Over the course of my time with Red Dead Redemption 2, I found myself waffling between moments of awe and frustration fairly consistently. It’s a game that feels as if it suffered an identity crisis midway through development, leaving it disjointed in many areas. Yet despite this, Red Dead Redemption 2 still managed to be one of my favorite experiences of the year.
Seeing the events that set the stage for 2010’s Red Dead Redemption was and still is an enticing proposition. That’s one of the most impressive things to me about Red Dead Redemption 2, how even though I had a pretty strong idea of how things were going to shake out, it still managed to surprise me and keep me engaged.
Which is good considering that the actual playing of Red Dead Redemption 2 can feel like a chore at times, leaving you to contend with some overly cumbersome systems. For instance, instead of just having your weapons with you at all times, you only carry your pistols by default and anything else will have to selected as you’re getting off of your horse. This led to me forgetting my good guns all the time, or even weirder, the game just arbitrarily deciding which guns my character decided to roll out with.
And that’s kind of the most frustrating thing about Red Dead Redemption 2, it doesn’t tell you a lot of things. Simple stuff, like how selling versus donating items works, or why some of your actions get you in trouble with the law as opposed to others. A lot of the game is nebulous and requires you to learn about and discover the inner workings of these systems on your own, but sometimes I just wanted some clarity.
Meanwhile, other systems just tend to be a hassle and seem overly complex in an effort to maintain whatever the Red Dead version of realism is. For example, the “cores” system is a needless complication to the concept of health and stamina bars, making the player have to worry about recharge rates as well as the overall status of the meter. The idea is that eating food recharges your cores which effects how fast your meters recharge, which inherently isn’t a bad system, but the cumbersome inventory management you have to engage with to eat the food makes it more of a chore than it needs to be.
But all of that is overshadowed by the incredible world that Rockstar has built for you to explore. Red Dead Redemption 2 presents a vast, detailed and diverse landscape for you to spend time in, whether it’s doing side missions, going hunting or finding one of the seemingly endless weird secrets that are tucked away. On top of that it’s also incredible to look at. The game is drop dead gorgeous, which explains why my launch PS4 sounds like an airplane in mid flight the entire time I’m playing. The music is mostly subtle and understated, chiming in at just the right moments in a long ride or adding to the tension as you walk into an abandoned home.
Even more impressive might be the mission design. While most of the main missions boil down to you riding your horse somewhere, shooting stuff, and then riding back, but it’s the side stuff and random encounters that really make things special. Every side mission, random encounter, home invasion, and stagecoach robbery were unique and offered something different. Even things that I expected to be more filler-type content like collecting debts and hunting animals, all had some unique angle and backstory to them. Hell, even when one of your fellow gang members asks to go fishing with you, it still manages to be interesting and rewarding.
And that’s the big shadow that Red Dead Redemption 2 casts, and the thing that makes me look past every grievance I have with it. The game is impressive and consistently left me in awe no matter what corner of its world I was poking in. I know that feeling is fleeting and won’t be the same when I revisit it in the future, but for the entirety of all of my play sessions I was enthralled and impressed.
But there’s a big caveat to all of this, and that’s if you can handle the pace of the game. You have to get used to the fact that you can’t hurry the game along and rush through it. Everything is slower and more deliberate, and you better believe you’re gonna watch that drawer opening animation for the thousandth time.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that goes against the grain of modern video games in a way that might drive you insane. I’ve struggled with control issues, bad tutorialization, and slow paced gameplay, and I understand the many impulses to put the game down and walk away. Yet despite all of that, Red Dead Redemption 2 presented me with a great story with memorable characters in a living world that I am happy I got to experience and will happily do again whenever a PC version gets released.