Guide to Opening the World and Exploration
Note: This is not a walkthrough (as in how to do each mission or find every collectable). Rather, it's more of a checklist of things to do before you ride off into the sunset looking for fame and fortune, and some tips on how to make that experience better.
This guide assumes that you, like me until recently, had never played any Red Dead games (probably because you're a PC, not a console, gamer). You surely bought RDR2 based on hearing of its excellent gameplay, engrossing story, and huge open world. So now you have it, and you're lucky in that it runs well for you, but now you've got the feeling the world's not open, or conversely it's too open, or both at once. Don't worry, this is common. This guide is intended to get you up and running on exploring the vast game world for fun and profit.
Ground rules of this guide
- Again, this is not a walkthrough. It's more of a checklist of important things to do before striking out on your own.
- This guide is for Offline play in "Story Mode" only. Sadly, this is not as "open" as you might have been led to believe. The really, truly "open world" gameplay was supposed to be Red Dead Online but it's currently so overrun with hackers (thanks to RockStar once again failing to implement even rudimentary security measures) that it's not worth playing. So, you must make due with what you've got, offline, until RockStar gets its act together.
- This guide assumes you're primarily interested in finding out what's in all the 150 gigabytes that comprise this game. Following the story, no matter how compelling it is, and just getting into senseless violence, are lower on your list, at least to for the time being.
Also known as setting realistic expectations.
It's Called "Story" For A Reason
You play as Arthur Morgan, a hardened career criminal and member of the Dutch van der Linde gang. You can't be anybody else (until the epilogue), you can't have any other vocation, and some things in the world (whole parts of the map, certain types of vendors, most weapons sold in stores, etc.) will only unlock as you progress through the main story mission sequence. But there's a problem with that....
Story Progress Dooms Arhtur
That's right, at some point Arthur will meet his scripted demise. You can delay this pretty much indefinitely but, if you go far enough into the story, the Valkyries eventually will carry Arthur off to Valhalla. Sure, it takes 6 chapters for that to happen, but along the way you're in for a number of scripted bummers that lock off parts of the world you previously had access to. Crime doesn't pay, kids.
However, the game doesn't end when Arthur dies, you just switch perspective to a different character in the Epilogue chapter. Which is the only way to get into the previously locked parts of the map, and of course everything not tied to in-game challenges will also be unlocked.
Progress Outlives Arthur
If you're looking for 100% completion, be advised that a bunch of the many things involved in that can ONLY be done by Arthur. The game tracks progress by playthrough, not by character, so whatever Arthur couldn't get to, the Epilogue character can. But the Epilogue character can't go back and do the things that were only available to Arthur (because some of them happen in story missions, or the necessary NPCs are dead later on). So, if you want to do everything there is to do, you have to really invest in Arthur, so that you feel each acceptance of a story mission is a real step towards the grave. But hey, this emotional toll on you is all part of the experience you paid so much for. So enjoy it ;)
Don't Worry, There's Plenty To Do
Do not angst over Arthur's ultimate demise. It's a long way in the future once you get the world as open as you can get it for that point in the story. So go out and see the sights, have fun with random encounters, and be the most savage or chivalric outlaw you can be and don't worry about the future until something makes you.
So, now that we know what to expect, on with the real show.
Essentials for Exploration
Your primary needs are:
- Getting Through Chapter 1
- Getting Started on Chapter 2
- Clear Exploration Objectives
- Money, Budgets, and a Fence
- Strategic Camp Upgrades
Getting Through Chapter 1
Do not attempt exploration in Chapter 1 because you can't. First, you can't manually save. Second, it's too bloody cold to survive long out there. And you can't do anything anyway because you have essentially nothing to do it with. So, just go through all the story missions in Chapter 1 without failing too miserably. In the end, you'll not only understand some of the basic game mechanics but you'll unlock the map (except for the far SW corner) when Chapter 2 starts.
Getting Started on Chapter 2
You really should complete a minimum 6 of the 16 story missions in Chapter 2 before striking out on your own. This is necessary to unlock 1) the stables, horse brush, camping, cooking, crafting, and legendary animals; 2) the camp ledger; and 3) the fence. Optionally (but recommended), you can do a couple more story missions to unlock fishing also. Either way, no harm done to Arthur and the gang by going this far into the story and afterwards you can stay in Chapter 2 just exploring as long as you want. Because the act of fishing increases your health stat and you can eat the fish, plus you want those legendary trophies, I recommend you advance the plot far enough to unlock this. BUT, you don't have to know how to fish prior to taking a long solo trip. Just do it sooner rather than later. Your health stat will thank you.
The story missions you need to do for the critical unlocks, in order of importance, are:
- Exit Pursued by a Bruised Ego: This mission is available from the start of Chaper 2 and is given by Hosea in the Horseshoe Overlook camp, asking if you want to go hunting. This is the big one. It unlocks the stable shops so you can buy and sell horses, upgrade your saddle and other tack, get access to horse food, and you also get a horse brush to keep your horse in good condition. Later on, it also unlocks the ability to make camp by yourself (distinguished from your gang's main camp) plus the abilities to cook and craft while in said camp. Finally, it unlocks the legendary animals and gives you a map of where to look for them. This should be the 1st or 2nd mission you do once Chapter 2 starts.
- The Spines of America: Given by Hosea at Emerald Ranch, either after doing the 1st task in Money Lending and Other Sins, or available simultaneously (doesn't really matter as you need to do both). Completing this quest unlocks the fence who is the only vendor who will buy all those "valuables" you pick up (gold bars and nuggets, pocket watches, various types of jewelry, belt buckles, etc.), which is where your main money comes from. And as an added benefit, the fence will also buy any wagons and stagecoaches you steal, if you're into that. The fence can also make very nice trinkets/talismans from legendary animal parts, and sells crafting recipes, so you really need this guy.
- Money Lending and Other Sins: Given by Strauss in the Horseshoe Overlook camp, but ONLY after you've completed 4 other story missions. Completing this quest does 3 things. First, it unlocks the camp ledger so you can start upgrading the gang's main camp. Second, it unlocks the Spines of America mission (see below) or maybe they both become available simultaneously. And third, if you complete all the tasks (3 of which are optional), you get more money in the gang's coffers so you don't have to spend as much of your own (and you won't have much at this point) to get some good camp upgrades (see below). Recommended quests to unlock Money Lending are Uncle's (in camp, Polite Society, Valentine Style), Hosea's (see above), Javier's (in Valentine saloon, Americans at Rest), and Father Swanson's (in Flatneck Station, Who is Not Without Sin). None of these involve gunfights.
- A Fisher of Men: Given by Abigail in the Horseshoe Overlook camp. Unlocks both fishing in general and also the encounter with the guy who has the map of legendary fish (whom you have to find separately). Only becomes available after doing Paying a Social Call (given by the prisoner Kieren in the Horseshoe Overlook camp). So, you do a total of 6 missions to get through with Money Lending and Spines, then these 2 to get fishing as well, for a total of 8. After this, things start moving quickly and violently in Chapter 2, so once you know how to fish (if not before), it's a good time to go see the world while you still can.
Clear Exploration Objectives
Once the map is unlocked (mostly), you'll quickly discover there are a gazillion things to do. Most of these things are their own sidequest, challenge, or collection arcs, so nearly everything you come across for a long time will be the start of a whole new project. And the many pieces of each of these side projects are scattered all over, so that just randomly heading out to see what happens will start a bunch of things but not make progress in any of them. And this isn't even including all the many challenges which have their own set of things to do (mostly tests of skill and patience).
And the gameworld is huge. So finding what you need for a specific project is a real needle-in-a-haystack thing if you try doing it randomly.
Money, Budgets, and a Fence
If you keep your vanity in check (IOW, don't blow all your money on cosmetic bling), and if you stay out of legal trouble (IOW, no or low bounties), then money should never be a real problem while exploring in offline Story Mode, at least once the fence is available. You and your horse can eat essentially for free because horse feed is covered by the sell price of the hides you collect feeding yourself. You can't buy much in the way of weapons or even upgrades to existing weapons until you unlock more of the story, but you can buy some relatively cheap gear that's helpful (bandoleers, better gunbelts, better holsters, etc.). Ammo is cheap and goes a long way if you're a decent shot. Once you buy (or tame, or steal) a decent horse, upgrading the saddle and stirrups is relatively cheap, and those are 1-time purchases. So really, the only large, on-going expense you have is upgrading and resupplying the gang's camp, and you can skimp on that to pocket most of the money, or just save it for when you get serious about completing the story.
Strong hint: Down the hill just south of the Horseshoe Overlook camp is a burned-out town. Search the ruins carefully and you'll find a gold bar, which is an easy $500 once you have the fence to sell it to. That will MORE than cover your needs to start with, and you'll no doubt be chasing treasure maps for even more gold bars. That plus all the watches and bling you loot off bodies or steal from the living will keep you well in the black during your travels.
Strategic Camp Upgrades
If you're going roaming early, the camp is just a periodic resupply base for you (pick up some ammo, tonics, and canned food). So only upgrade those items and restock them when they get low. Also, buy the leather-working tools so Pearson can upgrade your satchel. But that's it. Do not upgrade Dutch's tent at this point as it's expensive and the contributions of others will be minimal anyway. And save the fast travel thing for the very end of the game, when you need to quickly go somewhere you've already been to collect a forgotten cigarette card. It's useless for all other purposes.
Horses, Weapons and Equipment
Horses and Their Furniture
Good horses can be expensive to buy. Fortunately, you're given 2 pretty decent horses for free early in the game, you'll have many opportunities to catch wild horses, and you'll also have many opportunities to acquire horses from the dead or just steal them. So, except for the essential Chapter 2 mission "Exit Pursued by a Bruised Ego" where you're forced to buy a horse, you really shouldn't have to buy a horse. When forced to buy that one horse, you can get a POS nag for a mere $15, which is good enough for the rest of its mission. The best part is, you don't lose your Tennessee Walker or the big black Shire that you've been given--both are stored in the stable (free of charge) awaiting your return. So, once done with this mission, return the $15 nag to the stable, sell it, and go back to one of your other horses. Once over this hurdle, free horses are yours for the taking out in the world.
Your main horse-related expense is getting the best set of saddle and stirrups you can. Fortunately, they're all relatively cheap and this is a 1-time purchase (at least per chapter) because you move your only saddle from horse to horse. Saddles and stirrups can either debuff or buff your horse by varying armounts so get the ones with the biggest buffs. Done. Also get bigger saddlebags as they increase horse inventory space. Everything else (horns, blankets, bedrolls, etc.) is purely cosmetic so only buy such things if you have too much money.
Weapons and Their Accessories
Basically, forget about buying better weapons (but hey, that saves you money). The availability of better weapons is pretty much tied to story (or sidequest) progression. Until you encounter the new weapon in enemy hands during a specific mission, it will remain locked in the gun store catalog. Because these missions are scattered through the whole game, the top-tier weapons won't unlock until near the end. And because you're pretty much guaranteed to acquire these weapons for free during said missions, there's no real reason to buy one. So just ignore these things in the gun catalog.
But, you can buy 3 other starter-tier weapons from the catalog immediately (Volcanic Pistol, Varmint Rifle, and Springfield Rifle). These are entirely optional, being better in some ways and worse in others than your standard Cattleman Revolver, Small Game Arrows, and Repeating Carbine, respectively, so are more a matter of taste than anything else.
Otherwise, the gunstore is only useful to customize your weapons, and to buy gun oil and better bandoleers, gun belts, holsters, etc. On the subject of weapon customization, most of the functional tweaks add only marginally to the weapon's base stats, although adding a scope to your carbine is pretty useful. The rest are cosmetic so don't go overboard on this until you have money to burn.
All that said, you can also find a bunch of unique weapons out in the world. Those just lying around will be melee weapons. For guns, you usually have to kill a famous gunslinger (part of a side quest). None of these are significant improvements over your standard starter gear (except the tomahawks), and you can't customize the unique pistols. However, you can sell most of these for a decent price.
Improved holsters are important as they decrease the rate at which your weapons degrade from exposure to the elements. So it's worth getting some of them, especially those from the Trapper (but those at the Trapper only unlock by completing challenge stages). But you can also blow a lot of money on clothing that has only cosmetic value. Resist the temptation.
The really important personal equipment are the trinkets and talismans. These are made by the fence from parts of legendary animals. These items give you very useful bonuses in many important areas so it's really worth the trouble to hunt the legendary animals. Get the Legendary Buck as soon as you can because the trinket from that improves your chances of meeting perfect specimens when hunting. You need LOTS of perfect pelts for all sorts of both useful and cosmetic upgrades so anything that helps you get more perfect pelts is hugely important.
Up Your Stats
You have 3 stats: health, stamina, and deadeye. You want to get them all to 8 as quickly as possible. All get increases as you do various game activities but some of those activities are easier than others. In general, stamina will take care of itself if you run a lot (which you will), and deadeye will take care of itself if you do your camp chores (hay, water, and sacks) every time you're there (which you should) and skin a bunch of animals (which you will). Health is the one that usually requires special effort. Also note that completing challenge stages will increase one stat or another, so it's worth your while to pursue these challenges. See a real walkthrough for information on challenges.
As to increasing health, the easiest ways are:
- Killing stuff with the bow or thrown weapons.
- Catching fish.
- Doing the woodchopping camp chore.
Somewhat more difficult options are:
- Winning fistfights (starting fights for no reason can get you in legal trouble so be careful).
- Rowing a boat (requires access to a boat, which comes a ways into the story).
- Completing stages of the Herbalist, Master Hunter, and Weapons Expert challenges.
- Drinking a Gensing Elixir (can't be bought or crafted, only found, and in limited supply).
Tend to Your Horse(s)
Your horses are living things so have physical needs you must constantly address. They have minds of their own so you must gain their cooperation via bonding. They're mortal so you must avoid working them too hard or getting them hurt or killed. IOW, no horse abuse. And you should always equip them with the best saddle and stirrups so as to get the most out of them.
Horses need food same as you. I try to feed mine morning and evening, so it's essential to stock up on horse feed prior to long expeditions. Horses also get dirty with use, which hurts their stats, so you should brush your horse at noon and evening if you spend the day riding. And all these activities segue into the next point.
Get your bonding to level 4 with all your horses ASAP. Not only does this improve control, but each level of bonding increases the horse's base stats. Feeding and brushing helps but the thing you can do the most is patting. You can do this while moving at no more than a fast trot, but then you can do it every 5 seconds. So when you have a new horse, just trot along patting it constantly and you should get to Level 4 in a day or 2 (along with regular feeding and brushing). After that, you can go faster (up to a point).
Avoid Abusive Treatment
There are bunch of things that fall into this category but they all boil down to watching where you're going and not pushing the beast too hard. Obviously, don't run into trees or off cliffs, but the horse will go around itself if you release the controls (IOW, most crashes are via your input). But also, don't ride through bushes (especially those with thorns--you'll learn which ones because they make the horse whinny). Don't cross streams or ascend or descend steep hills at more than a trot. And whatever you do, don't gallop everywhere. Your main long-distance speed should be a gentle canter--save the galloping for when you're chasing or being chased. Doing these things will keep your horse in good shape with reserves of strength for when you really need them.
Saddle and Stirrups
As mentioned above, be sure to upgrade your saddle and stirrups at the 1st opportunity, as the high-end ones really help your horse's stats.
Maintain Your Guns
Gun stats don't degrade much at once but you need to keep an eye on them and clean your weapons when they get too low to suit you. Get in the habit of checking the condition of your weapons every day, especially if you've used them a lot, or been swimming, or forded a creek, or got caught in the rain. Always have a good supply of gun oil before setting out on an expedition.
Also note that improved holsters reduce weapon degradation, so purchase upgrades when you can. The trapper sells the best upgrades but these are unlocked by doing challenges. But you want to do the challenges anyway to up your own stats, so win-win. Besides, they're fun.