Red Dead Redemption 2 PC Review
Reviewed on PCAlso available on Google Stadia, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
Much as I'm a pasty white Englishman, when I see images of the great expanses of the American wilderness there's a part of me that yearns to be out there just being. Being a part of the land itself, making my way and appreciating nature's bounty, no laws or rules of polite society to hold me back. A moment later though, my rationale counterpoints with hard reality. Thoughts of the inescapable creep of humanity into those spaces pervade, that there are no lawless, truly free places and that ultimately that notion is nothing more than a dream. Thankfully, Rockstar Games has finally brought it's latest flagship game to PC and Red Dead Redemption 2 is ready to help wannabe cowboys and cowgirls get a taste of a fleeting and increasingly distant time and place.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place as an epoch creeps across the nation of America. The year is 1899 as we join our avatar, Arthur Morgan, and the gang he's desperately trying to survive with, Dutch's Boys. Times are hard and getting harder, as an outlaw lifestyle has pushed the group to the edges of both civilization and their ability to survive. The rag-tag crew around you is quite the mix of characters, each with a stunning amount of dialogue to share and nuance to quietly express to you about who they are and why they are running with this questionable group of misfits. What's clear though, above all else, is that it's the gang's leader, Dutch, who has captured their minds with talk of a life free from the law, living as they might on an endless wild frontier. The times are changing though...
Pathos and tragedy pervade in the life of Arthur Morgan, though how sympathetic you feel toward your protagonist might come down to the way you react to the world around him. Choices between being an overtly bad man and trying to tow a moral line are constant and Arthur himself comments regularly on such things when you've forced his hand one way or the other. The morality of the lifestyle the gang chases is questionable at best and causes to wonder alongside Arthur, if he's doing the right things and for what, make for a strangely meditative experience between bouts of gunning down rival gangs, hunting in the wilderness and planning train heists. Arthur Morgan is, without a doubt, the most simply complex character to ever exist in video games. On the surface, he's a boy in man's clothes being led by a willful but amoral man, but beneath that there's a hint of implicit intelligence and a longing to be something other than what he is that makes Arthur so compelling to pretend to be.
To inform this sense of character and place, you'll be taking story progressing missions in fairly typical Rockstar style, triggering markers and following linear tasks from start to finish without much agency for improvisation. The missions themselves though, unlike many of Grand Theft Auto's "drive here, kill the guys, bring back the thing" fetch quests, have a wonderful variety and the dialogue featured in them always informs some smaller aspect of a character, the setting or simply entertains with a combination of amusing circumstances and meta-commentary on all kinds of historical and modern societal mores. Whether it's chasing down bounties for the local sheriff, hunting bears with a gang member who's as much a mentor as a friend or horse rustling with a particularly questionable crewman - the variety of mission types and the events themselves are often gripping and as much a chance to become steeped a simulation of the past as they are a to test twitch reflexes and tactical choices.
The gunplay in Red Dead Redemption 2 is sharp and feels fantastic. Closer to Max Payne than Grand Theft Auto in it's controls, the way different guns aim and the situational requirements of them come through wonderfully in a way that makes your limited inventory immediately meaningful. With only two spaces for larger guns on your back, the choice between a fast firing repeater, a silent bow, a powerful shogun or a long range sniper is an important one that absolutely influences how you approach combat. The skill that gave the game it's name is back of course, with the infamous Dead Eye ability making a welcome return, slowing the pace and allowing you to paint markers across a crowd of enemies, before unloading a pair of revolvers into the unlucky souls.
Graphically, Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC is a marked step up from its console predecessors, albeit a step that requires a modern gaming PC to truly see the most improvement. There are an incredible amount of graphics settings to tweak and play with in order to find the balance of frame rate, fidelity and fancy visual effects that appeals most. Many of the Ultra level settings push current systems to their limits and beyond in a way too rarely seen in this era of modern PC gaming, that trend perhaps owing to the loud crowd of short sighted gamers who simply wont accept that they can't run a brand new game perfectly at max settings with their current hardware. In years to come, Red Dead Redemption 2 will still look impressive.
Beyond the graphics, every other element of the presentation of Red Dead Redemption 2 is stunningly impressive. Surround sound is almost scarily real in gun fights, with the sounds of blazing guns and bullets whizzing past you from behind really adding to the sense of being in the moment. Subtle audio cues inform of things like an empty gun chamber or a hidden item in the environment and dialogue fades as you move away from conversations you might try to eavesdrop on. Playing the game in first person mode with this switched on is an incredibly immersive experience, to say the least.
What makes this already expansive and impressive package all the more appealing is the addition of a brilliantly fleshed out multiplayer mode. As a long time player and fan of Grand Theft Auto Online, I was braced for a rough start, but in part thanks to the PC release coming after a year of development on consoles and more specifically thanks to the considered design choices of Rockstar after hard lessons were learned in GTAO - Red Dead Online is most certainly my new go to multiplayer game. Every gripe and irritation that pervades GTAO has been addressed. Load times, for a start, are a marked improvement across the board, with the initial load taking at most a couple of minutes and the time taken to get into matches being seconds, as opposed to the lengthy waits GTAO offered.
It's more than just technical improvement that makes Red Dead Online so much more compelling than it's predecessor though. Perhaps thanks to the speedy load times, the various gametypes on offer in RDO are well populated and make for frantic fun as a result. The selection of gametypes is great, with death matches and horse races on offer alongside objective games like hold the territory. There's even variety within that, where some races focus on shooting targets rather than simply riding fast. Beyond competitive games, cooperative missions load just as quickly and allow you and a posse of friends or strangers to team up and take on some cut scene laden missions to push you're mute avatar's broad storyline forward.
What really makes the online mode most compelling, to me at least, are the three jobs on offer - trader, bounty hunter and collector. Each of these is a role you can buy into while playing in the free roam portion of Red Dead Online and each offers something markedly different from the other in terms of content and unique rewards. Becoming a trader gives you the option of hunting for crafting materials and bringing them back to your portable camp to be processed and turned into goods you can sell for a solid profit, if you can avoid the attention of other players who can swipe your precious goods if you're not careful. On the flipside of that rather sedate lifestyle is the role of bounty hunter. Bounty hunters can visit bulletin boards at local sheriff offices and take on run of the mill criminal capture jobs or take on weekly Legendary Bounties that get harder and harder the more times you repeat them.
Last but most certainly not least in terms of speedy leveling and money making, Collectors can begin by finding mysterious items like tarot cards and arrow heads, completing sets of such things and selling them to the mysterious Madame Nazar for a hefty profit before buying items like a shovel and metal detector to find even more items even faster. Playing with a friend and focusing on the roles based on the weekly bonuses Rockstar offers to it's players and those who have linked a Twitch Prime account to their Rockstar Social Club profile has been a wonderful mixture of relaxing hunts and item gathering sessions, tense trading sales and brutally difficult Legendary Bounty missions. In comparison to GTA's repetitive offerings, the variety here is strong and it's safe to say I'll be on the hook for a long time to come. If you ever come across a crazed Englishman shouting after his friend Gavin in RDO, it might just be me, teasing the mystery hunters who are still looking for the guy to this day.