Red Dead Redemption 2 review: Immersive, cinematic and a bit clunky

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Red Dead Redemption 2 review

I'm tired. It's 4 a.m. in the morning and I can barely keep my eyes open. I'm tracking a potential meal for the folks back in camp following the delicate hoof marks my quarry has left in the brush. Spotting my prey, I slowly creep closer, trying to keep out of its line of sight while I line up my shot.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review

I hold my breath as the tiny white reticle turns red, signaling I have the shot. I pull the bowstring taut and let my arrow fly. However, the whitetail deer moves its head just in time, sending my arrowing hurtling into the rock next to its head. Sufficiently spooked, my quarry sprints to safety. Eyes weary, I sigh and resume the hunt, marveling at how much fun I'm having.

This is Red Dead Redemption 2, the much-anticipated sequel to Rockstar's beloved 2010 open-world Western. A game that took eight years to make, with thousands of pages of script and controversial, highly publicized 100-hour work weeks to bring to fruition. I'm four hours into the game and I can tell you with full certainty that I haven't even scratched the surface. I can also tell you that before this game is done, I'm going to give this game at least 150 hours of my life and I'm fine with that.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review: New game, new protagonist

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel, but if you were expecting John Marston to take the reigns of Red Dead 2, you're going to be disappointed. Instead, you'll be playing as Arthur Morgan. Similar to Marston, Morgan is an orphan who was basically raised by gang leaders Dutch van der Linde and Hosea since he was 13, learning to shoot, ride and of course, commit crimes.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review

As an adult, Morgan is gruff, but fair and is in high regard with many members of the gang. Never afraid to get his hands dirty, Morgan has no problem robbing banks, collecting debt and any other misdeeds necessary for the gang to survive. However, after a failed robbery in Blackwater, he starts to question Dutch's judgment, but does his best to stay in line. It's a decision that's going to cost him dearly.

Although he has a brusque demeanor most of the time, Morgan isn't without depth. You'll find most of it when you read through his journal. Along with his excellent sketchings, the man records his inner thoughts on the occurances of the day –– good, bad or ugly. One of my favorite entry discusses how he hates loan sharking even though it's technically legal work, reflecting on the harshness of existence. It's in those moments where you see Arthur the man.

Outside of his journal, Morgan is struggling to find his place in a rapidly changing world, one where organized civilization and growing capitalist interests are infringing on his hopes of living free of government restraint. Those are some big heady subjects to grapple with for sure, but on a micro level, Arthur is dealing with shifting priorities and loyalties within his gang. A resentment and disillusionment is growing between Dutch and Morgan, that with their surrogate father/son relationship is at once cliched and real.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review: The boys are back in town

Fans of the original Red Dead Redemption will be excited to learn that the prequel, set in 1899, focuses on Dutch van der Linde and his gang in somewhat happier times. Everyone's on the run after the Blackwater incident. With the money now hidden near the scene of the crime, the game is hard up for cash and holed up in an abandoned mining camp on Horseshoe Overlook outside of the small livestock town Valentine.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review

It's from this rather desperate situation where we get to see the Van der Linde gangs during happier times -- you know, before John Marston was hunting down his old mates to earn clemency from past crimes. Dutch, styling himself like a wild west Robin Hood, is all speeches, charisma and big ideas centering on finding a piece of land in a rapidly developing civilized west where his people can live wild and free of the United States government.

We find out that before Bill Williamson and Dutch abandoned John Marston, inadvertently setting off the events of Red Dead 1, Bill was immensely loyal to Dutch and his way of life. Sure, he's an aggressively violent killer, but a principled, aggressively violent killer. Javier Escuella also makes an appearance as one of Dutch's acolytes. Faithful and loyal almost to a fault, he all-in on Dutch's philosophies and considers his fellow gang members as brothers.

And speaking of John Marston, that guy seems to constantly be on the short end of the stick. Our first encounter with John is a rescue mission. Badly wounded from the heist shootout, he's attacked by wolves leaving those permanent scars we've come to know and love.

He's sarcastic as hell, and a bit of a jerk, but over time proves to be quite an honorable guy –– I mean as honorable as an outlaw can be. Abigail and Marston's son Jack are also in the gang and it's clear that Abigail and John are at odds for his lackluster parental skills. A member of the gang, she's not afraid to stand for herself or her son.

Interacting with all these characters from the first game is bittersweet. Sure, it's fun to see them before everything went to hell in a handbasket, especially Dutch and John. But I couldn't help but shake the feeling that I was watching a slow motion wreck. Playing the first game lets you know that sooner or later, things fall apart for the Van der Linde gang. From the minute you start playing, you're in a subconscious wince, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review: Like being in a movie

At times, I feel like I'm living in a movie or maybe season one of Westworld. From the moment, the title sequence began and I started moving protagonist Arthur Morgan through a raging snowstorm, I felt like I was sitting through a variation of an opening scene of The Hateful Eight. The snow came down in wet, sticky clumps, making it difficult to see anything that wasn't directly in front of you.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review

As I went with Dutch and Micah on a supply-finding mission, I marveled at how realistically the newly-fallen snow moved in relation to the horses hooves. Even more impressive was how individual particles in the top layer of frozen precipitation glistened as we moved.

Thanks to a new dialogue system, I had the opportunity to pose questions to both my companions about the current state of affairs, which helped flesh out their personalities in delightful ways. And when it came down to saving Dutch by gunning down a few members of our hated rival gang, the slow motion effect when I made my first shot made me feel like I was in an action movie.

But if you really want to invoke that movie-feeling, you'll want to activate Cinematic Mode. Typically comprised of aerial or side shots, Cinematic Mode adds the traditional thick letterboxes around the picture for that real western feel. As cool as that is, I found that I couldn't use the effect often as it made it difficult to reliably control my horse. There were far too many times that I ran my poor steed into a tree or over a rock causing injury to both of us. But maybe you'll have better control than me.

Another way the game is like the movie –– pacing. Red Dead 2 is a slow burn, complete with long horse rides and measured dialogue. Not a scene is wasted and even the side missions do some light character-building work in a lot of cases. That means, you'll definitely be robbing banks and trains, but it's going to be a long, winding road to get to that point.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review: So freakin' pretty

The detail found in that snow-locked vista is the rule rather than the exception as evidenced by the many articles dedicated to the care Rockstar took to reproduce horse testicles. In fact, I got "treated" to a front row seat of my horse taking a big ole' dump as I dismounted. But visceral voiding acts aside, the game is breathtakingly beautiful and diverse.

Riding through a mountainous desert was a bounty of beige and brown dotted with sparse vegetation and hardy fauna. The plains were a sprawling expanse of light green grass of various heights, where it wasn't uncommon to flush out a pheasant or jackrabbit. But my favorite territory by far is the swampland, which I discovered when I was running from the law.

One minute I was ducking and dodging across a grass meadow, the next I'm sinking into the muck and mire of the swamp. As I waded into the brackish terrain, I saw a water moccasin slither by, leaving gentle ripples in its wake, bisecting the reflection of the moon. It was beautiful, but I couldn't stop to really drink it in as the bounty hunters were determined to get their $30 bounty. So I pressed on and almost got devoured by a particularly large alligator that I thought I'd mistaken for a log.

My point is, there's no such thing as ugly in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 and you owe it to yourself to take in the sights.    

Red Dead Redemption 2 review: The Sims but cowboy style

Did you feed your cowboy today? There's a fair amount of character management in Red Dead 2. In addition to having the ability to changing Morgan's aesthetic appearance, you can also affect his overall well-being with his food intake. Eat a bit too much and Arthur becomes overweight which raises his health but decreases his stamina. If he's underfed, you'll gain more stamina at the expense of your health. You're also going to have to keep a close watch on your horse's stamina and health as well as work on building a bond with it.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review

And if that's not enough micro-management for you, you can also cultivate your camp. By donating cash, food and animal pelts when you get back to camp, you can raise moral which can help with resource management. You can also customize the camp layout which opens access to medicines, tonics, food and munitions in camp.

While I'd advise against tricking out the more cosmetic changes in camp, it's absolutely vital that you max out Dutch's tent as soon as possible. Maxing out his tent brings in more money for the camp and allows you to improve your own tent, which will unlock Fast Travel ability. It's an important feature considering that horses are your main mode of transportation, which means getting from point A to point B can take a really long time.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review: Not the fastest gun(s) in the West

While there's a fair amount of shooting and death in Red Dead 2, it's not as gratuitous as it is in Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto game. This game is more concerned with character building and telling a legitimate story than letting you accrue a massive body count. You can, of course, just start shooting stuff up, but life will get awfully difficult once those bounties on your head get larger. And besides, you're going to shoot plenty of folk along the way, it's just more thoughtful this time -- or maybe I'm just getting old and sentimental (I'm going with the former option, FYI).

Red Dead Redemption 2 review

When you do decide to trade iron, you have a vast arsenal of weapons to choose from as the game goes on including various models of pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns. And lets not forget the bow and arrows, tomahawk, throwing knifes, and incendiary devices. Something that was new to me was not having my full arsenal at my disposal at any given time.

That meant that before I went busting up enemy gang camps, I had to go to my horse and create a specific loadout. It's an interesting mechanic that matches the methodical, semi-realistic nature of the game. But I'm not going to lie, there were quite a few times I forgot about this mechanic and charged into battle with nothing but a knife, a revolver and a lasso. It did not end well.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review

But my one and only complaint about Red Dead 2 has to do with the controls. The controls have some serious lag, especially when it came time to start ventilating foes. The tiny aiming reticle was bad, but moving it into position was tortuous, taking about 2-3 seconds to get the enemies into my sights. And by the time I got a bead on someone, they had moved and I was targeting a less vital body part. This can be a major problem for folks obsessed with nailing headshots, so you might want to try and fiddle with the aiming controls.

Another control-relating issue comes when you enter towns. I can't tell you how many times I went to extend a friendly greeting to a non-playable character and inadvertently robbing them. When you get into a town, I would think that the default option should be unarmed, but apparently Rockstar thinks otherwise. For a game that's so incredibly polished, it's disappointing that controls are so sluggish and shoddy.

Red Dead Redemption 2 review: Verdict

Honestly, I could write for days about Red Dead Redemption 2. From its stunning vistas, compelling characters and attention to detail, the game is without a question Rockstar's best (you can @ me about it).

Some might take issue with the pacing, but when the immersion factor kicks in (and it will kick in) you'll quickly adapt to the world that Rockstar has created. And believe me, this is a world, not a sandbox -- every part of the game bears witness to Rockstar's dedication to being comprehensive with even something as mundane as a horse taking a hot, steamy crap transforming into interactive art.

But for all those hours of crunch time and the thousands of pages of scripts, any good western, be it a movie or a game is nothing without its satisfying shootouts. Rockstar manages to deliver, but the ultimate gratification can be delayed thanks to the sluggish controls. But no matter how you slice it, Red Dead Redemption 2 is something every gamer should experience.

Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith has been cranking out product reviews for since 2011. In that time, she's reviewed more than her share of laptops, tablets, smartphones and everything in between. The resident gamer and audio junkie, Sherri was previously a managing editor for Black Web 2.0 and contributed to BET.Com and Popgadget.