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Red Dead Redemption 2

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: Take Two
Developer: Rockstar Games
Release Date: Nov. 5, 2019


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PC Review - 'Red Dead Redemption 2'

by Cody Medellin on Nov. 12, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Red Dead Redemption 2 is an epic tale of life in America's unforgiving heartland, featuring a vast and atmospheric world that will also provide the foundation for a brand-new online multiplayer experience.

Buy Red Dead Redemption 2

It's tough to be a PC gamer and a fan of Rockstar Games, especially over the last two console generations. Of the company's relatively small output over several years, only a few games have been released on the same date as the console iterations. Some titles take close to a year before being released on the PC, while others never make it out at all. Usually, the reward for waiting is the definitive version of a title due to the big leap in graphics and the presence of mods. When Red Dead Redemption II was finally announced for PC over a month ago, it finally put a rest to the rumors of its arrival, and it gave hope that this would follow in the footsteps of Grand Theft Auto V and be the best version of the game. The end result, however, is much more complicated.

To talk about RDR2 in its current state is to talk about two games tied together by setting and mechanics. For the campaign, you're playing a prequel to the first game instead of a sequel, as the number in the title would suggest. It is 1899, and the days of the Wild West are numbered. After a boat robbery gone wrong, the Van der Linde gang is forced to flee from the town of Blackwater. They retreat into the mountains during a harsh winter as they try to hide from bounty hunters, the federal government, and their rival gang, the O'Driscolls. The Van der Linde gang is nomadic as it tries to raise money to buy some land where it can live independently from the government. You play the role of Arthur Morgan, one of the gang's senior members, and your goal is to help the gang reach its goals by any means necessary.

Of all of the tales Rockstar has told through its open-world games, RDR2 has to be the darkest yet. Those who played the previous title will certainly know what will happen to the gang before the latter half of the tale, but for those coming into the series fresh, this is a tale of slow suffering. The first few shots are of your gang trudging through a snowstorm. Along the way, you'll be chased out of each camp by people who have betrayed the gang or because the lawmen have caught up to your location. Key people will die, and relationships between members will corrode. The gang's ideals and faith start to wane. There are still moments that elicit hope, like the rescue of a gang member or the gang's funny stories, so the whole experience isn't melancholy.

If you've never played Red Dead Redemption or it has a long time and you've forgotten the details, you may feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things you can do in the world — and that's just what was carried over from the first game. The story missions can include train robberies, sheep rustling, and rescuing other gang members from jail. A number of these inevitably end up in a shootout or a fistfight. Side missions can also involve tracking down famous gunslingers, seeking out treasure, and collecting debts.

RDR2 can take 60 hours to finish before taking side-quests into consideration. You can go to town to watch shows or drink. Out in the wilderness, you can hunt all sorts of wildlife, keeping in mind that you need to sell off or dump the carcass before it rots on the back of your horse. You can also take out the O'Driscoll camps that you'll periodically find. That doesn't even cover the random things, like ambushes, helping random citizens, or stopping would-be thieves from robbing you.

Another returning feature is the morality system. Depending on your actions, citizens in town may praise you, be indifferent, or curse your existence. For example, helping anyone who's stranded or being chased by wildlife will slowly get you some renown, and ultimately, everyone in town will greet you kindly. On the other hand, commit enough trouble in town or point your firearms all the time, and people will tell you to piss off. Doing this also causes a bounty to be placed on your head, and unless you pay it off, you'll be cut off from things like stagecoaches, trains, and even a few missions.

Even if nothing else were added to the game, there would still be more than enough things for the player to do. A few additional features help make RDR2 an even more complete package. The first is the introduction of a basic dialogue system, where you can choose Arthur's tone in a given situation. For most people, that means hollering to get their attention, giving a friendly greeting, or antagonizing them to start something. For hostiles, you can meet their aggression to escalate things or try to defuse the situation before it gets worse. The system even works on some animals, so you can calm down horses and dogs. It doesn't seem like much at first, but it gives you a few more options than getting into a firefight or running away.

An expansion of the world is the next change. As expected, the world is much bigger this time around when compared to Rockstar's older games — double the size of Grand Theft Auto V, by the company's own estimates. What's more impressive, though, is the variety in the world. The opening stage's abandoned mining town is already a big change, but the small ranching town of Valentine is more familiar territory. Other locations include a lumber town trying to become a tourist destination, bayous, a small town based on the plantation South, and a small city — a taste of what the West will become once the new century begins. The world is open this time around, so there are no artificial barriers in the early stages to stop you from exploring. If you want to travel from Valentine to the bayou, you can do so via horse, stagecoach, train, or on foot without anything stopping you.

The camp function is another new feature, and it works similarly to your house in GTA5. You can get some sleep to recharge yourself and speed up time in the game world. Some of the story missions and side-quests come from members of your gang who are hanging out at the camp and this is also where some of the minigames are located. You can change your wardrobe, get a shave, and upgrade the place to get more supplies, like food and medicine. The tithing box acts like a bank; you can donate your cash for safe keeping and for camp upgrades. It's something you'll appreciate when you die and lose some of your purse. To keep in line with the story, the camp is constantly on the move, so you need to constantly learn new routes to and from home, depending on where you are in the world (and the story campaign).

The final new feature is a degradation system for stats. Arthur has three stats to deal with — dead eye, health and stamina — and while there are meters for each stat, they're all governed by cores that determine how much you have in reserve and how quickly each meter refills. Your horse has the same stats (minus dead eye), and all of those meters deplete on their own over time. As in many survival games, you can refill the meters with drink, food, and rest. Failing to take care of the core meters means that getting hurt or exerting yourself will usurp much more of those stats. Unlike most survival games, the meter drains slowly, so you won't have to be overly vigilant. With that said, there's also a meter for the camp, so you'll want to keep the supplies topped off to ensure the gang's morale doesn't go down.

The result is something akin to a Wild West simulator rather than a typical GTA game with a coat of Western paint on it. Granted, you're still living an outlaw life, but the inclusion of more realistic elements means that you can't power through the main missions without some housekeeping. That means the experience has a slower overall pace, but there's a deeper investment in the world, which so few open-world games do nowadays. The slow meters and the penalties for not taking care of yourself, your horse, and your camp show that the game isn't abandoning its roots. It's a good change, especially for those who may have started to tire of the expected formula.

The desire for a more realistic Wild West means that there are lots of long horse rides ahead. While the game has plenty of opportunities for things to do during those rides, they aren't a constant presence, and the horse's meters mean that riding everywhere at top speed becomes a costly endeavor, since you'll lose equines that way. The more methodical pace opens up a few periods where there aren't other distractions. The developers have thrown in a cinematic camera that provides wide, sweeping shots of the environment to help you soak in the beauty of it all.

The feature is nice, but its main flaw is that you still have full control of Arthur and his horse during those shots. The game doesn't automatically "drive" for you if you've already set the path and destination. If you aren't holding down the X button or pushing forward on the left analog stick to ensure that you keep moving, you'll simply stand still while the camera sweeps around. This also means that if you aren't paying attention, you could fall off a cliff or ledge. While the camera is nice to have if you're trying to impress people, it isn't useful when you're actually playing.

Due to RDR2's late appearance on the PC, the online mode is available at launch, and it's aptly titled Red Dead Online. After you create your male or female character, you find yourself in prison, where you're selected for some work outside of the prison walls. It isn't long before your prison wagon is held up, and while everyone runs off, you're asked to follow the person who stopped the wagon. You reach a camp that's headed up by a new widow, who asks for your help. Some of her husband's former associates murdered him at the same time that you rolled into town, and the murder was pinned on you. She doesn't know who pulled the trigger, so it falls on you to find out who the murderer is and exact revenge for the both of you.

Before talking about the rest of the game, it should be noted that the character creation system has improved over what was in Grand Theft Auto V. There are the usual features, like nose type, skin color, and hairstyle, but the game goes as far as letting you determine what kind of teeth to have. Most notably, scars and other facial imperfections go a long way in creating a character that's ugly as sin but detailed enough to mesh with the other hand-crafted characters in the game.

After setting up your outfit and camp location, you'll be tasked with taking out a bandit camp and retrieving the treasure they've stashed away. From there, you can steal some horses for a known thief before heading back to camp and determining what to do next. Compared to other online ventures, those two missions are a perfect tutorial for some of the basic mechanics, and you don't have to worry about other people instantly killing you while you're still learning the ropes.

You continue taking on odd jobs, such as hunting animals, raiding bandit camps, and stealing wagons and horses. All five states are available, and every place has enough quest-givers to keep you busy. The addition of new jobs in the past year means that you can take on specific roles at any time — e.g., animal part trader, bounty hunter, collector — so you have a lot to do, either solo or with your posse. Since this is online, you have to worry about players who aren't associated with your party, and as expected, the encounters can quickly erupt in violence. The unexpected gunfights and lassoing add some excitement, but RDO limits the number of times you can be killed in a short session, so you don't constantly suffer from death screens.

Speaking of which, the game offers up some more traditional PvP offerings, including standard deathmatches, territory runs, horse races, and a battle royale-style setting. Unlike most other multiplayer games, the use of Wild West weaponry changes things greatly; the lack of machine guns and rapid reloads means that accuracy is valued over general aiming, and every shot is valuable. As enjoyable as all of this is, the population isn't there yet. It's tough to get matches going in any of the modes, but I can't tell if that's due to the majority of players going through the campaign mode first. Some matches took a few minutes before the lobby was populous enough, but other matches didn't have enough people for the task. The constant flow of players who waited and left before the quota was met means that sticking with any of these PvP modes isn't going to be viable until perhaps a month or two out, provided there are enough people who want to shoot others in more organized affairs.

There are some benefits for PC players, some of which feel like an apology for the long wait after the PS4 and Xbox One release. The campaign contains a few extras, like a few new bounties and an extra robbery mission. While they're nice to have, they're a drop of water when compared to the vast ocean of activities at your disposal. A more useful addition is the photo mode, which lets you take pictures of everything with as many filters as you see fit, similar to Nvidia's Ansel mode in other titles.

Load times are cut down significantly if you're using a SATA SSD, more so if you're going NVME; it'll take less than 20 seconds to go from the main menu into the gameplay. Mouse aiming helps a ton if you're playing in first-person mode. Ultrawide monitor support is in, but more importantly, the game reaches the desired 60fps with a ton of graphical options to tweak. Be aware that RDR2 is a monster of a game; it loves processors with more threads than cores, and it adores some very high-end video cards, so those with low-end hardware will struggle. Given the number of tweakable options, it could take more than an hour to adjust the settings to achieve the right performance and picture balance for your rig.

That 60fps can easily be reached if you let the game automatically set things up, but you'll find that most of your settings are set to medium to reach that 60fps. If you want to tweak settings, this is where you'll run into some big technical hurdles. First, the lengthy benchmark is very inconsistent, especially toward the last portion, where Arthur is robbing a store and trying to escape. One run might have him run through a crowded marketplace, flee, and get into a shootout. Another one might have him run fast but move slowly through that marketplace without bumping into anyone. One run might do this in the snow, and another one can have his horse be shot, forcing Arthur to run all the way to the shootout point and go through that sequence with a completely different camera angle and zoom level.

The inconsistency makes the benchmark unreliable, but so does the fact that some options reset after a benchmark run and after a reboot. Get a run where your results are an average of 24fps, and the game suddenly thinks that you want that instead of your previously selected 60fps. Choose fullscreen mode, and the game thinks you want a borderless window after a reboot. Even if you change nothing else, you always have to change a few settings since previous choices are never locked in. Those wanting to tweak settings will also lament the fact that the benchmark only seems to want to run once per boot. No matter how many times you activate it, the long benchmark refuses to run a second time unless you reboot the game. Take into consideration how many options there are in the settings and how many of them are more than just on/off switches, and the process can get annoying rather quickly.

Beyond benchmark and settings woes, RDR2 suffers from a myriad of technical issues and one or two baffling design issues. At launch, some people were unable to run the game on the Rockstar Launcher. The issue was lessened with a few launcher patches, but the desktop shortcut refuses to let the game actually run. That gives players a big reason to wait an extra month and hope that the Steam version can do this better. For those who can get the game running, crashes have been bothersome and inconsistent, while stuttering is also common for those who meet the minimum game requirements. Using higher thread count CPUs seems to be the best way to make this run fairly smoothly, as tests on a Ryzen 5 2600, a six-core 12-thread processor, yielded no stutters compared to running the game on an overclocked Core i5 7600K, a four-core four-thread processor. The multiple patches have improved things a little based on some online comments, but it'll take some real time and more work before the issues can be resolved and forgotten by the public.

If you have the right hardware in terms of CPU and GPU, RDR2 can look gorgeous even at 30fps. The character faces for minor and major characters look astounding; they're not quite realistic compared to some of this year's games, but they're impressive. The animations are thorough, with minute actions like cocking the gun hammer or picking up your hat being done with the same level of detail as skinning animals. The environments look nice, especially when you compare snowy, abandoned mining towns to small cities that are showing signs of technology and civilization. The lighting is also improved; the rays coming through the trees look picturesque, and the light blends well with the fog and rain. The sky is especially beautiful, with soft clouds during the best of conditions and storm clouds and lightning strikes during inclement weather.

Where things go wrong is in the object pop-up, which seems to be more severe here than on the consoles. Even at a normal trot, you'll notice rocks and trees in the distance pop into existence, while some lights in town do the same thing, even in the aforementioned benchmark. More troubling is how larger objects, like a large fallen tree near a bandit camp, can also pop up. When you're simply approaching it on foot, it disappears and reappears depending on the angle of the camera. Water reflections also exhibit this issue, so expect this more often unless your video card is considered above average with enough video RAM.

As for sound, that has thankfully emerged unscathed. The voice work remains some of the best in recent years, with just about everyone in this large ensemble cast putting forth top-notch performances. It's only in the online portion of the game where you'll notice that most of the quest-givers either sound alike or have the same high pitch to their voice that feels like the same person is providing the voice for everyone. The sound effects hit their mark very well, providing the right amount of bass to gallops and gunshots, while the ambient animal noises and train whistles punctuate the soundtrack of the Wild West. Meanwhile, the actual musical soundtrack kicks into rousing melodies when you enter action sequences, but you'll mostly hear melancholy tunes when you're riding around.

There are two ways to look at the PC version of Red Dead Redemption II. If you're viewing it from a content and gameplay standpoint, this is the Wild West opus you've come to expect from one of the specialists in open-world games. The single-player game is dense, with tons of quests and plenty to do in between the story-related missions. The online game is equally as packed, and it could easily stand alone from the campaign. If you're looking at it from a technical standpoint, it is a mess. Between the crashes, the constant popping of textures and objects, the inability to retain or change settings without fuss, and a busted benchmark, this hearkens back to the early days of the GTA IV launch, which didn't stabilize until months later. In the end, this is still a fine game and a must-have for those who crave sprawling, open-world adventures, but you might be better served waiting for things to settle down if you don't want to troubleshoot things along the way.

Score: 8.0/10

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