Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4

The other day I stopped by a gun shop in Rhodes to beef up my weapons arsenal. Rhodes is a small town in Le Moyne, just a handful of buildings including a post office, general store, saloon, and Sheriff’s office. There aren’t very many trees around and kind of looks like a town that wouldn’t be out of place in North Texas.

Anyway, I’d been having problems with some bounty hunters catching up to me out in the wilderness, trying to take me out. Yes, there’s a bounty on my head in a couple of states, so that’s to be expected. But the weaponry that I was carrying wasn’t doing enough damage to take out these guys. I think the Cattleman Revolver and Repeating Rifle I was equipped with are better suited for hunting deer and wild turkeys.

Looking through the gun shop’s catalogue, I saw a nice pump action shotgun and a new slick revolver, both the highest priced weapons in the catalog. I was fresh off getting paid from collecting some debts and robbing a stagecoach so I was able to afford both weapons. You’re probably wondering why I’m shopping instead of paying off my bounty? I’m an outlaw! Paying off your own bounty is for suckers!

After I buy my brand new shiny pistol and shotgun, I step outside and start heading to my horse around back. When I pass by the outside of the gun shop, I hear a “Can you help me?” I look around and don’t see anyone. It’s broad daylight and there are people walking around across the road, but no one is speaking to me. When I start to walk off again, I hear another “Mister, can you help me please, down here.” I looked down and there’s some guy in the basement window of the gun shop. Apparently the gun shop’s owner kidnapped him and locked him down there.

Being the nosy person I am, I went back into the gun shop and confronted the owner. He tried to play coy at first, but when I pulled out my newly purchased pistol and pointed it at him, he opened the door to his basement. When we walked down there, there was a guy chained to a bed, wearing a child’s sailor suit. The hell?

That’s just one experience I’ve had playing Red Dead Redemption 2, a prequel to 2010’s hit game, Red Dead Redemption. And if you’re wondering whether Red Dead Redemption 2 lives up to its expectations and does the Red Dead franchise justice, yes, it does and then some. This may be the best open world game to date. And it’s definitely the best game Rockstar Games has ever made.

The New West

The game takes place in 1899, 12 years before the events of Red Dead Redemption. You play as Arthur Morgan, a trusted senior member of the Van der Linde Gang and leader Dutch van der Linde’s confidant. The game begins with you and the gang on the run. There was a heist on a boat in the town of Blackwater that went bad and everyone had to hightail it out of there. No one is sure what really happened, but everyone in the gang has bits and pieces of what took place and more of the mystery is revealed throughout the game’s story.

Whatever happened, however, doesn’t matter at the moment. The gang is on the run through a massive blizzard in the Grizzlies (mostly likely inspired by the Rocky Mountains, aka The Rockies) from a detective agency called the Pinkertons as well as rival gang, The O’Driscolls.

While it isn’t necessary to have played 2010’s Red Dead Redemption to get into the story here, those who have played it will enjoy the tidbits and references to the game. John Marston, the protagonist of Red Dead Redemption, has a meaty role in the game and we get a look at how his relationship with the gang changes over time to set the stage for the events in his story, including how he got the scars on his face. We also get to see how Dutch, the antagonist of Red Dead Redemption, got to the place to where he ended up. Other characters from Red Dead Redemption, like Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella, also make appearances and portions of the game’s map might look familiar to those who played the first game.

From the start, the game looks incredible. When the gang settles in some snowy mountain town, you and Dutch set out in the snow looking for other gang members and provisions for the team. The mountainous snowy environment is a picture perfect scene of a Colorado winter and reminiscent of classic Henry Culmer or Frank Vavra paintings. And the quality of the environment’s art extends throughout the entirety map (which is huge!). While the states, towns, and cities are fictional, the design team did a brilliant job creating landscapes that feel like the American west. Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and maybe some Arkansas all felt somewhat represented in the game. Then adding weather, like the aforementioned blizzard, a rainstorm in the frontier, or a dense fog in the swamp, with all types of wildlife running around, makes the world feel alive.

The Six Shooter

I’ve been playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey lately and jumping into the control mechanics of Red Dead Redemption 2, it took some time to get acclimated. In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Kassandra moves with a quickness, is fast to scale a wall, and riding around the map is super swift. Red Dead Redemption 2’s movement on the other hand is a bit more methodical. Arthur needs a running start, before he takes off sprinting, and if you’re on a horse, you need to trot before you gallop. And while Assassin’s Creed Odyssey ‘s Kassandra can run and ride all over the place without her or her horse losing a breath, that’s not the case with Arthur and his horse.

Health and Stamina for both Arthur and his horse play a big part in how the game plays. Arthur needs to eat and rest or sleep on a regular basis to boost his health, which comes in handy when he’s attacked. Arthur’s stamina increases as you take him running from place to place. At first, he can’t run for long before he starts getting dizzy, and almost falling over. Luckily there’s provisions that will restore stamina, but keep Arthur running, his stamina levels will increase, allowing him to run longer and faster. The same goes with your horse. The Bonding mechanic requires you to consistently feed your horse, brush its hair, and spend time riding across the map. This increases your horse’s health, stamina, speed, and courage.

There are a variety of horses to choose from, small and big horses, quick horses and long-winded horses. You can own three at a time and they can be picked up at any local stable. How do you get horses? Well, you can always steal them, or buy them from the folks at a stable. For the most part, I preferred smaller, faster horses, because it always seemed like I was on the run or chasing down some varmints. There are some other cool things that your horses will be able to learn and do throughout the game, but seriously, take care of your horse. They can die and if you don’t have the proper medication to heal them, you’ll lose them and all that bonding time will go to waste. It’s a fun little feature of the game that really got me attached to a couple of horses and never felt tedious.

The horse also carries your arsenal of weapons since when you’re walking around you can only carry four. They’re easily accessible by clicking LB (Xbox)/L1 (PS4), which opens up the weapon wheel allowing you to equip a weapon. Tab over to the items wheel, you can grab a snack, or give yourself a shot to boost your stamina or chew some tobacco to restore your dead-eye abilities. Most of these items can be bought or crafted after collecting ingredients and learning recipes. By the way, the dead-eye ability is improved allowing you slow down time or automatically or manually choose targets, it’s especially helpful when hunting.

I also had to keep in mind the game takes place during an era before automatic weapons. Be prepared for slow firing revolvers and lever-action rifles you have to load after every shot. This makes every shot you take more meaningful. The cover system in the game is also solid, so you’re not stuck out in the open getting shot at while trying to reload your guns. And in case you want to get creative, you can also equip yourself with throwing knives, an axe, or even a lasso to take down foes.

The Wild Bunch

While the gameplay is fun and the environment is gorgeous, the core of the game is its narrative. Even though the overall story of the game, the Van der Linde Gang is on the run and in search of that one last big score, is somewhat linear, it doesn’t feel like it. There are numerous story threads that follow members of the gang that take you all over the world of the game. In essence, it feels like if Sons of Anarchy or Goodfellas was set in the old west. There are fast-paced heists, action-packed shootouts, adrenaline-inducing chases (on horseback and on foot), and even some comedy.

I was never bored during the game. If I wasn’t on some mission with my guys, I was helping strangers on the side of the road, who all have their stories, or I was hunting legendary animals who have their stories of tormenting a region. I suggest helping or speaking to strangers often. One guy on top of hill in the middle of nowhere New Haven often called out to me asking for help. I passed him by a few times, but when I finally stopped and talked to him, he gave me a treasure map. Totally worth it.

You can also collect debts, you can attack a gang hideout (there’s a total of seven hidden across the map), you can visit town marshals and go bounty hunting, you can relax and take in a show at a local theatre, or you can explore and discover other secrets and mysteries.

And these stories and activities aren’t about super heroes or super soldiers trying to save the world or seek revenge. These are characters who have lofty ideas about how to survive in a raw and desolate world but make really bad decisions. Those decisions sometimes get a bounty on your head, get you swindled out of a bunch of money, or get characters you care about killed.

The writers weren’t afraid to tackle socials issues of the era either, which, unfortunately, some are still relevant today. In one mission, you help out a women’s equal rights protest, a nod to the women’s suffrage movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. During other missions you may find yourself in a conversation with fellow gang member Lenny, a Black man who isn’t afraid to share his fears of being lynched, or Charles, a half Black half Native American gang member who had his share of hardships growing up with the way Native Americans were treated.

There was also plenty of talk about immigrants ruining the country and how the government ought to do something about it. Javier, a Mexican member of the gang, along with Charles and Lenny, are often the target of racial slurs like “greaser” and “darkie,” while the n-word was only mentioned when Lenny was quoting racists. At times the racism references felt a bit patronizing, but at the same time I’m glad the writers didn’t completely ignore the way society viewed people of color during that era. It probably would have helped to have more people of color assist with the writing of these parts.

Overall, it was these stories that kept me coming back for more, and it helped that the voice acting and music was top notch. Benjamin Byron Davis as Dutch van der Linde delivered a remarkable performance that always had me looking forward to scenes with him, along with the voices behind Arthur Morgan, Leopold Strauss, and Josiah Trelawny. Scenes with these characters were always an entertaining experience.

The game's sound effects are brilliant. The sound of horses galloping over grass, mud, and cobblestone streets, gunshots firing off in the distance echoing off canyons, wildlife scurrying through the woods, all add to the immersive feeling of the world. When I was coming down out of the snowy mountains, hearing birds chirping, insects buzzing, and streams flowing, I felt like I was in back home in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in the spring. The only thing missing was the scent of the fresh mountain air. The sound design team ought to be proud of the work done here.

Life of an Outlaw

When I went into the basement of the gunshop, the owner tried to explain himself that the guy chained to the bed in a child’s sailor suit was his son. The guy protested saying the gunshop owner was crazy, and that he was a grown man, not a child, and he was kidnapped. He pleaded with me to shoot the chain to let him go. When I pointed my pistol at the gunshop owner, he finally confessed that his real son was killed. That he missed his son so much that he kidnapped this man and locked him in the basement hoping to build a father-son relationship with him.

I shot the chain, releasing the man, who thanked me. The gunshop owner begged me not to kill him, so I let him live. But before I left, I looted his basement and took the money from the cash register upstairs. Hey, I needed something for my troubles, right?

In this scenario was I behaving like an outlaw or a hero? What does it to mean to be an outlaw? The game has a plethora of experiences of what one might consider outlaw behavior like robbing trains and having shootouts with “the law,” but an outlaw also refers to people who aren’t protected or benefiting from the law. The game does a great job of pushing that narrative to the front. What many may consider a "good" deed in the game could just be another form of outlaw behavior. The women’s protest in the game could be considered outlaw behavior, a behavior that that challenges society, the status quo, and the people in power.

The game isn’t looking to get all preachy about society’s ills and how oppression of one group of people can affect everyone. However, there is some real depth here, and scenarios that will hopefully open people’s minds and inspire them to peek outside their bubbles for a moment.

It’s still a game though, and an excellent one at that.