Red Dead Redemption 2

I’ve been a gamer for a very long time – it’s easily been twenty years or more (yes, I’m old). But, in the past year or so, my excitement has been waning. I have mentioned in another blog post that I was planning to replace my big tower PC with a notebook for (mobile) coding and writing – which I have done – and, in the short- to mid-term, get a gaming console to replace the video gaming part of the PC with something more casual and affordable. This day has finally come and the first game I have played has been Red Dead Redemption 2. Now, this game was many firsts for me:

  • First non-digital game since Steam has launched. I bought it in a retail store on a BluRay disc.
  • First full-price video game at 60€. Before that, I have always been shopping for special offers and discounts.
  • First console game.

I think Red Dead Redemption is something very special and I will try to explain why I think that is. One thing is for sure and that is the fact that it has rekindled the fire within me to play a video game on-end without pause. Unlike the other game reviews/experience reports I have written so far, this one is a bit different. I started writing when I was about 40% through the game and added to it at different stages of progress. In short: it’s like a diary.

I don’t really know where to start, but what I don’t want to do is retell the story or spoil key parts of it. So, if you are interested in Red Dead Redemption 2 and unsure whether it is good or not, I won’t ruin everything. I do have to mention a few things though to make my point, so beware of that. It’s nothing overly specific though.

I will also draw a few comparisons to the Witcher 3 because that’s what it reminds me of the most and a few other games. Which finally provides me with a nice segue that answers my question on how to start.

0 to 40%

Just like I said that the Witcher 3 is a character driven game, Red Dead Redemption 2 is no different. I’d say it is even more so. I’m yet to encounter a story mission that I’m to do alone. I’m really enjoying this aspect of the game. The main character is almost always in company of his… uh… companions (doh!). And with that companionship come conversations that explain parts of the backstory and the history of your gang members. Characters also have a relationship with each other and are more or less friends. This creates an interesting group dynamic with a lot of friendly and not so friendly back and forth. But ultimately there is a palpable bond between all of them, no matter how antagonistic the behavior towards each other sometimes is. I really, really like that and this is what made the Witcher 3 such an amazing game to me. What RDR2 adds to that is the base camp. There you can rest and regroup. Companions talk to each other, talk to you or go on with their lives with respect to their roles in the gang. They also fight with each other or contemplate the past, present and future. In part it is like the Dragon Age camps, only that in Dragon Age the camps don’t feel as alive. Conversations are also more natural as they are pre-determined by the game developers. There are no pauses where you as a player decide on what to say next. It flows nicely and greatly immerses you into the game.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20190615171936

The next big difference is the speed in which you progress through the world. This is a blessing and a curse at the same time. It is basically very slow. The game somehow feels like a cowboy simulation. Up until now I have passed every virtual kilometer on horseback unless the game sped things along on its own. It creates a form of cohesiveness that I haven’t felt in other games before. The world is big and beautiful – and so realistic. You are supposed to traverse it on horseback because that gives you an opportunity to feel the vastness and the freedom, feel how it was like all those years ago when there have been no paved roads or big cities all over the place. It’s all countryside and nature and amazing vistas. There are many other big games, like the Witcher 3 which has an incredible world all by itself. Red Dead Redemption 2 is just that tiny bit more special. 

I am usually an impatient person and I do like that Geralt (or the heroes of the latest Assassin’s Creed games) moves much quicker in every possible way, letting you get from A to B a lot faster. The hero in RDR2, Arthur, only moves fast when you press a button, and only sprints when you repeatedly press it. Without a button press, Arthur merely walks – at a very casual pace. This and how long it takes to get from one place to the next often make me think twice about how many side missions or other elements of optional gameplay I’m willing to perform. It just feels like it takes up so much time because the movement is so slow and in order to go fast, I constantly have to mash buttons. The purpose, as I see it, is that it serves to create a more immersive game since it prevents the player from rushing through. And it’s working. It really is. Don’t mistake the travel speed for how the action scenes feel. This is a shooter alright, just not a super-fast paced Doom 4 or Wolfenstein.

Having mentioned missions, RDR2 has main missions and side missions. Unlike other role-playing games you are not overwhelmed by the number of tasks that are thrown at you in quick succession. The start of a mission is highlighted on the map and I never feel overwhelmed by what is shown. Compare that to all the “?” in the Wither 3 or Assassin’s Creed Origins/Odyssey. The map is much cleaner and leaves it up to you to actually find all the collectibles. It never feels like checking off things one after the other on a huge list of tasks. It’s simply more natural. And that is what’s so attractive in this game – despite the slow pace and the endless horse riding. And boy are the missions incredible. The story telling deserves and A+ and the variety the developers have implemented never feels repetitive. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story mission or a side mission. Don’t expect simple fetch and return objectives because that’s not how the game works. It’s much cleverer than that and therefore the missions don’t really feel like a chore. Each and every mission is a little short story in itself.

Of course, there are a few things that I don’t care about. As in any other game these days, you can collect yourself to death on something. In the case of Red Dead Redemption 2 collectibles come in the form of trading cards, finding bones of dinosaurs, some sort of challenges, knowledge base entries about the world or, more useful, go hunting small animals and also big legendary beasts. To upgrade the camp and eventually unlock a form of fast travel you have to gather several animal skins in perfect condition. So far, ignoring that hasn’t put me at a disadvantage so I’ll continue not doing it. It doesn’t give me enough of a reward and running around alone is the most boring part of the game. I prefer to do things with a companion and this game has a lot of great content giving me exactly that.

40% – 60%

Having made it to chapter V (five) it is obvious that Rockstar clearly knows how to stage and present grand finales (not that the game is anywhere near to being over at this point). What immediately comes to mind is the attack on Braithwaite Manor, how it starts with the gang approaching the building in the dark of night, side by side with guns in hand and how it ends, with almost everybody in the house dead and the building ablaze. Or the bank heist gone wrong at the end of chapter IV. There is so much intensity and emotion in those missions that more often than not my jaw dropped. Literally. There have been quite a few situations where I was stunned by what was shown on screen. That’s just how much I am immersed and invested in the game. It’s like a great TV show that hooks you by brilliant writing and acting. After so many hours into the game I identify myself with Arthur, his situation, how he thinks and how he reacts to what is happening to him and his gang. I am wondering myself if the authors only want me to think that Arthur is in the right or if they are just setting me up for a mind-blowing twist, I’m not yet seeing coming.

(sorry for the quality; I hadn’t figured out how to do screenshots on the PS4 at the time)

This is all due to the amazing presentation that not only includes the visuals but also the audio, more specifically the voice acting. All of the main characters are cast with incredibly good actors. It’s like there are real people on screen. Lips are synced most of the time and it always, always sounds according to the situation. Whether its happy, sad, excited, afraid, angry, pissed, suspicious or any other adjective. It’s spot on and it really brings the characters to life. And this is what draws me to a game, even one where I sometimes have to ride my horse for several minutes (!) in order to get from one end of the world to the next. But I don’t care because I’m so invested in the game and the story that I want to know how it continues. And, to be honest, I’m not bored by riding the horse. It is part of the adventure and I trained myself to only look at the mini-map’s GPS for a split second which allows me to focus more on the beautiful landscape. It’s really worth it.

It is now apparent that what started as a relatively simple gang vs. gang scenario evolved into a complex multi-party adventure with several story threads that drive Arthur’s gang more and more from a band of close brothers and sisters to infighting and disputes on how to continue. It all started with small robberies and fraud for the sake of getting money and slowly but steadily turned into shootings that involve complete villages to a point where it could be called insanity and chaos. That doesn’t mean though, that this comes at a surprise. It’s all within character. The characters in this game develop as the story progresses and so does the scope of their plans. Or, to be more precise, the scope of the gang’s leader, Dutch. One might call it delusions of grandeur, but if that’s really the case or if it all works out remains to be seen until the end of the game.

I have a few issues and oddities that I need to mention:

  • Random NPCs of whom the horse died on their way to somewhere always walk in the opposite direction of their home, but they want Arthur to take them home.
  • At some point in the story Arthur became something like a deputy and as such, I expected it to be okay to catch escaped prisoners. Somehow, I got a bounty on my head instead.
  • At random times I was being ambushed, which is fine with me. One time though, it was in the city of Saint Denis and by defending myself the law turned against me.
  • Sometimes it is not clear what the game wants from me and how the mechanics work for that situation which often results in a death and a second try.
  • In the heat of battle, it’s easy to lose sight of companions and then they die.

Here are a few items worth mentioning that fall into the category “attention to detail”:

  • Camp chore wood chopping: when Arthur picks up blocks of wood, they correctly disappear from the pile and the split pieces lay around properly.
  • Walking or riding through bushes or past small trees bends the bush or tree to the sides (not realistically but close enough).
  • There’s a nice and entertaining side mission where Arthur visits the theatre with his love of yore, Mary. It’s one of those moments where the game is not intense but light and playful.
  • The horse simulation is the best I’ve seen so far.

60% – 75%

Boy is the story becoming more and more interesting. The gang is definitely falling apart, and I have now started the mission called “Red Dead Redemption”. According to the game there’s still plenty of story to play but being in a mission with the game’s title as a name makes me wonder how much more there is. I believe there’s an epilogue as well so that may be the rest of it.

I assume that Arthur and his friends will be deceived by Dutch and that the rest of the game is about Arthur taking revenge on Dutch, maybe also avenge some of his friends that had turned away from Dutch and his antics but were left behind because “it the reasonable thing to do in their situation” (paraphrasing here). I also assume that Dutch falls at hand of Arthur, but Arthur then dies of his disease, maybe even at the same time. Killing Dutch may be the last thing he does before he bites the dust. And this might happen despite Arthur continuously questioning Dutch’s decisions to kill people, insinuating that it’s because of that animalistic instinct called revenge rather than better judgement.

Either way, the story is now about to reach its climax and I am very curious to learn how it ends.

I have also noticed that I’ve completely neglected so much additional content (non-story-related) that the overall progress has fallen way behind the story progress. I’m definitely not searching for dinosaurs, that’s for sure. Or inspecting every animal or plant. Nope, not doing that. I do not wish to learn anything about botany. It’s admirable that Rockstar invested so much energy in those facts (I’m assuming they are correct), but I wonder how many people will uncover all of those pieces of information and how many of those actually read and try to understand what it means. I get it if it’s related to the story or the lore – which information about animals somehow is a cowboy simulation. But, when I hear or read lore, I think of world history, interesting characters, ethnic groups, belief, things like that. Like Dragon Age. And even in those games I haven’t read everything because it’s so mind–blowing much.

75% – 100%

I finally finished the game and the end of the main story (not including the epilogue here) was not as I had suspected. What was more surprising was the epilogue though. I certainly didn’t see that coming. It has a few nice elements and it ties up some loose ends. It’s a good ending overall. When it comes to gameplay though, I’d be a bit more cautious with my verdict. There have been quite a few instances where I wondered if it was going anywhere and started thinking that it’s getting long in the tooth. Just about when that feeling came up it switched gears and became more engaging again. I’m not going to spoil any details. Let’s just say a few of the gang got back together somehow, had some fights, made up and lived through a few adventures that ended up in a final revenge mission. Like I wrote, it is a good ending, especially when compared to other games that don’t know what to do after the final fight. It’s not as exciting and engaging as the main story. But it continues and ends the tale of the Van der Linde gang.

It is a happy ending and a sad ending at the same time. Like in the Dragon Age games, in every sequel you’ll be presented with mostly new characters because the old ones went their separate ways. This is true in RDR2, too. Some people stay and some leave.

Final Words

Let’s see how many more words I can crank out on this game. The previous sections mainly focus on the narrative and the characters and briefly touch on graphics (by mentioning beautiful vistas) and sound (praising the voice acting). I’ll expand a bit more on that and also explain my experience of playing a shooter with a gamepad.

Let’s dive into the visual presentation first. The game simply looks stunning. I started out on a 23-inch computer monitor and was blown away by the graphical fidelity even then. I immediately noticed that textures didn’t look as sharp as in some recent PC games, but the overall art style is truly amazing. The landscapes look ridiculously beautiful, no matter where you are in the game. Of course, a city isn’t as spectacular as a wide country looked at from the top of a cliff. Because this is where Red Dead 2 really shines. The vastness of the country can even be felt on a small monitor but even more so on a big TV screen. It is simply breathtaking, and this is why it is no problem at all that you, as the player, spend a lot of time traversing this world on horseback. Although the task is rather dull, it’s a sight for sore eyes and, if you are not being randomly attacked, a relief from all the shooting and yelling. I have tried fast travel one time and I didn’t like it. It takes too long, i.e. you have to wait for the game to load, and thus it disconnects you from it. It is not a nice experience and should never be used.

On top of that come all the animations, how light realistically interacts with objects and produces shadows, the rich flora and fauna and the wildlife in the forests and the open areas. Although Rockstar has taken some visual shortcuts, e.g. regarding the shadows to make them possible at all on this underpowered hardware (compared to a high-end 2019 PC) it is still a great looking game. Sometimes it is noticeable though, that the game reduces the resolution to be able to render at 30 FPS. You don’t really see it in action scenes because they require your attention in other ways. Most of the times it’s in the slow cut scenes when the image doesn’t change much.

There’s a very detailed analysis by Digital Foundry over on Youtube that is worth checking out.

I have already mentioned the voice acting, which is very good from start to finish. I also like the ambient sounds of the forest, the city, the gun sounds, just about everything. The world comes to life by putting all of these pieces together. Then there’s the score, the soothing guitar sound that accompanies you on your long journeys and really puts you in the mood for riding. Or the more energetic western style music in large gun fights. Or the more melodic and melancholic music for those situations where Arthur starts to think about the horrible things that have happened. It all comes together so nicely, just like the Witcher 3 and its more medieval folk style. If you’ve ever dreamed of living like a cowboy after watching and old western movie then this is the closest thing you can get to do exactly that.

Now that the tech is behind us, let’s talk about my experience playing this game with a gamepad. I have tried the recent Tomb Raider games on PC with a gamepad and every time the shooting got more and more intense, I had to switch to keyboard and mouse. I do not know how Tomb Raider plays on a console and if there’s any aim assist there. Red Dead 2 has an aimbot and you can configure how wide or narrow its focus shall be. I’ve set it to narrow once I figured out how it all works. What it does is center on the torso and then it follows the target. As soon as you decide to take matters into your own hands the bot is off and it’s all up to you. This has made it even remotely possible for me to hit anything at first – or at all, to be honest. In the end I had become quite good at getting the aimbot to focus on the enemy and then raise the gun the last bit to shoot the head. However, in those instances where you have to do it all yourself, e.g. using a sniper, my accuracy and quickness in finding the target quickly dropped to be the noob of all noobs in Noobtown. At this point, I still cannot manage to cope with the sensitivity and acceleration of a thumb stick compared to the constant speed of my mouse (I always disable acceleration). Although this has been a pain point in some instances, I still managed to have a lot of fun. 

(Now I know what it must feel like for a cheater playing Counter Strike.)

What I do prefer a gamepad for though, is exploration. More often than not, when using a mouse, you tend to turn so quickly that it’s not a nice experience to enjoy a game with. By using the analogue thumb sticks the motion is much smoother and pleasant to view. I really do like that.

I also liked that the game has mostly been free of bugs or stability issues. It crashed only once and that was after a system update. I had also managed to break quests two or three times where I couldn’t continue because the NPCs didn’t continue. In those cases, I had to quit the game and restart the quests. Other than that, there only were a few issues with the horse AI and the hunting mechanics.

For example: in one mission I was on a train and the horse ran beside it to follow me. I’m not sure if I’ve whistled for the horse while the train was moving or if it did that on its own. What happened was that at some point on the track it got caught between a structure and the train. And it died. Mr. Ed died. And it wasn’t even my fault. I also had the horse trample a person I was catching for a bounty hunting mission with Sadie. The hunt was all done and the person was tied up and couldn’t flee any more. However, I did not get off my horse quickly enough and while it turned and twisted on the spot – dunno why – it killed the person and thus the mission failed.

At the very beginning I had mentioned that I didn’t care for going hunting. I tried that sometimes when riding back to camp and most of those times I failed miserably. Either I didn’t manage to keep the lasso around the prey, or I lost it in pursuit and it suddenly disappeared in the forest or behind a ridge. And I literally mean disappear. I’m not sure if I’m just blind or that really happened, given all the realistic details in the game. Either way, I hated hunting, and I never was at a disadvantage for not doing it. I didn’t care for all the crafting upgrades because other than visual camp enhancements and a few bigger satchels for Arthur they did not provide any tangible benefits. It wasn’t like I could craft better armor, like in Witcher 3 – where I did go out to find resources for new gear.

On the note of disappearing: what did exactly the opposite of that are the hordes of enemies that suddenly appear when the shooting starts. For some obscure reason, every thug has roughly 100 guns for hire that suddenly come swarming you from all sides, especially when you are fleeing with your horse. This is the only really unrealistic thing about this otherwise rather lifelike game. It provides a lot of action and intensity, but it’s worth pointing out this little flaw in the system.

Now, to answer the final question: was it worth the 60 bucks? Yes, it was. Now that it is over, I have to get used to not roaming the prairie and talking to companions and shooting lots of bad guys. This game puts you in a period where outlaws were about to be replaced by civilization and industrialization and both parts are nicely depicted. There’s the beautiful country with its small villages which is where you’ll spend the most of your time. And there’s the one big city, Saint Denis, that serves as the symbol of change. I’ve called this game a cowboy simulation and I think it’s a fitting description. It is especially true in the country side where it feels like the wild west we all know from old movies and books. I don’t know how else to put it, but it felt really great. It may even be better if you are not only focusing on the story elements but also more on the survival parts that require hunting and the free exploration to discover everything there is in the game. I, for one, was happy with the story and the few side missions I played. I made it to 78% overall progress and I’m fine with that.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a great game. Period.

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