It’s been eight years since Take-Two Interactive’s (TTWO) Rockstar Games brought us back to the Wild West in “Red Dead Redemption.” Widely considered an instant classic, gamers never stopped clamoring for more. And after years of work, which reportedly included especially long weeks for some employees, Rockstar has delivered “Red Dead Redemption II.”
A sprawling, seemingly endless game full of the kind of storytelling, action, world building and humor that you’d expect from the developer of some of the best-selling games ever, “Red Dead Redemption II” is a stunning work that exceeds expectations.
There are some blemishes, of course. But after playing much of “Red Dead II” — I still haven’t wrapped it up entirely — it’s clear that Rockstar and the people who worked on this title have built another masterful experience.
A new frontier
Despite its name, “Red Dead Redemption II” is actually a prequel to “Red Dead Redemption.” You play as the gravel-voiced Arthur Morgan, a member of the Dutch Van der Linde gang. Yep, that Dutch Van der Linde; the man you hunted down as John Marston in the first “Red Dead.”
In fact, many of the characters from “Red Dead” appear in “Red Dead Redemption II.” In the first “Red Dead Redemption,” we find a Dutch who was once a relatively decent outlaw who descended into madness, committing violence for the sake of violence. In “Red Dead Redemption II,” we see a Dutch before the fall.
Instead of bloodthirsty killers, Dutch and his gang fashion themselves as the Robin Hoods of the Wild West, taking from the haves and giving to the have-nots, while padding their own pockets at the same time, of course.
This is a game as much about the strains of family, as it is about gunslingers and cattle rustlers. It’s a spaghetti western that examines the difficulty of breaking familial bonds, with just a hint of bloody shootouts.
Who am I kidding — you’ll get into shootouts virtually the minute you start up “Red Dead Redemption II.” At the outset, the Van der Linde gang is in dire straits having fled a botched robbery in the town of Blackwater for the snow-covered mountains hoping to lose authorities in the cold.
The world is vast and richly detailed. Hares race across footpaths as your horse rumbles along the landscape. Distant thunderstorms crackle against the horizon before moving into your area and drenching you.
It’s in the mountains where you get your bearings, learning how to ride a horse, use a bow and, most importantly, fire your gun. The more than 50 weapons in “Red Dead II” handle well and feel hefty when you fire them. Using them often improves their efficiency, but they also become dirty — which means you need to use gun oil to clean them or they won’t do as much damage or lose their range. It takes a while for serious wear and tear to really make a difference, though.
“Red Dead Redemption II” is replete with that kind of detailed gameplay. You’ll need to hunt animals and cook them for food, collect herbs to make tonics and more. There are three main stats you’ll need to pay attention to in “Red Dead II”: health, stamina and Dead Eye, the system that lets you slow time and target multiple enemies so you can fire like a true quickdraw master.
As in Rockstar’s “Grand Theft Auto San Andreas,” your health and stamina stats are governed by how much you exercise and eat. Things like how often you run will increase your stamina, while eating too much or too little will cause you to gain or lose weight and impact your overall health points. If you’re out of shape, you won’t regenerate health quickly enough, which can mean the difference between living to fight another day or ending up six feet under.
Wanted dead or alive
“Red Dead Redemption II” is an open-world game that lets you do and explore anything and everything you can imagine. Want to rob a stagecoach? You got it. Save someone with a snake bite? Go ahead. Be a Peeping Tom? I’m not judging. Each of your decisions, though, has an impact on the game’s honor, or morality, system.
As you move further up or down the honor scale, people will react to you differently; the kind of music that plays in certain situations will be lighter or heavier and how you can approach missions will change.
If you do want to commit a crime in “Red Dead II,” and you will, you’re going to need to watch out for potential witnesses. As you commit crimes you’ll gain a wanted status. Witnesses can then report you based on your appearance. Hide your face with a bandana, and they won’t be able to describe you. Change your clothes later and trim your beard, you’ll be harder to finger as the guy who committed a crime.
On the move
Throughout “Red Dead Redemption II,” you’ll move into different areas of the game world after certain missions. But this time, you’re taking your whole gang with you to set up camp in new regions. Your camp is your home base. It’s where you sleep, get medicine, shave, drink, sing songs with your fellow gang members and craft new gear.
Keeping your camp running smoothly and stocked with supplies impacts how your fellow gang members act toward you. Pitching in with chores is also an easy way to score honor points. You can customize the look of your camp by adding things like bear skin mats or hanging a ram’s head above your tent, but doing so won’t do anything for you outside of how cool it looks.
Your fellow gang members are as much a part of the story and how you play missions as you are. You’ll check in with them to kick off a mission, talk to them afterwards about how it went down and just hang out.
I appreciated how chatty gang members, as well as regular townsfolk and bystanders, were, but like any open-world game they would occasionally talk over each other. More than once I spoke with passersby who I thought I were being friendly only to have shots fired at me. It’s a rare occurrence, but it happens.
The game’s sheer number of systems and stats and means of interacting with the world can also feel a bit overwhelming. It took me a bit to get used to the health, stamina and Dead Eye systems’ core component and rings around them.
Should you get it?
“Red Dead Redemption II” is, like its predecessor, the kind of game that people will be playing and talking about for a long time. It’s a game that fans will fall hard for. From the open plains, to the snow-covered mountains, to the barren desert, this is Rockstar’s finest game yet.
What’s hot: Sprawling, engrossing game world; Fantastic character acting; Living the outlaw life
What’s not: Some systems can be complicated; Getting crushed by my own horse
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