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Red Dead Redemption 2 Review: Gameplay Impressions and Speedrunning Tips, Appeal

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistOctober 30, 2018

Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption 2 is unflinchingly bold.  

At the beginning of the gargantuan tale, any preconceived notion of what a triple-A title should be in the current gaming landscape goes out the window faster than a legendary marksman can empty a six-shooter. 

Dropped into the spurs of Arthur Morgan and the Dutch Van der Linde-led gang—which is familiar to those who played Rockstar's predecessor in the series—players experience a slow burn and some unexpected plodding mechanics that betray what is by far one of the best video game offerings of all time for those willing to power through its opening acts. 

With a methodical, weighty dive into one of the key transitional moments in world history, Rockstar tackles the defining questions of an era (1899) and individuals throughout it in a way no game has before, or may again. 

      

Graphics and Gameplay

It isn't a shock to see RDR2 register as one of the best-looking games of all time. 

The production values are off the charts, as expected, for the powerhouse studio behind the Grand Theft Auto series. The lip syncing is perfect, the voice acting is gripping and the performance by the soundtrack is as grandiose as the land itself. 

That land is a living, breathing world with various distinguishable regions stitched together on a colorful quilt encompassing wildlife and all means of verticality. From swamplands to industrializing cities to just-beginning settlements with nothing more than a jail and a saloon, the deep south of the early 1900s is as engrossing as it is detailed. Keep in mind these details only look better in the game's fully fleshed-out first-person mode. 

A dynamic weather system tops it off, and the way all of the above weaves into the gameplay defines what makes this an instant classic. 

For example, players can take Arthur to the top of a mountain to hunt or explore. On the way back, freezing snow tapers into flurries before turning into a blinding mist with almost nothing visible. Later, it again morphs into sheets of rain as the elevation changes. 

Players have to manage every step. Be careful to have cold-resistant attire near the top of the mountain or suffer the adverse health effects. But swap it out at the base of the mountain so Arthur doesn't overheat. And maybe hit up the camp for a shave since a few in-game months have passed. Maybe feed Arthur something better than canned goods, too, if he's too skinny, though don't overeat or he'll tip the scales in the other direction and suffer stamina hits. 

RDR2 asks a lot of a player for the sake of immersion, and it works—but it's hard to get through the not-so-well-hidden tutorial that can last anywhere between two to four hours. Make no mistake: It tells a story as it goes, but the fight to get off the mountain is a "here's how all these systems" work session. 

But the tutorials feel necessary because the controls are a mess in some regards. On PlayStation 4, holding R1 will reverse a cart, which feels different for the sake of being different. For the first few hours, players might find themselves struggling to not shoot people they mean to talk to or otherwise watching the bottom right of the screen to figure out which buttons they need to hit instead of watching what's unfolding on 98 percent of the screen space.

On paper, pulling the left trigger for everything works, and it would seem brilliant that what it does changes within the context of the world, but the idea has a spotty execution because it isn't so clear cut to every individual who picks up the game.

As an apology of sorts, the tutorials are always available and controls are customizable. Neither of these has ever technically been Rockstar's strong suit, so this isn't a surprise, just as it isn't a shock to see that most of the cover and shooting mechanics found in the last Grand Theft Auto game are largely the same here. "Same" doesn't mean bad, but it does mean merely passable. 

But the game is a blast once a player has digested the hefty appetizer. But outside of combat, everything from looting to skinning animals is time-consuming and weighty. After holding a button, only then does Arthur kneel, pat down, pick up and roll over a corpse for his 55 cents or so. Those in charge want a player immersed, and this does it to a degree—should Arthur stick around at the scene of a crime looting on the chance law enforcement or bounty hunters show up, or should he simply hop on the horse and skedaddle? 

Rockstar doesn't make any concessions. Compare it to Assassin's Creed Odyssey, which just came out. Looting can happen on the fly or even while blowing past a lootable item on horseback. The player there is always in a full sprint with instant changes of direction and fluid traversal with no meters to juggle or manage.

There is a pace in mind here, and it won't make everyone happy, but even those disgruntled with the opening acts will likely settle in and realize it all works beautifully once it gets rolling.

      

Story, Features and the Rest

That players enter knowing the gist of what happens if they played Red Dead Redemption eight or so years ago doesn't hurt the story a bit. 

Blindspots in this prequel narrative abound, of course. Knowing the fate of some characters doesn't take away from the drama. If anything, it makes things more emotional as the ragtag group carries on its journey together, for better or worse. And Rockstar doesn't pull any punches while weaving in references and serious bits of foreshadowing to later events in Red Dead Redemption that will make fans of the series gasp. 

The story blends so well with the world, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a side quest and the main slate. Those main missions eventually fall into a predictable momentum. Players tackle an objective with a few members of the gang, something goes wrong and the members have to adapt and survive while scraping together cash for the camp as it flees across the landscape. 

But the predictably is used to the narrative's advantage as the game continues. 

The plodding pacing has a way of making even a fetch quest meaningful. The little old lady Arthur stumbles upon on the side of the road next to her dead horse is a boring side quest that asks the player to take her home. And it's probably 100 miles in the other direction. But take her and the treat is learning some in-depth details about the area and her story.

Some of these random encounters produce big-time results, too. One random encounter with a smattering of violence later saw Arthur run into the victim he saved outside a gun shop in the next town over, and he let Arthur pick out any gun he wanted, free of charge. Players should skip side content and travel at their own risk. 

Those who don't want to tackle any sort of missions can go off into the world and play some poker, sample the local delicacies at a bar or hunt a bevy of wildlife at all altitudes. The game is so packed with content but missing fluff—like climbing a radio tower to unlock part of the map—that it is intimidating in the most delightful way. 

And the idea this is Grand Theft Auto on horses dies in a hurry. This isn't some satirical commentary on modern society—there is little funny about RDR2. More like there is little that isn't gravely serious. 

Grand Theft Auto characters want to seize the so-called American Dream by the throat and squeeze it for all its worth. The motley crew in RDR2 are outlaws on the wrong side of history as the industrial tornado sweeps across a nation with the long arm of governmental law at its side. It keeps them on the run as they try to be those Robin Hood-esque good guys while toeing the line of legality in a changing world. And the narrative itself throws some almost secret weight at serious topics like racism and women's suffrage, but players might miss these moments and comments from characters if they are zoning out. 

Rockstar carefully weaves in each member of the supporting cast for a heavy dose of screen time. Each one feels special and is enjoyable, with a special tip of the hat to our friend Lenny. They flesh out an uber-realistic world even more and make the player care about the supporting cast in a way most games don't. 

The sacrifice of typical video game suspensions of disbelief for the sake of a simulation level of immersion is visible in every area. Players can discard three carrots at once, for example, but only eat one at a time, as the on-screen character actually does it and tosses aside what's left. It all plays to the immersion effect—eat a can of beans while on horseback and watch the discarded can noisily roll down a gravel hill. Drag on a cigar and watch the roach burn in the dirt. 

Details, details, details. Get too far away from a gang member on a ride and he or she will raise their voice until Arthur gets closer again. Leave the store and go right back in it, and expect a quip about it from the shopkeep. Slam through the door, possibly breaking glass in certain cities, and expect the shopkeeper and customers to freeze what they're doing and stare, if not berate. Possums play dead. Arthur can interact with every character in the game, greeting them or antagonizing them or pulling a weapon on them—and every character can do it right back, often at the most unexpected of times. 

True-to-life authenticity is everything. Shoot an enemy in the leg, and they will hobble away. Defuse an unwanted standoff by popping the adversary in the arm. Get hit by an enemy in front of law enforcement but don't fight back, and they'll assist. Wear a bandanna while committing a crime but don the same outfit otherwise in front of law enforcement, and he or she will recognize you. Drag bodies into a fire or body of water before law enforcement arrives, and they won't have anything to pin on Arthur despite a reported crime. 

The umbrella simulation everything falls underneath is breathtaking. 

An open-world game has never nailed it like this before. It doesn't care if you're there (this exact idea plays out in a lengthy side quest as Arthur seeks a few supposedly famous gunslingers). That horse a player tied to a tree will leave droppings while a player is stalking a bear or off doing something else. Those cities and budding settlements will keep on going about their daily lives without a care for Arthur's existence, even popping up new buildings over time. The bear will mosey on down to a river for some fish hunting even if Arthur doesn't see it. One-off conversations and even quests will come and go regardless of interaction of picking it up. 

It's a museum on a digital scale. 

Newspapers are staggeringly detailed and true to the area. So are weapon and shop catalogs, with different backstories and testimonies for every available gun for purchase. Those guns have different scopes, components and styles. Along that same customization slant, horses can be fitted with different colors, hairstyles, saddles and more, the old-West version of a Need for Speed customization session. 

Arthur's journal is another high point of almost unreal detail. It changes based on his morality scale, but it's filled with his inner thoughts, recaps of events and sketches to an almost intimidating degree and only keeps growing as the game progresses. 

And even with it all on paper, it still feels like the tip of the iceberg. This will undoubtedly turn off some players. But we're at a crossroads—players can't complain about how casual AAA games are these days to maximize sales to the broadest audience, and then be upset when a game like RDR2 goes the opposite direction. Once players stop trying to play it like some other cookie-cutter open-world game, the impressiveness of what was accomplished here opens up. 

RDR2 is true to itself and brave enough to make the leap, fittingly matching the attitude of Dutch's gang in the process. 

                      

Speedrunning Tips and Appeal

Undoubtedly, this one will be huge on Twitch and otherwise in large part for its breadth and replayability. 

With replayability comes the possibility of speedruns. 

Given the complexity here, RDR2 is an obvious speedrun candidate in either the story-completion sense or 100 percent sense, though we'll detail the former because the latter is...not advised. 

Unlocking fast travel will be critical to any run. Speedrunners can quickly unearth a huge sum of money near the gang's first camp. Throw it into upgrading Dutch's tent, then Arthur's, and a fast-travel map becomes available.

It is one-way fast travel to places a player has already discovered, but it will be a big assist in runs, as will the tonics to replenish a horse's stamina and Dead Eye itself. Instant kills in firefights via headshots will help speedrunners breeze through most content, with the trickiest beast being traversal of the land. 

As usual, skipping cutscenes and only sticking to main-story missions are doable and a must. Tricks and tips for navigating what seems like a convoluted world are key. For example, a sampling of tips: 

  • Simply holding the back button in the gargantuan merchant catalogs inside stores will exit out of the whole thing instead of flipping back through the pages.
  • Holding the start button will instantly take a player to the map, as opposed to pausing the game and then clicking the map (this adds up, no joke). 
  • Crouching when trying to run up a steep incline gives a better chance of making it to the top.
  • While riding a saddled horse, players can tell another tamed one to follow, which is good for hunting storage.
  • Eagle eye will highlight lootable items in the world.
  • A "crime outfit" never worn outside of breaking the law will work wonders.
  • Simply hold the loot button while rustling through drawers and cabinets to loot it all instead of re-holding for each interaction. The same applies to crafting special ammunition and cooking food.
  • Arthur isn't an assassin or anything, but he can grab most ledges he jumps at.
  • Holding triangle or Y anywhere will let Arthur rest and recuperate. Players can set up camp from resting instead of going into the wheel menu. 
  • Deadeye can be activated before unholstering a weapon. Lightly touch and hold the right trigger as if in a standoff before slamming it down to whip out the weapon already in Deadeye, as opposed to taking the weapon out and then activating Deadeye. 

Horses are a critical element as well. Maxing out the trust level between Arthur and a horse doesn't take long and unlocks special moves like drifting around objects that are critical for fast navigation while traveling—but when a horse dies, it's gone for good. 

Speaking of traveling, timing presses of A or X will lead to faster journeys. Matching the rhythm of Arthur's run or horse's gallop will drain the stamina bar much slower, meaning fewer stops to recover. 

There is an almost unspeakable amount of detail that will go into a RDR2 speedrun, which is what makes it so appealing for the idea in the first place. It's probably one of the toughest of the year but engrossing enough to keep viewers coming back.  

               

Conclusion

It's ambitious, if not foolish, to label a game as a classic. 

Yet here is RDR2, a game unafraid to deliver what it wants and does so while matching an incredible hype build. Unlike the original, it doesn't have the benefit of coming out of nowhere after a release like Red Dead Revolver, yet it still manages to meet expectations. While Rockstar is perhaps the only studio capable of pulling off a feat like this eight-plus years in the making, it makes actually matching expectations all the more impressive. 

And yes, Rockstar gets a pass for a slow opening act and some seemingly recycled gameplay mechanics that haven't changed much in years. But when the surrounding elements and overall cohesive package are this good, mechanics that are still passable by today's standards aren't overly concerning. 

Though it is bound to turn some away at the beginning, those willing to tough it out will find a visceral, gritty experience that exemplifies the richness of detail and recreation video games are capable of as an art form and a simulation unrivaled in its depth. Like Arthur, RDR2 is willing to live on the fringes and use some of its leeway to try new directions.

In a way, it feels like the next-generation experience came early, as this level of interactivity and depth within a simulation sets a new bar for the medium.

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