It's almost hard to believe that the first Red Dead Redemption released more than eight years ago. Rockstar Games achieved something quite special with the gritty tale of John Marston, delivering an open world title that was ahead of its time. The genre's come a long way since, but with Red Dead Redemption 2 -- a prequel, despite the number at the end of it -- the developer has once again raised the bar.
Although Red Dead Redemption 2's map, which is made up of several different states, is a good deal larger than the one in the first game, it's not the scale that makes it more impressive. Where other open world titles have expanded outwards as hardware limitations become less of an issue, Red Dead Redemption 2 instead aims for depth in the form of interactivity.
Every single non-playable character that you meet can be talked to, greeted, or antagonised. They can be robbed at gunpoint, threatened, followed, or goaded into a fist fight. Animals of all shapes and sizes can be tracked for miles across the wilderness, secluded homesteads can be broken into, trains can be hijacked, and enemy camps can be raided. The game's world is so rich that you can't help but become intoxicated by it. It's engrossing like no other open world on the PlayStation 4, and that's incredibly high praise when the likes of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Assassin's Creed Odyssey exist.
So Red Dead Redemption 2 follows the life and crimes of Arthur Morgan, an outlaw in his mid thirties who happens to be second in command to Dutch van der Linde, the silver tongued leader of the notorious Van der Linde gang and the man John Marston is forced to hunt down years later in Red Dead Redemption. The first game told us a good bit about the gang but rather conveniently left out a lot of the finer details. In this prequel, we see those specifics firsthand, as the group's adventures play out from the perspective of Arthur.
And boy are they adventures. These are some of the best story missions that Rockstar has ever crafted, and although there are certainly softer moments peppered throughout -- the opening hours in particular are very slow and deliberate -- it's the action that punctuates each of the game's chapters. When sh*t hits the fan in Red Dead Redemption 2, it sprays absolutely everywhere. Missions are excellently paced, often drenched in tension, and are held together by a strong cast of characters.
Indeed, the Van der Linde gang are a colourful bunch. There's a lot more dialogue here than in previous Rockstar titles, and it works wonders for the game's cast. They're all given ample opportunity to express themselves since the majority of main missions have you band together with at least one of your partners in crime, and everyone bounces off each other especially well. Whats more, the writing's as sharp as ever, matched only by top notch voice acting. However, it's the direction that really caught our eye. Rockstar has always tried to recreate the kind of dramatic shots that you'd find in a movie -- the kind that heighten atmosphere and sell character interactions -- and Red Dead Redemption 2 pulls them off better than any of the developer's previous games. In short, this is one of the most engaging stories that you'll find on Sony's system.
But it's not just the overarching plot that keeps you glued. The open world itself is stuffed with smaller stories, whether they're housed within side quests or freeform activities, and all of them serve to embed you even further into game. You can quite easily spend hours at a time just exploring, hunting, and fishing, and you'll never quite know what you might find. It's a living, breathing, dangerous virtual world that the developer's created here -- one of the most impressive on the market.
Meanwhile, dynamic events can spiral out of control in seconds as your crimes are discovered by random passersby, and a seemingly simple hunt for a grizzly bear can turn into a bloodbath as bandits attempt to steal your kill. Put it this way: you're going to be reaching for that share button more than a few times.
Having said all of that, it's worth noting that Red Dead Redemption 2 is not for the faint of heart. It can be merciless in its portrayal of late 1800s America, and it tackles very mature themes throughout. In fact, this is the first game in a long time that's made us feel genuinely uncomfortable at points, but that's not necessarily a criticism. Arthur and the gang are outlaws -- the bottom line is that no, they're not very nice people. They may stand up against greater evils now and then but they're undeniably baddies themselves, and if you're anything like us, you'll gladly wrestle with the internal conflicts that the title presents across its 50 hour runtime.
The story isn't the only thing that's heavy in Red Dead Redemption 2, though. We are, of course, referring to the lead underpants that Arthur wears, which make him move like an overweight gorilla. Obviously the underpants thing is a joke, but the controls in Red Dead Redemption 2 are no laughing matter. In 2018, Rockstar's typically weighty controls feel outdated. Arthur's always either walking at a snail's pace or he's sprinting like a madman, and neither speed gives you enough responsiveness.
To make matters worse, cover is iffy at the best of times. You hit R1 to slide into the nearest object or wall that you can hide behind, but then Arthur has a habit of clinging to it like he's an extra in Titanic. Put the effort in to peel him off and half of the time he'll stop crouching and stand up facing away from the enemy, only to get turned into Swiss cheese. At their worst, the controls are infuriating, and it doesn't help that just about everything requires a held input. Hold square to interact, hold X to run, hold L1 to open the weapon wheel, hold L2 to lock on, hold R2 to pour yourself a drink, hold the left stick down to keep your balance... When a game makes it feel like your controller has suddenly doubled its button count, you know something's wrong.
Fortunately, the controls are serviceable for the most part, and we dare say that you eventually get used to them, it's just that given how supremely polished the rest of the game is, frustration is unavoidable when Arthur doesn't respond to your commands as intended. Luckily, it almost balances out thanks to largely fantastic gunplay. Near necessary auto aiming aside, fans of the first Red Dead Redemption will be delighted to hear that the bullet impact physics are back, with enemies twisting and falling based on where they've been shot. It's gruesome stuff, but it's satisfying in the most brutal sense, and the effects really make each gunfight feel deadly. Dead eye also returns, allowing you to pick your shots in slow motion, and new cinematic camera angles add so much extra flair. As gory as it is to see your bullet pass through a man's eye, the way the camera then cuts back to Arthur's unwashed mug as he watches the carnage unfold before him makes you feel like a legendary gunslinger.
Speaking of unwashed mugs, if Arthur's covered in mud from head to toe, you should probably have him take a bath at the local hotel. Indeed, "survival" elements have wormed their way into Red Dead Redemption 2. Rockstar's no stranger to sim-like mechanics, but here they're more prevalent than ever. You'll need to eat or sleep to restore Arthur's 'cores' -- health, stamina, and dead eye meters that deplete over time -- and determine how quickly each bar regenerates. The same rules apply to your horse, and overall, there's a clear push for "realism" throughout the game. You can only carry one sizeable animal carcass at a time on the back of your trusty steed, for example, and it'll decompose over time so you'll have to get it back to camp sooner rather than later.
This stuff sounds tedious and, at first, it does seem tedious -- but don't let it put you off. The further you get into the game, the more you come to realise that the survival mechanics don't have a huge impact on the experience. They're more about grounding you in the game's world than they are about stifling you and stopping you from having fun -- just remember to take a nap every couple of days and you really don't have to worry too much about Arthur's well-being. Thankfully.
Before we wrap this review up, we have to give special mention to the soundtrack, which is phenomenal. One of the best musical scores we've heard this generation, it's everything you could want and more from a follow-up to Red Dead Redemption. A range of instruments breathe life into every scene, and every mood is amplified by the soundtrack's shifting tones. It's incredibly intricate and masterfully implemented, and we'd go as far to say that it elevates the entire experience.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar's best game, and it's gripping from start to finish. It sets a new bar for open world interaction, providing an absurd level of detail across the board. It's an immaculately polished release that pulls no punches in its delivery, pushing both brutally mature themes and perfectly placed satire. While its clumsy controls and convoluted button layouts can ruin the fun on occasion, it's easy enough to look past these flaws when everything else is of such a high quality. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a modern masterpiece.