Red Dead Redemption 2 is the best western videogame ever made. Let's get that out of the way. It's no secret: The thing's been out on consoles for nearly a year now. I played through it and loved its somber story about lovable grump Arthur Morgan desperately holding onto community and personal values under the looming shadow of early American imperialism. I laughed, I teared up, I shoveled horse shit.
More on that later though. To kick off our big review, the most important question today is whether the PC port is any good. Graphics options, optimization, PC features—if it doesn't run well or allow us to make the controls feel just right, then what's the point?
I've played about five hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 so far, about half in the story mode and half in Red Dead Online, and I'll need to spend a lot more time in both before delivering a final verdict. The early word? It's good. Rockstar's PC port is visually stunning, but it's going to make a lot of PCs cry.
There are tons of graphical and control options, but it's a resource hog
First up: We can remap the keyboard controls, thank goodness. CTRL as the default horse brake has to have been some kind of mistake. No issue, remapped. Independent camera options for horses and humans are nice, especially because steering a horse with the camera is a big no-no for me. An FOV slider for the first person camera is included too, so you don't have to roleplay a cowboy staring through a cardboard tube.
As for performance, Red Dead 2 is one of the prettiest games I've ever played, but at a big price. It makes my GTX 2080 and i9-9900k a bit uncomfortable. Having fairly recent hardware isn't even a guarantee Red Dead 2 will run flawlessly. With 16 basic graphical settings, a slider with 21 presets tuned to your hardware, and plenty more options below the 'Advanced' fold, the volume of options guarantees plenty of variability in performance, especially if you're not sure where to start or what to flip on or off.
Red Dead 2 contains a suite of options for increased rendering distance and detail paired with plenty of hardware-intensive post-processing effects like volumetric lighting and MSAA, so it's no surprise that throwing everything to ultra is going to strain most PCs. It nearly requires tinkering to find a tolerable framerate. But is it a poorly optimized game, or are expectations of being able to play on ultra unrealistic?
Senior hardware editor Jarred Walton had this to say: "Some of both. It feels a bit like the baseline 'medium' graphics settings are equivalent to GTA5 with everything (including advanced graphics) maxed out. The difference in image fidelity between medium and high isn't that big, and between high and ultra even less."
My PC, which is fairly juiced, handles Red Dead 2 pretty well at 2560x1440 with almost everything on ultra settings at 60 to 90 fps, depending on the scene. I tend to get lower frames in cutscenes, or in locations with more characters and longer draw distances where more weather effects are rendered. If it's raining or a river's kicking up fog in the snowy hills, frames dip a bit—that damned volumetric lighting. I'm still flipping switches and playing around with the graphics settings to figure out what'll keep it consistently around 90 fps without sacrificing too much pretty. I don't think it'll be that difficult.
Global illumination, lighting, shadows, MSAA are all performance hogs and I've seen significant framerate increases after turning down a few. And just like Jarred said, the game still looks great on the mid-tier graphics settings, and I can't easily spot the differences in the upper stratosphere of effects between high and ultra.
Jarred is whipping up a more detailed performance analysis right now, so sit tight if you're truly worried about what kind of performance you should expect out of Red Dead 2.
I want to play it all in first-person
Mouselook fundamentally makes RDR2 a better cowboy game. My PS4 playthrough was spent with sluggish joystick controls, rendering the first-person view an unplayable novelty. Getting Arthur to look one way or the other was something like a game of telephone between my hands and him, roleplaying a cowboy with the FOV of a cardboard tube in a perpetual state of drunkenness.
Mouse aim is smooth and responsive, a conduit for natural reflexes and the ideal virtual extension of a veteran gunslinger's arm. If I'm on the back of a horse tearing across the side of a mountain with bandits on my ass, when I turn around and pop one in the head, there's nothing between me and my reflexes, no sluggish joystick controls or excessive auto-aim (though you can keep that on if you prefer, no judgement)—it's me that shot the guy and sent him ragdolling into the valley. Me, the cowboy. I did it all by myself. Thank you, mouse-aim.
It looks so nice that I can't stop taking pictures
Red Dead Redemption 2 might be one of the prettiest games I've ever played, compressing the vast and diverse landscapes of the United States into such a relatively small space without losing the sense of scale, in both the massive vistas and the tiniest details. The map moves from the swamps of the southeast to the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains in a natural progression of geography and color.
The photo mode makes it easy to appreciate, too. Tapping F6 whips up a suite of photography features, including the ability to move the camera around freely, change the focal length, color, exposure, and more. I stopped at least 10 times in the first hour to take a picture. They're not all keepers, but it'll be a nice way to remember my second tour of Red Dead 2's old west.
It's Rockstar's best story yet...
Red Dead Redemption 2 follows the dying days of the wild west, tracing the cultural transition from fear of death at the hands of nature to the fear of authority as the US government digs in. In the world encroaching on Arthur Morgan's small band of outlaws and social underdogs—an imperfect but loyal, loving, and self-sustaining community—industrialization and capitalism have reduced humans to their value as resources. Indigenous Americans have been driven from the plains to make way for 'civilization' and commerce. Forests are brought down for lumber, the hills inverted for coal, and Morgan's chosen family is caught in the middle of it all, forced to run, assimilate, or respond with violent protest. They do all three.
Red Dead 2 responds with a Fuck the Police attitude typically blunted by satire in the GTA series. Here, the cops suck, a lot, and you get to mortally wound many of them, and the world isn't colored as a joke. Rockstar treats its old west with a sense of realism, leaning more towards the stark but grandiose historical fiction of Deadwood than a spaghetti western.
This is a fairly serious drama, and it's really, really long, a nice slow burn story that prioritizes character development over nonstop action. Think of it like six seasons of a quality premium cable TV show rather than a single, bloated arc. Characters come and go between distinct acts, their plotlines weave in and out, time ticks on and the world changes as the law moves in. Arthur is the anchor, and ultimately, this is his story. And it's a heartbreaking one. Hug your friends.
...But Rockstar's mission design hasn't changed
Red Dead 2's rigid mission design uses the open world as little more than a stage for the same missions we've been playing in Rockstar games since Grand Theft Auto 3. Head to the map marker, ride and talk with someone to another map marker, shoot people, chase someone, and ride to the final map marker, chatting all the way. Any misstep within the bounds of the mission design means trying again. Don't take a shortcut, don't alert the guard, don't think up your own solution to any problem—ignore the massive, gorgeous sandbox or try again.
There's nothing in the design to encourage players to explore the world at their own whim, to become an herbalist or deranged mountain man or anything other than Story Mission Arthur Morgan. On my second tour through the campaign, I'm breezing through the action sequences, the bulk of the tension gone because I know exactly what Rockstar wants me to do and how thin the illusion of agency is. I know that if I wander off in search of a fatter deer in an early hunting mission rather than stick to the two perfectly line up for me, it's a fail state. If I try for a wide flank while confronting the Driscoll gang rather than wait for the game to give me the option to play defense or charge, it's a fail state.
I don't need every mission to be a big sandbox experiment—some of the most tightly scripted missions are also the most memorable—I just want a little more wiggle room to truly roleplay the resourceful gunslinger.
I have high expectations for Red Dead Online
It's day one and I'm only a few hours into the introductory story missions of Red Dead Online, but I'm extremely curious to see how it fares on PC. It could be a fascinating roleplaying sandbox or a glitchy, lawless hacker haven. I've yet to have any notable experiences in the wild, mostly finishing missions and attacking gang hideouts to make a little money, but Chris Livingston—lucky guy—was hogtied and brutally murdered in the middle of the street within the first hour.
PC Gamer's Andy Kelly loves Red Dead Online, comparing it to the "glory days of DayZ". He says the free roam mode is the place to be, where busting open the barroom doors to throw a punch and kick off a brawl is more of a thrill than any prescribed game mode. The impromptu violence is always fun, of course, though the little moments of humanity are what truly define Red Dead Online.
Here's a lovely anecdote from Andy:
In one session I met a small hunting party up north in the Grizzlies and we sheltered from a blizzard by a campfire, brewing up coffee, cooking meat, and talking about our experiences with the game. It was a wonderful, human moment, and I love that it was completely unplanned. I just happened to stumble across these fellow wanderers while doing some hunting myself. Admittedly, most of my interactions in the game so far have been the violent sort, but that only makes these glimmers of humanity more special.
I'm inclined to think PC players will make the best and worst of Red Dead Online if its sibling GTA Online is anything to go by. I expect hackers to grief in the most surreal, frustrating ways, as much as I expect the roleplaying community to settle in the old west, churning out an endless stream of hilarious improvised stories.
My initial 60 hour PS4 playthrough only skimmed the surface of what there is to see and do in Red Dead Redemption 2. Red Dead Online only magnifies the possibilities. We know it's a great game, but we don't know exactly how much better it'll all pan out on PC, so I'll need to dig in for a while yet. Expect our final Red Dead Redemption 2 review sometime next week.