Most games that have the budget, development time and raw expertise that have been poured into Red Dead Redemption 2 will tend to open with something showy. Whether we’re talking about the tense, heart-pounding ship to ship combat in Halo, or the nerve-wracking advance up Call of Duty’s Omaha Beach, big games tend to begin with large, impressive set pieces. Red Dead Redemption 2 does the opposite, introducing the player to what they can expect in a low key manner that sets the tone for some sixty odd hours of adventuring.
That’s not to say that the snowy blizzard in which the opening half an hour or so of Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place is anything less than spectacular, it’s just that it has a low key beauty to it that belies how technically challenging it must have been to create – snow furrows appear in real time, whilst character animations change depending on how deep the snow is. These early scenes are striking in their silence and stillness, which is exactly why Red Dead Redemption 2 gives them to you early on – they are but a precursor for the incredibly vibrant scenes you’ll find elsewhere.
I didn’t realise what an incredible game Red Dead Redemption 2 was going to be until I arrived at Horseshoe Overlook, the first of the semi-permanent camps that the player and their gang will inhabit throughout the game. Having dragged a wagon through mountain passes and across grassy plains, Horseshoe Overlook is, literally, a clifftop vantage point that presents the player with view that is far more breathtaking and far reaching than any that I’ve seen elsewhere. Not in Skyrim, nor in The Witcher III, nor in any other game have I ever looked so far, for so long at a virtual landscape for no better reason than to soak in the view. Wait long enough and you’ll even see day turn to night, as protagonist Arthur Morgan exclaims his distaste at the lack of progress.
Not in Skyrim, nor in any other game have I looked so far, for so long
In contrast to the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 (which is all but flawless) Arthur makes for an interesting but not wholly convincing lead character. As the unofficial second in command of the Van Der Linde gang, Arthur is well placed to both give and receive orders, allowing him a good level of agency and freedom over his own actions, whilst still ensuring that Red Dead Redemption 2 retains a sense of structure. More often than I’d like, Arthur takes on a task that should really be handled by a lower ranking member of the gang, but these missions result in some of the most raucous fun, so I’m glad they are here.
Arthur also seems to struggle with which side of the law he wants to be on and he feels to me as though he is acting out a Western equivalent of a D&D character that is aligned to True Neutral. The player can take actions to help or hinder others (by saving them in one of the hundreds of brief encounters, or by robbing just about anyone) in order to affect Arthur’s aligment, but he’ll always tow the line in story missions, which makes him feel a bit hollow. I hated Trevor in Grand Theft Auto 5 with a passion and his missions made me feel as though I needed a shower each time I finished one, but if I’ve learned to appreciate anything in games and movies, it’s that characters that evoke a reaction like that must be well done, even if you don’t like them. Arthur never made me feel anything, really, though unlike in all Rockstar games since San Andreas, the player is at least free to forge their own destiny.
With that bombshell landed, there’s a lot more to discuss. In much the same way as it begins with a slow, deliberate opening that holds back its full majesty, Red Dead Redemption 2 also shies away from modern, immediate control systems. Even the simplest of actions (with perhaps pulling the trigger the only notable exception) require buttons to be held for a fair few seconds. With that done, whatever action it is that you might have been taking will often be accompanied by an animation that lasts upwards of four or five seconds. Key to enjoying Red Dead Redemption 2 is learning to savour these moments, rather than wish they were and done with.
Some (but not all) come with important in game considerations that add to and impact upon the reasoning behind them. Shoot an animal and you can skin it and strip it of valuable meat, but a horse, in most cases, can only carry one carcass. If you kill two bison and simply leave one, then all you’ll eventually do is exhaust the supply of bison. You won’t be warned, you won’t be chastised and you won’t be able to carry both pelts – you’ll just have wasted your time and made the game harder for yourself in the future. Likewise, if you start stripping bodies in the middle of a gunfight, you’ll likely be shot. If you wait until the end, then the whole gang will begin to strip bodies and you’ll get less loot.
This ebb and flow of time and effort, risk and reward or feast and famine is pervasive throughout Red Dead Redemption 2 and you can never escape it. There are no upgrades that speed of skinning or looting, although there are some that increase Morgan’s ability to carry more and more of the spoils. Again, these tend to require him to have achieved something in the first place – like having hunted a legendary animal, or at least a requisite number of normal ones. To obtain upgrades, Morgan returns his skins either to his own camp cook, named Pearson, or to a wandering trapper who has much more impressive wares available to him.
Interacting with Pearson is just one way in which Red Dead Redemption 2 links the activities of the players to the gang’s camp, but it’s probably also the most self-serving one. Pearson can upgrade Arthur’s kit in various relevant ways, as well as many that are purely cosmetic – such as tent upgrades and such. Arthur can also donate food and money to the camp as well, which has a less directly beneficial effect on him, but which is nonetheless much more greatly appreciated by the other camp members. With enough food, booze and cash, the camp can break out into an impromptu party, whilst when times are hard, it really shows. These ups and downs serve to create a strong sense of community that was, for me, much more important than the occasionally small-time antics of the main character – which is another difficult thing for a video game to achieve.
I would challenge anyone to get bored playing Red Dead Redemption 2
In story terms, Red Dead Redemption 2 really does everything that you’d expect from a publisher as innovative as Rockstar, especially considering that the Western theme is still criminally underused in video games. From bar crawling benders, to set piece stage coach heists, there’s real variety here and I would challenge anyone to get bored playing Red Dead Redemption 2, if all they intend to do is work their way through the story and key side missions. Those parts of the game have a lot more impetus than you’ll find in simply wandering, so at least Red Dead Redemption 2 offers a number of different ways to consume the action, regardless of how you feel about the slow, ancillary elements like hunting, poker or whatever.
Gunplay in Red Dead Redemption 2 is fairly good, although perhaps not as weighty as you might like it to feel. There are a lot of weapons to choose from, to clean and to upgrade, but only the likes of the double barreled shotgun and some of the larger pistols and hunting rifles pack a real punch. If that is a problem, it’s somewhat lessened by a nice auto-aim that works well when riding on horseback and really conveys a feeling of excitement during some of the lengthier shootouts. Arthur can lock to and peek out of scenery, but overall the standard, on foot gunfighting in Red Dead Redemption 2 is probably at best on par with the average among similar third person shooters. The reason you’ll engage combat is to see what’s coming next, more often than not.
Among the top five games of a generation
Looked at in isolation, there are several things that don’t work in Red Dead Redemption 2, from the slightly dull central character to the mundane gunplay, but when balanced against what Red Dead Redemption 2 does well, the whole starts to come together. Firstly, it has the most impressive game world I’ve ever seen, possibly with only Breath of the Wild and The Witcher III in competition for the same title. Secondly, I think it does more with that world even than those two incredible titles – the incidental missions and interesting meetings are ten a penny, even if the vast majority of them are inconsequential. Morgan himself isn’t that exciting, but his gang is, as are the changes (both physical and emotional) that they go through – Arthur is simply the lens through which we watch the story unfold.
In short, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece of slow burn storytelling set in an incredible and visionary rendition of the American West at the end of the age of outlaws. It’s a thoughtful and often thrilling game that rewards players with more and more output based on how much is put into it. It keeps its secrets close to its chest – from the early reveal of its vistas to the people and places that lurk in the corners of the map. Red Dead Redemption 2 offers an experience that I recommend anyone and everyone should have, but at the same time, I think I can name four or five games that I like playing more. Still, it’s not bad being considered among the top five games of a generation.