Games Review: Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4, 2018) is a once-in-a-generation experience

I don’t exactly know how one reviews a piece of media as expansive as Red Dead Redemption 2. To call it a game is the correct descriptor, but it also doesn’t feel like it quite encapsulates the enormity of what Rockstar have accomplished.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is an open world Western set in the very late 1800’s. The turn of the 20th century looms and the first rumblings of the industrial revolution have begun. The writing is already on the wall: the era of the American frontier, the age of the outlaw, is over. Only a few stubbornly cling to that dying way of life. Arthur Morgan, your character, is one such grim adherent. Early on, I wondered why Arthur and the rest of the gang to which be belongs, run by Dutch van der Linde, were so unwilling to give up their itinerant life of crime, violence and sporadic income.

As the story moves forward and you learn more about each of them, I came to understand: they claim consistently that it’s about freedom from civilised society and the “tyrannical” laws that accompany it, but isn’t. Not really. “Stop killing people and stealing their money” isn’t an unreasonable request and the van der Linde gang know it. It isn’t that these people don’t want a better life — they do — it’s that they’re afraid of being rejected by an increasingly civilised and lawful world for past deeds.  But by remaining outlaws, this fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are hated, hunted and shamed, run out of every town they post up in for the danger they pose. The van der Linde gang only know how to operate in a world where the gun under your chin is real, not metaphorical. This metaphorical gun is more terrifying to them than any real one.

For anyone anticipating the fast-and-furious pace of previous Rockstar titles like Grand Theft Auto V, you may want to temper those expectations somewhat. The thing that struck me most about Red Dead Redemption 2‘s first 15-20 hours is how remarkably slow they are. The game takes its time unfurling all of its many systems, so much so that players used to being hurried through the onboarding process may find it plodding and directionless. You shouldn’t find it plodding and directionless. Everything the game is asking you to do will set you up for the hundreds of hours to follow and there is a certain beauty in feeling like you have nothing to do. Nevertheless, some may find this inscrutability grating. Once this opening period is complete, Red Dead Redemption 2 throws the doors wide open and the pace of the plot breaks into a run.

There are a number of systemic reminders of older Rockstar titles in Red Dead Redemption 2, most notably Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. When I say this, I’m referring most specifically to the degree to which you’re expected to look after Arthur. You have to keep him fed so that his core stats stay sharp. Feed him too much and he’ll put on weight, meaning you’ll have to make him run over hill-and-dale to build his endurance and burn it off. In addition to keeping Arthur at the top of his game, you have to ensure the wellbeing of your horse. The bond with your horse is an important one — they are transport, mobile storage and often your only friend on long solitary journeys. Making sure they’re well-fed, well-rested and well-kept will make life easier for you in the long run. Plus, it never hurts to give your horse a scratch or a brush for a job well done.

The map of the United States, built mostly from the mountainous Mid-West to the California desert, is one of the most beautifully realised game worlds ever created. Given the laconic pace of the early game, I found myself regularly stopping to marvel at the beauty of what Rockstar have created. There is a level of attention-to-detail on display that, while often attempted, is rarely accomplished on this scale. The lighting is soft and gorgeous and the landscape rolls with the fluidity of the real world from one biome to the next. Weather effects like early morning fog are breathtaking, and little things like the way dirt and mud cling to Arthur’s clothes are somehow subtle and eyecatching.

Missions are structured in the Rockstar vein, often begun by speaking directly with a known ally or accomplice, or otherwise stumbling upon a stranger with a problem. Rockstar work hard to find ways to mine the setting for mission ideas, and everything from lassoing fleeing criminals to old fashioned train heists are present and accounted for. Of all the systemic upgrades that Red Dead  Redemption 2 has undergone, Rockstar seem happy to leave their now-familiar approach to mission design untouched.

Is it a perfect game? Of course not. There are many facets of Red Dead Redemption 2 that annoy the life out of me. Looking after the camp and ensuring its survival requires a non-trivial investment of my time and, given that there’s something like fifteen other people in the gang, it doesn’t feel like any of them ever lift a finger to help out. The menus are labyrinthine and frequently make me feel like I need more fingers in order to properly navigate them. Just manipulating the radial menu to sort through my weapons and items requires holding down two buttons and pressing a third. There’s no reason for it to be that unweildly. I play video games for a living and if I’m struggling to manipulate them, what hope does a novice have?

Even the Start menu pages are convoluted and not terribly helpful — there’s no screen that tells you about missions that are currently available, only ones you’ve completed. Having to go looking on the world map for the location of my next job is fine, but it also contributes to the sense of the game lacking direction I mentioned earlier. Arthur carries a journal and uses it in a manner similar to Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series — he makes short notes and draws sketches of locations that may be of interest later. Might have been nice if he could write down a to-do list as a way of cataloguing the missions the player has on the go.

Despite feeling like the game’s UI could still use a bit of work, I’m still willing to give it a pass because everything else is just so breathtaking. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the kind of game that doesn’t come along very often. It’s a once-in-a-generation technical achievement. It operates on a dizzying scale, chasing down its ideas with an ambition that would make other developers cower. Rockstar are to be commended for what they’ve achieved here. Rockstar created the open world genre as we know it. That they’ve found something truly new in that space by shrugging off almost all of its well-worn tropes makes total sense. A must-play.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Gorgeously realised; Utterly immersive; Mechanically complex and narratively compelling
Lowlights: Clunky UI is a real bugbear
Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Available: Now

Review conducted on PlayStation 4 Pro with an Ultimate Edition retail code provided by the publisher.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.