Here’s why Red Dead Redemption 2 looks and feels its best on PC

Rockstar has taken a polishing cloth to its Western masterwork, but does ambient occlusion really mean anything out on the plains?

Two armed gang members

It’s easy to reel off the many visual improvements that have been made as Red Dead Redemption 2 moves from console to PC. Extended draw distances let you see further. Enhanced global illumination and ambient occlusion fill the world with more nuanced, richer lighting and shadows. Day and night cycles are more detailed in the way they frame the game environment.

And if you’ve spent any time with the console version, you’ll very likely notice those improvements when playing the PC build on a rig that sits comfortably within the Red Dead Redemption 2 system requirements. But it’s something rather more subtle that makes the case for the PC upgrades to Red Dead Redemption 2. And it’s in the faces of the cast.

The first time you meet companion gang member Javier Escuella, you can see a face worn and shaped by a ferocious life amidst harsh plains. But it’s also a little easier to discern on PC that he keeps his wardrobe in impressive condition for a man who exists in the wilds. He might not be highfalutin, but he clearly cares about his own upkeep. A spot of polish deepens the story his presence tells. Meeting Escuella’s fellow outlaw Karen Jones for the first time equally stands out compared to her debut in the console version. Her skin is noticeably more weathered, asserting that she’s a tough character with a tough past.

It’s as simple as the textures being improved. But Red Dead Redemption 2 is an effort to capture the grand tone, character, and ambience of the Western form. When the devil is in the detail, the level of detail is key.

The other aforementioned enhancements play a similar role. Ambient occlusion and its ilk are things of substantial technological complexity. But the methods of those approaches don’t really mean much; it’s the impact that counts. The techniques of elongating draw distance and improving lighting and shadows manifest in Rockstar’s PC build as delicate details that appear to have a consequential impact.

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If Red Dead as a series is about immersing yourself in the Western form, being able to see the game world’s detail at great distance is a powerful means to deliver the sense of being surrounded by vast landscapes. The power of immense empty spaces is, of course, near defining of the genre. Crackling campfire and long shadows as outlaws stand off, guns raised, are part of the grammar of the Western. Red Dead Redemption 2 already capably spoke the language of cowboy lore. Now it just has a little more depth to its vocabulary.

Of course, this is still fundamentally the same game. The existing narrative, characters, and missions have been ever so slightly added to, but don’t expect an entirely new experience. While gamepads are supported, playing with keyboard and mouse certainly shifts the dynamic of the game’s gunplay. But on the whole, the move to PC is about adding depth of atmosphere, character, and setting.

In terms of the additional content, there are three new bounty hunting missions, two additional gang hideouts, a pair of extra treasure maps, and an original stranger mission. There’s also a scattering of added collectibles, and five new weapons available in the story mode; two revolvers, a repeater, and a semi-automatic handgun.

And then there’s both new horses and new horse types. A few hours of hands-on time doesn’t afford the opportunity to explore the additional equine content thoroughly, but if you’ve played either Red Dead Redemption game, you’ll know what it is to form a deep bond with a fictional horse. Horses are perhaps as central to Red Dead Redemption 2 as cars are to a Grand Theft Auto title. As such, the extra four-legged content is a clear win.

That list of extras makes for a modest feast, but is very much welcome. There’s also an entirely new and suitably elaborate camera mode for those concerned by capturing and sharing still content. Meanwhile, free access to Red Dead Online, including all recent content and improvements is included.

Red Dead Redemption 2 PC doesn’t serve up a revolutionary distinct experience, then. But it’s a mighty fine refinement all the same. If the extra content and polish is a reward for waiting this long for the game to come to PC, then it seems to have been a bounty well worth pursuing.

Can you run it? Check the Red Dead Redemption 2 requirements at PCGameBenchmark.