I rode four horses during my 75-hour playthrough of Red Dead Redemption 2. Jessie, Carmichael, Jeremiah and Rachel. I loved them all dearly. I calmed them when predators were close, brushed them when their fur got dirty and fed them when they were tired. I also couldn’t escape the grief of losing them. I still remember exactly how each died and the heart-breaking permanence of it. I also recall the subsequent rampage through the rolling hills to the offending gang’s hideout, where I’d exact revenge the only way a mourning outlaw could.
Rockstar’s latest game is, as per their modus operandi, inconceivably massive. This is a Western ‘Western’ RPG with the scale of a Japanese RPG. My 75 hours allowed me to reach the end of the odyssey, and whilst that did involve taking part in as much side content as possible, it’s not as if that was a conscious choice most of the time.
Let me explain. It’s all an offshoot of the game’s finest design choice. Rockstar has forever warped the canvas of the open-world game, hell, perhaps the entire industry by giving the L2 button a powerful purpose. Usually reserved for conflict, when you don’t have any items equipped, holding this button will let you focus on an NPC and make ambient dialogue choices. You can Greet, Antagonise, Defuse, Callout or Rob depending on your situation.
Whilst this seems fairly basic on the surface, this design choice injects a palpable amount of life into the world. It encourages you to talk to the other inhabitants of the gorgeous heartland of this dying era of America. Games of this nature usually only let you kill or walk away from people that you meet. There’s more to it here. Say you're riding hard through the Bayou, you may come across a man caught in a bear trap.
Talk to him, set him free, and 20 hours later when you find yourself in a small mining town, he’ll be sitting outside the train station and call out to you, thanking you for the help and insisting to buy you something from the Gunsmith next door. Other times, you may stumble across the town drunk on your way to the train station to pick up your mail. Greeting him may lead you to an hour and a half long side mission that tactfully deals with the iniquities of history and offers an interesting viewpoint on the social climate of a post-Civil War South.
“Your choices have consequences” seems to be the ultimate buzzword for open-world games in the last decade, a phrase used to market games that, when you scratch the surface, don’t really afford you any free will. Rockstar doesn’t mince words. Red Dead Redemption 2 affords you so much humanity that you feel both like the master and the victim of its landscape.
It is the ultimate, uncompromising escapist fantasy. This game is a wild and unexpected beast that needs to be tamed, and even when you think you’ve got a measure on it, no doubt something will come up and put you right back where you started. You aren’t just a passenger in someone else’s story. You’re living a life through a controller.
Across your playthrough, people dear to you, and people you may never meet will live, die and love in this world. Buildings will rise and fall, the temperament of towns will change. You quickly realise that you are not the god of this game world. Moreso, in fact, you’re a false prophet at the whim of an America that doesn’t want nor need you anymore. This juncture of control is the driving force of Red Dead Redemption 2, an oppressing fight against the unstoppable crawl of social evolution.
You play as Arthur Morgan, the right-hand man of Dutch Van Der Linde, a tremendously charismatic Robin Hood-type with utopian ideals of a hunter-gatherer society that doesn’t bow to the new, more civilized way of life.
He raised you since you were a boy, and with no family of your own, he is your infallible guardian, a role he fills for a 20 person-strong gang that will, without conjecture, become your family for your time with the game. They reside at the constantly-moving camp and provide a reliable hub for Arthur.
Every single one of them is up for a chat when you see them. Could be an exchange of words about the weather or the current climate in camp. Sometimes they’ll ask you to go pick up an item for them in town, other times they’ll want to clear the air and go fishing, or perhaps rob a homestead they received a tip-off for. Yet, none of this feels like a forced Mass Effect style “let’s learn about your backstory” style mission. It’s just you spending time with a friend, and the small moments are life-affirming and bountiful. There are around half a million lines of dialogue in this game, which is double the amount found in Rockstar’s previous behemoth GTA V.
From the previews, it could be said that Arthur looks to be a vacuous vessel for players, a protagonist without substance. Fortunately, it is absolutely the opposite. Morgan has a provocative personality bolstered by years of experience in his line of work and the highly interesting relationships he has developed. I will stop there to avoid spoiler territory, but if this was one of your concerns, forget about it. He’s a strong man from the get go, meaning this isn’t an underdog story. Quite the opposite. I’ll stop there.
Upon the safe return of a gang member to the camp, the gang will gather around the campfire and sing songs and be merry into the night. You can dance and croon along, shooting the shit with your partner's deep into the wee hours until everyone eventually hits the hay, their bellies full of whiskey. Never have I felt so loved and comfortable in the presence of a group of virtual characters.
With over 300,000 animations in this game, they are deeply realistic people. One tiny moment I marvelled at was the witty stalwart Hosea Matthews ushering one of the gang members off of the end of a log they were sitting on to let John Marston sit next to his wife. Blink and you’ll miss it, but there are thousands of these impossibly intricate animations that give the world it's unbelievable depth.
I wanted to go out and hunt to provide for them, bringing back pelts and meat so they could eat and sleep well, as well as contributing to the gang kitty when my pockets were lined with blood and dollars. You can upgrade the living situation of the inhabitants with your keep, bolstering medical supplies and ammunition for your striving comrades. Everybody puts in where possible, and if you slack you’ll know about it.
Amongst the posse are some familiar faces: John Marston, the protagonist of the first game, his wife Abigail and his very young son Jack are all present and distinctly more naive than you may know them. Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella also feature, the men you will eventually hunt down as Mr Marston when the events of Red Dead Redemption come to pass.
Whilst every member has a fine degree of nuance, the best characters are some of the newcomers. Charles Smith is a dependable and honest man, a mix of Native American and African American heritage who is careful and enlightening when he speaks, but an absolutely confident killer in the wild. Sean Macguire is a cocksure young Irish thief with an enrapturing sense of self-belief akin to Conor McGregor, a disposition that is hard to ignore.
Perhaps the game’s best new character is Sadie Adler, a widow scorned who turns into the most savage, fiercely independent Cowgirl the West has ever known. No man can cross her, and she doesn’t ever feel trope-ish. She’s a total hard-ass and delivers some of the games most unexpected lines “My sister’s newborn had more strength than you and he came out bright blue.”
Especially when the gang gets together to ride out to solve a conflict, the feeling is absolutely exhilarating as you’re careening through the environment with the whole gang in tow to resolve conflicts and get what you’re owed.
In a Rockstar game, this incredibly diverse (but carefully depicted) cast is an absolute delight and the game’s best surprise. It doesn’t shy away from Racism, inequality and politics one lick, and this was great to see.
The social climate of the turn of the century is felt deeply by all of its characters, especially the minorities in the group. From lynch mobs, eugenics preachers, slave uprisings and the Ku Klux Klan to knocking out misogynists at a women’s suffrage rally and aiding displaced Native American tribes suffering at the hands of vicious businessmen, notable time is spent tactfully framing these issues and the people who enable them, and it is all particularly cutting and deeply analogous to our modern society without being at all trite.
Rockstar’s writing has matured like a fine wine without compromising any of its charms. It doesn’t swing low to South Park levels of boring punch-down satire but finds a marvellous middle ground. Being a group of silver-tongued outlaws, the gang share some incredible, chortle-worthy one-liners, and everybody is constantly joking or teasing one another where possible.
It can also get seriously emotional and philosophical when necessary. Plenty of lines in this game gave me pause, existential conversations and ruminations on loyalty being powerful and most importantly, incredibly well voice-acted.
Benjamin Byron Davis puts in an absolutely remarkable shift as Dutch, his voice cracking and breaking as he delivers lines in a wide range of emotional states. He owns that character and it really shows. Especially for a set of virtual outlaws, some of which we’ve met before, the way Rockstar gives them life whilst staying within the confines of pre-determined lore is an absolute triumph.
The “every shop name has to be a funny riff” style of humour in GTA V is present only when it needs to be, like in the naming of the ‘Balzac’ French cafe in Saint Denis (admit it, that’s quite good,) the New Orleans adjacent southern town that is utterly teeming with life.
When I stumbled into it I was genuinely convinced that the map could not get any bigger at that point, and I had reached the boundaries of the world. How wrong I was. To restate, this game is absolutely the most sizable RPG you’ve likely ever played. The map is utterly gargantuan, but Rockstar backs it up with an immense amount of meaningful things to do on every country road, and nothing ever really feels like busywork.
Saint Denis is most interesting because it is absolutely the opposite of everything you’ve seen up to that point. From humble hamlets and craggy hillsides, you are thrown into a city that is evolving at an alarming rate far away from the Western lifestyle you know.
A cohesive police force, trams, a growing middle-class, it snorts at the likes of Arthur and other hand-to-mouth types and brilliantly empowers the pocket of history the game is framed around. Despite being instinctively abrasive, you learn to enjoy its mod cons and accept that some of its ways of life are better than yours. You feel the shackles of civilized society gripping your principles and teasing you into a humble life away from the true grit. None of it is forced.
The corpse of the Wild West is being picked at by vultures, yet, emboldened by Dutch and his beliefs you are clinging on to it for dear life itself, with every step into the new world you make forcing you to question who and what exactly you’re loyal to, and in the end, whether this life is still for you. The complexities of your relationship with Dutch, John and the rest of the gang are explored with great tact, resulting in one of the finest RPG stories ever written.
The plot is so vast and full of excitement and ingenuity that it often borders on hallucinatory, where I’d wake up the next morning and wonder if I had dreamt the absurd, adrenaline-pumping capers I had got myself into the night before. It’s beyond any piece of Western cinema I’ve seen in my time, and whilst a handful of missions wane in comparison to the more bombastic chapter crescendos, not many RPG’s can even hold a candle to its worst efforts.
Outside of main missions, there are tons of strangers to meet, bounties to wrangle, and a literal compendium of animals, plants, weapons, equipment, treasure and collectables to find as well as literal catalogues of items to purchase and things to craft.
It demands a strategy guide. When these actions are tied to missions or narrative content, next to none of them miss the mark, and you never feel short-changed or like you’re ticking a box to get a new number, even at the most lowbrow end of the scale as far as ambient missions go, your expectations will be toyed with in compelling ways, even if some fail to reach the absurd heights of other, more nuanced stories.
The way you discover these stories is delightfully natural, like whispers from drunken patrons in the saloon speaking of an ilicit racket running out of the back office of the town Doctor’s Office. You can use this information how you wish, pressuring the store owner when they get noticeably worried as you approach the back door. Similarly, you’ll just stumble into inventors, artists and mad scientists who need your assistance, providing some of the best missions in Rockstar’s history, and most of them don’t even impact on the main plot, which has its own incredible standoffs.
Combat is similar to Red Dead Redemption albeit with everything refined ad nauseum. The guns are crunchy to fire, the feel of each being period appropriate, adapting when they run out of use and need maintenance with precious Gun Oil. There is still something incredibly satisfying about watching a gang member be dragged through the sand by their horse after putting a hole in their head with the Dead Eye system, a feature which returns with region-specific targeting elements amongst other upgrades.
You also have to think about your own survival. If you don’t eat you’ll starve, if you don’t wear the proper attire, you’ll freeze to death. If you buckle your horse over an environment element, (and by god will you do that a lot as you learn) you may have to stimulate or revive it to keep it in check. If it dies, it’s dead. No magic.
There’s a story to be told in each encounter you have, with fully animated cutscenes and clever back and forths to break the silence where possible. It’s unimaginable to compare it to any other RPG of this calibre.
The nine or so years of development and utterly extraordinary amount of passion and hard work carefully deployed into this game by its creators is seen at every turn. The controversy surrounding the amount of overtime and crunch necessary to realize this vision from a technical perspective can be easily understood by anyone playing it. The devil is truly in the details, and there is far more here than anything I’ve seen in a lifetime of playing video games.
Varmints rustle in the bushes, towns are buffeted by sandstorms, blood stains the snow. I never encountered a character model or texture that was a pain to look at, down to the tinned apricots I was picking up in the abandoned homes I was looting.
Each grabbable article is placed with care and physically there to pick up and examine before you pocket it. If you want to buy something in a shop, you pick it up and take it to the counter or use the catalogue. This topples the magic item screens seen in other RPGs that are no longer in Red Dead’s weight category when it comes to commitment to realism. It’s absolutely marvellous to look at, perhaps the best looking game we’ve had yet, especially on the PS4 Pro.
There are full, studio-quality musical performances hidden in this game for you to find, interactive stage shows, speeches and vistas that combine to create audio-visual euphoria. Outside of these, the score en masse is fantastic. Interestingly enough, my mind was cast back to the excellent soundtrack of 2006’s Canis Canem Edit or Bully when playing, especially when in combat, the same style of instruments is used to create that unique Rockstar feel when you’re fighting. It’s something that definitely stood out to me whilst playing and I cannot wait to listen to the soundtrack on launch.
You will constantly inscribe what you find in your journal, it being a means for Arthur to give his take on the situation and sketch what he finds out in the wild. As well as ruminating on the story as it moves, Arthur will talk about where you chose to sleep the night before, what you hunted and who you met, no matter how insignificant you may think the action you are taking is, in Red Dead Redemption 2, it is deeply important, and this is aided by a built-in Honor system that tracks whether you choose to be a hero or a villain, altering facets of the game in tow.
As you find things and open up the map during your travels, you may scribble a given name to the area, like the ‘Veteran’s Homestead’ by the lake, or even draw the scene of a corpse you found in a non-descript abandoned shack in the mountains, so you know where you’ve been and if you feel so inclined, where you’d like to explore more when you’re not in your current, most likely very dangerous predicament.
When it came to an end, I couldn’t really parse all the emotions I had felt across this blockbuster journey, and as the credits rolled I was given the time to reflect on just what exactly I’d spent so much time with.
This game is a work of art, a vision for the future of video games that pushes the medium, and particularly the open world genre in a thoughtful, necessary direction without sacrificing any of the satisfying gameplay we long for to keep us sated in between the narrative motions. It’s particularly tough not to be seduced by its siren song, and it’s way bigger than anyone ever expected it to be, to the point where the previews could barely do it justice.
I will never forget my time with Red Dead Redemption 2. The landscape, the characters, and my horse companions I was loyal to the end with. The game has impacted on me in a way I never expected it to, and it’s something I won’t be putting down for a long time even after completing it. I’ll be heading in on Friday to pick up a strategy guide to help me parse the rest of the game’s mysteries, and sorely sit in wait of the Online which will most likely put some of this game’s excellent design decisions to work in the arena of multiplayer.
THE VERDICT – 5/5
– Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro
Red Dead Redemption 2 studies the tired and tested genre of open world games with a keen eye before driving a hunting knife into the heart of it, rending it open and hanging its pelt on the wall with pride. It has mastered its prey and knows exactly how good it is, a sense of palpable confidence felt on every piece of ground you step foot on. This is a technical achievement for the ages, a mindblowing game, much like its predecessor that defines its console generation.
Analogous to the plot of the game, Red Dead 2 signals an end to the old, boring status quo and ushers in a new era of exploration and experience, a paradigm shift we sorely needed to revive this genre instead of settling for familiarity.
I wonder what on earth is going to possibly follow a game of this scope, and what more the genre has to offer now that Rockstar has successfully iterated on nearly every aspect that was making it grow old, elevating every part of the animal from nose to tail to stardom. Red Dead Redemption 2 will affect most games that follow it and result in great experimentation and even more nuanced experiences for fans of this medium.
Until then, I’m going to get back on my horse and ride out into the unknown, turning every carefully placed stone in an attempt to experience every single aspect of its enigmatic and story-laden world.
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