There was a time two or three hours into Red Dead Redemption 2 that I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to enjoy it. The shooting didn’t feel great, I wasn’t too sure what was going on with the story, and it was taking forever to get anywhere. It was slow, plodding, and while not entirely devoid of action it hardly exploded onto my PS4 in a way that grabbed my attention. I contemplated the possibility that Rockstar had made something that just didn’t work for me. But I played on. I did battle with the bombardment of information, the new mechanics, the huge range of stuff that I could do, and ignored most of it. Again, I worried I was going to miss out on all sorts of cool stuff.
And then, suddenly, it clicked. Everything came together, everything made sense. Everything worked. Another couple of hours went by without me noticing; random events started popping up as I trotted round the gorgeous countryside, people who needed help, who wanted a shooting competition, who just wanted me to bugger off and leave them alone. Before I knew it the clock read 3am, and I was hooked in a way that only games such as Fallout 3 and Skyrim had done before. The slow, plodding gameplay had picked up the pace a tiny bit, but now the slower nature of the game made more sense. Riding for 5 minutes between locations didn’t feel like a chore, it felt like a journey of possibilities, of new vistas, of animals to watch and try to shoot at. Any kind of fast travel was still hours of gameplay away, but it stopped mattering. The story missions became fantastic; some solo missions, some with others from the camp, but each one letting me relearn a skill or technique that had been booted out of my head during those chaotic opening couple of hours.
Every time I sat down with Red Dead 2, hours passed. As the story progressed the missions become bigger, tougher, and more and more interesting. The huge country you’ve got to explore takes you up to the snowy mountains in the north, across to the crocodile-filled swamps and dusty bone-dry towns, as you make your way back to one of your many camps throughout the story, be that by a sunset-friendly lake setting or wherever else – there are far too many possible spoilers to outline your camps through the game. But the various settings aren’t just for show – Arthur will feel the weather, suffering if he’s dressed in the wrong kit for a hot or cold climate. There are plenty of clothing options to hand, but it’ll take a bit of effort and some money to kit out your wardrobe with a decent selection of outfits to suit any situation you might find yourself in. Luckily, with so many people to kill and loot, as well as treasure hunts to complete and gold bars to hunt down there are plenty of ways to make money in Red Dead 2, and by the end of Act 3 you’ll have more money than you’ll know what to do with. Patience has its own rewards.
While you’re out and about there are dozens of pastimes to keep you busy, whether that’s hunting one of the legendary animals to get hold of a rare skin (which in turn can be made into various clothing or accessory items), heading to the rivers and lakes to do some fishing or checking in with the various sheriffs to get some wanted posters and dabble in bounty hunting. You could play for hours upon hours without ever touching the main story missions, and with each smaller task contributing to increasing your stats or the cash in your pocket, there’s no reason to rush into those story missions too quickly. You can go looking for a better horse if you fancy too, and with loads of them in the game with various stats and qualities you could spend a long time just finding the right one to take you forwards, whether that’s by finding a stable with one to buy or hopping on one you find minding its own business in a field. Or you could steal someone else’s, naturally.
Your actions will impact the game too, with your honour rating reflecting your choices as you go. Found someone stuck in a bear trap? Either set them free, leave them to die alone, or just shoot them and steal their stuff. It’s your choice, but in that particular example I set him free then stumbled upon him hours later in a town where he rewarded me for being nice. You get discounts, the police don’t try and shoot you every time you’re within half a mile of town, and people react better to you. It’s always fun being an utter bastard, but with Arthur’s path plotting a certain course through the game, Rockstar clearly want you to be nice, it’s just up to you whether you go that route or not.
As you buy better weapons the shooting improves too, and while some of the movement controls still feel clunky at times (navigating round the side of a mountain is a recipe for disaster, and my horse got stuck a few times) the early-game issues soon fade into a distant, fuzzy memory. Before long you’ll be nailing raiders in the face from 100 metres away with your newly scoped, gold plated rifle then making the most of a double barrelled shotgun when the others get too close for comfort. Auto-aiming helps massively when riding (and if I’m honest I left it on for general gunplay too) but you can turn it off if you’d rather be in control of your own bullet-based destiny. Just be prepared to die a few more times.
A note also about the sound design: it’s an absolute work of art. The occasional music that ramps up when something hits the fan, the distant animal noises that scare your horse and make you wonder if you’re being hunted by a cougar, the voice acting, it’s all absolutely top class. It would have been so easy to ignore this and ruin the game with some rushed voices or repeated sound effects, but it makes the world feel alive, like it’s breathing along with you as you play. The weather helps with that too, dynamically changing repeatedly as clouds form and break up overhead, as the sun rises and sets beautifully, and as the rain and snow hammers down to make things that little bit less comfortable.
If 60-odd hours of one of the best games ever made isn’t enough, Rockstar have also opened up the online portion of the game with so much to do it could easily be a game in its own right. On the off-chance you get bored of the main story, or finish it and don’t fancy just enjoying the rest of what’s on offer, jumping online will double your longevity without a doubt. Get a couple of friends, hop on your horse and go and cause chaos together. You’ll be absorbed for even more time.
So while it’s true that I could have easily given up after the first couple of hours of Red Dead 2, I’m so relieved that I didn’t. Had I have done that I would have missed out on one of the most incredible pieces of interactive storytelling, one of the best looking games I’ve ever seen, and one of the most memorable experiences you’ll get from a game. There are small flaws, but they’re not enough to stop me recommending it to anyone who will listen. This is a genre-defining game, and you really should be trying to experience it as much as possible.
Reviewed on PS4