Red Dead Redemption 2 Review
It starts with a snowstorm.
Like almost everything Rockstar Games creates, the unexpected should be considered commonplace. When you boot up a western adventure, a trawl through the tundra is likely to be the last thing you thought you’d see. This opening is indicative of Red Dead Redemption 2 as a whole: it’s evocative, plodding, achingly beautiful, and takes you in directions you wouldn’t expect, to see things that regularly leave you with your mouth agape.
The open world constructed here is incredible. Every acre of dramatic landscape has been crafted to near visual perfection, each frame of animation deliberately chosen to cement the setting’s realism. The tale of Dutch van der Linde and his gang is the most visually arresting experience to ever grace a game console. It knows it too: a cinematic mode is included specifically to highlight the relentless, glorious photorealism as you gallop across the plains. While the story which barrels through the core of RDR 2 is one of survival, it’s a far more nuanced, poignant affair, fit to bursting with desperate men, racial tension, misogyny and violence. It seems that this portrayal of America in 1899 is not that far removed from today’s world.
Though it’s a prequel to the first game, it’s not necessary to have played through John Marston’s adventure, though he makes a notable appearance here. Instead, you take the role of Dutch’s right-hand man Arthur Morgan. You’re tasked with helping the gang establish a new base of operations following a disastrous escapade which cost them a few lives and a whole lot of cash. Once settled into your new home, the open world actually becomes open, though it’s a worrying few hours in before you get to fully appreciate it. Be warned: Rockstar has crafted this game on their own terms. It moves at an unreasonably slow pace to begin with, forcing you through disguised tutorials to help you learn the basics of its often cumbersome controls. As a pleasant side effect, you’re forced to appreciate the time and effort that has been poured into every detail, from the multitude of side quests and emergent activities you stumble across to the delight you’ll have in finding a hilarious new novel tucked away in a cabinet to read.
In Arthur Morgan, the player has a wonderful canvas upon which to sketch their morality. Drawling like John Goodman with a forty-a-day habit, Morgan has known nothing but life with the gang since childhood. You can make him rob innocents and free prisoners, or help hunters caught in bear traps and women trapped under collapsed horses. Though it seems like the moral code of the West is still up for grabs, Morgan counteracts his violence with pleasantries: one moment you’re brutally robbing a train, the next you’re taking one of the kids in camp out fishing. Almost every aspect works because it’s so damn believable, whether or not the picture of the outlaw life portrayed here is rooted in truth or not. RDR 2 treads the line between the glamourous westerns of the John Wayne era and the harder, more visceral stories of The Proposition and Unforgiven. It has a job to dazzle, narrate and entertain, and for the most part it does all three very well.
If you are at home in an open world, it is unlikely you’ll go wanting. You can spend half an hour playing dominoes or five finger fillet in a saloon, waste countless hours robbing businesses or holding up stagecoaches, and while away days on the prairie or in the mountains hunting game or bigger beasts. Skinning a new animal you’ve downed is presented in such a meticulous, matter-of-fact way that you may be curious to learn it yourself. Bounty hunting the men and women scattered on Wanted posters around the world leads to varied encounters, quick draw duels and the reward of new weapons and items to help you craft Morgan into the outlaw you want him to be. The item catalogue is huge, incidentally, just like everything else in the game. There is a depth here that is unsurpassed anywhere else to date and will likely remain so for some time. Even picking a horse is a time investment when you need to decide on the type of stirrups you want or choose from ten different saddle colours once you’ve selected the most suitable one for your steed. If you let it, the game will let you spend dozens of hours micromanaging your own personal western tale. Yet, this comes with two main caveats: the pacing and the controls.
For such a modern game, Rockstar is stubbornly unwilling to move away from the clunky character movement and conflicting controls which have defined many of their biggest games. Morgan moves like a tank no matter which of the four different camera angles you decide to use, while horseback is better as long as you’re not trying to manoeuvre around town on it. The morality system is punitive to the point of unfairness at times, and the controls must take the brunt of the blame in this regard. Thirty hours in, I was still accidentally steering my horse into people or aiming a gun at them when all I wanted to do was bring up the dialogue option. This button mapping in particular is irksome, since many of the rescue missions involve you fending off other outlaws before talking to the person you saved for a reward. Instead, they ended up running away because they thought I was threatening them. You might accidentally get on the wrong horse and get accused of theft, or initiate combat when you’re trying to chat — and then get blamed for it. It isn’t a game breaker by any stretch, since post offices work as the Wild West version of GTA’s spray shops if you end up with a bounty on your head. But it does frustrate knowing that a bit more time spent on less cumbersome gameplay would have been preferable to seeing the meticulous animation of Morgan hanging a shot turkey delicately from his saddle.
Combat feels clunky to begin with too, but the return of Dead Eye (RDR’s version of Bullet Time) combined with numerous guns and throwable weapons starts to gel after a few hours of practice. Taking down a deer with a bow and arrow while on horseback is as badass as you may expect, and dual-wielding a pistol and shotgun is simply fantastic. It’s tempered by a three-level weapon and item wheel which is needlessly complex, but again this is a hurdle that can be overcome with time. It’ll never feel smooth, but it will eventually click. Shootouts see wood splintering around you, enemies clutching shot legs and horses rearing in panic. In many respects the chaos of aiming and firing from cover only adds to the authenticity.
On the story front, the main missions are thoroughly enjoyable in almost every respect aside from actually reaching them. Here it feels like Rockstar deliberately attempted to de-gamify travel for a more realistic experience, and the result hurts. Fast travel is a one-way trip from the van der Linde camp and while you can catch trains or stagecoaches from other locations, you need to have visited them first. Exploration is magnificent to begin with. Vistas open onto rocky peaks bathed in sunset, snow-covered forests and powerful rivers. Valentine, the first town you encounter, is the epitome of the stereotypical old West replete with mud tracks, a hay-drenched stable and a saloon with windows desperate to have someone thrown through. Later exploration further afield reveals ghost towns characterised by rundown shacks and squats, while more progressive cities are marked by thick smoke pouring from industrial chimneys. Seeing a cable car system in action feels thoroughly modern after a few dozen hours roaming around the outback.
But then you find yourself having to track back and forth across the huge map to the numerous yellow mission markers and choices must be made. When a woman I met on the road asked me for a lift back to Valentine, I had to seriously consider whether the time investment was worth it. I would have had to dump the bison fur I was carrying and take a massive detour away from my next mission. In the end, I decided against it. These kinds of decision are tough, but probably not for the reasons Rockstar may have intended. Because travel to and from destinations takes so long, there’s a genuine frustration when you have to weigh up side quests against each other. Sure, it may mean there’s more replay value since it’s impossible to see everything in one playthrough, but on the other hand you have no idea if you’re declining a dull fetch quest or something more substantial. Each mission in each chapter can be replayed with optional bonus achievements. There are scores of different challenges and well over a hundred and fifty animals. You will never be short of things to do. It’s something that RDR 2 suffers from: the sheer bulk of available activities, tasks, quests and time-fillers can feel genuinely overwhelming at times. Time-pressed players are more likely to feel anxiety than enjoyment as they realise they’ve spent three-quarters of an hour galloping up and down a valley only to find out the important mission they were on resulted in a few trinkets and no noticeable story progression.
If you are willing to invest the time though, you will be generously rewarded regardless of RDR 2’s foibles. For a start, the voice acting is pitch perfect in every regard which makes it easy to become lost in the game’s atmosphere and the hustle and bustle of a daily routine. Each of the camp’s members has a distinct personality as well as a role, and both will come to the fore through the missions Morgan undertakes. You’re forced to get to know the people you live and work with, because your survival depends on you all working together. It’s an outlaw family but it’s still a family, right down to the shared community pot of money to which each member is expected to donate. Incidentally, this is also where you’ll find the fast travel upgrade buried beneath a “lodging improvement” — you can thank me later. Most of the gang aren’t hardened criminals; just like Morgan they’re looking to survive. The main missions do jar occasionally in that regard since they require you to perform some pretty heinous acts. If you’ve been playing a saintly cowboy then you’ll have to grit your teeth through a few of these for the sake of story progress, which is a shame. The morality system feels much like the Paragon system from Mass Effect, it’s just a lot harder to become the West’s version of Mother Teresa. Even so, the game gives you the freedom to experiment as you see fit. You could rescue a hogtied bounty from another captor, cut him free and get details of a heist from him, then shoot him anyway. Shades of grey abound, but it isn’t all angsty — despite the game being relentlessly downbeat, there are moments of comedy, not least a scene early on which may be the best drunken cutscene montage ever created.
The richness of the setting spills into the game’s politics too. There are suffrage rallies and racial ethics to navigate alongside Native American culling and Civil War veterans, but with the perspective of a player in a world where advances have been made in many (but not all) regards. You’re not browbeaten with a message: the plot develops organically using the rules of the game’s setting and the social norms which were presumably acceptable at the time, and the result is powerful and often uncomfortable. Even if you have played the first game and know where the story is headed, there are plenty of moments where you’ll be caught off-guard. At times it feels like a relief to help a passer-by as you ride out of town, as if a small act of kindness can wash away the blood you’re often forced to soak your hands in. Morgan captures it all in his journal, another nice touch which indicates the inner turmoil he struggles with.
“Fun” is a subjective word at the best of times, which makes this game’s approach to creating fun such a divisive beast. It’s hard to say if I enjoyed playing the game as much as I enjoyed experiencing it. To me, this isn’t a fun game by the normal standards against which you measure gameplay. It is too lethargic, too measured, too damn clunky. Comparing it to something like God of War is pointless, since the open world of Santa Monica Studio’s brilliant reboot pales into nothingness against this sprawling reconstruction of America. The devil is in the detail, literally, because Rockstar has obsessed over every one of them. It may be the way the plants naturally move as you walk past them, or how the item shops use catalogues instead of a typical menu system. It might be the creaking floorboards as you climb the stairs of an inn, or the way a fish wriggles as you catch it, or the seamless animation of Morgan using a ramrod as he reloads his repeater during combat. It could be the ominous guitar music which hints at Morricone as well as more modern influences, or the dozens of different animations which may trigger depending on where you shoot a horse-riding enemy during a gunfight. The details draw you in, smothering you in them to the point of suffocation as you wonder repeatedly “How long did that animation take to make?” or “How many weeks of effort went into that sequence?”. You’ll weep internally for the poor developers who ploughed months into things you probably won’t even see. There’s a fully mo-capped theatre show with fire eaters, singers and a magician chucked into the mix, just because.
When you take a step back and breathe in the gun smoke, you start to realise what these 100-hour weeks have resulted in: a phenomenal technical achievement, a masterclass in storytelling and a truly absorbing game. The cost of making it over eight years was high for almost everyone concerned and it’s clear that Rockstar’s mentality is as dangerously flawed as the characters they have created. Yet you owe it to yourself to play Red Dead Redemption 2, to experience a game which is enthralling, meticulously crafted and sumptuously presented. It’s a game on an entirely different level to anything else this generation. Whether you consider it fun or not will be a personal decision.
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