The sun begins to rise on a new day. A vibrant pink pastel brush stroke covers the edge of the sky, as the stars begin to fall asleep, and that bright orange ball of light starts to peak over the mountain range. You can make out the snow covered caps of the picturesque formation, with bits of vegetation beginning to spring from the base as your eyes descend. It begins to reveal the beauty that is found throughout the land; rolling plains of luscious green grass, with a small ranch nestled within in. A heard of deer take in the serenity, while drinking from a near by pond, all the while a hunter slowly eyes them as prey from the hillside. There is a small village in the distance, with all manner of folk coming and going, on horse, wagon and carriage, while a local tribe of Native American begin their ascension further and further from the land that was once theirs. It’s breath-taking; it’s awe-inspiring; it’s barren, but at the same time so lush and lively, with energy pouring out from it. This is what Red Dead Redemption 2 provides the player, from the moment the player confirms they want to embark on this tragic tale of beauty at the main menu. In a world as living and vibrant as the one within Rockstar’s tragic tale of the dying wild West, it provides you with one of the most personal (dare I say, even loneliest) experiences in gaming to date, and it is done in such a beautiful way.
Red Dead Redemption 2, the sequel to the critically acclaimed Red Dead Redemption on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, aimed to not only improve what made its predecessor so successful, but to elevate the level of what a single player, narrative-drive game can be viewed as. In most regards, Rockstar’s newest entry succeeds in its endeavors of achieving that goal (and then some); but that’s not to say it didn’t do so without its flaws.
Much of the complaints that fans had with this installment, were the same issues the first suffered from; the most glaring of which is the controls. With the level of depth and beauty that Rockstar Games has crafted in this game, it still feels as though you’re playing a previous console generation game. Many a time while playing through the game on my PlayStation 4 Pro have I found myself going to interact with an NPC (non-playable character) by pulling my L2 trigger, only to not be completely locked onto said NPC and in turn, accidentally pull my weapon and aim down the sights of it. Many interactive functions are mapped to to the same buttons as the combative commands, and when the inverse function occurs, you either end up in a police chase for threatening someone, or you get killed by an enemy. On the same thread, the mechanics and physics behind horseback riding feel quite dated. Very often will the player find themselves locked into a full-bore gallop, only to have the horse catch the corner of a rock that wasn’t necessarily polished to have an appropriate hit box. Traversal and movement as a whole has tendencies that left me feeling frustrated at times. While at my campsite many a time I’d find myself rotating in a circle by my cot, trying to find the sweet spot in the environment that would prompt my button entry to sleep. By no means are these issues that make the game unplayable by any means, it just feels as though some small corners have more rust than polish at times.
But you know what the crazy thing about all of those issues are? None of them make me lose the connection and immersion the game has on me. For all of the dated issues the game seems to have, it is completely obliterated by the overwhelming positives this game provides.
Crafting a narrative to follow up one of the genre defining games of last generation was truly the Goliath to overcome when developing Red Dead Redemption 2. Sure, the creative heads at Rockstar could’ve taken the safe path, and continued where the epilogue of the first title left off, having Jack Marston take over the mantel of main protagonist; but Rockstar Games has never been one to play safe. From hot water to “hot coffee”, the company has always flirted with different avenues for both gameplay and storytelling for over 20 years, with many examples that parallel with the unconventional. Dan Houser, Michael Unsworth, Rupert Humphries, and the rest of the writing staff saw the deep connection fans had with the character of John Marston, and knew that there was more to tell on it. How did he get his famous scars? What caused his eventual disintegration from the Sons of Dutch? How did he become the man we eventually meet, getting off the ferry in Blackwater? But how do you tell the story of a man who’s story has a definitive end without coming off as conventional.
Enter Arthur Morgan; a man torn between the ambitions of a previous life and the ever growing domestication of American society in the late 19th century. Riding with Dutch van der Linde and his gang of misfits since he was a preteen, Arthur feels that he has a moral obligation to them, especially Dutch; the man who taught him to write and read, who taught him a code of morals to live by. Developing in this environment, Arthur has always believed the philosophy laid before him, that the gang may do “bad” things, but they are not “bad” people; a metaphoric Robin Hood in a sense. He has view points different than the people around him, but at the end of the day, quoting the man himself, “All I’ve ever known is loyalty”. While loyalty bonds the group together, it is also what begins to fray over time, as the gang begins to question the decision made by Dutch. Arthur’s character development is one that just like the over arching narrative itself, a slow burn. The outlaw tries to hang onto the ideology laid before him for the majority of his life, but sees what the new world is starting to become; and along with it, what his mentor and father-figure Dutch is becoming as well.
Yet, while the player experiences Arthur’s story from his eyes, you can tell this isn’t building to his own redemption, this is building for those who have something to continue fighting for; to live for. What you’re seeing is the building blocks of how John Marston is modeled into the man his in Blackwater of 1911, through the eyes of Arthur. Though not keen on John when he first returns to the group after taking an unexplained leave from it for almost a year, Arthur begins to see the man John could become; the same one Arthur truly wants to be. He wants John to experience the joys of life; foster the love he has with his beautiful wife Abigail Roberts, to help develop his son Jack Marston into an educated and rightful man, live a long and prosperous life. But Arthur knows that isn’t possible in the environment they’ve known for so long. “We’re more ghosts, than people” Arthur explains to gang member Sadie Adler at one point in the narrative. Wandering from town to town, clinging to the last breath of the dying, untamed West, is a life that only ends one way, and Arthur’s character begins to develop and evolve into that understanding as the plot progresses. Through death and decay, financial highs and lows, Arthur sees the writing on the wall, and uses his development to make sure those who have a chance to live a full life can do so (i.e. John Marston).
With the depth of story comes the caveat of depth within quests. Are they the deepest and most intuitive? Absolutely not. As I mentioned previously, you can feel the age of the engine and formula Rockstar has used for Red Dead Redemption 2. Feeling as though you’ve taken the first game’s mechanics and pieced it to fit in the style that Rockstar’s behemoth title Grand Theft Auto 5 has presented. Quests are quite linear, plain and simple. For all intents and purposes, there is only a limited amount of ways you can attack situations within quests to achieve the result you are looking for. For example, say I am on a quest where Arthur and a few members of the gang are pressing into another campsite to overtake it. I noticed that they are heavily armed on one side of the camp, but not the other, so I audible and decide I want to flank the weak side to catch them off guard. Doing so presents you with a “Failed” screen, in which the player must restart from the checkpoint and try again. While this is typical with Rockstar’s games from the past decade, for a game that does promote (and in my opinion, usually delivers) on this sense of openness and intuitiveness, it comes off archaic comparative to recent sandbox, open world games (i.e. the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Odyssey, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and even to an extent, Super Mario Odyssey). To me personally, I enjoy linear experiences (the Uncharted series, the Last of Us, God of War, etc). Sitting down, grabbing a controller and playing my way through a continuous story, that is almost a theatrical experience, is so fulfilling to me; dare I say therapeutic. Saying that though, I can absolutely understand those who do see a structured linearity in a game format such as Red Dead Redemption 2 has as a flaw. It seems almost hypocritical at times. The narrative these quests provide though, is what makes you want to continue the journey.
While the quests may be shorter and linear, due to its slow burn approach, the narrative isn’t meant to be a “pick up and down” play style. In a world where binging your favorite show is apart of entertainment’s normality, Red Dead Redemption 2 fits like a glove. It’s written and designed to play in four to six hour chunks. Many a nights did I find myself passing on playing the game, not because I wasn’t enjoy it, but because I wouldn’t be getting the appropriate or intended experience from it by only playing for an hour or so. Imagine it as a limited run HBO series; you’re being told a specific story, and it is meant to be viewed in a certain format.
Before putting a bow on this review, I do want to take a small aside to give credit to one area of the game that I feel isn’t being mentioned. While it isn’t instrumental to the success or failure of the game, one thing I did want to point out that I thought was an appropriate touch was how the credits played out. Usually in most titles (including movies), the credits will roll, and if the team decides to do so, a post-credit scene will play after the credits are through. Marvel Studios has all but perfected this with their cinematic universe, and it provides an incentive for fans to hang around and see who took part in making their favorite heroes come to life on the big screen. In gaming, it’s a bit different. Most games allow you to speed through the credits, or even skip them entirely; an option that moviegoers don’t have in theaters. So while it gives players the satisfaction to get that juicy tidbit of what’s to come next, or any other teases to the future of the game series they’re playing, they miss out on seeing the people who were able to bring them the hours of enjoyment. Now I get it, it’s credits; how much of a difference can Rockstar Games have made with a pretty straightforward formula?; and you’d be right, nothing major, but it is a nod that is welcomed.
After finishing the two part epilogue, there is still a decent amount of time between the events of the epilogues and the beginning of the first entry in the series. Normally, players are presented with the extensive list of credits, displaying who had a hand in helping one of the largest games of this generation come to life, then straight into the post credits scene; but Rockstar Games switched it up. They implemented portions of cinematics between slides of credits, that eventually connected the two periods in time. While it isn’t groundbreaking, it was something I noticed right off the bat as being different, and it made me put a name to an element in the experience I felt an attachment to. I now know Paul MacPherson and James Nicholson helped create the detailed world I wanted to roam on horseback; I now know Amy Gallan, Kelly Grimes and Nicole Friffee-Zuniga developed the camp system and design that helped me properly plan my adventures and make quality of life improvement for the gang; I now know Michael Kane, Joshua Bass, and Pete Armstrong headed a team that helped craft and mold the characters I grew such an affinity to. Game development isn’t a glamorous job. Normally, it’s a job that receives little individual praise, long hours, and criticism from fans as a whole. I find it important to give thanks to the unsung heroes of the gaming world. In a quote by Kinda Funny co-creator, Greg Miller, that truly solidified my aspirations on entering the gaming industry, he expressed thanks to those who make games and their importance to our industry. While accepting the Trending Gamer Award at the 2015 Game Awards, Miller state “I’m sure it comes down every day.. somebody says, ‘Is it worth it?’ And I want you to know that, on behalf of the millions of lives you’ve changed, it is worth it. Thank you for making games. I would not be the person – we would not be the people we are today – if it wasn’t for video games”; and he is truly right. I know this is necessarily applicative to the score or rating of the review, but with everything that has surrounded “crunch” in gaming, I think it is critically important we recognize those who bring so much joy and passion to this medium we love. With a game of this length, no matter if it would’ve succeed or sank, I want everyone who is apart of the development process in games to know that you are important to providing this art form to so many people. It probably means more than you will ever know.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that has so many living and breathing elements that it relates to human life pretty well; it is by no means perfect, but the sum of its unique parts come together to make something special. From its spellbinding narrative, to the picturesque and vibrant world, to the deep and intriguing cast of characters, Rockstar Games has truly created one of the benchmark experiences this generation. While the mechanics and controls feel dated at times, the experience you are given from the narrative and exploration in the world outweighs those issues tenfold.