Video game prequels are tricky. These games are tasked with simultaneously advancing the gameplay experience while rewinding the narrative. Sometimes we get gameplay mechanics that don’t gel within the world established by the original, or new stories that are about as impactful as dynamite without a fuse.
Rockstar Games’ latest opus, Red Dead Redemption 2, not only avoids all these prequel pitfalls, it also pulls off the moonshot of enhancing John Marston’s original genre-defining adventure from the previous game.
Like Marston before him, anti-hero Arthur Morgan comes across as a typical cowboy at first, then opens up to reveal surprising depth. The stoic protagonist has a wry wit, refreshing self-awareness, and general nuance that makes him feel believable and relatable. He’s the kind of guy that won’t flinch when busting a fellow outlaw out of jail, but still takes the time to teach a young boy to fish. Arthur’s fellow gang members — like the charismatic leader Dutch and revenge-driven Sadie — offer a colorful, morally fluid contrast to our hero’s development.
While John Marston has an important supporting role in Arthur’s tale, this game connects to the original Red Dead with impressive elegance. We won’t spoil specifics for you here, but every moment with John in Red Dead Redemption 2 adds valuable context and weight to the events of the previous game. Don’t be surprised if you feel like firing up PlayStation Now to relive John’s remarkable tale.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s trail splits off from the original with its unprecedented attention to detail. The talented Rockstar devs have crafted animations for everything from simply picking up a can of beans to skinning a deer with unnerving realism. Even shop catalogues are elaborate, in-universe ads rather than basic menus. The experience is less traditionally “video gamey” than the original and more of a cowboy life simulation.
Adjusting to Rockstar’s new focus on meticulous detail takes some time, but eventually the deliberate nature of the game pulls you deeper into the gang’s hard living. For example, money is scant early on, so you’re encouraged to hunt for game to earn money. You’ll need to track your prey, shoot it, follow its bloody trail through the woods, finish it off, and then either skin it on site or stow the whole corpse on your horse to sell it later. Be careful though, because your meat will spoil if you don’t get it to a butcher in time. This grounded gameplay forces players to be deliberate, and strongly reinforces the vibe of frontier living .
Speaking of the frontier, Rockstar’s Wild West is a postcard-worthy spectacle. Beautiful locales like snowy mountain peaks, green-splotched prairies, and swamps canopied with cypress trees offer so many stunning landscapes that Bob Ross himself would blush. These locations are brought to life with realistic weather effects and convincing animal life. Fleeing a pack of snarling wolves snapping at your spurs while a thunderstorm rolls across the planes is just one memorable example of how this world seems so uniquely alive.
Rockstar’s interpretation of the Wild West offers more fun beyond the solitary cowboy tale. Posse up with friends in Red Dead Online to take on narrative-driven missions, sometimes featuring characters from the main game. Additional activities like stealing horses or hijacking wagons become more intense when fending off rival players looking to steal your haul. Rockstar has already started refining the economy and overall experience of Red Dead Online, and if GTA Online is any indication, gunslingers everywhere have a lot to look forward to.
The gaming world stops to pay attention when Rockstar releases a new game, and it’s for good reason. The uncanny realism of Red Dead Redemption 2’s world, along with its top-in-class narrative, make it one of 2018’s must-plays.