There’s no way to say the following without sounding wildly definitive, so here goes…. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the best looking video game of all time. Yes, EVER. And that includes Uncharted 4. It’s also the best game of the past five years. Compare this Wild West epic to GTA 3’s blocky Liberty City and its cast of fugly thugs you probably kneecapped on a tiny TV 17 years ago, and the evolution is astounding. At times, it’s scarcely believable how good Rockstar’s latest sandbox looks and feels.
Not counting GTA 5’s remaster, this is the first game the studio has properly released this console generation. Unsurprisingly, in the years since the Los Santos sensation launched, Rockstar has built up a wealth of things to say. As such, RDR2 is a game of big themes and even bigger ideas. The evils of creeping capitalism. Corrupt regimes. The loss of long-held beliefs. With its contextual conversations, where its outlaw lead can either greet or antagonise hundreds of bespoke NPCs, the game also tries to move open-worlds forward. Here, your main interactions often involve swapping pleasantries (or devastating, old timey disses), while significant portions of the main story involve quiet, peaceful character-building. Compared to the wanton carousel of slaughter so many other sandboxes choose to ride, RDR2’s more thoughtful, less trigger-happy approach feels like a progressive step. Although that said, you still end up shooting hundreds of dudes. Don’t worry, most of ‘em deserve it.
Playing on Xbox One X at 4K, this frontier fable isn’t just incredibly sharp, it boasts the most impressive lighting and weather effects around. Wait until you see a soupy morning mist coat the game’s southerly plantation fields or get caught in a screen-shaking thunderstorm, then try to disagree. If you’re lucky enough to own a high-end 4K TV, the visual splendour RDR2 routinely spits out is a match for even the most cutting-edge games on PC; remarkable seeing as this is running on (slightly) ageing consoles, not an insanely expensive graphics card. Even if you’re ‘only’ playing at 1080p on a standard Xbox One or PS4, this supremely pretty open-world is filled with incredible environments and super expressive character models.
Cowboy meets World
A prequel and companion piece to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, the story of criminal cowboy Arthur Morgan unfolds like one of Sergio Leone’s sombre yet knowingly playful Spaghetti Westerns. Of course, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly lasts a couple of hours, not upwards of 70. A twisting tale of torn loyalties and outdated ideals, it features several returning (albeit younger) characters from its predecessor, including a fresh-faced John Marston, who has a pleasingly crucial role in Arthur’s journey. Mournful, melancholy, majestic, the game’s sweeping tale of out-of-their-depth outlaws plays out across the backdrop of a rapidly changing U.S. heartland in the dying days of the 19th century.
Before wading further into the Old West weeds to tell you exactly why RDR2 is the best game of the last half decade, it’s difficult to entirely separate the adventure from the recent accusations levelled at Rockstar Games. Much of the conversation surrounding the launch of the open-world epic has focused on claims of a caustic culture of 100-hour working weeks. Whatever the truth of the matter, this is a complex issue that could spill deep into this review and beyond. RDR2 bears all the the hallmarks of an intensive, eight-year-long production schedule; a labour of love (and perhaps less positive aspects of triple-A development) which nevertheless stands a cut above its contemporaries. As of right now, the cowboy classic represents the current pinnacle of video game design. This is an all-time great: a masterpiece that deserves to be mentioned alongside Ocarina of Time, Half-Life 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Skyrim, and most recently, The Witcher 3.
RDR2 is a ready-made anecdote generator. Sit a dozen people down with the game and I’ll bet you Clint Eastwood’s last Fistful of Dollars every last one would see scenarios totally individual to their playthrough. Rockstar’s extraordinary open-world is as wide as it is deep. This is an adventure so stuffed full of amazing emergent moments, when the end credits roll after a full week of captivating, criminal play, there are enough incredible memories to fill ten lesser games.
You might see a hungry gator pull a screeching boar into the bayou abyss of Lemoyne’s richly detailed swamplands (think Rockstar’s take on an old timey Louisiana). You’ll enter into countless slow-mo Dead Eye shootouts using Arthur’s impactful array of guns – some battles improve even further with RDR2’s optional, awesome first-person mode. You may fall for a horse (then quickly lasso the filly to make it your mount) after watching it joyfully roll around the flooded grasslands of Grizzlies West. Your Arthur might even be treated to a free jacket from one of the game’s general stores when a stranger rewards you for that time you saved their life near the snaking rivers of Cumberland Falls. Said good (totally random) deed most likely involved Morgan sucking snake venom out of the guy’s thigh. Now let’s never speak of the serpent slurping incident again.
Wild West is best
The world these emergent activities occur in is astounding. Forget GTA 5’s Blaine County, or the blustery beauty of The Witcher 3’s fantasy kingdom: RDR2 has the most impressive map you’ve ever explored. Honestly, it’s astonishing. Far bigger than GTA’s fictional California – and remember, you can’t zip around Morgan’s Western world in a helicopter – it spans snow-covered mountain regions, dense swamps, dramatic oil fields lifted straight from There Will Be Blood, and even a sizeable New Orleans-inspired city. There’s also a secret, sprawling area folk will lose their minds over.
When it comes to scripted story missions, there’s no other open-world – well, perhaps GTA 5 – that comes close to matching the sheer quality of Redemption 2’s core campaign quests. Over 60-odd hours of sheriff-shooting, bank-robbing, bridge-blowing action, there’s only one generic, cookie cutter ‘tail the target’ objective that springs to mind. The majority of Arthur’s law-breaking missions all centre on strong story-building. Most involve constantly inventive tasks, including unlikely costume changes, outrageous modes of transport, or challenges as varied as mingling at a cocktail ball to teaching a young boy how to fish. Considering there are 104 main missions – for context, Franklin, Michael and Trevor’s Los Santos caper ‘merely’ has 79 – such variety is even more impressive.
Story-wise, this is perhaps the boldest triple-A game ever made. Arthur’s tale undergoes the least predictable, most ambitious twists you could ever imagine. If you’re sensitive to very minor spoilers, you might want to step away until the next paragraph. Still here? Lovely. Then let’s just say the final 15 hour epilogue (yup, you read that right) is nothing short of astonishing. Wholly surprising and thoughtfully mature, it’s an example of the sort of high caliber storytelling we all deserve in 2018, but few big budget games have delivered since 2013’s The Last of Us.
There are also a ridiculous amount of detailed side systems in RDR2, and every last one is worth your time. Engrossing animal hunts involve tracking scent trails before targeting a critter’s vitals organs, and they’re all more engaging and in-depth than every Cabela’s game combined. Upgrading your gang camp’s food, medicine and ammo tents also adds a tactical management element to the action, while fully fledged weapons-crafting and meters affecting Arthur’s health, hunger and stamina ensure you have to keep your outlaw’s belly full and fitness up if he’s to stay at his sharpshooting best.
RDR2 is so detailed, even Morgan’s hair and beard grow in real(ish) time. If you don’t want Arthur ending up like some Wild West yeti, treat your cowpoke to regular trips to one of the game’s barbers. In a cute nod to CJ from GTA: San Andreas, the outlaw also loses or gains weight if he eats too little or too much – don’t worry, the results are less cartoonishly exaggerated than shoving Clucking Bell bucket meals down Carl’s throat. Couple this with extensive wardrobe options, which let you tweak everything from your antihero’s shirts and vests, to even the spurs on his boots, and few open-worlds give you this much agency over your character.
Face the music
A word – alright, several gushing sentences – on the music. Woody Jackson has done a sensational job on the soundtrack. The composer has scored every Rockstar title since the original Redemption, and this is his most aurally arousing work yet. The last game was celebrated for several wonderfully judged music moments, the most famous being Marston’s ride into Mexico to Jose Gonzalez’s ‘Far Away’. While the prequel may not have a song that’s as note-perfect as that haunting melody, the tracks that accompany the story’s key moments all work beautifully. As for general background music, Jackson’s score is both electrifying and eclectic. Somehow, it can dovetail between shredding your nerves during a terrifying cave assault involving cannibals, and perking up a scene where your cowboy chums celebrate some successful DIY by downing all the whiskey.
Are there criticisms? Of course. For large parts of the game, there’s no fast-travel, which is bound to rub time-poor people up the wrong way. The first act is also downright slow, especially placed next to GTA 5’s barnburner opening. Some may struggle with this initial blast of uncompromising pacing, though when the full map open ups, the wait ultimately proves more than worth it. The early camp-building options are also jettisoned too soon, and certain missions can involve annoying, insta-fail objectives. And while the epilogue is generally brilliant, the last half hour lacks the brilliantly lean gut punch of the first Redemption’s finale.
Just how good is Red Dead Redemption 2? Over the past few years, I’d argue the only games that deserve to be considered at this same ultra elite level are GTA 5, Metal Gear Solid 5, and The Witcher 3. This is a stone cold 5/5 classic that combines brilliant writing – Rockstar’s Houser brothers deliver another affecting, scythe-sharp script – amazing tech, and one of the most boldly structured plots to ever grace a triple-A title. The story is so well told, you’ll emotionally invest more in a horse during one crucial scene than you did even for Kratos in this year’s stellar God of War revival. If you only buy one game this year, it absolutely has to be this wondrous Wild West quest.