red dead redemption 2 gameplay lighting

Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4) Review

Red Dead Redemption 2 was one of, if not the most anticipated games of this generation. It broke, and set, records for sales and revenues on its first weekend, and has sold over 25 million copies in less than a year since its release. For those not familiar with video game sales, those numbers are, for all intents and purposes, unheard of in the industry.

The game, unsurprisingly, garnered all types of awards and perhaps more importantly, a 97 Metacritic score (the highest rated game on PS4 & Xbox One), which helped set the game into an early path to success, commercially speaking.

The game is a product of Rockstar and Take Two’s ungodly amount of money, and long working hours (controversially long) from a large and talented work force. So, does RDR2 merit that 97 Metacritic rating? Let’s find out!

The Greatest Looking Open World Game Ever?

“Let me state this clearly: no other open world game in the market, be it Witcher 3 or Horizon Zero Dawn, has as gorgeous a world as the world that RDR2 presents, thought admittedly HZD comes close.”

Yes, and no, and then yes again. Horizon Zero Dawn, in my eyes, has a sharper image quality, and better texture work in some spots. Horizon Zero Dawn conversely also has foliage and objects that do not react to character movement, and details such as particle deformation, rainfall, sky box, clouds and water effects are lagging behind what RDR2 offers in its visual package. 

HZD is a more jaw dropping game at first sight (or at least was in 2017) , while RDR2 overtakes it and becomes the better, more impressive technical visual fest the more time you spend playing it.

Your main character, Arthur Morgan, is beautifully rendered, as is the rest of the main cast. Arthur has incredibly realistic facial expressions, coupled with painstakingly life-like body movements. It is in the overall animation where I feel Arthur is perhaps a better looking character than HZD’s Aloy but it is a very close match.

Arthur however, reacts to the environment realistically and the environment–literally every branch, and blade of grass reacts to him. Mud, dirt, animal dung, snow, sand. etc. reacts realistically to every foot step Arthur makes, and even to every gallop his horse of choice imprints on the game world. 

No open world game looks better in motion–the detail present in every aspect of the visual package is jarring. 

Arthur can shave, trim his hair and dress in different garments of the time period. He can also gain and lose weight. No other open world game (not made by Bethesda) features as much customization options for your main character. 

The flora and fauna present in this fictional take of the Western United States is unparalleled. Skyrim, Witcher 3, BotW and HZD all feature a certain amount of creatures and vegetation populating their respective virtual worlds, but nothing comes close to diversity and realism found in RDR2.

Starting with the horses, which get prominent treatment in the game both in animation and rendered quality, they are the most realistic horses you will have ever seen in a game. From the fur, to their dynamic musculature, to their behavior (horses take dumps in this game in glorious real time), the level of detail on these creatures is unprecedented. The horse is your main source of transportation in the game and as such a level of care beyond the usual game horse mechanic was expected, but Rockstar took it to a new level. BotW’s horses feel somewhat outdated by comparison.

Every creature in the game, ranging from a diverse selection of crocodiles in the southern swamp lands, to grizzly bears in the northern lands received the same level of care and detail. RDR2 is truly one of the greatest hunting games ever made, even though it is not a hunting game. Hunting aficionados will find much to like and do here because of the diversity of creatures to see and hunt.

In other open world games, animals killed would remain dead in the world (Skyrim), disappear into a magical cloud turning itself into a meat slab (Breath of the Wild), or just plain disappear after a while. Naturally RDR2 pushes this element to the most realistic direction possible by giving you the option of skinning each and every animal in the game down to their meaty innards, all in real time glory.

You can use the meat to cook it later, or you can sell the fur coats for money or legendary garments. My point in explaining all of this is to illustrate how far Rockstar was willing to go to reach an unheard of level of realism and detail.

The environments themselves received as much care as the main characters and animal models. Let me state this clearly: no other open world game in the market, be it Witcher 3 or Horizon Zero Dawn, has as gorgeous a world as the world that RDR2 presents, thought admittedly HZD comes close.

In some ways Witcher 3 in motion, running on the same hardware (PS4), looks a tad primitive by comparison. Procedural clouds, high quality texture assets (Though HZD is superior in this area in some instances), and an incredibly long draw distance make this the most pleasing open world experience available for your eyes.

Texture and asset pop up is noticeable in many games, and RDR2 has this problem itself but to a much lesser degree than the competition. In fact, the developers cleverly optimized the game so that in practice unless you are looking for the flaws it is highly likely that you won’t notice much of the occasional pop up and loading of high res textures while traversing the world on horse back.

The lighting is just spectacular–you can see the moonlight rays pierce gorgeously through the leaves of trees in the forests and through the humid fog in some of the warmer climates. The water effects are top of the line themselves. There has never been a virtual world that is so convincingly realistic in every sense of the word.

This is truly–when all is taken into account–the greatest looking game ever made. At least as far as open world games go, that statement holds true. The statement will probably hold true until the PS5, and the next Xbox launch. 

A Script and Performance Worthy of Every Award Conceivable

What RDR2 does better than nearly every other game (though The Last of Us remains the standard bearer) is its character driven narrative. The script is brilliant and the dialog and chatter among characters is top-grade Hollywood level.”

RDR2’s story starts slow, as slow as it is to traverse on horseback through a relentless snow blizzard on top of an icy mountain range. Our gang of outlaws are on the run from, well… the law during the opening sequence.

Dutch Van Der Linde’s gang finds itself in a remote location, caught in the middle of a blizzard when the game starts placing you in the boots of one Arthur Morgan.

A trusted, if not Dutch’s right hand man, member of the gang, Arthur is a goodhearted gunslinger. Contradicting as that sounds, Dan Houser and Rockstar’s writers make his character work.

For starters, Roger Clark–the voice actor that played Morgan–deserves an award. (I believe he did actually earn quite a few for the role.) He really brought the character to life.

Arthur is a good, honorable, loyal man, and it is his loyalty to Dutch (the gang’s leader) that has probably forced him to live a life of crime.

Dutch is a Robin Hood esque type of leader, or so he wants to portray. He steals mainly from the rich and gives to the needy. He has a moral code, though interestingly he shot a woman in the failed Blackwater fiasco which is the primary reason the gang is being hunted down by the government.

In all honesty, from the get go, I distrusted Dutch. Like in all Rockstar games, you are placed in the shoes of a criminal, but unlike those other games Arthur is a strangely a good, thoughtful man with a conscience. This realization about Arthur sort of stuck with me early as I knew Dutch couldn’t be a good man. In order to lead a gang of killers, thieves and rapists, you have to be an extremely brutal person at times otherwise you would be murdered in your sleep by your own henchmen.

Dutch commanded too much respect out his band of outlaws to not have a serious dark side lurking beneath. Arthur is, at least early on, blind to this fact. And so, RDR2’s main story isn’t going to dethrone–at least in my eyes–the wonderful, and thought provoking sci-fi tour de force that Horizon Zero Dawn presented in its tale.

What RDR2 does better than nearly every other game (though The Last of Us remains the standard bearer) is its character driven narrative. The script is brilliant and the dialog and chatter among characters is top-grade Hollywood level. Arthur Morgan is a character that I will never forget because he is worlds more complex than John Marsten (the OG game’s protagonist and a supporting character for most of RDR2), and Arthur more so than anyone else deserved a better life than the one he got.

There are many themes present in the game; the evils of industrialization, capitalism and the exploitation of the Native Americans, and other minorities, is ever present. At times I felt like I understood Dutch’s rebellion against the machine, and even took pleasure wreaking havoc upon the authorities. Dutch was a late 1800’s Robin Hood in spots, and yet some times I also questioned most of his decisions as they didn’t seem to have the best interest of the “community/gang” at hand. Dutch is full of contradictions, and following Arthur’s path in discovering the truth about Dutch, the acceptance of his own self, and the fact they are destined for terrible ends is an engrossing venture.

The game is a prequel to RDR1, and as such it manages to tell the events leading up to the beginning of that game with startling detail. There are better stories out there, but very few games will ever have a better protagonist than Arthur Morgan. His life is a tale that must be experienced at least once.

RDR2 is the Greatest Looking Game Ever… but is it fun?

red dead redemption 2 gameplay

Yet somehow after all of the praise that I have given to the game, a disturbing fact haunted me throughout my play-through; I just wasn’t having a great time.”

I can see why, and how, RDR2 garnered a 97 Metacritic score. The game looks marvelous and it goes beyond any other game in that department. It isn’t even close. The story and voice acting are nearly unrivaled and the core gameplay mechanics are polished beyond what GTAV accomplished in its hey day.

RDR2 is a fine 3rd person shooting game, has some of the tightest handling while riding a horse (as long as you are not shooting at the same time but more on that below) in a game, and it feels marvelous to control (walking and galloping) thanks to incredibly life-like animations. 

The shooting works like it has ever since Gears of War perfected the gun and cover mechanic back in 2006. Games like Uncharted 2-4 and The Last of Us have made refinements to the system over time and while RDR2 is slower and much less hectic than an actual 3rd person shooter like Gears of War, the shooting is comparable to the Last of Us in quality and pace–an impressive feat indeed considering everything else RDR2 does. You can also shoot in first person and the enemies do a decent job covering themselves up and shooting back.

I have two minor complaints here. The first and fore most being that there is some lag from latency in the game. Maybe the game has too many animations going on and that causes a bit of latency but it takes a bit of shooting before you get used to the timing.

The second complaint is simply a byproduct of the intricate detail featured in the game world. Because the environments are so realistic and therefore populated by many objects, sometimes I would take cover on an object that I didn’t intend to take cover in, exposing my character to enemy fire. It might be that I just sucked at the game, but I didn’t recall having as many incidents of this particular problem happening to me in other games featuring the same play style during shooting sequences.

Other than those two minor gripes, RDR2 is polished beyond belief. This is a complex, open world. Perhaps the largest ever made complete with A.I. for the most diverse variety of animal life yet seen in an open world game or any game for that matter. There are no hiccups, glitches or any other glaring imperfection in the package. Considering the glitches and bugs in Skyrim (a game that probably has glitches to this day), Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn, it is an outstanding achievement that the largest, most complex open-world to date has none ( I found none during my 80 hour play through).

Yet somehow after all of the praise that I have given to the game, a disturbing fact haunted me throughout my play-through; I just wasn’t having a great time.

I was having a good time, some times borderline great, but never did the game reached the 10/10 levels of enjoyment that I had gotten out of God of War, The Last of Us, Skyrim, and others. There are a few reasons for this. Reasons that are in part by design, or just a by product of the game’s Old Western setting.

Too Much Realism Isn’t Necessarily a Good Thing

“The hassles of reality should for the most part stay in reality.”

While open world games have for the most part stove to set standards in realism with every new AAA release, no other game has come as close as RDR2 to replicate what it feels like to live in a virtual world.

The game pushes realism to the point were fast travel is mostly non-existent. While I did find the way to fast travel very late in the game, most of my time was spent galloping between locations. The game could, at least early on, afford these long stretches of land traversal because it is such a stunning visual marvel. Truly some of the more stunning moments happen as you gallop into wooded areas, through canyons during sunsets, and through the foggy sunrises of the swamp lands. A feast for the eyes but after 30 hours… I just wanted to get through the story and play other games. 

This (the long traversal) is a personal complaint of mine. I am sure there are gamers that actually enjoyed and will enjoy the fact that the game world is so vast that it dwarves Skyrim, Witcher 3 and HZD in sheer land-mass size. However, traversal was slower than in any other open-world game that I have ever played and it was detrimental to my enjoyment. The fact that I couldn’t fast travel with ease to places that I had already been to was a big source of frustration.

The slow, realistic pace of the game spreads to other areas as well. Looting corpses was fun at first–Arthur literally spins bodies around and searches their pockets in real time. This is a nice touch… but after 30 hours it becomes a hindrance and it would have been nice if there had been an option to speed the process up. It is slow as molasses and can be a deadly mistake if you loot in the middle of a fire fight.

As mentioned before, cooking and skinning animals is done in real time. Again, nice touch but an option to speed these processes up would have been greatly welcomed. I actually rarely cooked after my first 10 hours of play mainly because I didn’t want to stop to prepare a fire in order to partake in the slow cooking process of the game.

I stuck to eating canned food, which is also a hassle to get to, but I will elaborate more on that later.

The game reminded me of Skyrim, in the ability to enter buildings and houses and search cabinets, chests and other in house furniture for money and supplies. The big difference is that looting tasks that take only seconds to perform in Skyrim, take 3 times as long in RDR2 because of the realistic, real-time animations that are performed by Arthur in every thing that he does in the game.

This is a design choice, and some people will enjoy it, but after a certain point I grew tired of searching for spoils because I just didn’t want to keep wasting precious time on such tasks.

Even buying weapons and supplies becomes a tedious task after some hours of play time because you literally have to choose items from an in store catalog book, and you turn the pages in real time and such as you would a real book.

While all of this was done for the sake of realism and the development team must be commended for such an effort, RDR2 remains a video game however, a form of entertainment that most of us use to escape reality for a bit while immersing ourselves into another world. The hassles of reality should for the most part stay in reality.

I thought hard about it and decided not to deduct points from the overall score because of my distaste for the slow pace in which some tasks are performed in the game. What I cannot ignore however, is the fact that the controls, while perfectly tuned when doing desired tasks, are strangely enough very un-intuitive.

I accidentally fired my gun on people I didn’t want to fire my gun at. I also accidentally drew my gun prompting NPCs to come after me in situations were I didn’t want to draw my gun out. I also shot people that I really just wanted to punch.

It is strange but the game has a strange way of mapping commands into the controller layout. Rockstar just put too many features into the game and thus one button can have many uses.

80 hours into the game I was at times committing unwanted actions because I kept fumbling over the control scheme. I got better at it of course but the fact that after 80 hours I still had issues is a clear illustration that Rockstar still hasn’t mastered this one crucial element in game development.

Alas, the controls, once you get used to the latency and accustomed to the potential pitfalls of its scheme, are passable and not detrimental enough to destroy the game. Traversal is tight and so is the shooting. The menu system however is, for the lack of a better word, a disaster.

The Circle of Life

I never managed to mix the herbs in RDR2… perhaps I had to take them to a botanical expert in some far region? To a shaman? The game never explained what to do with them.”

Circular, wheel shaped menus are a thing these days. RDR2 implements this system to mixed results. Once you get used to drawing this particular menu out, you can choose your weapon, binoculars, rope, and other contraptions available for our main character to use. It takes time getting used to it and the game doesn’t completely pause while you are fumbling around looking for weapons, or switching wheels into the items one in order to fumble for restorative supplies. Thus you can, and will likely get killed during this process while in the middle of an intense fire fight.

It is strange that in the grand scheme of all of the impressive milestones that RDR2 reaches and shatters, something basic like item, quests, bestiary, and miscellaneous menus are so counter-intuitive that after 80 hours of play I had trouble looking for information and items in said menus.

One glaring example of this happened to me during the second half of the quest, 50 hours in. I met a Native American chieftain that handed me some herbs for an ailment that afflicted my character so I could cure it. It was a combination of two herbs (and gosh are there herbs to collect in this game!) He told me to mix them and to take them as a remedy.

The biggest issue was that I never figured out how to mix the darned herbs because there was no option to mix them in the menu. Resident Evil allowed you to mix herbs back in the mid 90s with only a few simple presses of buttons in its menu. I never managed to mix the herbs in RDR2… perhaps I had to take them to a botanical expert in some far region? To a shaman? The game never explained what to do with them …. so I never prepared the remedy.

I never really figured out what to do with the skins I collected from legendary animals that I hunted down until I ran into some makeshift shop in the middle of some woods, and the dude running the shop asked for them in order to make me an outfit.

I get it, Rockstar created the most ambitious open-world ever, with an ungodly amount of plant and animal life. The standard set here might not be shattered until the inevitable Elder Scrolls VI, and even then Bethesda might not even get close. It is a fantastic world, but the menus could have been streamlined and making it easier to navigate through all of the wonderful things that I had collected throughout the game.

Rockstar missed an opportunity here. Zelda and BotW have plenty of features, and things to do, that I was able to learn and master just a few hours into the game.

RDR2 is Also Quite Possibly the Greatest Sounding Game Ever

It is, and I am not talking about the music, which is fantastic. I am talking about the sounds of the world. Environmental sounds are unmatched in the game. 

Slide a pair of headphones on and it feels like you are in the great outdoors surrounded by unpredictable wildlife. The sounds of hooves, leaves rustling in the wind, carts moving through the cobble stone streets in the city, and the sound of an approaching distant train among hundreds of others blend together to create a top of the line aural experience. 

A Standard Bearer for open-worlds

In a certain way, RDR2 is as ground breaking as Skyrim was in 2011, and as Breath of the Wild was in 2017 for a variety of reasons mostly involving its beautifully crafted open-world. There will be no better virtual open-world until the PS5/Project Scarlett roll around in 2020; I can be sure of that. 

Gameplay: 8.0 — It is Rockstar’s tightest 3rd person shooter yet in terms of controls but it also has much more room for improvement. Input lag and a confusing button scheme, thanks to various commands mapped to the same buttons, create some distressful moments. The cumbersome menu system over complicates what already is an incredibly complex game. Controlling the horse in first person mode is nearly impossible, especially if you are trying to shoot and ride at the same time.

Graphics: 10 — No open-world game looks better. No game has as much variety in environments–the flora and fauna that populates said settings. A feast for eyes in which every leaf, branch and piece of land reacts to the player-controlled character. The game sets a standard in draw distance and rendering. The level of detail on each single object rendered from the highest mountain range, to the simplest wooden table is simply just staggering. The character models might only be surpassed by those in the Uncharted PS4 titles and Death Stranding. Truly seldom does a game world feel alive through sheer graphical excellence, and RDR2’s game world manages to pull off just that.

Sound: 10 — The music is old Western fare and it is excellent whether you are into that sort of genre or not; it is hard not to appreciate its quality. The voice acting is top notch, except for the main character Arthur Morgan who’s voice actor is beyond top notch. Watching Arthur on screen felt like watching a breathing, living being before my eyes. The graphics had some thing to do with that, but his voice actor did the rest. The environmental sounds are unmatched.

Story: 8.0 — It’s a slow, and at times predictable, run of the mill open-world plot. It picks up 30 hours in and while it remains standard fare, there are some genuine touching, if not sad and angering moments courtesy of Arthur’s story arc. The dialog and character writing are some of the best if not the best I have seen in a game… it’s only rivaled in that department by Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.

Replayability: 9.5 — Could be a 10; the world has enough content for it to be a 10. Easily an 80-100 hour game. The world is just so big that it is an exhausting venture, and once I was done I just wanted to take a long break from it. I can see how some players will want to replay the campaign. (The online component was not rated or taken into consideration in this review.)

Overall: 9.0 — I actually felt guilty giving the game a 9, not because I felt it was too high a score but because at times if there was ever a game that deserved a 10 on the strength of its technical brilliance, this game would be it. However most of my 10s, if not all (Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, Halo, The Last of Us, God of War, and Shadow of the Colossus to name a few) were games that I couldn’t put down because I was having the time of my life with them. I wasn’t having the time of my life with RDR2. At times it was a slow drag made very bearable by just how impressive the game looks in every category conceived. In the end, I can’t recommend this game enough; it is a worthy play experience as it is truly a stunning achievement in technology, unlikely to be matched for at least a few years, and on more powerful hardware.