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13 things to know about Red Dead Redemption 2 before jumping in

Woooo! Outlaw country!

Normally, when we sit down to write a beginner’s guide for a game like Red Dead Redemption 2, we ask ourselves, “What does someone need to know in the first few hours of this game?” But in Red Dead Redemption 2, you spend most of your first few hours playing the tutorial missions of the first chapter. You don’t have to know anything — you’re just doing what the game tells you to. But just on the other side of that, the game opens up, and it can be overwhelming.

In this guide, we’ll teach you a thing or two to do in Chapter 1, but mostly what you need to to know when Red Dead Redemption 2 unfurls as an enormous, open-ended open-world game.

Don’t rush

Red Dead Redemption 2 is not an action game. You won’t be springing from gunfight to gunfight, pausing only to reload. Instead, it’s more like an Old West simulation with action built in. There are wide-open spaces to explore, an adopted outlaw family to meet and, yes, missions to complete. Don’t focus on the latter at the expense of the former.

Red Dead Redemption 2 wants to be absorbed, not devoured — and you should embrace that. You can see the pace at which it wants to be played in Arthur’s default movement speed. He walks (very) slowly — more of an amble than a walk, really. You’ve got to press a button if you want to get anywhere (comparatively) fast. That means something. The game doesn’t want you to run everywhere and past everything. It makes speed deliberate because it rewards being methodical — even contemplative.

Yes, it will feel slow. But resist the urge to make it fast. Lean into the pace, and you’ll get more out of (and discover more in) the game.

When the game opens up, you don’t need to sprint anywhere or do anything, and Red Dead Redemption 2 won’t nag you about what to do next. Time is not of the essence. You have options.

If you want to head to the yellow circles on your map and take on missions, you’re free to do so. If you want to explore or hunt or see what’s going on in camp, that’s cool too. Play the game at your own pace, pay attention to what’s around you, and just generally behave in a way that seems like Arthur would behave. There’s no rush.

Loot everyone and everything

During the opening chapter of Red Dead Redemption 2, there are two gunfights that leave a lot of your enemies dead on the ground. Take the time during those scenes — and ignore the people telling you to hurry up — to loot every corpse you can find. You’ll walk into Chapter 2 with $30 in your pocket, all the ammo you can carry and a mostly full satchel. Now, that’s not enough money to retire on, and you’ll burn through those supplies in time, but it’s a huge head start as the world opens up for you to explore.

Adopt the “loot everything” philosophy early, and you’ll never (or rarely) find yourself wanting. This often means you’ll be taking a few minutes after a gunfight to wander around rifling through pockets. In fact, you’ll see a hand-drawn black X on your minimap leading you to the location of every bad guy you can loot. (And after you’ve looted them, the X becomes a softer gray.)

X on map for looting in Red Dead Redemption 2
X marks the looting spots in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Rockstar Games via Polygon

Check every drawer, cabinet, wardrobe and chimney (seriously, check chimneys — they’re apparently the piggy banks of the Old West) in every house you enter. You won’t always find cash, but you’ll keep your satchel stocked with provisions, and you can donate all of those pocket watches to the camp instead of handing over your hard-earned cash.

There’s one caveat to the “loot everything” strategy: innocents.

If you’ve killed a bunch of gang members in a shootout, you can loot their corpses with impunity. But looting the body of an innocent person will negatively impact your honor rating. For instance, if you commit a crime and then kill a witness to prevent them from reporting you, the murder will cause your honor to drop — and it’ll drop again if you then loot the bystander’s body.

Use camera angles to your advantage

In some games, you might pick a camera angle at the start and never touch the setting again. But we quickly found that it makes sense to swap between Red Dead Redemption 2’s various camera options depending on the situation. Tapping the touchpad (on PlayStation 4) or view button (on Xbox One) cycles through the options from Arthur’s point of view, which consist of third-person angles at three distances (near, medium and far) and a first-person mode.

Third-person is the default, and it works well in most cases. But anytime you’re indoors, or looting locations rather than bodies, it really helps to switch to the first-person view. It’s much easier to pick up individual items when you can see them up close and place your reticle precisely. The angle also makes it easier to control vehicles like horse-drawn carriages. If you want to play more of the game that way, you can go as far as choosing a different control scheme for the first-person perspective.

There’s one more camera option in Red Dead Redemption 2: a cinematic mode, which is accessed by holding down the aforementioned camera button. This is a fun way to liven up long rides by horse or wagon — which you’ll be taking often — and focus on the beautiful environment instead of navigation. In cinematic mode, you can automatically keep your horse or vehicle on a trail by holding the X/A button.

You’ll still be learning dozens of hours in

Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t like a lot of other games, where you learn most of what you can do in the first few hours. In fact, more than 30 hours into Red Dead Redemption 2, we were still learning about and unlocking new things to do. Often, these are the (mostly surprising) results of missions and side quests.

Chapters are long and involved (there’s no rush, see?), spanning a dozen or more missions. And Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t overwhelm you with too much to learn at once. Instead, it doles out its lessons throughout missions. Just do what you see on the map, helping out people at camp and completing main missions, and you’ll get a regular stream of new options.

One of the missions available in Chapter 2 introduces the debt collection mechanic. The details of the mechanic don’t matter (punch down-and-out farmers until they cough up some money — sometimes literally). What matters is that it unlocks the ledger where you can upgrade your camp. It’s not a big announcement or a thing that flashes on your screen; it’s just something that quietly unfolds as you progress (noticing a theme yet?).

Stealth is another good example of how this works. Sure, you could stumble upon the game’s quieter ways to deal out death early, but they become explicit in a mission several hours into the game.

Missions and side quests work the other way around, too, teaching you about things that you know exist but can’t quite master. If something appears confusing or difficult, it’s reasonable to assume that you’ll find the answer you’ve been looking for if you just keep playing missions.

Don’t worry about a better horse

Your horse is your constant companion throughout Red Dead Redemption 2 — even more so than your gang family. But there are also horses for sale in just about every town you go to, plus wild horses you can tame in the wilderness. It’s tempting to think that your starter horse isn’t going to work for you for long. But you’d be wrong.

Don’t worry about finding a better horse. Instead, spend your time strengthening your bond with your starter horse. Your horse’s health and stamina will improve as you bond through hitching, patting, brushing and feeding. It won’t take much work to max out those attributes. At that point, you probably won’t notice your horse lacking in any way — you can gallop for (nearly) as long as you’ll ever need to, and it’ll come when you call for it.

For a long time, the horses that are available to tame or purchase will only have marginally different stats than your starter horse — and you’d have to rebuild your bond. It’s just not worth it.

Much (much) later in the game, you’ll start to find elite horses. These horses are expensive, but they also have stats that make the money and effort of bonding with them worth it.

However, it turns out that there’s a way to get an elite steed — the white Arabian horse, which is unique and one of the best horses in the entire game — very early on. It’s a challenge to tame this bucking bronco, but once you do, you’re set.

There’s a lot to do, and it’s hard to keep track of it all

Missions and side missions show up on your map as yellow and white dots. If you don’t know the exact location, the dot will be fuzzy.
Rockstar Games via Polygon

Between the various members of the gang who have missions for you, strangers who set you tasks, bounties, challenges, and collectibles, it can be hard to remember where you’re going next without getting distracted. As you pick up missions and side missions (and tasks, etc.), you’ll notice new dots showing up on your map. You’ll have yellow dots for main story (gang) missions and white dots for side (stranger) missions. The initials inside will tell you who assigned it, and hovering over the icon will give you more details.

The log is an easy way to track your non-mission to-dos.
Rockstar Games via Polygon

The map is a fine way to track your to-do list, but it’s not exactly convenient for anything beyond the big missions. Instead, from the main screen, tap left on the D-pad to open your log. It’ll be a list of your tasks, challenges and notifications. (If you hold down left on the D-pad, you’ll get to read Arthur’s journal, which is its own kind of entertaining, but won’t tell you about your open tasks.)

Don’t always do what the game tells you to

In the early chapters of the game, you’ll almost always have multiple yellow dots and initials on your map. These are the folks who want your help, or have something for you to do for the gang — your main story missions. You’re free to do these as you want, but, as we’ve said a thousand times already, you don’t have to be in a hurry. These yellow dot missions are self-contained tasks with a beginning and an end. What you do between them is up to you (something something options as wide open as the Western skies or something equally flowery that Arthur would write in his journal). Go hunting, find a town, investigate that campfire you see in the distance — the main missions will still be there when you get back.

But listen when the game tells you not to go somewhere

Especially early in the game, there are areas where you’ve got a huge price on your head and the law is out to get you. In these places, bounty hunters will actively seek you out, and you won’t be able to fire a gun without drawing their attention. In other places, you’ll be swarmed by cougars as soon as you hop off your horse. These are not-so-subtle hints from the game that it’s not time to be here yet. Don’t force it until you’re ready.

Use it to improve it

Red Dead Redemption 2 gives you three meters to worry about: health, stamina and dead eye. It’s a kinda complicated system called cores. We spent a lot of time figuring out cores and bars (and wrote a guide about them so you can understand them better), but the short version is: Use the meter you want to improve. If you want to be able to run for longer, run places. If you want to use your dead eye more, shoot your gun a bunch. If you want to be healthier, gather some food.

As you earn quasi-XP, you’ll see an icon pop up along the right side of the screen.
Rockstar Games via Polygon

There’s a subtle mechanic working behind the scenes that looks kind of like XP for each of your meters (again: health, stamina and dead eye). As you do things, you’ll earn these quasi-XP points toward those meters. Earn enough, and you’ll unlock a new segment of the corresponding ring — which means you’ll have more health, stamina or dead eye available to use.

Chewing tobacco is great for dead eye

Like we mentioned in our cores guide (seriously, go read our cores guide), your dead eye core and ring (or, as the game insists on calling it, bar) don’t work like the other cores and rings. It’s harder to keep full because it doesn’t fill on its own — and that’s kind of a pain.

Instead, you’re in charge of keeping your dead eye meter full. You can do this slowly by shooting things, or you can just use chewing tobacco (which you’ll find in the dead eye tonic segment of your item ring, or the tonics tab of your satchel). If you took our earlier advice and have been checking the pockets of every person you’ve shot, there’s a good chance you’ve already got a full stack of chewing tobacco in your satchel. Don’t forget it’s there, and use it anytime you think you’re about to enter a gunfight (heck, you can use it in the middle of a gunfight, too).

Red Dead Redemption 2 - chewing tobacco in satchel
Chewing tobacco is under your tonics in your satchel and item wheel.
Rockstar Games via Polygon

Upgrade your camp slowly

As part of the gang’s missions during Chapter 2, you’ll unlock the camp’s ledger, where you can upgrade various parts of the camp. First, let us say this: There’s no reason not to upgrade anything — improvements are by definition better, and will give you some sort of benefit. That said, you can put off a lot of the camp upgrades for a while if you take your time (our first point) and loot everything (our second point).

For example, the $175 chicken coop will add a dead eye boost to the camp’s stew — which is wonderful and useful — but if you’ve been looting everything and have a steady supply of chewing tobacco (our previous point), you’re barely going to notice the buff you get from the stew once per day. So yes, by all means, improve your camp whenever you want to, but don’t treat it like your job — get to it when you have some extra cash lying around.

One thing worth noting here is that certain game features are tied to specific camp upgrades. If you want to use fast travel that doesn’t involve a stagecoach or the railroad, you’ll need to improve Dutch’s tent ($220) and then Arthur’s ($325). If you want a bigger satchel, you’ll have to buy Pearson some leather working tools ($225). In other words, it may be worth prioritizing those (expensive!) upgrades.

Think of your weapon wheel like equipment slots

Every time you get off your horse to go on an adventure on foot, you should check your saddlebags to make sure you’re ready for whatever comes next. Standing next to (or riding on) your horse when you hold down L1/LB basically lets you choose your loadout from the weapons in your horsenal.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - weapon wheel / inventory Rockstar Games via Polygon

Going around the wheel clockwise from the top, you have:

  • Sidearms. Pistols and other one-handed firearms.
  • Fists. For punching.
  • Knives. For stabby punching.
  • Longarm back. The first of your two longarm slots — you’ll find things like rifles and bows here.
  • Throwables. Unsurprisingly, things you throw at bad guys, like lassos or dynamite.
  • Longarm shoulder. The second longarm slot.

When you choose your loadout, think about what you’ll need. If you’re trying to be stealthy (or just hunting), you can put a bow into one longarm slot and not worry about the other. If you’re expecting an all-out battle, think about using the two longarm slots for different ranges of engagement — a repeater and a shotgun, for instance.

Your item wheel works in a similar way. Across the top of the wheel are your tonics, and your provisions are on the left. On the right is your kit — things like your camera and binoculars. Across the bottom are clothes, campfires and hunting aids. You can cycle through the items in each slot with L2/LT and R2/RT.

It’s not that you have dedicated slots for equipment like in an RPG, but the categories of weapons and items in the segments of the wheels are fixed. Knowing this will make navigating the weapon wheel a lot quicker. Everything isn’t just thrown in randomly — there’s a logic and order to the items that you can learn. And once you do, navigating those wheels will become a whole lot easier.

Hide your identity

There’s a bandana in the bottom left of your items wheel. This is what you want to use anytime you’re going to (or even might) run afoul of the law.

It doesn’t make you invisible, obviously, but it makes you anonymous. You’re still going to be chased for your various crimes, but Arthur’s face won’t be associated with the illegality.