Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for the opening act of Red Dead Redemption II.
Red Dead Redemption II has been out for three years now – two years for the PC version – so it’s a bit late to just be getting started with the game! However, if you’re like me and missed it when it was new, maybe you’ll find my first impressions of the game helpful or interesting.
As I said when I included Red Dead Redemption II on my list of some great games I haven’t played, there was nothing about the game that put me off. In fact, Red Dead Redemption II was incredibly appealing to me – I find American history fascinating, particularly in the 19th Century, as it was a field of study while I was at university. Rockstar is also a developer whose titles are usually well-made and fun to play; they basically perfected their open world style with Grand Theft Auto III in 2001 and haven’t looked back. So there was a lot going for Red Dead Redemption II in 2018, but as someone with limited funds for gaming I couldn’t afford it at the time. The game ended up in what I call “the pile” – a long (and growing) list of games that sound great that I just haven’t got around to playing for one reason or another!
However, Red Dead Redemption II was on sale on Steam at some point in the last few months (I forget exactly when) and I was able to pick it up at a reasonable discount. The game’s massive 119GB file size took an eternity to download on my painfully slow internet connection, but I was able to eventually get the game installed and start playing.
Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge something important that too many fans and players have overlooked: Rockstar’s treatment of some of its employees. Though not at the same level as companies like Activision Blizzard or Ubisoft, both of which have wrangled with major scandals in the past couple of years, Rockstar pushed its staff hard in the run-up to Red Dead Redemption II’s launch. “Crunch” has been a part of game development for years, and when I worked in the video games industry I experienced it firsthand. In Rockstar’s case, “crunch” wasn’t always voluntary and some members of staff and ex-members of staff have gone on record sharing the physical and mental toll it took on them and their colleagues. In short, producing Red Dead Redemption II was difficult and even harmful for some people, and it’s important we acknowledge that and call out Rockstar’s poor working environment.
Setting that aside, let’s talk about Red Dead Redemption II itself. If I were to pick one word to summarise the game from the perspective of a complete newbie it would be “dense.” The game has a huge amount going on, and drops you into a story that’s already ongoing from the very first moment you boot it up. Red Dead Redemption II is a sequel – technically the third entry in its series – so on the surface that seems to make sense. But the game is actually set before the previous entry in the series, despite the confusing numbering!
The opening chapter of the game serves partly as a tutorial and partly as an introduction to the story and characters. As mentioned, though, it really did feel like protagonist Arthur Morgan’s story was already in progress. He and the gang are in the process of escaping a city after a job gone wrong, and maybe players of the first two games in the series know a bit more about what happened and why, but I certainly didn’t! I still don’t, in fact!
The opening sequence also gets you acquainted with some of the game’s systems – but by no means all. The signature “dead-eye” mechanic – which works similarly to the VATS system in the newer Fallout games, allowing Arthur to slow time and lock on to specific enemies prior to shooting – was one important gameplay element that the opening act of the game didn’t go into much detail on at all.
There’s hunting wild animals, combat with guns, unarmed combat, horse riding, horse care, picking plants, doing chores around the camp… and so much more going on in Red Dead Redemption II that it’s difficult to know where to start. The game’s opening act is mostly linear, taking place in a smaller area and with only a handful of missions that Arthur has to undertake in a certain order. But after departing the opening location in the high mountains and making camp, the open world is at Arthur’s feet – and it’s a big one!
Rockstar has always excelled at world design, but I confess I wasn’t sure how well the open worlds of the Grand Theft Auto series would translate to the 19th Century. The open worlds of games like Grand Theft Auto V were based around large modern cities with roads laid out for traversal by car. The world of the 19th Century was, in many ways, bigger because of how slow travel on foot or by horse and cart was. Red Dead Redemption II’s world captures that feel perfectly, and any doubts I might’ve had about an open world game using this kind of setting melted away faster than the snow in the mountains!
The game’s open world feels authentic. If you’ve ever seen old photographs of America in the late 19th Century, or even modern depictions of the era in television shows like Deadwood, you’ll instantly recognise the look and feel of everything from small farmsteads and frontier towns to the bustling big city with its industrial revolution influence. The visuals and graphics used to bring this world to life are stunning – the game is one of the most realistic-looking I’ve ever played, with moments of genuine beauty as I traversed its open world. I feel Red Dead Redemption II sucking me in because of how impressive its world design is; I want to spend more time in this incredibly real-feeling depiction of a time and place that has long fascinated me.
If you’ll forgive a history nerd geeking out about small things for a moment, things like the mud on the main street of the town of Valentine – the first major town Arthur is able to visit – and the wooden boards put down to the side to walk on do so much to capture what it must’ve felt like to actually walk through a town like that. These places were dirty and muddy, just like the game depicts, and even though it might seem like such a small thing it’s actually a huge part of the immersion for me.
The colour palette is likewise exceptionally important when it comes to capturing the look and feel of the time and place that Red Dead Redemption II is set. Most things in this era were made of wood or metal, so seeing Arthur walk over dirty wooden boards or eating stew from a beaten up old metal bowl are again minor details but they add to the immersion. Brighter colours were the preserve of the wealthy, so most townsfolk Arthur encounters are wearing drab colours: browns, tans, creams, and so on.
Many buildings have a hitching post outside for patrons’ horses – because traveling by horse was the main way folks got around in the 19th Century. Life in those days was very different – and so much worse for practically everyone than it is today! But Red Dead Redemption II gives us a taste of what it might’ve been like thanks to all of these smaller details, and because I’ve had such an interest in the history of America in this era I find it absolutely fascinating.
Countless smaller details come together to present a game world that feels real and lived-in. And that’s before we get into all of the myriad realistic elements that Red Dead Redemption II includes through its gameplay systems. Obviously a lot of games have a day-night cycle, and as far back as Shenmue in 2000 I can remember seeing things like shops closing after dark and NPCs having their own daytime and nighttime routines. But Red Dead Redemption II goes all-in on the realism. Arthur has to eat and sleep. If he gets dirty he has to change his clothes or take a bath. In cold weather he needs appropriate clothing – likewise for hot weather. His horse needs to be cleaned, fed, and taken care of too. So do individual weapons – without proper care they stop working reliably.
Around the camp Arthur has chores to do. Some of these are basic things like chopping wood – which took me back to my youth as I was often assigned that chore at home in the late summer and autumn months! But it also seems to be largely the responsibility of Arthur to keep the camp supplied and to bring in money – without regular donations of food and other supplies, the camp quickly runs out.
At points I felt like I was playing Barbie Horse Adventures and not an authentic 19th Century outlaw simulator because of how much time I was spending playing with and caring for Arthur’s horse! Brushing the horse, feeding it, giving it pats, calming it if it got scared… horses need a lot of attention in Red Dead Redemption II! Luckily as an animal-lover – both real and virtual – I had a blast doing all of these chores, and even found time for Arthur to befriend several dogs as well!
On the flip side, Red Dead Redemption II offers a whole lot of animals to hunt. I confess to being squeamish about hunting in person; bird shooting, rabbiting, and even fox hunting all took place in the rural area where I grew up, but even as a kid I was uncomfortable with the idea of killing animals like that. That squeamishness has extended to the virtual world too – I can’t imagine playing a hunting simulator, for example. But Red Dead Redemption II makes hunting feel like a necessary part of Arthur’s life – and there are many in-game reasons to hunt as well, from making money to crafting upgrades.
There’s an in-depth tracking system that the game uses, allowing Arthur to investigate an area using a similar “slow time” animation to the aforementioned “dead-eye” system. After detecting an animal’s track, Arthur can follow it stealthily and then use an appropriate weapon to take the animal down. Some of the animations involved in hunting are very gruesome and gory, particularly when it comes to skinning an animal for its meat and hide. But as we were talking about, these details add realism to the game. Whether you think that’s a good thing in every instance… well, that’s up to you!
Gunplay in Red Dead Redemption II is helped immensely by the dead-eye mechanic. However, even without this the game does offer a degree of lock-on targeting – something I find incredibly helpful. The game doesn’t have difficulty options per se, but there are a few ways to make things slightly easier, such as by making the lock-on targeting easier. Proper difficulty options would definitely be an improvement, though. I haven’t been involved in that many big shootouts yet, but so far I’m impressed with the third-person shooting aspect of the game. It stands up well when compared to many other action-adventure titles.
I find the game’s characters to be compelling. The excellent voice acting and beautiful, realistic animation brings them to life in a way many games simply can’t manage. Though Arthur is the main protagonist, the bond he has with the members of the gang makes each of them feel important to the story and worth helping or protecting.
After almost twelve hours of gameplay (including a short section I had to replay after messing it up) I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of Red Dead Redemption II. I’m only at chapter two of the game’s story, I’ve barely seen any of the open world, and I know for a fact that there are still in-game systems that I haven’t even unlocked. Red Dead Redemption II is a long game and an incredibly detailed one. I’m having a lot of fun with it right now, and it’s one of those rare titles that I find myself thinking about even hours after I stop playing. I honestly can’t wait to jump back in and play some more. It was definitely worth the wait!
Red Dead Redemption II is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. Red Dead Redemption II is the copyright of Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive. Some screenshots and promotional artwork courtesy of Rockstar Games and/or IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.