Red Dead Redemption 2 review: A western epic that fires on all cylinders

Rockstar returns with another wild west adventure that is thoughtful, calculated, and unwaveringly surprising in its execution

When the original Red Dead Redemption was released back in 2010, it did so while bringing a huge element of surprise. Developer Rockstar had proved itself capable of creating immersive environments many times over with the GTA series, sure, but it’d be fair to say that most weren’t expecting to be so taken with what is now considered to be the magnum opus of Wild West video games. How fitting then, that eight years on – and with a prequel no less – this same sense of wonder in exploration remains firmly at the fore. Because just when you think you have Red Dead Redemption 2 tamed, there’s always something new to experience in one of the most captivating open worlds to ever grace consoles.

Taking place roughly a decade before original protagonist John Marston’s subdued story of reclamation, Red Dead Redemption 2 sees you step into the shoes of Arthur Morgan: a criminal cowboy who’s recently found himself on the run with the rest of the infamous Dutch Van der Linde gang. Fans of the first game will no doubt recognise the other outlaw names that make up this wily group of cohorts; but even though we may know how each of their respective stories ends, that doesn’t make seeing their journeys leading up to this point through Arthur’s eyes any less intriguing. This is a relief considering just how much of an ensemble piece Red Dead Redemption 2 ends up being.

The technical feats achieved to relay these tales so successfully is nothing short of astounding, with the beautiful detail given to animations and character models making it easy to become invested in the narrative at hand. The landscape’s eclectic mix of forestries, deserts, and snow tops equally impress, as it’s made evidently clear that Rockstar is pushing the capabilities of current-gen consoles to their absolute limit. While playing there were very few instances of framerate drops and technical hitches to report – and never to the point that it broke immersion.

Compared to the typical helpings of action and bombast we’re constantly ushered towards in other open world games, some players might find Red Dead Redemption 2’s noticeably slower pace quite jarring initially. And this is especially reinforced by the conscience decision by Rockstar to make fast travelling between locations awkward and unintuitive. You see, rather than simply let you “Bampf!” from place to place, Redemption 2 encourages you to bask in the small, quieter moments likely to occur at the side of the road just as much as in the many set piece events its core story has in store.

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Part of what makes this rendition of the Old West such a pleasure to be in is largely due to how confident it comes across. There are no brash collectibles littered in the land, no pointless side objectives… Whether you’re outgunning rivals in a bid to run them out of town or skinning the local wildlife to sell at a butchery, every activity outside of the game’s main throughline feels noticeably authored in a way that makes this world more believable than most. Fulfilling your cowboy fantasies in Red Dead Redemption 2 is hardly ever a waste of time, often resulting in either monetary profit or personal reward.

Speaking of rewards, character progression is a relatively stripped back affair. Laborious skill trees and RPG levelling systems are done away with in favour of a San Andreas-esque wellness system, which requires players to maintain Arthur’s health, stamina, and the oh-so satisfying slo-mo Dead Eye shooting system that returns from the first game. In true cowboy fashion, it’s by keeping Arthur fed, watered, and well-rested that you’ll be able to make light work of enemies when embarking on a bounty, tracking down a legendary creature, and such. The bond level between you and your horse proves similarly essential; at least if you’re hoping to outrun the law or catch that rogue carriage when required.

For better or for worse, most systems found in Red Dead Redemption 2 have a sense of thoroughness to them; from the way you’ll need to use gun oil to keep Arthur’s collection of weapons in good working order, all the way down to how riding your horse requires you to consistently tap, tap, tap if you’re to keep a good stride and maintain its stamina. Sadly, it’s in these instances that Red Dead Redemption 2 can be irksome at times, especially when completing something as simple as collecting an item proves impossible due to Arthur not standing in the exact spot required. It’s almost like in opting to imbue its world with as much realism as possible, a couple of actions have been made a tad over-complex.

However, such frustrating systems never go as far as to ruin what is an otherwise living, breathing open world adventure that convincingly sees you fill the boots of a rough and tough cowboy trying to do good by his family of outlaws. Arthur Morgan’s personal tale of questionable loyalty, deception, and yes, ultimately, redemption never ceases to be an epic one full of moments that are organic and therefore engrossing. Surely the intent of any sandbox game is to make you feel like its environments and cast of characters continue on with or without you in it. Red Dead Redemption 2 delivers this wish fulfilment in spades, setting you on a crusade throughout the American Frontier you likely won’t forget.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is out now for PS4 and Xbox One.


5 out of 5