It's only been four, nearly five years since release, but I finally got around to playing the story mode of this game. I know what you're thinking: "wow, this guy is timely and insightful" and you're totally right. I'm definitely both of those things. Rather than give a pure review of this game, I'm going to give some pros and cons of this game and make some comparisons to Red Dead Online, which I had played first and as of this point have spent 175 hours playing.
Speaking of RDO
As I mentioned, I have played a LOT of Red Dead Online. That helped in a lot of ways in making it easy to pick up the story mode and get knocking about without any real trouble. It also hurt in that the game takes care to walk you through some pretty basic stuff that you have no real way to skip. It's not merely an introductory chapter or a couple missions, but interspersed throughout the game. From a story perspective, it fits well and makes a lot of sense. I won't fault it for that. But since I'm coming from an RDO-first perspective, this whole review will be tinged with that color.
If you haven't touched Red Dead before, you might wonder how similar it is to GTA in gameplay. It's quite similar in a lot of ways, but comparing it to the most current GTA (V), RD is much more sophisticated. The controls are so fine-tuned that it makes GTA feel like a clunky early-00s 3d game. Whatever time they spent ensuring controller play worked as well as it does was time well spent. In fact, this game is better to play with a controller than a keyboard/mouse (on PC, obviously). It plays like a fantastic console game in the best way. GTA does not have that luxury.
The game is open world and has so much life to it despite being a largely empty map. Empty in terms of people, at least. There are all sorts of animals roaming the lands, with different biomes in each region giving it some fun and interesting characteristics. Because it's open world, you can do things however you want. You don't really need to play the story if you don't want to. Missions are clearly marked on your map with yellow + initials for story missions. Optional missions are white (also with initials). Then there are a bevy of stranger missions, telegram missions, etc that you can do (or not do) as you please.
Generally speaking, a mission will start and end with a cut scene with a bunch of shooting inbetween. The shooting in this game is both easier and harder than GTA. It's easier in that the controls are far better, but it's harder in that the weapons are old timey and not as effective. It's what you get for living in the year 1899. In many missions, you can use stealth, though it's very finnicky and no where near as easy as GTA stealth. Oftentimes it's easiest to go in guns blazing and use cover because you can take a lot of punishment and the cover system works quite well at keeping you alive.
Interestingly, if you have played RDO before RDR2, everything feels … identical? I'm sure if I started in RDR2, I would've found RDO a bit boring. But coming from RDO, RDR2 felt a bit sparse outside of the story and there is an entire (gigantic) section of the map that you don't explore at all in the story.
My biggest complaint with gameplay has to do with how missions are set up. Oftentimes you're going to be riding or walking for quite a while before you get to your destination and you will be capped at the speed you can go. Some of that is to listen to your companion(s) blather on, other times you sit in silence riding at a brisk 5mph (or walking at a blistering 1mph). It leads to a lot of time spent backtracking or going to a new place that really doesn't need to exist. The random events happen when you're riding around, but not when you're already in a mission. So what's the point of forcing this? Is it supposed to be immersion? Sometimes you have to ride a little way of the route before it warps you to the destination via a cutscene of you riding a little here and there. Most of the time it does not. I actually think this game would lose about 4 hours if you cut out all of the excess forced slow travel.
You've probably heard a ton of 10/10 reviews of this game. Everyone talks about the story. It is quite good overall, but it also has a good bit of padding. The game is listed as 50 hours to beat the main story on howlongtobeat.com, but I finished in 32 hours (really only doing the story, not skipping any cutscenes). It could've easily fit into 15 hours if they removed some of the fluff. Before you get too excited, let me explain.
Theoretically, this game is the story of Arthur Morgan and his life within the confines of the Van der Linde gang. But if you really look at this, the story is much more about Dutch and how he changes through the lens of Arthur Morgan. Arthur changes as well, but possibly for different reasons. It's also changes in Dutch that help spark further changes in Arthur. Without getting into spoilers, I'll leave it there.
There are six chapters in this game followed by two epilogue chapters. The epilogue sets up Red Dead Redemption and John Marston's story, so you get to play as him for a bit. You might think "oh an epilogue, it must be super short" and you would be dead wrong. The epilogue alone was longer than a bunch of games I've played. Between those two chapters, I spent an additional 8-10 hours. This was, by far, the weakest part of the game. I get what they were going for, but the missions were pretty boring on the whole. These two chapters could've been a DLC called "The Domestication of John Marston" and, while people would've paid for it, they would've also complained ferociously about how much of a waste of money it was. Dutch and the gang (i.e. the entire first six chapters) aren't really part of the epilogue for the most part. This is purely about John Marston becoming a new man and settling down with Abigail and Jack.
It's not only the epilogue that has filler. There are plenty of missions for Arthur that are flat out stupid. Like taking Jack fishing. Or where you herd sheep. Or being the courier between the Montagues and Capulets. I could go on. There are some really awful missions.
Overall, it's a decently interesting story that will keep you engaged and has lots of colorful characters to hang out and get into trouble with. You will probably look back at it thinking "this seemed obvious, why was nothing done about it?" but I don't think anyone would say it's a bad story.
So, Uh, What Then?
The game has so much to offer in terms of potential, yet it was squandered so badly in both the story and in RDO. The fact of the matter is that if you've played one, there's no need to play the other. The story missions in RDO are incredibly short and only take a few hours to complete all of them. But because you have other folks you can play with, it gives it a life that doesn't really exist within RDR2 itself. The same types of random events, telegram missions, etc exist in both, but RDO has the added bonus of random strangers who can be unpredictable. It makes bounties more fun when you have buddies to do them with rather than marching alone or listening to an NPC ramble on while your speed is capped.
Simply put, RDO is a better experience than RDR2 because RDR2, aside from the longer main story, offers nothing over RDO. In RDO, you get to be yourself (or some sort of alter ego) and explore with your posse. In RDR2, you have to be Arthur (or John) and explore alone. My time spent in RDO didn't feel that long, but by the end of RDR2, it felt every bit of 32 hours. I would say it even felt like 50 hours, and that's not a good feeling. You could easily sink 100 hours into this game's single player mode if you really hate playing with friends and strangers, but I wouldn't recommend it. Do the story, then flip to RDO and do some fun/stupid stuff with your buds.