Red Dead Online

I used to hate open-world games for some reason. I don’t remember what my beef was exactly, but at some point during the Wii/PS3/Xbox 360 era, I had a change of heart. Since then, I’ve played some bad open-world games (such as Batman: Arkham Knight and Assassin’s Creed), some good ones (such as Batman: Arkham City, Assassin’s Creed II, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Biomutant, and Far Cry 3), and some fantastic ones (such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales).

But I’ve never loved an open-world game the way I love Red Dead Redemption 2, and I’m not sure I ever will again.

Let me make a quick analogy about music.

One funny thing about my taste in music is that I tend to dislike most of my favorite albums of all time the first time I hear them. Over time, the things I initially disliked about those albums become the things that I like most about them, but my initial reaction is usually a negative one. I felt a little bit of that toward Red Dead Redemption 2 in the beginning, but not completely. I never quite disliked the game, but I remember feeling like it wasn’t really what I was hoping it’d be.

When Super Smash Bros. Ultimate came out just six weeks after Red Dead, I stopped playing Rockstar’s Wild West game entirely. I didn’t go back until early 2020, during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And I fell completely ten-gallon-hat-over-boots in love with the game. Since then, I’ve put in a disgusting amount of game time, as well as a lot of thought about why I feel this way.

Before I explain it, though, let me just say that I could talk at great length about Red Dead Redemption 2‘s story, but for the sake of preventing this article from turning into a friggin’ novel, I’m only going to focus on the aspects that apply to both Red Dead Online and Red Dead Redemption 2‘s story mode.

With that said, let’s ride, pardners!

The world is immensely believable

Red Dead Online

I fully acknowledge that believability isn’t necessarily an important feature of every open world. If you’re playing a high-fantasy open-world game (like Skyrim or Kingdoms of Amalur), then you want to see elves and magic and mysterious creatures and impossible landscapes — having a world that feels ethereal and dreamlike can be part of the appeal. Further, Bethesda games (like Skyrim and Fallout 4) have a jankiness to them that a lot of people find endearing — backward-flying dragons and nonsensical dialogue and all that. And The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild persistently feels like a playable cartoon, which is one of its greatest strengths.

But Red Dead Redemption 2 makes believability the heart of the experience. It tries really hard to convince you that it’s historical fiction rather than fantasy, which means it will live or die based on this sense of believability. In fact, Red Dead Redemption 2 is even being used as a tool for teaching American history.

When you fire up Red Dead, you’re instantly transported to another time period, one with an aesthetic of its own. And Red Dead revels in that Wild West aesthetic, refusing to ever show you a squeaky-clean version of it. There’s mud everywhere. Your horse is constantly pooping, and buildings always feel just a little bit rundown. This is a game that you can practically smell just by looking at it.

But the world also feels so alive. From the routines of NPCs (some friendly, some not-so-friendly, some completely drunk out of their minds) to the habits of wild animals (hawks descending upon rabbits or fish), you get the sense that things are happening in this world whether you’re looking at them or not. So many open-world games feel like a guided tour, where all of the action is waiting to happen until you look at it, while Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like it doesn’t care whether you’re looking or not. And sure, this is an illusion. It has to be. But Red Dead is expertly skilled — almost impossibly so — at preventing this illusion from ever fading.

With every other open-world game I’ve played, once I step away for a month or two, it’s almost guaranteed that I won’t come back. And if I do make an attempt to return, I always feel like the world is just not as enticing or as memorable as it once was. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a rare exception. Its world is so visceral and so well-realized that it continues to draw me back to it, no matter how hard I try to move on.

The horses control like real animals and not like mindless vehicles

Red Dead Redemption 2

I spent a lot of time in late-2020 jumping between Red Dead Online and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. The difference that struck me the hardest was how horses feel in both games.

In Red Dead, horses have weight and heft. They get scared and disobey your commands when there’s too much gunfire or predatory animals nearby. They fight you when you try to steer them. They neigh and rear on their hind legs when you ride too close to a cliff. They actually control like real animals that have both weight and desires of their own.

In Valhalla, on the other hand, horses feel like those plastic deer that people in the suburbs keep in their front lawns. There’s no weight at all. They sort of float along, though with a noticeable clumsiness. They mostly just feel like toy vehicles with no will of their own.

As much time as I’ve spent complaining about my Red Dead horse bucking me off when an alligator snaps, or steers into a tree because it’s fighting my commands, or trips over a fence that it should have been able to clear, these horses actually feel like animals. Too many games treat mounts like vehicles, whereas Red Dead treats them like actual living things.

In fact, I actually hate riding a horse so much in Valhalla that I’ll walk almost everywhere, even when a horse would save me a lot of time. (I admit, late in the game I did cave and end up riding my horse a lot more, but that was only after almost 200 hours of game time when I was getting impatient to simply get to Valhalla‘s ending.)

Horses are something you’ll have to get used to in Red Dead, but once you do, you realize that video game horses should have always felt like this. Making them feel like vehicles has always been the wrong way to go about video-game horse travel.

The controls are perfection

Red Dead Redemption 2

I know people are going to vehemently disagree with me on this point, but please hear me out for a minute.

Red Dead Redemption 2‘s controls don’t feel sleek and modern, and this was a complaint that a lot of reviewers made back when the game was new. But I don’t think the controls are supposed to feel that way.

Think about the difference between shooting a modern handgun and a revolver from the 1800s. You might expect the modern weapon to be fine-tuned to perfection, to feel great in your hand, and to have buttery smooth mechanics that allow you to just focus on pointing and shooting and letting the gun do the rest of the work. Not so with an old-timey revolver. You would expect it to feel mechanical, to have its weight awkwardly distributed, to give you some resistance, and to have a bit of clunkiness that you have to compensate for — a skilled shooter would learn to work around these drawbacks.

Perhaps another analogy (since I actually don’t often fire handguns in real life) is an old-time typewriter versus a modern word processor. Typewriter enthusiasts will go on and on about how using one simply feels better than a laptop. There’s actual resistance and a mechanical chunkiness that you need to get used to, but once you do, nothing else will quite feel as satisfying to use.

Red Dead Redemption 2‘s controls feel like that old typewriter rather than a laptop. And the thing is, that’s how they should feel. Once you’ve gotten used to Red Dead‘s controls, you start to realize how deliberate this actually was. Every action has heft and momentum to it. Every weapon feels like an old analog machine that clicks and clacks and clunks along. The awkwardness is never due to sloppy controls (Red Dead‘s controls are unbelievably tight); it’s due to that “old machine” feel.

And no matter what it is you’re doing, every action in the game has this feel to it. If you’ve played close to 1,000 hours of this game (I admit that I have), the controls feel like second nature. But even then, every one of your actions has weight. When you jump off Red Dead to play something else that feels more modern, you really start to miss that chunkiness.

Or at least I do.

The soundtrack is incredible

Red Dead Online - Moonshine Shack Band

If we want to end close to where we began, let’s get back to music.

Funny enough, I actually didn’t care for Red Dead Redemption 2‘s music at first (remember the thing about my favorite albums in the opening of this article?) I have this gold-tinted idea of what the previous game’s soundtrack felt like (I haven’t gone back to play it, so my memories might be way off here), and Red Dead Redemption 2‘s has a completely different feel than that. It tends to be more varied, using a lot of stringed instruments (especially banjo) where the previous game would have used horns (in my remembered version of RDR1‘s soundtrack, which I admit might not be wholly accurate).

But eventually, Red Dead Redemption 2‘s soundtrack won me over. I’ve since spent a lot of time thinking about how creepy a banjo can actually sound (and, no joke, it makes me want to actually learn to play one). The snare rolls and bass riffs make an excellent backdrop for gunfights and wagon chases. The ambient use of instruments is expertly handled. The folk tunes that pop up here and there (admittedly this is exclusive to Story Mode) are really well-composed and well-utilized. And the moonshine shack songs are absolute jams (admittedly this is exclusive to RDO).

I was once fishing in RDO as the sun was rising over Lake Don Julio in New Austin. As the lake turned bright orange, reflecting the light from the sunrise, some soft guitar harmonics started playing. This is one of the most peaceful moments I’ve ever had in a video game, and the soundtrack punctuated that with such perfection I could scarcely believe it. And the thing is, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that piece of music a second time.

Red Dead Redemption 2‘s soundtrack is pure magic. It’s a phenomenally composed masterpiece. It’s a never-tiresome, always-welcome backdrop to Wild West shenanigans.

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

Well, I give you that Red Dead 2 is a very good game but its not the best open world game of all time to most gamers. Its perfectly fine that’s your opinion but I dare say you would be in the minority. The biggest issue with Red Dead 2 is that the story wasn’t better than the first Red Dead game. I played both and finished both and yes, the graphics & mechanics are better in the 2nd one but I would dare say, most enjoyed the first game story much more.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x