by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 12th November, 2018
Red Dead Redemption 2 starts rather slow. During its first couple of hours you won't do much; escape from the law, ride a bit across snow-covered mountains, watch a couple of phenomenally produced cutscenes, play a couple of missions, and get to know with bare basics of the game. But even during these introducing hours you will notice many things that made this game stand out from the pack - the unparalleled attention to detail, perfect and crazy rich animations, incredible visuals (just look at that snow and the way it interacts with the player, NPCs, and animals!), unmatched artistic design, voiceover worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, dialogs that sound like they are sourced from movies that are on the list of best Westerns of all times, the slow gameplay that can frustrate some of us but that is perfect for others who felt like video game market got swarmed with games that play fast in order to cater to players who want to finish everything here and now, and the overall atmosphere that can be matched by just a handful of other games namely GTA titles, Witcher and Bioshock games, and maybe a few others we can't think of right now.
And then the prologue ends and you along with your gang descend from the mountain into the American Heartlands and you start to wonder how the hell your console can run this game? Yep, graphics are that good. As soon as you descend from Grisly Mountains and enter the pine tree covered valley where the second act of the game takes place you will surely think that Red Dead Redemption 2 team used some kind of magic in order to make the game work on current gen consoles. Because lighting looks like it was made in order to run on some hardware that is powered by Nvidia's RTX technology while draw distances are so extreme you would think that a mere 8gb of memory (out of which a beefy amount is reserved for those sharp textures found all around you) in combination with an eight-core CPU that was meant for laptops would explode if you decided to enable those on a PS4. It's crazy, it really is, to think that Rockstar made visuals this good and then optimized the game to work at steady 30 frames on current gen consoles. And the achievement of running Red Dead Redemption 2 at the 4K native resolution in rock steady 30 frames makes us think that they know something other developers don't, or that they sold their soul to the devil in order to make a game as beautiful as this one to be playable on current gen consoles.
Draw distances are truly next-gen and something that every player will notice as soon as they descend into Heartlands. Games like the Witcher 3 and the last two Assassin's Creed titles managed to achieve distant render of trees, managed to make the whole world feels authentic because they eliminated those nasty patches of barren terrain in the distance but the quality presented in Red Dead Redemption is miles ahead of every other open world game. While you can notice upon closer inspection that those far away trees are indeed simple 2D sprites, they are created with such attention that they look much better than they really are. And this is the defining feature of Red Dead Redemption 2 that puts it above every other open world game out there. The game's artistic design is perfect.
And it's isn't just trees. Distant buildings feature incredible detail and can also be seen dozens of miles in the distance, and the grass looks like it is all around you. Draw distances of grass are insane and Rockstar almost fully eliminated that nasty pop-in that is hurting every single open world game out there (except maybe PC version of Ghost Recon Wildlands with all settings on extreme). You simply cannot see grass appearing in the distance because draw distance is really extreme. It can only be seen after you glue your face to the screen and closely observe terrain while moving. The similar thing can be said about the generation of other game assets; the pop-in is virtually nonexistent. It is because assets of different quality are changed seamlessly; different quality assets look so similar you simply cannot notice the moment higher quality ones take place of those made to be loaded at greater distances because they are made with such great care that they all look phenomenal. Combine this with the aggressive depth of field usage and TXAA antialiasing technique that blurs objects in the distance and you get the answer why Red Dead Redemption 2's vegetation and foliage look so unreal.
And it isn't just nature and grass that look like they come from the future. Character models also are incredibly detailed, featuring a range of lifelike facial animations and a plethora of movement animations. Textures are also sharper than expected, and we saw the first poor texture (of some hillside deep in the wilds) after playing the game for good 40 hours. Ground textures are a bit on the humble side but you won't look at the ground (and even when looking at it, it will be covered by grass) so this doesn't really matters (and designers had to save up resources somewhere). And the incredible quality is present in buildings and objects, items and weapons. Everything looks unreal and like it came from the future.
Water also looks incredible, with spot-on reflections that are sharp, rich, and also feature huge distances from which they can be seen. Particle system this rich and detailed has never been seen before and snow looks so real it's ridiculous. The dynamic terrain deformation is of next-gen quality for sure. Snow deformation is miles better than in Rise of the Tomb Raider (the reigning champion of snow deformation effects, until now) and after the rain, you will ride across mud-covered roads that react to all those horses and carriages by leaving visible marks on the ground, and by changing the shape of ground puddles. And then, after the rain stops, mud dries over time and puddles evaporate only to appear again after the next rain. And that rain falls down from volumetric clouds that look much better than in Assassin's Cred Odyssey. Really, when it comes to graphics, Red Dead Redemption 2 looks like a next-gen title. But all of that beauty isn't simply because technical side of things is unrivaled; Red Dead Redemption 2 features spot perfect artistic department.
The world is alive because every shack, every rock, every blade of grass looks like it resides in a perfect place. And it is all flawlessly combined to create a rich and detailed world. This is why it all looks so frickin' perfect, so unrealistically beautiful, so alive. When you work on a game for eight straight years you have time to craft a perfect open world and people at Rockstar managed just that. Other games look beautiful but none have that feeling that every single object in your field of view is placed just impeccably and that everything is combined without a single fault. This is why the main star of Red Dead Redemption 2 isn't Arthur Morgan, or Dutch van der Linde, or any other character found in the game; the main star of Red Dead Redemption 2 is the game world.
This world is set at the turn of the century after the brave settlers tamed the great lands on the west but before cars and electricity completely defeated the wilderness. A world of brave men and women, the world that still has its share of outlaws but they are slowly becoming a dying breed. A world that is at the edge of civilization but still so close to it you can smell it. A world that is still wild enough to not cater players but make them adjust to its rules. World of Red Dead Redemption 2 isn't some pretty looking playground with a ton of icons that explains where everything is and with tools that ease the time spent in it like auto-healing, simple fast travel, hand guidance to each and every side mission, and other features found in the modern open-world formula perfected by Ubisoft games such as Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. No, this world is a completely different beast. In Red Dead Redemption 2 you have some tools of modern game design such as helpful GPS routes, a nice option to automatically travel to your destination by turning cinematic camera on, and most mission marks and objective locations that are visible on the game's map but most of the world fails to lend a hand to the player. Most side missions (like stranger missions) won't show up until you are pretty close to their location, most side mission objectives aren't shown on the map. Collectibles have to be hunted and searched for manually, a daunting task in a world as large as this one.
But despite the lack of mission markers and objective markers and without the usual notifications of potential missions that are clearly shown on the map, the amount of stuff you can do in Red Dead Redemption is stunningly massive. You can hunt, rob trains and people, perform house thefts, do story and many side missions, fish, play poker and a plethora of other mini-games, hung for wanted outlaws, wander through the world and wait for the next random encounter to trigger, explore lands for bandit outposts, or do something we still didn't discover. And the fact is that a good chunk of those optional activities isn't served on a plate. You discover theft locations by reading the newspaper, and by eavesdropping on conversations in towns, or by helping beggars who then reveal you secrets they heard, or by searching for secret rooms behind stores. New stranger side missions are activated when near certain locations; they won't show on the map until you get really close to the location of said strangers. You can board any passing train, but the game won't tell you about it; you have to discover that on your own. Legendary animals map is fairly accurate but you still have to manually look for clues. All of this makes Red Dead Redemption extremely complex game with its world again coming out as the main character because it keeps everything from plain sight and it asks players to get completely immersed in it if they plan on experiencing the best activities it has on offer. And when it comes to mission variety, Red Dead Redemption 2 is excellent. Side missions include everything from robbing people and trains to herding sheep to arguing with religious zealots about the meaning of life. And of course, there're lots of shootouts, horse chasses, and causing chaos in general.
When it comes to story and characters, Red Dead Redemption 2 shines brightly as a full moon on a starless night. Each character you encounter in the game has its own unique personality and lines of dialogue that make players remember a stunningly large number of characters they meet through the game. In any other game, NPCs are just inanimate objects made out of polygons with voice and animations slapped on them in order to give them some sort of supernumerary sensation of life but that doesn't work most of the time. In Red Dead Redemption 2 most characters do feel alive, do feel like a part of some bigger entity, do feel like they really live and bread inside the game's huge world. And that's especially true for your gang brothers and sisters, each with their own personality and set of traits that make them unique individuals with their own goals, dreams, emotions, and behaviors. Some will annoy you, you'll end up hating a couple of them, some you'll find kind and dear, and a couple of them will really grow to your heart. And this reveals another focus of Red Dead Redemption. Aside from being a game about the world, it is also a game about people. And the story of the game is a story about people, about their dreams and ambitions, values and strivings, morale and principles, expectations and the realization that world is not what they thought it is. And the story is massive; it spreads over 40 hours and covers all kinds of substories that reveal much about the society and that show just how humans can be cruel one to another but also how we can stick together and make the world better by helping others. One little caveat is that some chapters end too abruptly while other parts of the game take too long to complete. And towards the end, the game switches to being a full-on action game, which is completely opposite of what Red Dead Redemption is for the most part of your journey across the Wild West at the turn of the century.
The main character of the game, Arthur, is just another human being with his set of flaws and strengths. He's an outlaw, a bandit, a murderer but he doesn't try to negate that side of his personality. He lives with it while trying to make some good in the world filled with injustice, filled with inequality and suffering. Sometimes he manages to bring some joy to someone, other times he must embrace his dark side and often he isn't proud of that. His journal is a way for Rockstar to analyze Arthur and to show hid doubts and ruminations, to reveal his feelings and opinions, and to show his evolution throughout the game's slow-paced story and this small detail brings so much to the character building and to showing Arthurs inner motives for leading a life of an outcast.
The slow pace of the story spreads to the entire game. Everything in Red Dead Redemption is made in order to show players they should play this monolithic title slow and steady. Arthur walks by default and he rides his horse at a slow pace. Everything is done manually, from travel to looting, from hunting animals to cooking and crafting, and it all takes time to complete. Because of this, the game might not suit a certain number of players who prefect faster pace, a game that allows them to quickly finish side quests and to fast travel everywhere around the map, that offers endless stamina for the character and allows them all kinds of acrobatic abilities. Arthur, on the other side, features a noticeable sense of inertia. He needs a few yards to stop after running, and after you take your thumb of the thumbstick he'll continue to walk for a couple of steps before reaching standstill. He also doesn't have superhuman abilities. You can upgrade his stamina, health, and dead eye by taking damage, running, and using slow motion aiming but even after many upgrades he is still pretty vulnerable and needs to often drink tonics that refill his three important stats. This system is based on inner cores that manage the speed at which your health and stamina regenerate and outer cores that represent levels of your health, stamina and dead eye. Inner cores deplete when you get hurt, or when you use dead eye and they can be refilled with food, drinks, and cigarettes. Outer cores are refilled by using various tonics and stuff like chewing tobacco. The system is a bit confusing at the start, but after a while, you start to like it.
Arthur can change his clothes, can shave and change hairstyles at barber's (his hair and beard grow at a steady pace so you need to visit barber and to shave regularly if you don't want to look like some highlander from a mountain who didn't step into civilization for ten years) and the brilliant attention to detail make dirt and mud to leave their mark at his clothes and skin, and to make him overweight and underweight if he eats too much or doesn't eat at all. His horse isn't just some inanimate way of transport; you can bond with your horse, to feed him and to pat him on the back and after a while you really start to like the animal that follows you wherever you go because in Red Dead Redemption 2 being left without a horse is like having your legs cut off. You will end on the wanted list if living a life of crime, making every bounty hunter to chase you but one stop to the post office can reset your wanted status by simply paying your bounty. Doing good deeds give you good karma (or honor) that gives you discounts at stores and making people to generally like you. But, since the game is about a band of outlaws, many story and side missions will make you gain negative karma that can lower your honor status, which cannot be avoided. This is just one thing that manages to crumble that perfect illusion of a living and breathing world of Red Dead Redemption 2. But there are many more rocks that shatter windows of the world you're living in.
While the world around you is filled with immaculate detail (buildings get built over time, animal and human carcasses get decomposed over time, people who met you before recognize you after they run across you again, your hear and beard grow over time, etc.) some things make a dent in it, revealing scenography behind it to be a virtual version of The Truman Show. People you meet in random encounters can be too tacky while trying to make you accept the mission, physics can sometimes go crazy and completely break immersion. Accidentally hitting someone with your horse (even when you just barely scratch them) will make people shoot at you. And after you kill them in self-defense you will become a wanted man in no time. Also, even if you commit a crime in the middle of nowhere you can count that someone will suddenly appear nearby and will report the crime to the law. If you kill a bunch of bandits in a town the sheriff will try to kill you. We know that there's isn't a perfect game but in the case of Red Dead Redemption 2, each flaw in its open world is more pronounced just because the game tries (and for the most part achieves) to build an unrivaled level of immersion.
The other large problem is the game's control system, which is horrendous. Aiming feels drunk and you can feel that the reticle needs a bit of time before it responds to your input. And while dead eye solves most of the aim-related problems, sometimes even dead eye cannot help. For instance when you gallop with your horse and get attacked by a pack of wolves or get ambushed by bandits dead eye isn't of any help because your hose keeps moving around making aiming impossible. The inventory system is also pretty bad and unnecessarily complicated. It is stuffed with options and each of them asks for a complex combination of button pushes that even a simple weapon selection can last of five or more seconds. And controls sometimes need repeated input in order to make Arthur perform some action, which can make you die in the case that action is equipping your gun or stopping your horse in order to shoot at enemies. And you have to mash X (or A on Xbox) non-stop to make your horse gallop, which can be really tiring. Control system in Red Dead Redemption is the weakest part of the game but luckily the rest of the game is so good that most players will forgive the game this noticeable flaw in its design.
Another thing that will make some people skip this one is the aforementioned slow pace of the game. Red Dead Redemption feels like some hardcore simulation game at times, like some hardcore RPG only without leveling and this can drive many players who got used to the fast pace of many open world games away from this gem of a game. Again, not everyone likes the amount of simulation present here or the overall pace of many gameplay actions. Also, the story can feel like it drags too much at times, but again for someone who likes story-based games that won't be a weakness but a strength. And finally, the first person camera looks like it was made to be used on foot because you move much easier when in first person camera mode. It's a shame that the default movement speed isn't the same in third person camera; that small change would make the game much more enjoyable when roaming the map on foot.
In the end, we have to say that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a triumph of the single player, story driven game design. And despite the arrival of the online element of the game (which is slated for November), it is noticeable that developers spent a huge part of the eight-year-long development cycle on the game's single-player element. The attention to detail is ridiculous at times and the game features graphics that won't be seen again until the arrival of the PS5 and the next Xbox. Gameplay is also extremely varied and offers everything from an hour-long hunt for legendary animals to adrenaline-pumping shootouts in gang hideouts. And you will enjoy the game for a long time. If you do just story missions Red Dead Redemption 2 can last for about 40 hours. Double (or even triple) that amount if you plan on exploring the game's immense world and doing many side missions. Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the best games of this generation and while it isn't without its flaws, the game is a perfect open world title for those who waited for a game that can match the quality of the Witcher 3. Yes, it's that good.