The Good, The Bad, and the Deadly
Reviewed on PS4
The most impressive thing any work of art can do is instill moments of genuine awe; instants of actual jaw-dropping disbelief as you experience something unexpectedly impressive or profound. It’s subjective, of course, what you will personally find awe-inspiring, but most will agree that it’s rare for any art to succeed at giving the audience this feeling.
And it’s almost unheard of in video games.
But Red Dead Redemption 2 deals in these kinds of moments. Or at least, it is capable of doing so, if you are open to them. The game’s greatest flaw is that you might not be.
Red Dead Redemption 2 wants to make a role-player out of you, and will die trying. Rockstar’s incredible, often ludicrous attention to detail is laudable. It can seem rather self-indulgent on the surface, and almost certainly is, but it also serves to create a virtual world that often feels real, in an honest sense of the word. People and animals move like they ought to. Every building is hand-crafted and full of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) narrative detail. NPCs offer thousands of hours of dialogue that you’ll rarely, if ever, hear repeated, and many are programmed to have their own unique, realistic behavior routines each day.
When it works, the effect this has on the player is a subtle and voluntary change in mindset. Your approach to playing Red Dead Redemption 2 becomes different than it is while playing any other game. Without even thinking about it, you find yourself doing things not because they’re necessary, but because you’ve bought Arthur as a real person, and willingly accept the game’s often molasses-slow pace. You say hello to strangers in town because they tip their hats to you. You don’t fast-travel often, because you know you’ll always find interesting things on the open road. You embrace the mundanity of everyday life in the old west, undertaking tasks with little or no gameplay benefit such as chopping wood and moving sacks of horse feed, because it’s what your version of protagonist Arthur Morgan would do for his fellow outlaws. You never willingly do anything to break your own immersion, because you’re so enraptured by the world and the story that’s unfolding in front of you that your desire to have the kind of fun you expect to have while playing a video game has dissipated.
And this is what will almost certainly prove to be the single biggest point of contention when talking about Red Dead Redemption 2. It isn’t often fun, at least not in the sense that most other games are. And when it is, it tends to be fun of the slightly guilty, hand-wringing variety. When Arthur agrees to help his partners in crime with large-scale heists or participates in massive shootouts, he usually does so in protest, whining aloud as he shoots his way out of bad situations. It may sound grating, and it is, in a way, but before too long, you’re likely going to find that you feel exactly the same way Arthur does as the action plays out, and for good reason.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel story, and Rockstar knows that you have a pretty good idea how it’s all going to end, so they frequently delight in throwing things off course. Characters die, often brutally and suddenly, and the story takes multiple unexpected and genuinely shocking turns in its final acts. Even though the game’s finale and subsequent (surprisingly meaty) epilogue sequence will probably surprise very few in terms of the biggest plot points, the journey itself is regularly surprising, emotional, and compelling.
The journey is really the greatest part of Red Dead Redemption 2. No piece of content feels underdeveloped compared to the rest, and there is a lot of it. If you feel compelled to do absolutely everything, it’s easy to argue that there’s too much, especially given that simply completing the game’s main story arc is a daunting, fifty-plus hour task. Every square inch of the map is dotted with people to meet, games to play, missions to complete, coaches and people to rob, treasures to find, animals to hunt and fish, horses to tame, and secrets to unearth.
Main story content allows you to make big narrative choices at key intervals, while side content allows for an even greater degree of freedom, often taking into account your decision to completely ignore or even kill quest-givers, should you feel so inclined. If I have one complaint, it’s less to do with the game itself and more to do with video games as a medium; despite the introduction of a new dynamic conversation system that allows for some level of negotiation and de-escalation with angry NPCs, the guns on your hip are still most effective solution to nearly all of your problems, and in a world that feels this real, it’s a bit jarring that my main vector of interaction is usually my trigger finger.
On the upside, this is Rockstar’s best open-world shooting to date, though the fact that I’m comparing to previous titles should serve as fair warning to those who have found this aspect of Rockstar’s games underwhelming in the past. It’s still the loose-feeling auto lock-on fare that has come to define the last decade of the studio’s output, for better and for worse— only this time with a little bit more flexibility in terms of fine-tuning your experience, an optional first-person perspective, and some very impactful-feeling weapons that are fun to fire. It’s a welcome improvement over GTA V’s flimsy automatic weaponry, and if you’ve enjoyed shooting up Armadillo or San Andreas in the past, you’ll enjoy those same core mechanics a little more here. But if you’ve hated it, you probably won’t be changing your mind.
The game’s control scheme shares the same issues, with complex button inputs that take hours of practice before they become anything close to second nature, and animation priority that gives the controls a sluggish, slightly unresponsive feel, especially while walking or riding around (a caveat here: I have never been bothered by the way Rockstar’s games play, and fall into the camp of people who see the complexity and relative slowness as a necessary evil, but please take heed if you feel otherwise). It is possible to fine-tune a number of these settings, but no matter how much you adjust sensitivity, the slight latency never goes away entirely.
But if none of this is a problem for you, or if you’re willing to look past the occasional clunkiness of how Red Dead Redemption 2 plays in order to experience the story, you’ll be greatly rewarded for your patience. While the main plot’s slow burn might not grab everyone immediately, it’s easily the most well-written Rockstar title to date and slides quite comfortably into my very short list of all-time game narrative greats. My fears that a new protagonist would never be able to compete with my love for Red Dead Redemption’s affably condescending family man, John Marston, proved completely unfounded. Arthur isn’t as likable as John, but this is by design. He’s a hard man, equal parts miserable, self-serious, and dangerous, but thanks to an outstanding performance by actor Roger Clark and a great script, he’s almost immediately sympathetic and continues to grow on you as more of his past is revealed. Without saying much about where the plot arc ultimately goes, the Redemption aspect of the name Red Dead Redemption comes into play in a genuinely moving way, and by the time credits roll, Arthur has developed and changed in a way that few games ever make time for their protagonists to experience.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s overall story is a grand (if familiar) plot about the death of the Old West and whether or not bad men can ever really be redeemed. It’s long, probably too much so, but it’s difficult to point out any moment that feels incongruous. Most every mission feels important in some way: developing characters, giving Arthur something novel to do, and occasionally even tugging at your heartstrings. The main thrust of the story chronicles the fall of the Van Der Linde gang, the disbanded group of criminals John Marston is tasked with killing in the first Red Dead Redemption’s storyline, starring a combination of new and established characters. Rockstar does a lot within these constraints, managing to reveal new information about familiar faces without it feeling tacked-on, and making the new characters feel just as important and compelling, despite the fact that players know they aren’t all going to make it.
Story is no longer just relegated to missions, either. A big part of Red Dead 2 is managing a camp of outlaws: making sure everyone is provided for, taking quests large and small from a sizable cast of varied personalities, and sometimes just playing games or making small talk. The conversation system in Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t perfect— dynamism means that sometimes the words that leave Arthur’s mouth don’t quite fit the context— but just as often, it feels unnervingly natural. Every time I returned to camp I made sure to speak with at least a few people, which usually illuminated their backstory, or at least gave them the chance to convey their feelings about whatever big event had just happened in the story. Somehow, I never heard the same lines twice— a credit to the absolutely massive amount of recorded dialogue in Red Dead 2, and it seemed something new was always going on: fights would break out, gang members would get drunk and annoy others, romances bloomed, and fallen comrades were mourned. This attention to detail reinforces the sense that the world is alive in a way no other game I’ve played has ever accomplished, and often illuminated these slightly stereotypical characters in a way that made them more sympathetic, deepening my investment in them as a player, and making the sting of certain losses that much worse.
Away from camp, existing in the world itself is where things can get divisive. Red Dead 2 features mechanics that I would find annoying in nearly every other game; mechanics I fully expected to find annoying by the time I was twenty hours in. Red Dead 2 expects you to regularly engage with systems that force you to eat, drink, clean your weapons, and keep your character and horse clean, at least if you want to keep your core stats up. It’s not wholly realistic— you don’t have to eat quite as often as you would in reality— but it’s frequent enough that if you absolutely hate it, you’re going to have a bad time. To my surprise, this actually ended up further reinforcing my ability to roleplay and served to further immerse me in the idea that I was living Arthur Morgan’s life right alongside him, but I can’t help but feel Rockstar would’ve been better served allowing players to toggle this system on or off. There’s a sizable number of players who will understandably find this more tedious than anything, and it’s a shame that their experience will be diminished because of it, if they choose to play the game through to completion at all.
All that said, if the writing is the reason you come to Red Dead 2, the open world itself is the reason you stay. Rockstar’s vision of late-19th century America is massive, detailed, and gorgeous to boot. Spanning five fictional states, the map is peerless in its beauty, and deceptively large. From snow-capped mountains, to gorgeous plains, murky swamps, and even a bustling city, the variety and beauty of the environments is staggering. By the time I was sixty hours in, I had never even set foot in two of those states; multiple towns full of content that I had no idea even existed were still waiting for me, long after I had begun my adventure. Please pardon me if this sounds like hyperbole, but I had moments while exploring that sent chills down my spine. Coming over the top of a mountain pass and seeing huge, gorgeous parts of the world laid out in front of me for the first time provided moments of genuine amazement. Each time I thought I’d seen all the game had to show me, or that surely Rockstar wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of putting that in the game, I was proven wrong again and again.
So much of Red Dead 2 feels like Disney-esque magic; it has systems I didn’t know could work as well as they do, and spaces that look and feel too good for the current wave of console hardware. On a technical level, Red Dead 2 does things I didn’t think were possible yet. The game’s development has been the source of much conversation of late, both because of its eight-year development cycle, an almost unprecedented amount of time in the modern AAA space, and because of Rockstar’s infamously problematic working conditions, but the former has paid off tremendously. Yes, it isn’t feasible for most studios to spend anywhere near the amount of time, money, or manpower on a single title that Rockstar and Take-Two have, but Red Dead 2 demonstrates what happens when someone does, and it’s nothing short of incredible.
But that’s the thing about Red Dead 2. Its greatest strength and it’s biggest flaw are just how uncompromising it is. And this is what will ultimately make or break the game for you: the intense, single-minded way Rockstar have pursued realism, often to an admittedly ludicrous degree, such as in the oft-ridiculed horse genital details, will either suck you into its world that much more, or break you out of it entirely. Think-pieces are already coming out criticizing the game over its obsessive inclusion of these kinds of seemingly arbitrary details, especially in light of the 100-hour work weeks employees are alleged to have worked, but (and not to defend Rockstar’s conduct), I would strongly argue that they achieved the desired effect, at least on me, because Red Dead 2’s world is the first video game world I’ve ever been able to truly believe in. It’s not perfect— minor bugs, and the occasional design limitation do persist to remind you that this is still a modern video game, not a pocket dimension containing a perfect Westworld-like simulation— but it was very rare that I came close enough to the curtain to see the wizard pulling the strings, and that alone is an incredible accomplishment.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is almost certainly the best game I’ve played this year. It’s also one of the most fundamentally flawed games I’ve played in a while. It’s an incredible achievement, and in some ways I might argue that it moves the entire medium forward, but it so slavishly adheres to its own hyper-specific vision that it leaves a lot of players behind in the process. I’m not trying to be paradoxical; the highs are just incredibly high, and the lows can be surprisingly low. Should you play it? Probably. Is it fun? Rewarding? Frustrating? Obscure? The answer to all of those is yes. It’s massive, impressive, and somehow manages to be both familiar and unlike anything you’ve ever played before, all at once. But despite the often messy execution, it’s hard not to recommend. Nobody but Rockstar is even trying to make games like this in 2018, and even though your feelings on some of the game’s weaker aspects will be defined by your preferences, if you’re a fan of video games at all, Red Dead Redemption 2 is well-worth experiencing for its ambition alone.