here do I even begin? With most games, it’s quite easy to begin a review. You can break them down into their constituent components, and talk about what works, what doesn’t, what makes or breaks the entire experience. With Red Dead Redemption 2, that is an impossible order, because it can’t be broken down into distinct components. Everything in here, from its world and the people that inhabit it to its mechanics and its brutal story, everything bleeds into a single, cohesive whole. It all coalesces into something that is so stunning, so breathtaking, that trying to put it all into words almost feels like a disservice. It doesn’t feel like it would be quite enough.
"Everything in here, from its world and the people that inhabit it to its mechanics and its brutal story, everything bleeds into a single, cohesive whole. It all coalesces into something that is so stunning, so breathtaking, that trying to put it all into words almost feels like a disservice."
Red Dead Redemption 2 has a stunning clarity of vision, which it showcases across the entirety of its long run time. It features what is probably the most impressive open world ever created- staggeringly massive, breathtaking beautiful, and brimming with a startling amount of detail. More than any other game, Red Dead Redemption 2 completely transports the player into its brutal yet breathtaking world. It constantly finds ways to take your breath away- it could be something as simple and minuscule as watching your fellow gang members sitting around a campfire to talk about nothing and everything, or something much more significant, like the long memories of the residents of a town, who still remember that time you almost beat one of their neighbours to death.
It’s all unbelievably convincing. It feels lived-in, like an actual world, rather than a mere backdrop to the story. Rather than existing in order to enable the player’s exploits, or as a sandbox for its bevy of systems to interact (though there’s no shortage of that), it exists simply in service of itself. Where most open world games have settings, Red Dead Redemption 2 has a world. And it’s a world that is constantly a joy to explore for these very reasons. While you’re riding around on your horse, you will come across any number of dynamically occurring events. A poor soul on the side of the road with his leg stuck in a bear trap might be crying out for help from passers-by. A person feigning to be in dire need of assistance might take you by surprise as soon as you come to a stop, pulling you off your horse and trying to run off with it. A posse of one of your rival gangs might spot you out in the open at night and try to gun you down. People who’re holding grudges might try to ambush you in unique and unpredictable ways. The firefights these situations lead to – the gunplay in general, actually – are thrilling and exciting, with things such as the much improved Dead Eye and the stylish, slick-looking killcams making every encounter exhilarating (though the cover mechanics aren’t always as smooth and responsive as you’d like them to be).
What also stands out in Red Dead Redemption 2 is that there’s very little dissonance. Nothing ever feels like it’s received less attention from Rockstar when compared with anything else, that a particular mechanic or a particular set of missions was prioritized over other areas of the game. The game rarely ever feels the need to throw fetch quests into your lap, or bombard you with tutorials, or prod you towards an interesting location in the map. Everything happens naturally. If there’s a poisonous herb out there that you shouldn’t be ingesting, you don’t learn that from a text box- you might meet a person out in the wilds who’s in desperate need of medicine, and if you give it to them, they’ll tell you that they got poisoned eating a particular herb. If there’s a point of interest in the world that you should be visiting, you won’t see a question mark on your mini map. Instead, while you’re riding out at night, you’ll see a campfire in the distance, or an imposing pillar of black smoke rising up toward the sky. If there’s treasure maps the game wants you to find to send you on hunts for booty, you won’t loot them from chests in heavily fortified forts- instead, you might run into a treasure hunter who’s on his own journey separate from yours, leaving you with the decision of how to acquire that map- try and reason with him, intimidate him, or just kill him.
"Where most open world games have settings, Red Dead Redemption 2 has a world."
There’s also a lot of variety in this world. If this were any other open world title, I’d be perfectly happy to throw around words like “biomes” or “topography”. But this is not a world with various distinct regions that were stitched together to create a larger map. Such a cohesive depiction of a world is rare to see in games. There’s deserts, swamplands, frozen mountains, green plains, large cities, small towns, and so much more, and each location you visit is overflowing with personality and a strong sense of identity, all of which remains respectfully consistent with the larger whole. From a settlement that is caught in the middle of an ongoing feud between two powerful families, to a city rapidly advancing towards civilization and industry while it spews poisonous smoke into the air, to a small and quaint town that is nestled in the foothills and banks on being a self-proclaimed tourist attraction, every place you visit exudes character. The term “world building” almost doesn’t do it justice.
Something else that adds to that unflinching authenticity and unreal sense of place is the fact that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that is almost entirely lacking in abstractions. To clean your weapon, you don’t go into a menu and select a “maintain” option- you physically see Arthur cleaning his gun with oil and a rag. When you’re in shops, you don’t select the items you want to buy from a menu- you pick them up from shelves manually (although you can purchase them while browsing a catalog as well). For every animal you skin, there’s a unique animation (though these can be skipped if you want). If you want to change the loadout of the weapons you’re carrying, you have to walk up to your horse and pull those weapons out of your saddlebag.
Those weapons? They don’t magically disappear into your pockets- you can always see them on your person. And that horse? If it’s ever too far away from you, you can’t just whistle and hope for it to magically appear out of nowhere- you have to physically go to where you left it last. These things, these abstractions, are things that most games need, to cut out the downtime, to speed up the process of playing. But Red Dead Redemption 2 revels in that downtime, in slowing down the pace. It firmly plants its feet in grounded reality, and never budges an inch. A potential pitfall of that is that some might look at that downtime, that refusal to cut out the fat, as obnoxious or boring design. Certainly, the abundance of travelling from point A to point B can be a little wearisome at times. But that downtime serves a higher purpose- of thoroughly immersing the player in the game’s world.
"From a settlement that is caught in the middle of an ongoing feud between two powerful families, to a city rapidly advancing towards civilization and industry while it spews poisonous smoke into the air, to a small and quaint town that is nestled in the foothills and banks on being a self-proclaimed tourist attraction, every place you visit exudes character. The term “world building” almost doesn’t do it justice."