mechanic never feels invasive and because you can stock up on snacks from a general store or cook animal meat, there’s more than enough to keep the cores topped off. Having to worry about clothes doesn’t bother me either because it’s a great excuse to indulge in the beautifully recreated collection of era-specific fashion. The core system also extends to the horses you can ride. They, too, have health and stamina that needs to be kept in check, but just like Arthur, they can go really far without their health and stamina becoming a problem.
Speaking of fashion, players have free reign over Arthur’s appearance through a large assortment of customization options. Visiting stores gives access to a Sears-like catalog to buy clothes, weapons, provisions, and items for your horse. Barbers offer different haircuts and facial hair options (my Arthur is rocking a fantastic Doc Holliday mustache) that can be set to different lengths and thickness. Animal skins collected can be sold to trappers and donated to the camp in exchange for animal-based attire (for living out your grizzled old prospector fantasies) and base cosmetics. People will react to the conditions of Arthur’s appearance as he grows more unkempt and dirty. An early interaction in a saloon ended in an epic fistfight on the dirt streets of Valentine, and the aftermath saw me completely caked in mud. I was amused to hear the polite (and not-so-polite) comments made towards by disheveled appearance by numerous NPCs. Clean up is easy as wading through a river or visiting hotels to take a hot bath (which can be done by yourself or with... an assistant). An NPC’s reaction to your presence is also affected by an Honor system which moves up and down a scale, depending on how friendly or threatening your actions are. Treat people nice and respectful and you’ll be treated in kind. Rob, kill, and pillage, and you’ll find that no one likes having you around.
I could easily spend a half hour running down a list of all the details, big and small, that make up Red Dead Redemption II. It’s crammed with so many different elements that neither feel overwhelming or added for the sake of an additional bullet point on the box. To play this game is to experience a smartly recreated vision of life in the 1800s, devoid of the creature comforts we have today. General stores are a great way to stock up on supplies, but making use of the land and its ecosystem to make your own food and cobbling together ammunition through a simple and straightforward crafting system lets you save money for the finer things. Hunting has been expanded to be less than a “run up to an animal and shoot it dead” experience and one that sees you tracking animal scents, planting bait, and using the right weapon to ensure a great quality pelt and good meat to cook up to fuel your health core. I’ve got some bad news for people who didn’t like the skinning in Red Dead Redemption: it’s far more graphic, because the camera doesn’t cut away as Arthur uses his knife (or bare hands!) to peel away fur from rabbits, goats, and wolves. I lived a good life not knowing what a skinned bear looks like and now it’s something I can’t unsee. Even though skinning can get graphic, I didn’t get the impression that Rockstar was trying to shock anyone. This is one of those cases of, “Well, that’s how it was done” and it is an activity that Arthur doesn’t particularly enjoy. He approaches the task with a methodical quietness free of any psychotic, Trevor-like tendencies.
Apart from crafting and hunting, there are enough diversions to keep you busy. Character challenges involve completing a series of passive activities, like hunting a certain species of animal, collecting perfect quality pelts, shooting birds out of the sky, and so on. Settlements also have a nice collection of diversions from poker and five finger fillet to vaudeville shows and domino games. Bounty hunts, fishing spots, treasure hunting, train robberies - the list goes on. It’s hard to feel bored in the game when there’s so much going on around you at any given time. All you have to do is seek it out. The best engagements, however, are those done with the Van der Linde gang. Red Dead Redemption II goes out of its way to make the player build a rapport with these characters far better than any other video game featuring gangs (like Saints Row and even Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas). Even though these people lie, cheat, steal, kill, and blackmail people out of their money, they still find a way to be endearing because they treat each other as a family. Hosea, for example, is the oldest member of the crew and is specialist at grifting and coming up with cons.
Not content to stand on the sidelines, the women in Dutch’s gang pull their own weight and are far from demure damsels. Watching them fleece people is great, but seeing the transformation of Sadie Adler, who casts off the social expectations of her sex and becomes an absolute badass, it feels like the game does right by women, better than any other game in Rockstar’s catalog. Character performances like Arthur, Hosea, and Sadie are only as good as the people who portray them and the talent gathered to lend their voices is a significant achievement. Everyone does a fabulous job selling the notion that they are a family that experiences highs and lows and the strain of constant pursuit. The best moments, though, are when everyone stops what they’re doing to have a party. With everyone gathered around the campfire, they drink and sing songs - which there is a lot of - giving them a brief moment of respite where they can cast aside the ills of the day and enjoy their time together. Moments like this feel genuine and are something I always look forward to.
2018 has seen a lot of great looking games on the PlayStation 4 and while I don’t want to discredit their accomplishments, Red Dead Redemption II stands head and shoulders above them all. My memories of Red Dead Redemption conjure images of earthy, southwestern landscapes and late game areas marked by fields, a robust city, and a small mountain area. Red Dead Redemption II’s map feels substantially larger and teems with more flora and fauna. The map is made up of different states with their own distinctive look and feel. One portion of the map feels modeled after Midwest states and the city - a real, industrial city - is certainly inspired by southern cities, like New Orleans. The cinematic nature of these places never fails to elicit awe and, cheesy at it sounds, there were a few places that almost had me tearing up because it was so beautiful. Dramatic weather effects and a day/night cycle are responsible for some gorgeous imagery that’ll make you stop and take a screenshot. There were some situations were the game’s nighttime hours felt too dark, especially in areas that cast lots of shadows (forests and mountain paths), which makes it difficult to see any targets you’re trying to track down. A lantern helps but whenever possible, I chose to run missions during the morning and afternoon hours to make things a little easier.
I could go on and on about everything I loved about Red Dead Redemption II. Indeed, this was the hardest embargo I had to endure because I was constantly bursting at the seams to tell someone, anyone, about all the cool things that lie waiting for you in this gigantic game. I can’t wait to share all my favorite moments with the rest of you. One thing worth pointing out is that the pacing of the game might raise an eyebrow, especially if you’ve grown accustomed to Grand Theft Auto with its fast cars, cellphones, mass transit, and sound barrier-breaking jets. Things move a lot slower here. The walking pace for Arthur and the horses he rides are deliberately slow, and to make him sprint, you’ll be tapping and holding down buttons a lot (you can change that in the settings, though). The fastest vehicle in the game is the train and even that can be nearly outpaced by a sprinting horse. Some might have an issue with that but others, I can expect, will really love it. What it comes down to is Rockstar’s intent to build a strongly realized and true to life facsimile of the 1890s — which they’ve done extraordinary well. So well, in fact, that I can’t ever go back to the first game anymore because I'm completely spoiled by this game’s offerings. Red Dead Redemption II is video game escapism at its finest and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything else this year that comes close to matching its accomplishments.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.