Red Dead Redemption 2 is an absurdly big game, full of secrets, systems, and hidden surprises. It's possible to just learn how it all works by playing, but its first few hours can be overwhelming and a little confusing. I'm here to help.
I've learned a lot about how Red Dead 2 works over the course of my time playing and reviewing it, and I figured I'd take the opportunity to share some of what I've learned with anyone who's starting out. Just a note up front that these tips are far from comprehensive, and there's still a lot that I don't know.
Start by refreshing yourself on the first game's story.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is closely tied with its 2010 predecessor. Because it's a prequel, it has many of the same characters, and the story is more rewarding if you have a good memory of what John Marston got up to last time around. If you don't have a spare however-many hours to play the first game, don't worry, you can just watch Tim Rogers' entertaining and informative recap video:
Take it slow.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is outrageously detailed and unusually slow-paced. It will tell you to slow down at every opportunity, so listen to it. Take your time. There is so much to see and do.
...at least, until you get to where you just want to see what happens.
With that said, there is a point where the game's story begins to pick up speed. You might feel like you want to just push forward and see how it all shakes out. That's fine; most of the best side stuff you're skipping will still be there once the story is complete, so don't worry too much if you feel like you want to start focusing mostly on the story starting at around chapter 5.
Manually save from time to time.
It's never a bad idea manually save your game, nor is it to keep multiple saves. So, do that! Don't rely overmuch on autosave, since the game saves constantly and you might find yourself wanting to undo a murder spree or, more likely, save a fallen horse.
Your completion percentage and story percentage are in two separate places.
If you're wondering how far you are in the story, check the story tab in the progress menu. When you save your game, however, you'll see a different, lower percentage next to your save file. That's your overall game completion percentage, which includes collectables, stranger missions, and other side stuff.
Rent rooms in town to change your outfit and sleep away from camp.
In many of the game's towns, you can rent a room to stay in. Those rooms are more than just a place to rest; you can also change your clothes and basically use them like a home-away-from-camp. If you're avoiding fast travel and trying to live in the world as much as possible, it can be nice to grab a room.
Don't buy guns.
You'll get almost every main type of gun in the game for free through story missions, so it's rarely worth it to spend your precious cowboy bucks on a gun. Save your gun-money for customisations, which you should definitely pay for, particularly things like sights and rifling that improve each weapon's performance. You should also save up for upgrade accessories like the bandoleer, which increase your ammo capacity.
Don't worry about money too much in the early goings.
Arthur is nearly broke for the first bit of the game, and everything seems really expensive. Just keep playing story missions, and pretty quickly you'll have more money to start getting better gear. Once you do, the game opens up a bit, since it becomes easier to pay off your bounties and buy whatever you want in stores.
Talk to people more than once.
Arthur Morgan can interact with any person (or animal) he comes across in the game, which can lead to some fascinating conversations and unpredictable interactions. Keep in mind that you can talk to people more than once; each one is more than just a one-off interaction. "Greet" someone more than once, and the conversation will move to a new level of the exchange with each press of the button, usually ending after the third one. It's pretty cool.
To raise your reputation, go around greeting folks.
Arthur's "honour" meter keeps track of whether he's been a hero or a villain, and moves up and down based on your actions. Shoot some unarmed civilians or rob a stagecoach, and your honour may go down. Help someone out, and it'll go up. Honour has a minor effect on the story, changing small things like Arthur's journal entries and his dreams. I played the game through with a high level of honour and thought the story worked really well; I'm not sure what it's like if you play as a jerk.
If your honour ever lowers more than you want, you can raise it pretty quickly just by walking around and greeting folks on the street. Every few people you greet, you'll get a bit more honour. You'll also get to hear some cool conversations, so, win win.
Name (and take care of) your horse.
There are more horse options at the stable than you might be aware of, so take the time to explore them all. You can name or rename any horse under the "services" menu in the stable, and I recommend doing so. I also recommend brushing and feeding your horse regularly, partly because it will boost Arthur's bond and make the horse perform better, and partly because it's your horse, man, and you should be nice to it.
Stay for the whole party.
At a few points in the story, everyone at camp will come together for a party. Each party is incredibly well done, as people drink, wander, chat, tell stories, and sing songs. It's a bit like attending an immersive theatre production like Sleep No More, and you can freely walk from area to area and listen in on whatever's happening. Occasionally during parties, it seems as though ten or more people all got in the mo-cap studio together and semi-improvised a scene. It's wild.
Parties are also a really good place to get insight into the people in the gang and their relationships not with Arthur, but with one another. Understanding those relationships will help make more involved story developments down the road make more sense. Parties go on for a while, and it's possible to just want to go to sleep and keep the story moving. My recommendation is to stay for the whole thing. Parties don't happen that often, and they're pretty special.
Hold down the menu button to go straight to the map.
The map in Red Dead 2 may seem like it can only be accessed through the pause menu, but you can get to it faster by holding down the start/options button.
Travel using cinematic mode.
When it's time to get from point A to point B, you'll usually have to hop on your horse and ride. That can be a nifty way to get around, but given how much riding you'll have to do, it can also become tedious. Fortunately, you have a variety of other travel options.
My favourite of those is the "cinematic camera" you can trigger by holding down the options/trackpad button. It lowers black bars on the top and bottom of the screen and makes the game look more like a movie, but it also takes over steering for you if you're heading to a waypoint. All you have to do is press the X/A button to keep your horse moving. If you need to get somewhere and want to just kick back and enjoy the view, set a manual waypoint in the map, turn on the cinematic camera, and chill.
There's a fast travel option you can unlock in camp.
I did almost all of my non-manual travel in Red Dead 2 either by using the cinematic camera or, occasionally, by buying a train ticket. However, if you'd prefer a somewhat more traditional open-world fast travel system, you can unlock one as a camp upgrade. You have to upgrade Dutch's tent first, which unlocks an upgrade to Arthur's tent that lets him fast-travel from camp.
It's pricy — more than $500 for both upgrades combined — but worth it if you want to get around more quickly.
Understand how stats, cores, and levelling all work.
The game does a poor job of explaining cores and stats, so I'm going to try to do a better job. In the lower-left corner of the screen you'll see three separate attributes, each denoted by a white symbol with a partially filled ring around it.
The heart is for your health, the lightning bolt is your stamina, and the eye is your dead-eye, or slow-mo aiming. When you're on or near your horse, you'll see two more with little horseshoes on them: health and stamina for your horse. (Your horse does not have dead-eye, but how awesome would that be if it did?)
Health is hit points. Stamina governs how much you can run, so if that runs out, you become winded. Dead eye governs how long you can activate slow-mo while aiming.
As far as the icons go, the symbol itself is your "core," and the ring around it is the amount of the thing you have left. If you lower the ring a bit — say, run for a while, draining some of your stamina — it will slowly fill back up once you stop.
Ditto with damage, or dead-eye usage. The "core" is what regenerates the ring. If you take damage, run, or use dead eye until the ring depletes, your core will begin to deplete, and if you deplete your core all the way, you won't be able to regenerate anything. (If your health core depletes entirely, you'll die.)
You can refill rings by taking tonics, and even supercharge them with tonics that give you a full yellow ring. However, you can only refill cores by eating, drinking, or, for dead eye, smoking. It's worth carrying around some canned food for that, though food that you cook at camps will refill your cores much more quickly. (Also, the same thing applies to horses, so if you run your horse into the ground, you'll have to feed it if you want to quickly refill its cores.)
Last thing: your rings are partial because each stat isn't fully levelled up. To level a stat, use it. Run to raise your stamina, get precision kills to raise your dead eye, and get bow or melee kills (also dynamite kills, I think?) to raise your health.
You can check your progress towards the next unlock, as well as a bunch of other stuff, by selecting "player" in the main menu, then selecting Arthur.
Hopefully that all makes sense. I found it hard to get my head around at first, but once I did, it wasn't that tough to keep track of.
Don't worry too much about camp payments or personal upkeep (if you don't want to).
There's a fair bit of upkeep in this game, both personal and communal. You'll have to eat food and keep Arthur clean, and also pay money into the camp coffers in order to buy new things for the gang and keep people from giving you shit about not contributing.
For those who want to just focus on the story without worrying about managing all that, don't worry: it's not super crucial. You won't be kicked out of the gang if you don't contribute very much, and Arthur won't starve and die if he doesn't eat. Those systems are more for people who want to engage with them, and largely felt optional to me. However...
Eat something, young man, you look thin as a rail.
It still is a good idea to eat when given the chance, not just to replenish your cores, but to keep your body weight up. If you get too underweight, it lowers your stamina and health regeneration, and while you probably won't have too hard a time with the game regardless (I was underweight for a lot of the story), it's still never good to be underweight.
Anytime you're camping, eat a bit more food than just the base amount you needed to raise your cores. Arthur's a big guy, and he needs food.
Understand how bounties work.
Bounties in Red Dead 2 are a little more complicated than they first seem, or at least a bit less consistent. If you commit a crime and are spotted, the witness will go report you. You'll see "Witness" in the upper corner of the screen.
Check your map or look around and you can usually find that person. Once you do, it's possible to shoot them or just scare them into walking away and not reporting. If you are reported, however, the law will come calling. Flee the area and you might be fine. But many times, you'll get a bounty put on your head.
Once you have a bounty, it only applies in the state where you committed the crime. Bounty hunters will now be looking for you in packs, and they can really ruin your day (a.k.a. kill you) if they catch you unawares. Leave the state and you'll be fine, or you can go pay off the bounty at the post office.
Early in the game I didn't understand what the red borders on the world map meant; I thought it meant that I couldn't pass through that border territory without getting attacked. Fortunately, that's not the case. You can easily pass a state border even with a bounty; the red area is just indicating that you're wanted in that state. This might be one of those things that only confused me, but I figured it was worth at least mentioning.
Cycle through interaction options with the shoulder button.
Sometimes when you're in a confined space and want to pick something up, you'll find that you're stuck with the interaction prompt for another nearby object. You want to pick up those cigarettes, not sit down! Fortunately you can press the right shoulder button to cycle through possible targets; you'll see a prompt next to the interaction button as well as a couple of little white dots that indicate how many options you have. Cycle them to find what you want.
Take the time to go through your inventory.
Holding right on the D-pad will open up your satchel, which will let you peruse your valuables, documents, and other stuff you've picked up. Go through your documents in particular, because they have all been carefully crafted and do a lot to flesh out the world around you. For example, in Valentine, you'll probably pick up a mission that involves tracking down a bunch of famous gunslingers, and might find yourself unsure what to do next. Examine the photographs in your inventory and turn them around, and you'll learn more about each person. That person's location will also then be added to your map.
Play in first-person mode, at least occasionally.
By pressing the camera-distance button (back on Xbox One, touchpad on PS4) a few times, you can cycle into an immersive first-person view, just like in the current-gen and PC versions of Grand Theft Auto V. Perhaps even more so than in that game, Red Dead 2's first-person view is overwhelming, to the point that I actually rarely used it while I was playing through the story. I also preferred to actually see Arthur because I found it helped me connect a little better to his character.
However, when I'm just messing around in the open world, it's pretty damn cool to switch to first-person view and just walk around, drinking in the sights. If you find first-person horse riding, vehicle driving, or cover off-putting, you can turn those off in the options menu. The camera will pop out to third-person any time you get in a vehicle, on a horse, or in cover.
Don't forget your camera.
Arthur carries a camera around with him, and it's pretty fun to use. Access it in the "items" wheel, over on the right where the binoculars are. You can set up the camera and take photographs, or even hit the thumbstick to take a self-portrait. It's hard to articulate, but seeing the world through the lens of an in-game camera heightens its photorealism in a cool way.
Clean your guns.
Your weapons get dirty pretty quickly, which will lower their performance. Don't forget to clean them, and try to always carry a few containers of gun oil with you just in case you get stuck in a wilderness gun fight with nothing but grimy iron. Your guns will never break, but they'll be less accurate and will do less damage, so keep an eye on the "condition" meter under the gun's stats.
Shotguns are no joke.
I'm just saying, if you need to wreck some shit, bring a shotgun.
Keep an eye out for weapons on the map.
Any time you come across a weapon that you don't have, it'll show up on the map as a little gun icon. Keep an eye out for those, since picking them up will permanently unlock that weapon for you. Also, don't worry about dropping the weapon you currently have equipped to pick up a new one; you can just get another version of the one you already own from your saddle.
Don't discount the rootin' tootin' dual-revolver option.
Pretty early on, you'll unlock a second pistol holster that lets you carry a... second pistol. I guess that was obvious. I spent a long time with a sawed-off shotgun in that holster, but I actually recommend trying a second pistol there and dual wielding two revolvers at once. Take cover before you reload, though, because it takes a minute.
Loot dead bodies.
Look, sometimes you're working on a video game tips post and one of the tips you write is "loot dead bodies." Pilfering from your deceased foes after a gunfight can take a little while, but it pays off in money and valuables that you can sell to a fence. It's worth trying to do some looting in the early going in particular, when money is tight.
Just be warned that if you're standing at the scene of a crime, you'll want to clear out before too long, or someone will see you and report you. You monster! What were you doing? Why would you be looting a dead body?
Do stranger quests at every opportunity.
If you're riding around and you hear one person talking a bit more loudly or noticeably than everyone else, that person is probably some sort of "stranger." Strangers are special non-player characters in Red Dead 2, people with more involved and often surprising stories. They come in a couple different types, and it's worth taking the time to interact with them all.
The lowest level strangers are just people you meet in the world, have a brief exchange with, and move on from. They're denoted by a small white dot on the map that only appears when you get close. Sometimes those types of strangers return to your story later in unexpected ways, but they're always relatively low-key. If you see a big white question mark on your map, however, that's a stranger quest. Those are more involved and usually have multiple phases. They're more like story missions that exist outside of the story.
Get your hat back via your horse.
If your hat gets knocked off, like, say, by a horse that kicked you when you accidentally tried to rob its saddlebags, you may not immediately notice. Your hat also might get shot off, in which case you may not have had the luxury of picking it back up. No cowboy should be hatless on the range, but don't worry; you can just recall your hat at any time from your saddle. It's got its own spot in the lower-right of the Horse radial menu.
Experiment with the mini-map.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has a really good minimap, mostly because it gives you a lot of options and lets you adjust them on the fly. I played most of the game using the compass setting, which was a nice middle ground between a full mini-map and map at all.
However, if I hadn't been on a deadline for a review, I probably would have turned off the minimap more often. This game's world is is uncommonly navigable on its own; there are signposts all over, and characters will frequently give you spoken directions when telling you where to go. If you get lost, you can always press down on the D-pad to momentarily see the mini-map if you need it. (Every game still using a mini-map: please make this a feature!) You can also hold down on the D-pad to switch between mini-map sizes on the fly.
You can preview every outfit and article of clothing in stores.
The browsable catalogues in every store are beautiful and ridiculously detailed, but they can also take a while to read. If you just want to pick the best outfit and be on your way, that's also possible. Press the "view" button when you're looking at an outfit in the catalogue, and it'll take you to a more standard video game fitting room.
From there, press "All Outfits" to flip through the other outfits in that shop's catalogue without leaving the dressing room. You can do the same thing with individual articles of clothing and accessories, which gives you a leg up over all those late 19th century jamokes who actually had to pick clothes based on catalogue illustrations.
There are more clothing options than you may realise.
I recommend taking the time to get into clothes in Red Dead Redemption 2, because there are some terrific outfit options. The clothes themselves are lovely looking, and I had more fun than I thought I would coming up with nifty custom outfits. Managing saved outfits is a little bit awkward, but once you do it a few times, you'll work it out. One important thing to remember is that you can hit the "Modify" button while browsing clothes and change your shirt collar, shirt sleeves, and boot/pant arrangement.
Once you upgrade to a bandoleer, you can take it off.
Partway into the story, I finally had enough money to buy bandoleer. It let me carry a bunch more ammo, but it also meant that Arthur was always wearing a bandoleer. That would be good any time I wanted to go for a "Rambo of the Wild West" vibe, but less good any time I didn't. Fortunately, players can change "weapon equipment" down at the bottom of the wardrobe tab. Changing those options won't affect the amount of ammo you have access to, so you can get rid of your bandoleer with no downside.
Read the handwritten version of Arthur's journal.
Arthur keeps a journal that he updates throughout the game, and you can read it at any time by holding left on the D-pad. The game notifies you when he adds a new entry, and it's worth taking the time to read when he does. If it's possible due to your distance from the screen and comfortability reading smudgy cursive, I recommend reading the actual graphical representation of the journal, rather than the easier-to-read printed version that you can summon with a button press.
Subtle touches like scratched-out mistakes, underlined words, and various other marginalia can give a neat insight into Arthur's state of mind while he was writing.
That's what I've got for now, but I'll almost certainly be updating this post one or two more times as I continue to discover things that I want to share. Good luck out there, cowpokes.