Developed: Rockstar Studios
Published: Rockstar Games
Platform: PlayStation 4
Released: October 26, 2018
The Red Dead franchise holds a special place in my heart, because it reminds me of what Rockstar Studios can do when they really try to make something remarkable. Grand Theft Auto isn’t a bad series, but the games always feel like a dumping ground for the studio’s least savory impulses. The writing is a uniquely obnoxious blend of nihilistic and contemptuous, insisting on its own satirical pretense with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the depth of a soap dish.
The original Red Dead Redemption released in 2009, a relatively serious drama about John Marston, a former bandit tasked with hunting down the members of his old gang in exchange for his freedom. It was like a breath of fresh air. The chaos of the Wild West set an appropriate tone for Rockstar’s brand of heavy-handed social commentary, and the cowboy aesthetics offered new mechanics for the studio to explore. On top of that, John Marston was such a powerful, tragic, and sympathetic character. His journey to find Dutch van der Linde is a hard one to forget.
After almost a decade and a few too many 100-hour work weeks, Rockstar released Red Dead Redemption 2, a massive, spectacular, sluggish, and finnicky monolith of Rockstar’s development ambitions and of AAA games in general. At once, it’s an unparalleled technical achievement with strong character writing and a seamless open world, while also burdening itself with excessively realistic systems and the financial nuisance of online microtransactions. It really is a title that suits all extremes.
Red Dead Redemption 2 starts with the van der Linde Gang fleeing the city of Blackwater after a heist gone bad. The leader, Dutch van der Linde, led the group into the mountains for an extended reference to The Hateful Eight before bringing them back into town to recoup all the money they lost. We play as Arthur Morgan, a senior gun in the gang and the first person to notice that something hasn’t been right with Dutch since they escaped the city. Despite his years of loyalty, he starts to distrust his increasingly unstable leader.
Arthur’s is ultimately a story of conflict. He wants to remain faithful to the man who practically raised him, but when plans fall apart and people start dying, he can no longer ignore what is clearly an evident breakdown. Caught between his duty and his reason, Arthur is forced to examine his own sense of right and wrong, something he must figure out by himself and not at the behest of his gang. Exploring the country on his own provides a chance see how Dutch’s precarious ideals play out in a ruthlessly advancing world.
Thankfully, exploring the country is one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. Red Dead Redemption 2 features one of the most organic maps I have ever played on, driven by its interactivity and consistent cohesion. While it’s easy to point to the obvious, glowing mission icons and call that antithetical to the open world’s pretense toward freedom, there was still palpable effort spent weaving the narrative threads together and placing them alongside a world filled with choices and surprises.
Firstly, each main story mission can be approached in any order, and the ones Arthur chooses first are often remarked upon in the subsequent quests. Best of all, they each come with a chance to learn more about the colorful members of the van der Linde gang. While I have my personal favorites (Lenny, Sadie, Sean, Karen, and a few others), each one has such a memorable and distinct personality that always adds some flavor to the world. I can’t help but appreciate how the narrative showcases their conflict, cooperation, and changes in attitude over time.
Some of these main missions even end by introducing Arthur to the eccentric personalities trying to make their way in a chaotic world. These aren’t just fluff tasks either; the optional quests provide richly-detailed encounters with well fleshed-out characters, many of whom go on to provide players with ample comedy, tragedy, inspiration, and vindication. Each one fits into a larger understanding of the American West and her outlandish people. There’s a lot of exceptional content to find when following the dotted lines to planned events.
However, the real beauty of Red Dead Redemption 2 comes from random encounters; the little interactions that provide the world with a constant sense of dynamism and reactivity. These are sporadic interjections of world building, danger, tragedy, and absurdity that can come from anywhere at a moment’s notice. Arthur may run into odd strangers who ask him to go on ridiculous gathering quest, hunting down dinosaur bones or cigarette cards. He can even track down a serial killer from the clues left inside mangled corpses.
Most tasks involve helping strangers. Wandering prospectors get bitten by poisonous snakes, bandits hold up carriages, animals attack unsuspecting workers, and women need to be freed from the clutches of rapacious men. What’s great is that each nominally similar encounter has slight variations that make them more memorable. Some people will refuse medicine when you offer it, and others are just horse thieves pretending to be in danger. I personally enjoy giving rides into town. These brief escorts often serve as introductions to new cities and territories, adding important narrative texture to the locale and their people.
Of course, going around acting like such a do-gooder will bring the wrath of other gangs, many of whom set up ambushes all along the road. While the Lemoyne Raiders and O’Driscoll boys prefer jumping out at your from behind rocks, the Murfree Brood stage clever traps, often laying out bodies or appealing treasures and attacking you in the middle of the long Looting animation. I even did a little jump when a room full of seemingly dead bandits turned out to just be asleep, correcting my assumptions with immediate gunfire.
Yet for all of the elaborate encounters I could face along my journey, some of them weren’t even that extensive. Occasionally, I had the opportunity to give to the poor and get rewarded for my generosity, while also speaking to some wounded Civil War veterans. If I was really lucky, I’d just run into a strange person shouting at nothing in particular, an awkward encounter designed entirely to raise my eyebrows. I don’t often play games with such inexplicable nonsense, yet here’s Red Dead Redemption 2 proudly declaring that intense man-drama can also be silly.
Yet for all the good content I just described, the true brilliance of the design lies in the interconnectedness. An inferior open world game like Assassin’s Creed Origins would turn these events into a massive mission checklist, an exhausting pile of objective markers scattered haphazardly across a diffuse digital field. Poorly designed open world games quickly become a collection of “time-by-XP” transactions, the economics of which can cheapen even the most lovingly crafted quests and characters.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s content is muddier and more thoroughly blended. Random encounters lead players to side mission threads that help contextualize the major story beats. Some main missions end with updates on side characters, or they put Arthur in the proximity of previously undiscovered secrets. I found a clue for the aforementioned serial killer’s hideout just by following a random trail of gore that started on the side of the road, so forgive the pun when I say that these random encounters bleed into each other.
While it’s definitely an accomplishment that all these pieces fit together within the structure of a video game, I especially loved how they even informed Arthur’s central conflict. The man is torn between the kindness he demonstrates when left to his own devices and the terrible things he has to do for Dutch and the gang. This contradiction is consistently acted out by juxtaposing the restrictive main missions alongside the agentic secondary content. We’re literally put in the shoes of a man who wants to be good but feels obligated to be terrible.
At the command of the gang, Arthur gunned down a town to save Micah (the worst human being imaginable), violently collected debt from destitute families, murdered boatloads of relatively innocent people, and stood idly by while Dutch’s descent from reason took down everyone he cared about. It’s quite shocking how few friends Arthur had by the end of the game, a lifetime of loyalty amounting to a tired body and a guilty conscience. You start to wonder how he could redeem himself, until you see how he acted on his own.
As junior guns in the van der Linde gang, Sadie Adler, Lenny Summers, and John Marston all looked up to Arthur. He helped Lenny fight back against racist ex-Confederates who terrorized the state of Lemoyne. He gave Sadie renewed purpose by supporting her role as the gang’s first gunwoman. John Marston, in particular, was a radically different person from the man we knew in the original Red Dead Redemption. Much of his likability in the latter game was owed to his relationship with Arthur, the man who showed him how to be a better father.
Even beyond his relationship with his friends, (my) Arthur was a selfless man who helped anyone in danger and freely gave his ample possessions to those who needed them. It got to the point of feeling like a lie of omission; that allowing people to think he was a good man was a form of deception. He wondered if others would take back their praise if they knew the man he believed himself to be. The players got first hand experience with this contradiction, and even if his complacency with Dutch’s behavior lasted a bit too long during the final chapters of his story, it did ultimately help culminate in a powerful and conclusive standoff.
Arthur Morgan was one of the most compelling characters ever featured in a video game, and the overall construction of Red Dead Redemption 2 largely contributed to that acclaim. The moment-to-moment gameplay, however, might not “wow” you in the same way. This is not a game anyone can blast through and expect to enjoy. Each mission was long and elaborate; heavy with dialogue and predominated by traversal. Arthur spent most of his time on his horse, and the scarcity of fast-travel points honestly made them useless.
This game depends entirely on the player’s willingness to immerse themselves in the cowboy persona, taking a slow and deliberate pace to every minute action necessitated by that role. It’s important to hunt animals for food and items, taking great care to identify the highest quality animals and kill them with the right weapons. The meat needs to be cooked in camps, and the pelts need to be sold to trappers for item customization, since they aren’t that valuable otherwise. Despite the action-packed introduction to the Legendary Bear, hunting still requires a level of patience and planning that most other games do not expect from their players.
The guns fire at a more realistic rate, mimicking the slower mechanisms inside firearms from that era. Weapons also need to be cleaned and maintained, otherwise they lose some of their effectiveness. While weapons are never at risk of breaking or becoming entirely ineffective, the extra performance from a well-maintained firearm can still make a difference. After the firefight is over, players can pick up and loot each individual corpse while shopping for hats that have fallen off the heads of dead bandits.
Taking care of the horse had its own extensive collection of mechanics. Arthur needed to brush his horses to keep the dirt from causing sickness, feed the horse to keep it from collapsing, and pet the horse to strengthen their bond. After all, a friendly horse will tolerate all kinds of abuse during a bullet-riddled getaway. Just be sure not to trample any pedestrians or crash into any carriages when you canter into town. Not only will you lose the animal carcass stored on your horse’s rump, but you’ll also acquire a bounty for your negligence.
Anyone who isn’t ready to navigate these myriad interlocking systems will have their blood boil at the design excesses. While surprising amount of this game’s functions don’t need to be touched in order to make progress (saving grace for those with less patience), engaging with the auxiliary content has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting how unwieldy the controls can be. The over-animation hinders precise maneuverability and makes it hard to navigate tight spaces. This fixation on little details, while appealing to look at, can really clog up the game, especially during combat.
The actual gunplay was not as much of an issue as the cover system. It was awkward and minimally responsive, especially on anything that wasn’t a flat, square surface. Trees in particular were bad for popping out of cover to aim your gun, so I always found a different thing to hide behind. Once I got behind cover, killing was as easy as letting the auto-aim find a target and correcting a bit for the headshot. Having to run around during any gunfight became its own nightmare, as the clumsy controls were all the more obnoxious when paired with a demand for speed.
The melee combat, however, is incredible. The detail bogging down the gunplay only enhanced the pugilism, as lavishly designed strikes landed with visceral impact. Every punch, kick, choke, slam, stab, beat down, and execution felt like returning to the highly “intimate” combat of God of War (2018) and feeling the weight behind every hit. Running someone down, tackling them, and beating them in one-on-one combat was far and away the most satisfying way to fight. Rockstar will need to make a boxing game if their melee combat stays this good.
Then again, even the developers seem at odds with how sluggish their game wants to be. At the end of each story mission, players received a medal (bronze, silver, gold, or platinum) for completing the quest with certain specifications, and the most frequent of these challenges is to finish the mission in under a certain amount of time. Despite the demand for slow-paced play, the game constantly pressured players into rushing to the end. What was the sense in laboring on every detail only to reward the players who ignored them?
I tore a bit deeply into the things I didn’t like about Red Dead Redemption 2, but that’s not to take away from how powerful its best components are. Again, I had enough fun role-playing as a cowboy, so the narrative, character writing, and the (technically and interactively) masterful open world design. Far from succumbing to its forgone conclusion, this prequel/sequel provided a gripping story on its own while completely recontextualizing that game that came before/after. It takes real skill to pull something like that off.
I thought about including Red Dead Online in my review, but hearing about the grind that goes into getting Gold Bar premium currency just put me off even trying. It’s bad enough that Rockstar had some of its own staff work 100 hours per week to make the game, I don’t want to spend that much time playing it. Maybe I’ll get my friend to play with me so our conversation can drown out the ploys for money. Looking at just the single player content though, Red Dead Redemption 2 is still a standout title, wholly worth your time and attention.
★★★★☆ – Strong