Red Dead Redemption 2 has genuinely some of the worst controls I have ever seen in a video game. The combat is not just uninteresting, but often frustrating. And the quests are all as linear as any Rockstar story mission.
Yet I think this game is one of the best games ever. While some aspects aren't particularly great, the bits that shine just shine so brightly such that you will completely forget about it when evaluating the game as a whole. The story is emotional and brilliant. The cinematics push the boundaries of what a cutscene can be. But most of all, the characters are all so interesting and develop meaningfully throughout the story. This is not a game to be missed.
You play as Arthur Morgan as part of a gang that is basically just trying to survive. You complete missions, rob banks, etc. to ultimately try and get more money so that you can flee to somewhere nicer and start a new life. At the start of the game, you find yourself in some cold mountains after something happened in Blackwater. The interesting thing is that there isn't a cutscene that tells you what actually happened. Instead, you have to piece together various pieces of dialogue from different characters to try and understand what actually happened, and even then it remains a mystery. The game does not deliver a long backstory, and instead just jumps straight into some basic missions to get you familiar with some of the mechanics. As the player, you aren't given any particular information about the past, instead you just start playing at this point in Arthur's life and have to figure out the rest. I think this is a really great decision and keeps the game interesting as you not only want to find out what is going to happen to the gang, but also about Arthur's past.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a very slow game. It took me over 10 hours before I felt I was actually engrossed in this game, because the early game is just so slow! While this is something to bear in mind, this is not a criticism of the game because it is just so necessary. The early part of the game gives you that much-needed backstory. You get to enjoy spending time with some of the characters, going out fishing with them or just hanging out. Now I think back fondly over these early moments, but at the time they weren't motivating me to continue.
The first reason these moments were so impactful is that you get to spend time with each of the characters. This makes you understand more about each character and get to know them a little. This really makes you care about the characters, but also allows you to notice when characters develop over time.
This does also make the game very immersive. You can spend time just doing chores for the gang or going hunting. None of these things are particularly exciting, but it's in this slow pace that everything feels so real and immersive.
Most importantly, this gives you a baseline for what life is usually like for Arthur Morgan and the gang. None of the rest of the game would have been nearly as impactful without the early game to compare against. While they could've just covered all this in a cutscene (as they basically did in Cyberpunk), they would've missed out on so much as a result. This early game is one of the game's biggest strengths, but also one of its biggest weaknesses, as the slow introduction to the game will not be enjoyable for some.
I have heard criticism about the length of the game, and this is a fair judgement. RDR2 has 6 main chapters and 2 epilogues. This makes it clock in at around 60 hours for a typical playthrough. While nothing outrageous for its genre, some people may find that the slow nature of this game does not keep them engaged. However, I think all of the game was necessary and while removing some of it would help it appeal to some, it would make the experience worse for others.
While some may argue that the epilogues were not necessary for the game, I really couldn't disagree more. The epilogues provide closure to the story in the way that the ending of chapter 6 doesn't, and were some of the happiest moments in the game. Equally, the epilogues wouldn't be nearly as impactful without the context of the rest of the game.
The characters are without a doubt the best part of this game. Each character is interesting, unique, and meaningfully develops throughout the story.
Whether this is down to the superb voice acting, great writing, or the storyline itself, I don't know. But what I do know is that I was genuinely interested in each one of the characters and what they had to say, and felt I got to know each one of them a little.
In particular, Arthur Morgan is my favourite protagonist out of any game I have played. What a character. While he seems like a simple thief on the surface, as the game progresses you really start to understand his values and why he does what he does. Throughout the game I found myself really wanting to hear Arthur reflect more on the state of the world and his thoughts, but he rarely does. The game doesn't even give you any 'internal monologues' to tell you what Arthur is thinking (and it's definitely better as a result!). Getting to know Arthur is a slow process as he always maintains this outside appearance of being a tough guy, but by the end you really see him for who he is. My favourite line in the whole game is when Arthur says, "I'm afraid". It's the first time he really opens up and admits how he's feeling, and after this conversation it prompts him to reflect further on his life. I may write something to go more in-depth about Arthur as a character but that will have to involve spoilers, so won't be here.
Additionally, while some games will opt to simply skip the journey to somewhere in a cutscene, RDR2 opts to fill this with conversation. It's these small, insignificant conversations that allow you to feel like you actually know each character. Rather than the game delivering big cutscenes to explain what's happened, you just have to figure out the past through the small conversations Arthur has with other gang members.
Rockstar games are infamous for having linear mission design, and this game is no exception. You go to a place, you steal some things, something goes wrong, you shoot a bunch of people. Rinse and repeat. While there are some exceptions, the majority of missions fall into this category and it is somewhat disappointing.
However the main reason that the missions are disapointing is just how many fail states there are. You are not given the freedom to do what you want, instead you have to do exactly what the game tells you to do. Want to flank the enemy? Mission failed, you left the area. There was one mission which involved a stealth section, we were trying to sneak past some guards. But where I wanted to go, there was a guard in the way, looking the other direction. Like any other stealth section, I went up to the guard and did a stealth kill - no problem. No other guards saw, and in any other stealth section this would be fine. But no, "Mission Failed - A pinkerton was killed". What??? Red Dead Redemption 2 does not give you the agency to make decisions in missions, and it can be frustrating. You simply have to do exactly what you are told, and even then you can fail missions for not doing exactly the right thing. I don't remember any quests other than the final mission having any kind of choice involved, which is a shame when something like The Witcher 3 has a choice in a significant portion of the quests.
Having said that, the missions are well-written and, while repetitive, are still enjoyable to play, as long as you're happy doing what you're told. "Pick up your hat", the game tells you. The game really tells you what to do all the time, and it can be frustrating being treated like a child.
The world is vast and interesting, with plenty of different locations. You will spend a lot of time at and around camp, but to ensure it doesn't get boring, you will move camp at multiple different points in the game so you can experience different locations.
I am now going to go over the different locations present in the game, however you may consider this a spoiler. Personally, I do not think this will spoil your experience of the game, but you may want to avoid reading ahead if you want to go in completely blind.
Chapter 1: Colter
In the first chapter, you are in some cold mountains. Life is hard, and as a result the gang feel very close together. This is primarily where you meet most of the characters. It goes without saying that the cold environment is completely different from any other locations in the game.
Chapter 2: Horseshoe Overlook
Coming from some freezing cold snowy mountains to a nice green area is very pleasant and accentuates how nice this area is. You have the nearby town of Valentine, a nice small town which is big enough to get some stuff done in, but small enough and far enough away from camp such that it doesn't feel like you're in too much civilisation. This chapter is long, and provides a lot of much-needed backstory for the rest of the game.
Chapter 3: Clemens Point
Next, you move to a nice seaside location with a larger, wealthier, town nearby. You will notice that you are gradually going to more civilised places, a metaphor for how the world is developing and cities are starting to grow.
Chapter 4: Shady Belle
This is where you encounter your first big city, Saint Denis. Wow, Saint Denis is brilliant. I remember the initial cutscene that played when I first reached there, and I just remember feeling such disgust. As an outlaw who hates every bit of society and just wants freedom, seeing a huge city made me feel exactly as Arthur would've felt. Saint Denis is packed with so much in it, and is a brilliant example of a city in a video game. While full of wealthy people, there's plenty of kids stealing things and gangs and all you'd expect from a great city.
One particular example that amazed me was the theatre. Now in most games, even if there was a theatre, there would be one showing at best, of decent quality but not amazing. The theatre in Saint Denis has 6 acts (plus some extras in quests) of which 3 random ones will play each time you visit. Each is about 3-5 minutes long, and are all impressively high quality. The ambiance of being in an actual theatre is captured well, and I genuinely enjoyed a lot of the acts. For a random part of the world that is unimportant to the rest of the story, this really helps bring the world to life.
Chapter 5: Guarma
Without spoiling anything, this chapter is very different. In all the other chapters, you have a clear camp and feel somewhat safe. This is the chapter that really challenges that. You do not feel safe here, you are not at home. Some people have suggested this chapter ruins the pacing and should be removed, but I think it served its purpose of breaking the player's feeling of stability as you are stuck somewhere, desperately trying to escape.
Chapter 6: Beaver Hollow
This is the final chapter. The final chapter is brilliant, and is not to be spoiled! Equally, I have not included the epilogues here as I feel like that would give a lot away.
The combat in RDR2 is just boring, and always felt like an obstacle to experiencing more of the game. As the player (as in a lot of games) you feel significantly stronger than everyone else, but even then there just isn't much depth to the combat. You just kinda click on people, and that's it. Well, there is another mechanic allowing you to slow time, but rather than adding more depth to the combat, this just serves to patch up where the combat is lacking in an effort to make it less frustrating.
As I've said already, these are probably the worst controls in any game I've played. (Note that I played on PC - I think they are better on controller).
Most notably, there just aren't many buttons on the keyboard being used, which makes the mappings very confusing. I often had to look down at the bottom right, sometimes having to google what the button was to do a particular action. The same button can do many different things in different contexts, and there doesn't seem to be any kind of consistency about it. It's not just "E" to interact, instead it's unnecessarily confusing to know which button to use for which action.
This is also reflected in the dialogue options, where you often have 2 options - greet or antagonise. Be nice, or don't be nice. As for what Arthur actually says, you'll have to find out.
Another example is right click. This serves two purposes - to focus on an NPC and show the dialogue options, or to aim your gun. Now this seems okay, but there were multiple instances where I'm in combat and I just happen to be next to my horse, so I'm trying to aim at people who are LITERALLY SHOOTING RIGHT AT ME but instead the game just focuses on my horse to give me the option to pet it or something. Aaaaah!
And as for taking cover in combat... yeah probably best to just not.
As you've probably seen by each of the screenshots, this game looks amazing. Even though it was released in 2018, the graphics still hold up today and are some of the best in realistic-looking video games.
Additionally, the cinematics are incredible. I don't usually think about this much in games, but the way the game subtly plays around with your camera is amazing and adds a lot to the experience.
While the soundtrack is not particularly present throughout most of the game, it includes some brilliant tracks which are played at just the right moment. They are of such high quality that you may not realise it was only made for a video game, and I often listen to these tracks outside of the game itself.
People & Crunch
I think it's important to recognise that games are made by people, and it's important that the people who make great games are not taken advantage of.
There are a lot of people who worked on RDR2. Like a lot a lot. Whenever I finish a game, I always watch the credits in its entirity. However, after about 10 minutes I thought the credits would finish. It turns out, that was only containing actual Rockstar employees. After a full 30 minutes of quickly scrolling through about 3,000 names, the credits finally come to a conclusion. It is absolutely insane how many people were involved in this project in some capacity, and what a game they've made.
However, there have been many reports of crunch culture at Rockstar, which the industry is really starting to crack down on. You can read more about this elsewhere, but hopefully for the next game Rockstar will have improved in this regard.
Overall, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a truly special game. When you evaluate the game as a whole, the bad controls, linear missions and frustrating combat are completely incomparable to the incredible narrative offered, involving some of the best characters in all of gaming. If you can put up with a slow beginning, this is surely a game that you do not want to miss.
What to know before jumping in
So, you've decided to pick up the game. What should you know before jumping in?
1. It's Slow
Be ready for it to not be particularly engaging at first. In fact, I'd say it took over 10 hours before I was truly engaged with the game. You need to be ready for this, and prepared to not give it up.
2. Immerse Yourself in the World
A big strength of the game is how immersive the world is, but you have to put in the effort yourself to seek out these activities. Enjoy just being in the world even if not that much is happening, as this is Arthur's life.
3. You are Arthur Morgan
You play as Arthur Morgan, which means you don't get much choice in what you do. Try and grasp how Arthur is thinking, and roleplay as him. You won't often be able to play your own way, as Arthur is a pre-defined character and many of the missions involve very little choice.
Other RDR2 Content
If you've already played the game, I'd recommend the following:
1. Faith in Red Dead Redemption 2
This one is mine! In this essay I analyse how faith is presented in the game, as both a powerful force that keeps the game going but also a very destructive force, and how the game invites the player to consider where their faith is placed. Read the article.
2. Snolana - The Greatest Fictional Character I've Ever Seen
This YouTube video analyses Arthur Morgan's journey, and what makes him such a great character. Watch the video.
3. Skill Up - Review
Also suitable if you haven't already played the game, this review is a long one but a good one! Watch the video.