Diversity of missions and places
The story crosses so many regions, like snowy mountains and swamps. You never get lost, as the main story missions show up as yellow dots on the map.
I loved going on missions like a train robbery, a bank heist, or a chase through the woods. You also have random adventures you can pursue. These don’t advance the story, but you can get more resources from them (by looting the enemies you kill) and come face-to-face with interesting moral choices, like whether you should help an escaped convict get out of his chains.
The gang gets chased around multiple states in the fictional American West, and each time it is forced to move, a new chapter in a new place begins. You can explore the snowbound mountain trails of the East Grizzlies, the grassy plains of the heartlands, treacherous alligator-filled swamps, the rapidly modernizing city of St. Denis in the Southeast, as well as the classic Southwest frontier. You’ll also go to a number of places you wouldn’t expect to see in a Western.
With so many missions, you remember the ones that stand out. I recall the ones that involve a hot air balloon, a gator, a 1,000-pound bear, a sniper rife and an old feud, going fishing, jumping off a cliff, a fast-action canoe chase, shooting a Gatling gun on top of a train as an army bears down on you, and building a house.
Amazing graphics and environments
The tale begins in the snow-covered mountains amid a blizzard. Even on the aging PlayStation 4, the animations of snow particles blowing sideways in the wind look amazingly realistic. The animation of the human faces look superb. The motion captured movements also look real. When you move through the snow, you leave footprints and trails behind you.
The music is stirring, and the developers included 192 separate pieces of original interactive score. The combined effect will make your jaw drop open. The soundtrack and the voice acting make a significant contribution to immersion.
Since the world is huge, you’ll see a wide variety of environments, such as the mesas of the Old West or the industrial factories of modern cities. The facial animations and close-ups of the characters are also believable, getting over the challenge of the “uncanny valley,” or the notion that animated faces look weirder the more realistic they become. I came to think of the characters as people, not animated pieces of code.
Just standing in place and watching the wind blow through the grass, you can see how much work Rockstar put into things like shadows, lighting, ambient sound, music, weather effects, and facial and body animation. The world is visually arresting and it is filled with things to do, and it has a lot of ambient sound and ambient life. I was running down a path, and I laughed when a pig charged up behind me and knocked me over.
The user interface and controls are simple
The screen isn’t cluttered with the usual video game heads-up display.
When you need to pull up your inventory, you hit the left bumper and the weapon wheel appears. If you further squeeze the right trigger, you can then see a secondary wheel of items and then quickly select an item you want to use. When you don’t need to see the inventory, it disappears from view.
This kind of weapon wheel and inventory system makes switching weapons during a gunfight simple and fast. The minimap could be bigger, as it feels a lot like a GPS that tells you at the last minute to make a sharp left turn.
When you are in combat, you can target enemies with auto-aiming by squeezing the L2 trigger. But you have to move your right stick to target enemies more precisely. I learned to control the game quickly and fluidly, so that I never had to slow down much to accomplish certain tasks.
That feeds the illusion that you are in a cinematic experience, more like a movie than a video game. When a cutscene comes, black borders appear and the top and bottom of the screen. I had an easy time learning how to ride a horse, as it’s a lot like playing GTA V, except with horses.(And yes, like with cars in GTA V, it’s quite easy to crash your horse). It feels like a lot of thought went into making the user interface less intrusive.
Combat is deeply satisfying
This is a game, not a movie, and you can tell that through the quality of the combat system. As you would expect, the Wild West of Red Dead Redemption 2 spawns a lot of combat opportunities. It is spaced across multiple missions, but every once in a while you get into a gigantic shootout.
The Dead Eye system is back, and it allows you to shift a scene into slow motion for a limited period of time. During that time, you can target multiple enemies at once and shoot them all at once when the slow-motion returns to fast. When you are being chased on horseback, it’s easy to shift the view so that you can turn around and target your pursuers with pistol fire. If you leave yourself exposed in front of the AI enemy, you’ll die quickly.
It’s not perfect combat, as you spend far too much time trying to auto-aim at enemies and then getting no results. Quite often you have to shoot foes four or five times to bring them down. But as you get used to the system, you’ll find yourself trying to get headshots just for the rewards. It has up 50 weapons, and you’ll learn how to use a lot of them. And sometimes, you’ll have more than 50 enemies to shoot in a single battle.
The voice acting for Dutch Van der Linde (Benjamin Byron Davis) and Arthur Morgan (Roger Clark) is first-rate. I’ve come to expect this from Rockstar’s games, but the quality of the facial animation and the voice acting that feeling of immersion. It’s part of making you care about the characters. The writing is memorable, and the cut scenes are expertly woven into gameplay.
Strangers can be friendly or deadly
I stopped by to help a woman whose horse had died and fallen on her leg. It was out of the goodness of my heart. Then she needed a ride to St. Denis, the city halfway across the map. I took her home, and she rewarded me with a silver ring. But my reputation didn’t change, as far as I could see.
Then I stopped to help a woman who was similarly stranded. Something didn’t look right, so I drew my rifle. She asked me to help. I did. Then she pulled a gun on me and two others came running at me out of the woods. I shot them all.
You never know how one of those encounters will turn out, so you must assess the risk/reward of helping total strangers. It makes you cynical, and it keeps you on your toes at all times.