As we know, Rockstar Studios love to surpass all our greatest expectations and bring nothing short of near perfection to our screens. Try and imagine if all the greatest Westerns were put into one game, times it by a thousand, and you have RDR2. It may have been released last year but I have taken my time in playing this game and enjoyed every waking moment of travelling around the expansive landscape and I must admit that it caused me to miss many sunny days outside.
The story is set years before RDR and serves as a prequel, showing us the last days of the infamous Van der Linde gang, the antagonists of the first game, and gives you an in-depth look at the relationships shared by the gang before they parted ways, or parted this world. You take the role of the gang’s enforcer and one of the founding members known as Arthur Morgan. He was never mentioned in the first game, so his entire character was a mystery with a backstory that I got to learn about as the game moves along. You will complete main story missions and many side missions, with the re-introduction of stranger missions.
The game starts with the gang on the run from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a dangerous band of bounty hunters working for the government to hunt down the relics of the old world as it seeks to tame the wild west. I found out that there was a botched robbery that brought a lot of heat on the backs of each gang member and they must keep moving through all the hazardous obstacles in front of them in order to escape and survive. As Arthur Morgan you will hunt, brawl, shoot and ride your way across the many regions and towns to really embrace the life of the outlaw. The first few missions act as tutorials to the games mechanics and try to help introduce you to each of the main gameplay elements that will be important when completing missions and taking part in the other activities that help to give you something else to do. The story is told through chapters and will push you across the country in search of a safe haven, only to be met with more dangers and more enemies.
(Two guns are better than one)
The entire game can be played in both first and third person, with the option to switch between both perspectives at any time. I much preferred third person, finding it a little disorienting when looking through the eyes of Arthur but it still provides a closer look to the visceral displays of blood and body parts I left behind after every scene of combat. The combat resembles the typical western shootouts with everyone hiding behind cover and taking shots at one another. Of course, that’s if you just want to enter a gunfight.
How you approach combat is up to yourself. I would try out the stealth and stab a few unlucky souls before blasting what is left in the loudest way possible. I love throwing sticks of dynamite and watching the enemies panic in fear of not knowing what to do before they get sent fifteen feet into the air and land in comically impossible positions. My favourite weapon to use was the shotgun, any shotgun. More so because I didn’t need to be a good shot. If I had a problem in a certain direction, pointed my shotgun that way and pulled the trigger then I didn’t have a problem there anymore. There are also revolvers, pistols and rifles with a few variations of each, that can be found from the corpse of an enemy, lying around a homestead or bought in a gun store. Ammo is limited and each lead slinger is semi-automatic so every shot will count. Unfortunately, Rockstar have never been able to bring us a shooter that doesn’t suffer from stiff movements.
(“Your balls do WHAT in the cold?”)
The animations look very robotic and unnatural when aiming and would take a lot of effort to keep the crosshair on your enemies as they move around, requiring you to stay still and absorb damage before locking on to your target. This can be countered by the option to lock on to the closest enemy by hitting the aim button. Arthur will follow him with his gun and use the aim-assist to make these dogfights a little less frustrating. Now, I loved the combat. Seeing the smoke from the barrels, bullets sparking off stone, wood and metal, seeing the burning on an iron gate after a shot missed my nose, and the sound of each shot put me right in the thick of the action.
Fighting unarmed, or with a knife, was my favourite way to take out enemies. Attacking an armed enemy when you have no weapons will let you disarm him and force a fist fight. Arthur is a big guy, and his hits feel heavy with intent. Bruises and cuts will appear on the faces of your walking punch bags, and yourself, and each brawl always ends with a satisfying crunch and the enemy falling limp on the ground.
You can travel the world on foot, on the back of your own horse, in a carriage or on a train. To make the most of the map it is best to travel yourself. There is so much to see and a lot more to do than you would initially think so it is highly recommended to saddle up and say happy trails before exploring every cave, hut and farm. You develop a relationship with your horse the longer he or she is under your care. Feed, brush and speak to your horse to increase the trust level between you and unlock more controls to use when on horseback, or neglect your living vehicle and get thrown off in a fight, lose a race due to the lack of speed and you will also find it harder to control where you go.
Let’s not forget the most important detail of all…the changing sizes of your horses nutsack. I kid you not, your horse’s testes will shrink in size in cold regions and will enlarge in warmer regions. I have checked this, made my measurements, and it is true. Being on the back of a horse feels very natural. Every animation feels real and this also extends to Arthur himself. When he walks around, he moves slowly, realistically. You get to take everything in at a normal pace and not overlook the beauty around you. Walking through each town gives you time to look around and notice all the little details such as the way NPCs move and interact with one another. Now they don’t just make conversations with each other, but they also speak to you. You will come across all kinds of people and this has been the most interactive game made by Rockstar yet. You can target NPCs which will give you the different options in conversing with them. You can utter a greeting which opens a short dialogue, toss an insult that can rile people up or make a threat of robbery.
It wouldn’t be a cowboy game without robbing people blind. This can be done at any time, but it is a crime, and is best done out in the countryside far from the eyes of witnesses. The wanted system is very similar to the other games made by Rockstar and committing a criminal act will result in a bounty being placed on your head. I did find it a little annoying sometimes when robbing someone far away from the closest town and then being on the run from the party poopers, leaving me wondering how they knew I was taking lunch money and how they even knew it was me. It did turn out a passer by seen everything and rode his damndest to tout on me. He didn’t last much longer after that but that only made matters worse.(“You forget that you saw me loot this centuries dead corpse!”)
Talking about bounties, we still get to complete bounty hunter missions. This time they are a little more fleshed out, with more dialogue between the player character and the hunted. You get more details on the supposed crimes committed by the man or woman you are chasing, and it brings into question your reasons for tracking these people down. I found myself conflicted sometimes when I confronted my wage packet, wondering if they were really assailants or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were always grey areas when it came to morality, reflecting the real world in a way most games can’t do without being so obvious. I took the bounties anyway. I couldn’t pass up the chance to make some dollars to buy more ammo.(“So glad I bought this cowboy game only to get a 2nd job!”)
The graphics are amazing and are best looked at on a 4K television. The lighting, colours and atmosphere is always on point. You can be covered in snow and dirt, blood and bruises and all that renders quite well. It makes you feel like the world isn’t just a static placement, you are a part of it and can influence it in so many ways. Making a trail through deep snow, watching it rebuild during heavy snowfall and having to wear appropriate clothing to deal with the temperature just provided me with more awareness in taking care of my character.
(Queuing at the bank made easy)
Money can be spent on a large variety of items. You will starve if you don’t eat, and it affects your health and stamina if you make a habit of skipping meals. Eating food restores your health slowly and puts away your cravings. Food can be bought for yourself and your horse. You will find stores for general goods, clothing and weapons. Thanks to Arthur being new you can alter his appearance to an extent not seen since the immaculate GTA: San Andreas. Your hair and beard grow over time and can be cut and/or styled at a barbershop. Mix different styles with the many clothes you can buy and create a unique look. Clothes come with different colours too so if you happen to like a certain coat or hat but not the colour then it can be changed. This is not limited to your wardrobe. Your weapons can be customized a little to change the metal, etch engravings and add some improvements. I wanted to complete missions, rob a train, save and eventually go on a wild shopping spree to get the look that I wanted. You can save custom loadouts for clothing to make changing more convenient. Loadouts can be created at the gang camp. This acts as a hub where you are safe and will have access to a bed, food, somewhere to park your horse and where you will socialise with the other gang members.
You can complete some chores to improve your standing with the gang but there will also be missions available that will help benefit everyone or continue the story. From here you can upgrade the camp and make slight improvements that also change the aesthetic of what you see. Each member of the Van der Linde gang will accompany you at least once during most of the missions and will converse with you. I was interested to know how they came to be a part of the gang and was surprised at how much they resembled a family. They were once enemies to John Marston, the first protagonist, so I had always seen them a band of cutthroats. Then I get to see them here in RDR2 and find myself caring for them. They are more than just outlaws. They want to leave free, taking only what they need to get by. This complicates Arthur’s character, in a good way. You will ultimately choose the kind of guy he is based on your choices and actions. Killing indiscriminately, robbing people and starting trouble will make you more infamous. People will avoid you; cops will keep an eye on you; and you may hear some chatter about how ruthless you are. The same happens if you are a good person. Opportunities arise for you to be the better man and this will have people greeting you, showing respect and with all these choices to consider it means that your character is just a template for yourself.
I never played much of the multiplayer. I struggled to stay interested because of how dead the servers were at first. There were connection issues, trouble with grinding and nothing to spend money on, the pocket change you work hard to receive. Since it first became available Rockstar has been adding much more but I still don’t find it as fun as the single player. Much like GTA Online it is just a chore to earn cash that only grants you something half decent before going back to square one to do it all again. This then pushed me into a corner, with the dreaded “surprise mechanics” looming over me. I hate microtransactions. I don’t care if they are optional. I know they are a lure to give people head starts because they are not properly rewarded in the game itself, making them seem like a viable option. I got this game at full price, so unless there is some paid DLC further down the line I will not be spending more money. I have refused to play the online part of this game, unless the microtransactions were to come to an end.
If you liked the first game, then buy this one. If you didn’t play the first game, then still buy this one. There is so much in this game that just can’t be covered and I cannot stress how much fun I have had. I enjoyed hunting, skinning the animals to sell pelts but keeping the meat for my camp and some for myself to cook later, the variety of personalities and the titanic scale of each region. I immersed myself into the life of Arthur and found it hard to make the good choices because they always came with little monetary reward. I played poker, started bar fights, tamed unique horses and robbed houses in the night. I made hilarious mistakes, set fire to a group of KKK and lassoed a poor pedestrian and left him hogtied on a train track. So much fun can be had with this game with content that would blow your mind. Blowing off the head of a bandit with a smoking double barrel is another good reason to give this a go. So, quit reading this review and buy this game.