'Red Dead Redemption 2': Game Review

Rockstar delivers the game of the generation.
Courtesy of Rockstar

The West is far from dead.

Rockstar Games' long-gestating follow-up to 2010's Red Dead Redemption is easily one of the most anticipated gaming titles in recent years, and with that fervor comes lofty expectations. Not simply another stellar entry in the already hallowed halls of Rockstar titles past, Red Dead Redemption 2, to put it as bluntly as the game's protagonist, Arthur Morgan, likely would, not only delivers on its promises but completely shatters them. 

The first game from the massively successful publisher to be built entirely for this generation of consoles, Red Dead Redemption 2 pushes everything to its absolute limit. With stunning visuals, unprecedented scope in both story and gameplay, and a level of immersion that has set the bar so high that it is hard to imagine any other studio will be able to match it during the life of the current console generation, the game is a sweeping masterpiece of innovation and an enormous leap forward for gaming as a whole. 

The central plot focuses on Morgan, an outlaw and high-ranking member of the notorious van der Linde gang. Taken under the wing of the gang's eponymous leader, Dutch van der Linde, at a young age, Morgan was raised in the outlaw life, and he has flourished under the tutelage of the silver-tongued criminal mastermind. Beyond his nefarious deeds, however, Morgan is a man of letters, keeping a comprehensive journal and humbly presenting himself as far less bright than he is. 

"Charm" is the key word in describing not only Morgan, who is easily one of the most endearing protagonists in a video game in quite some time, but also his fellow gang members — and there are many. The van der Linde crew functions much like a family, with all the fraught relationships one would expect to go along with such a description. With nearly two dozen members, personalities are wide-ranging and offer a wide swath of adventures, side quests and tasks for Morgan to engage in, each one affecting his personal connection with his compatriots and the camp at large. While every member of the gang feels fleshed-out (a commendable feat in and of itself in a game already bursting at the seams with content), notable standouts include Hosea Matthews, an aging conman and mentor to Morgan; Sadie Adler, a recently widowed woman with a wild streak; Charles Smith, a new recruit with a clear moral compass who is the son of an African father and Native American mother; John Marston, a younger version of the reformed outlaw from the original game; and, of course, Dutch.

The camp is the game's heartbeat, driving the narrative as well as much of the gameplay. What the game succeeds at beautifully is creating that sense of familial bonding and kinship. While Red Dead Redemption 2 sports an open world with nearly endless adventures waiting for the player, there is a constant pull back to the camp and a sense of duty to Morgan's fellow gang members. Never does this feel like a chore, but rather a fundamental, entertaining aspect at the core of the game. 

Much of this is achieved by the handling of the game's subject matter. Set in 1899, Morgan and company are a part of a dying breed. The West is nearly tamed and the sun is quickly setting on the outlaw's way of life. It is a true testament to head writer Dan Houser's work with the game's Gilgameshian script that there is a genuine sense of pathos injected into this story of hardened criminals. While cruelty is at a premium in many corners of the world of Red Dead Redemption 2, there is also a romantic sentimentality at its base, and the player's freedom to explore and live vicariously through Morgan, either as a conflicted bandit with a strict moral code or a true sociopathic sonuvabitch, makes the experience all the richer. 

This is a game that takes its time and encourages the player to do the same. Large parts of missions are spent traversing the frontier on horseback alongside a fellow gang member, chatting about anything and everything from their current predicament to the everchanging landscape of an America on the brink of a new century, to local fauna just off-trail. This subtle storytelling approach adds to the game's overall immersive quality, rooting the player in this rarely seen version of the West.

Coupled with that is the absolutely astonishing level of detail that is put into every single aspect of the world. Horses react to nearby wildlife and must be soothed or encouraged accordingly (they also fart, which anyone who has spent time around actual horses knows is very common). Animals in the environment also react to one another, as they would in the wild. Deers running through the trees may not be responding to Morgan but rather a larger, nastier predator stalking the brush nearby.

When the player grows weary of exploring the rugged rural expanses (and there is a lot to check out), they can wander into nearby towns, which offer an equally wide array of activities. Take in a show, grab a whiskey, play dominoes, bet on some poker, browse the local general store, peek in random windows, rent a room, take a hot bath, start a bar fight — this is just a sampling of what even the smaller towns in Red Dead Redemption 2 have to offer. 

There is also a staggering level of customization available in the game, from Morgan's wardrobe to his hairstyle to his weaponry. Guns can be upgraded with improved sights and barrels, but also cosmetically with engravings or new stocks. Morgan's horses can similarly be outfitted to the player's liking, be it the mount's mane, saddle or stirrups. 

The depth of the game's content borders on the inconceivable. There is so much to do and see in Red Dead Redemption 2 that at times it can feel overwhelming, and while other recent open-world games also boast large maps and numerous side quests, none is able to offer the diversity and entertainment value that Rockstar has piled into its Western opus.

Consequences of the player's choices are felt in the world — relationships are affected, narratives are changed, lives are lost. Every element of the game, from plot to game design, elevates the entire medium to heights that have, until now, only been empty prelaunch promises. What Rockstar has delivered in Red Dead Redemption 2 is not just the best game of the year, but the best game of the decade. It does not set a new bar, but rather signals a changing of the guard, a new future for video games, as everything that comes after will be launching in a post-Red Dead Redemption 2 world.