A Rumination on Redemption
Thundering hooves drum rhythmically over the sloping hillside, kicking up a cloud of dust that settles gently on the bending grass. A wide expanse of prairieland opens up, revealing cascading mountains in the far distance and a herd of grazing bison by the wayside. Suddenly a gunshot rings out loudly, echoing endlessly across the plains. The tranquil scene immediately descends into chaos as masked riders collide, seeking blood and reward. This is Red Dead Redemption 2.
We finally, finally, have another taste of what it is to experience the Wild West in all its glory.
Eight years after Rockstar first presented us with the instant Western classic Red Dead Redemption, we finally, finally, have another taste of what it is to experience the Wild West in all its glory. The follow-up to Rockstar’s previous game is actually a prequel, set twelve years before the iconic adventures of John Marston. Here, players assume the role of Arthur Morgan, the right hand man of the fabled Dutch van der Linde. Arthur, like John, is a tough and grizzled man who has led a hard and cruel life, but he his not without his merits. He is loyal, almost to a fault, and while he spends much of his time robbing and murdering, he genuinely does care about the people around him; it is a fascinating dichotomy to witness.
Dutch acts as a benevolent father-figure to much of the gang, and they trust him implicitly. At least, at first. Though vowing to claim freedom for his “family”, Dutch always seems to need “just a little more money” and wants to run “one more job.” This inevitably leads to trouble for the gang, who can never seem to shake the unrelenting pursuit of the law. Watching Dutch and the gang evolve and react to the circumstances around them as the game progresses is nothing short of astonishing. Despite the hectic nature of the life the gang leads, Arthur remains steadfast by Dutch, which is vital, as he proves to be quite the formidable (anti) hero.
Rockstar has crafted a world that is dizzying in its display of minute and glorious detail.
Arthur is a man of many talents, including hunting, fishing, horseback riding, fistfighting, gunslinging, and looking downright intimidating. This is good, because players will employ all of these skills frequently throughout the 60+ hour adventure. Moving Arthur around the expansive world feels very familiar for fans of the Grand Theft Auto series, as movement feels very weighty and purposeful. Though this does feel more “realistic” (which, as we will see, is an important aspect of Red Dead 2) than a lot of movement styles, it can feel slow and lumbering to a lot a players, who instead will likely resign themselves to constantly mashing the sprint button everywhere they go.
Slow and steady is really the name of the game here, however, and this is most certainly intentional. Rockstar has crafted world that is dizzying in its display of minute and glorious detail. This level of polish caused quite the buzz when the game first released back in October 2018 (as did the inherent pressure on developers to push themselves to the limit in order to accomplish this feat), but even as I sit here months later, I am still in awe at how much “wow” has been packed into this virtual world. Rockstar wants players to stop and smell the roses; this is not an experience to rush, and I feel that anyone who blasts through the main story without diverging into the massive amounts of side distractions is doing themselves a severe disservice.
There is just so much to see here, and it truly needs to be witnessed to be believed. Everything that you can see, even in the distant horizon, is somewhere that you can and should explore. No, this is not an adventure like Bethesda’s Skyrim that hides a dungeon or cave around every corner, containing large chests of endless loot. Rather Red Dead 2 has small stories scattered everywhere that its world is just dying to tell. Wildlife dots the rolling hills, the small towns are quaint but lively, and so many characters are just brimming with invigorating personality. It all just feels so alive.
Anything is possible, and that makes exploration that much more thrilling.
There are many events and random encounters that also add an extra spark of spontaneity, adding to the feeling of actually escaping into a breathing world. Perhaps you will come across a lonely man sitting at his campfire, just looking for a friend to share a drink with. Maybe you will find a couple of moonshiners who would like some help perfecting their brew, or maybe you will be accosted by a group of robbers who aim to turn the tables on you for once. Anything is possible, and that makes exploration that much more thrilling.
One of my personal favorite spontaneous experiences involved a trek into the mountains. I was implored by my brother (who was watching me play at the time) to go find a bear, and so I set off into the frozen north to do so. It wasn’t long until I happened upon a frozen lake. In the middle of this glassy mirror, a bear was guarding a fresh kill from a pack of surrounding wolves. Fascinated, I sat back and watched as the bear ferociously fended of the wolves, securing his lunch. Of course, I couldn’t sit still forever and like the brave (idiot) man that I am, I approached the bear slowly.
I am sure that a pack of wolves is a bit more intimidating than a single human, and so without hesitation the bear rushed me, roaring like thunder. It was absolutely terrifying. The beast picked me up and shook me look a ragdoll. The game prompted me to repeatedly press the “B” button on my Xbox One controller in order to free myself, and it was all I could do to shake myself from my stupor. Somehow, some way, I managed to stab the bear a few times, crawl backward, and blast it in its gaping maw with my shotgun. Finally, it fell. My brother and I both had our jaws to the floor, eyes wide in unbelief at what had just transpired. This was just a random encounter, but it felt so beautifully orchestrated. Most will never experience this, but I am so glad that I did. Afterwards, I did the natural thing: I skinned the bear and threw its pelt on my horse, ready to sell my spoils.
It is astounding to see every contour of equine muscle straining against a full gallop, and the many dynamic movements that your steed is able to perform is incredible.
Though nearly every aspect of the game contains massive amounts of wonderful intricacies, one of the best and most delightful for me is Arthur’s horse(s). These animals alone are a work of pure art. They are animated so beautifully and with such care that they really feel like living organisms. It is astounding to see every contour of equine muscle straining against a full gallop, and the many dynamic movements that your steed is able to perform is incredible. Throughout the story, Arthur forms an increasingly stronger bond with his horse (as do you, the player), which increases its stamina, health, and speed. Additionally, the animal requires care, feeding, and grooming from time to time in order to keep its strength up, and while this can seem tedious at first, it actually furthers the bonding process and fleshes out man-horse relationship.
Arthur also needs to be fed and groomed, but this process on the other hand, is quite tiresome after a while. In fact, it isn’t even entirely all that necessary. Arthur is ascribed three “cores” that each represent different attributes of his skillset. These include Stamina, Health, and Dead Eye. Stamina limits Arthur’s physical abilities (running, swimming, fistfighting, etc.), Health represents viability, and Dead Eye is a special ability that allows Arthur to essentially slow down time to a crawl, providing an opportunity to better aim and mark targets before returning to full speed. This would seem to detract from the realism, but in all honesty it only enhances the Wild West vibe.
These cores become depleted with use over time, and can only be replenished through eating, drinking, taking special items, or resting. Additionally, if Arthur goes for a long time without eating, he will become underweight, which reduces the potency of some of his skills. It can be somewhat tedious to try to remember to feed Arthur, as Read Dead 2 is not by any means a survival game, but at the very least the stat drain is minimal and adds no real bearing to the gameplay as a whole. One other “realistic” element that plunges into a bit of tedium is the process of looting containers and bodies. Arthur will meticulously search through individual desk drawers and every pocket of a fallen enemy, and while these actions are animated splendidly, after the hundredth time performing one, I just wanted to get on with it already.
I … found myself loving having to choose my armament carefully.
Combat proves to be a much more exhilarating feature, and while it does not set the bar for modern action games, it is quite serviceable here. Fans of the original and other Rockstar games (particularly Grand Theft Auto V) will feel right at home with the familiar snap-to-target aiming mechanics and playing whack-a-mole when enemies pop out from behind cover. Though a bit simplistic by nature, combat always feels satisfying; I rarely needed reminding that I was indeed quite the gunslinger. By comparison to the rest of the in-game mechanics, fighting can feel almost arcade-like, but it also pulls no punches. Bullets slam into enemies with a sickening crunch, causing their bodies to slump limply to the ground or fly loosely into the air off the back of a crazed horse. Arthur can also only use the weapons he can physically carry into combat; everything else is left on his horse. At first I found this a little annoying when I wanted to switch between three rifles over the course of one battle, but after a time I learned to adapt and found myself loving having to choose my armament carefully.
Though I greatly enjoyed combat, exploration, and the appreciation of all of the minute details, where Red Dead Redemption 2 truly shines is in its presentation of its characters. The story itself is well told and certainly worth playing until the very end, but it really would not give much reason to care except for the incredible (and horrible) people that populate it. We knew from the first game that Dutch was a high-profile outlaw, but we didn’t really know him as a person. His character becomes fully revealed here, and watching him transform from a bold and charismatic leader to the shell of a man he is in the original Red Dead is astonishing.
The gang itself is especially wonderful. Yes, many of them are just seedy-looking fellows who have only known a cruel life, but there is a great sense of family here, and it is impressive how Rockstar was able to convey that. Every member can be conversed with, and I definitely recommend you do so as it enriches the humanness of each character. Additionally, and most entertainingly, the gang will on occasion have a party, and will celebrate by singing boisterously around a glimmering campfire. As a player, there is not much more to do than sit and listen, but this just further emphasizes the beauty in breathing everything in. I sat for what felt like twenty minutes just listening, a stupid grin plastered on my face. These elements are what made Red Dead 2 feel like a real escape to a living, breathing, and meaningful world.
The later chapters really amp up the intensity, and I definitely had my jaw drop to the floor on many occasions
The story itself is also quite good, and has many twists and turns that are, for the most part, quite fun to follow. The narrative is split into six chapters (followed by two epilogues), with each encompassing a different feel and urgency. The first two chapters are likely my favorite overall, but only because they held the most wonder for me, and didn’t push too hard for me to finish. The later chapters really amp up the intensity, and I definitely had my jaw drop to the floor on many occasions, but there were also times that I felt shoehorned into taking a particular path before I wanted to, and the focus became combat-centered rather than fully incorporating the rest of the wonderful mechanics. The game does finish in spectacular fashion, however, and deserves to be seen to the end.
I have highlighted my love for exploration, and while I believe that is highly encouraged here with Red Dead 2’s rich and extremely large landscape, I can also see where some players may not be so thrilled. After awhile, many missions will require you to traverse across the entire map, which can take a very long time. At first, this is okay, because you are exploring new territory, but after you have crossed the terrain many times, you may grow tired of galloping for miles on end. There is a fast-travel system that can be obtained from buying an upgrade at the main camp, or buy purchasing a stage coach or train ticket, but these are in and of themselves tedious to get to and use. I personally did not mind so much, but the slow and plodding pace may be too much for some players.
Red Dead 2 is best played in short spurts, rather than long marathon sessions.
Incidentally, this brings forward another issue, and one that has been present in Rockstar games for awhile now. I do love the slower pace of Red Dead 2, but a few elements are more annoying than illuminating. Most prominently, nearly every time you begin a mission with an NPC, you ride out with them to the mission destination. They often ride at a much slower pace than you as a player would, and they decide to also talk your ear off the entire ride down (which can take upwards of 5 minutes or so). At first this is okay, but after the 50th mission, I really didn’t care too much what my gang member had to say and are we there yet??
This is especially noticeable in one of the final chapters, which has you traveling back and forth across the entire map quite frequently. If you plan out the order of missions you take carefully, the annoyance can be alleviated, but for the most part a lot of your time is spent riding a long way uneventfully. Because of this and other pacing issues, I think Red Dead 2 is best played in short spurts, rather than long marathon sessions. It can be very easy to feel burnt out after the long journey, and it would be a shame to feel the urge to rush through this really well-crafted drama.
Overall, I absolutely loved Red Dead Redemption 2. As the final credits rolled, I was emotionally and physically drained. Due to life’s time constraints, it took me three months to finish (hence this much-too-late but important-to-me review), but I feel that this only bettered the experience as a whole. I was teary-eyed knowing that the journey was finally over, and felt that I had been a part of Arthur’s life for forever. The characterizations depicted here only enhanced my memory of the original game, and provided me with a more cohesive Red Dead Redemption experience. The tempo can feel slow and plodding at times, but for those who are willing to slow down and appreciate the craftsmanship, Rockstar’s latest is a quintessential masterpiece.
Yes, if you:
- Enjoy sprawling and epic adventures
- Love the Wild West genre
- Want a moving and impactful story full of interesting characters
No, if you:
- Are looking for something fast-paced and constantly action-packed
- Are one who likes to skip every cutscene
- Want something that focuses more on action than realism
Red Dead Redemption 2 originally released on October 26, 2018 and is available on PS4 and Xbox One (Reviewed).