Cowboy Simulator - Red Dead Redemption II (REVIEW)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
Arguably one of the most hotly anticipated games of this holiday season, Red Dead Redemption II has us return to the days of cowboys and outlaws as Rockstar Games tells the story leading up to the events of the first game. In place of John Marston, Red Dead Redemption II has you controlling Arthur Morgan, a member of Dutch's gang as you venture across the game's sprawling landscape. Much like other Rockstar Games, there is a core narrative that you follow with a plethora of side missions and activities littered across the wilderness, it can get a bit intimidating and even after finishing the game once I don't think I've even come close to seeing everything RDR2 has to offer.
While the first game has the US government tasking John Marston with tracking down the remnants of his former gang, culminating in the final confrontation with Dutch van der Linde, over here in the prequel we control Dutch's right hand man Arthur Morgan. Arthur is very different from John, he's no saint but at the same time he doesn't come off as a total sinner. As your group attempts to evade the law while building up a decent fortune to disappear for good, the core narrative has you navigating the eventual downfall of the gang. As was presented in the events of the previous game, Dutch's gang is fractured with the surviving members all lost in the wind... a stark difference from the close knit familial dynamic present here. Despite knowing that everything would go to shit, I found myself inadvertently rooting for them... even Dutch. Though he's seen as a cold-hearted killer racked with delusions in the previous game, in the prequel we get a version of Dutch that seems so far removed from the mad-man he became. It's interesting to watch a man descend into madness, but here it ended up also breaking my heart. As I experienced this home on the range fantasy through Arthur's eyes, I found myself growing more fond of the people I was with. Even guys like Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella, key antagonists from the first game, I cared about. Dutch's gang was so full of character, characters that go beyond the typical outlaw you'd expect. It's in this diversity that made the gang feel more like a family, while there were those of us who were the quintessential outlaws, there were also those who acted more as a support for the gang.
I feel like it's in the story and performances where Red Dead Redemption II shines. You end up rooting for these guys, even those you know are destined to fall. Each death is felt and the final betrayal stings the most.
As for the gameplay, much of the game plays the same as the previous game with more of an emphasis on realism. Looting bodies or skinning wildlife you hunted locks the player in a lengthy animation. While this does enhance the realism while playing, this gets very old very fast. I remember in the old game there used to be a trick where you could ride your horse and get off right on top of someone you wanted to loot, with the horse there you can loot without the lengthy animation... not really the case here. I loved how immersive the game world was, but the gameplay went far beyond attention to detail, feeling more like “obsession to detail” and eventually got tiresome for me. Gameplay mechanics like being unable to call your horse unless your mount was within whistling range or weapons having to be drawn from your horse's satchel before embarking on missions. One can argue that this adds to the realism and immersion, but take Arthur changing clothes to accommodate his surroundings... you can be riding your horse and simultaneously change from your Spring outfit to a Winter outfit. I found myself debating where realism ends up impacting fun. I found that line here and in many respect found this attention to detail negatively impacting how much fun I was having.
New to RDR2 is the concept of cores on top of bars for health, stamina, and dead-eye. These were a bit confusing to get at first, forcing the player to manage not just one but two bars. The best way to explain it is that bars are useful in the moment while cores affect the long term. The only way to refill your cores is by consuming provisions or getting some needed rest. In the middle of a firefight, tonics refill the bars but have no effect on cores. This confusing mechanic caused myself and many others it seems some serious grief, halting the game at times and slowing down what should be an exciting experience.
I get why Rockstar implemented it, from the get-go I noticed how realistic and immersive the gameplay was. Something that impresses during the first hour but ends up growing tiresome come the end game.
Gunplay is largely unchanged, you can gun down enemies in real time or use dead-eye to slow time down to take more precise shots. Where the gunplay changes a bit is in duels, instead of jumping into a dead eye scene where you mark parts to aim for, you have to slowly press on the right trigger button (R2 on PS4 and RT on XB1) to fill a meter, this allows you to have a window of opportunity to get off a shot. This does feel more exciting to be honest, challenging but at the same time not difficult to grasp. In all the realism Rockstar tried to implement in RDR2 over the first game, this mechanic I felt was the best addition.
Weapons do require maintenance here, something you can do on the fly with gun oil or take it to a shop to have professionally cleaned. While I know I have harped on how the game's obsession to detail at many points ends up being a detriment, this does make sense as well.
Riding your horse though, oh boy do I have some words. I can't tell you how many times I faceplanted or accidentally killed my horse because of this obsession to detail. Hit a tree, a rock, run off a cliff, you'll come crashing down. But why though? Really, when I think of a horse... an animal with agency... this is different from riding like a bike. If you ride a bike head first into a tree, you will crash... but why would a horse run into a tree on purpose? Why didn't they code in the ability for the horse to avoid these hazards automatically? This made riding through the forest a damn chore, fail to pay attention for even a second and I'd come face to face with the business end of a tree trunk. Even walking around town was a chore. If you barely bump into a random NPC, all of a sudden the lawmen have me in their sights and I have to pay a bounty just to come back to town. I understand if I was just sprinting through town and I run head-first into a person... but casually walking? This isn't obsession to detail, but rather WTF in digital form.
Visually, Rockstar does it again by crafting a beautiful game. In all my complaints, one thing I can't even complain about is how gorgeous this game looks. From trudging through the snow to roughing it under the stars, I was in awe of just how gorgeous the game looked. I could spend hours away from the main story just exploring the world. Despite not having a traditional fast travel system, I never found it a waste to just ride. In many respects, much of my criticism of this game is made better by just how wonderful it looks. Everyone from the main cast to even random NPCs in town all had varied looks. I don't think I came across any NPCs that were simply palette swaps. I don't know what they did to accomplish this, but damn it was gorgeous.
So, I know I was hyper critical about much of the game's gameplay here, something I feel we as gamers need to be. But when it was all said and done, Red Dead Redemption II was a gorgeous game and overall unforgettable experience. At the end of the day, I was in awe of it from the game opening until the end credits. Far from perfect, but overall a wonderful experience. While I can't call this a perfect game, it does accomplish what I set out to find when I play videogames... I had a rootin' tootin' good time.
4.25 out of 5
Amazing despite the flaws!