Hold your horses, folks, I haven’t written about a video game so long I might as well write something about Red Dead Redemption 2!
In the Dutch Van Der Linde gang, people from all sorts of troubled walks of life gather and mingle. Among them is Arthur Morgan, protagonist of the game, unsure where life is taking him – and he is not the only one. The times are dire for them: after a failed coup, the group is on the run from the law, leaving behind everything, gaining nothing in exchange but a grim outlook on the reality they have to face. And as these last outlaws struggle against a world that is rapidly evolving and heading towards a place of rules, barriers and limits, all bent on denying the gang’s very existence, they set out on a trip to reach their dreamed of promised land.
Unbeknownst to them, it will be their last journey.
By all means, I should not have liked Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s a game that’s a prequel to a game I wasn’t too fond of for numerous reasons, GTA V was hardly a convincing performance when it comes to Rockstar’s line of games, least of them all its MMO shenanigans, there is an open world with massive empty open spaces and the amount of cutscenes is a daunting one. In a day and age when games sadly refuse to be played instead of watched, why should you bother with Red Dead Redemption 2?
Because, as it turns out, it’s a damn good game.
I had a hunch I might end up liking Red Dead Redemption 2 despite my previous misgivings when actually looking at what was presented: Where the first game told a one-man revenge story against people the protagonist knows yet you don’t, set in very boring, very flat terrain, this one seemed to be different: A group adventure of outlaws slowly but surely falling out of touch with reality and each other set in a world that’s so alive and changing, whenever I watched the previews, this game looked like the complete antithesis to its predecessor. And, most importantly, I liked what I saw – it all very much seemed amazing. And then I figured: “buy Red Dead Redemption 2.”
Wherein Red Dead Redemption fails, Red Dead Redemption 2 revels. This already starts with the Dutch van der Linde gang. As you play as Arthur Morgan, you are not just a sole individual making your way through the Wild West but a traveller among other travellers, a criminal among other criminals – yet despite that, the many characters are varied and not always one of a kind. This game offers you an entire group of people to care for and it’s one big key factor to my motivation that the things I do just don’t fill my own pocket inside the vacuum of a game world but actually serve a greater purpose.
It doesn’t take long for Red Dead Redemption 2 to display its strengths – its extreme dedication to detail and polishing. Just as the story starts out when the gang takes refuge in the mountains, stuck in a blizzard, you get the full experience of technical marvel – as you plow through the snow, you leave behind traces in it. And the snow just resounds as snow should just as it slightly glitters the way real snows would. And it also makes way like snow should. And as you shoot a deer but don’t kill it the first time, it limps away, its blood coloring the snow red. On its way to nowhere in particular, it brushes by a tree – the snow located on said part of the tree falls down on the ground. Thus I came to realize very early on that this was a game that went the extra mile with absolutely everything when it came to immersion. Red Dead Redemption 2’s details aren’t just any details, they go way further than in other games.
It’s not just the stunningly beautiful graphics or the rays of light making it through the trees. It’s not just the beautiful sound design as guns fired in the mountains create an echo whereas elsewhere that’s not the case and wind makes fragile wooden houses resound and camp fire both looks and sounds the part. Almost everything about Red Dead Redemption 2 is a sight to behold and pure sound porn. Just strolling through the game is an audiovisual experience and technical phenomenon.
Add to this the attention to detail generally presented within the game: There is a super atmospheric, amazingly detailed setting to explore and it’s not hard to see why the folks at Rockstar claimed that the world was what they had prioritized the most: Did you know that when you kill a turtle and dissect it, Arthur will turn it around to carve out innards right from the center of its bottom because that’s the anatomically correct way? Or that NPCs will get scared if you follow them for too long? And then there’s how you can hear voices from within non-enterable buildings, making the various settlements within the game feel much more alive. Also, if you tie someone up and throw them into shallow water, they will try their best to turn around and heave their heads above water in order to survive. And just as wagons and horses leave behind trails, you leave behind foodprints in the mud. In case of rain, puddles might start to form inside said footprints even. And speaking of rain, you’ll also see water dripping down from roofs.
Immersion easily ranks at the bottom of the things I care about in a video game.
But when a game is this good at it? If this is the consequence of manpower and budget thrown at a single project ad absurdum, who am I to complain?
What’s more, the optional side missions are charming, wacky and out there. This is a world that feels alive with its random encounters and sidetracks in a way that I immediately ended up missing when I went back to other games. There might always be lurking something behind the next tree.
At some point, you might come across a crazy scientist trying to create artificial intelligence. At another spot, you help out brothers duking it out to see who’s the tougher man in competition for their one true love and thus get to hit them in the face. There are puzzles to solve to find treasures or reach hideouts of grizzly murderers thinning out the population. I once even saw a UFO and no, I am not making this up. And who can forget about the creepy incest couple? Just doing the story missions would be doing this game a huge disservice when there’s an entire world of wonder to explore. Red Dead Redemption 2’s details and the discoveries to be made are just straight-up on a new level.
Not to mention that as your adventures progress, so does the world around you. Forests get corroded and houses built. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Arthur is the protagonist of this game or the world he inhabits.
And you are by no means alone in this world. The importance of the camp as a place to return to, inhabited by all kinds of people swept along or moving forward on their own, can’t be understated and neither can its quality. The camp, in several ways, feels like a culmination of what makes Red Dead Redemption 2 so good. Contrary to the first game, this game feels communal.
And there is a good reason for that – something that’s really a standout strong point is that these people have their own things going on: Characters interacting with each other regardless if you’re there, care or not, there are group dynamics between the gang members that don’t primarily serve you but are valid on their own. There is not a single NPC stoically standing around, waiting for you to interact with them. It’s a place that feels so alive, much more than anything else I’ve ever seen in a video game. From characters singing songs to telling their life stories to having an argument, it’s all there.
But it not only attests to the care that went into Red Dead Redemption 2 and quality that came out of it, riding and shooting and robbing for the people that wait for you is also one huge source for a boost of motivation.
Obviously, you also get to interact with these characters a lot during missions – these are, in typical GTA fashion, your shorter or longer quests to shoot, rob, bribe someone, something, a whole group of people or get aboard an entire train and well… it’s a Wild West game, do I really need to elaborate more on that?
All of that for the purpose of making enough buck to preserve your camp and move elsewhere in search for a place where a gang of outlaws can be just that and live a life in a reality that doesn’t want them eradicated. The missions and their framework are all solid and for the most (or rather first) part, you get a whole variety of things to do but it admittedly doesn’t take long for the entire structure to reveal its flaws: While the overall plot shows ambition and the character writing is lively, the narrative executing the plot is not and hindered by a game serving the purpose of constantly giving you something to do.
What Red Dead Redemption 2 does on paper is incredibly strong: “seeking something that isn’t this” and the notion comes across. In execution however, this boils down to “we gotta do these missions and surely Lady Luck will bless us then with enough money to escape” and guess what, we all know she won’t. Since, well, the game would be over immediately otherwise. As a result, a lot of missions end in failure for the gang or at least don’t absolve them from their misery and that’s a status quo that’s kept absurdly long to the point of redundancy and ridiculousness. At some point, you’ve heard “DUTCH I DON’T KNOW IF THIS IS A GOOD IDEA” “ARTHUR, WHY DO YOU DISTRUST ME? JUST THIS ONE MORE SCORE AND WE’LL BE SET TO PLUCK MANGOS IN TAHITI. ALL WE NEED TO IS HAVE FAITH” a dozen times. The classic GTA structure does not lend itself well to the storytelling aspect.
This obviously does not go by unnoticed by the other gang members and they start to question Dutch as a leader. Which is all right and good as this is a game about a gang falling apart but it generally goes on for a bit too long. There also isn’t as much of a gradual decline of a colorful group kicking in at some point, the group is already in decline when the game begins and a 24/7 emergency state and characters talking of desparation as you head out in the fields to blow some poor farmer’s head off just because you felt like it just don’t sell it. I can feel the ambition. I can’t feel the result. And everyone reiterating how much of a great leader Dutch was but he’s now losing it is more telling than showing – after all, neither the Dutch of the past nor the group’s successes are known to us.
There is this supposed sense of urgency in the camp and you best all contribute to it in form of donations but nothing happens if you don’t. If you don’t bring in food, the butcher will complain but everyone’s far from starving. There is always this talking about the lack of money but you rake in a lot of cash and I’m never seeing the dreaded poverty or effects of the cash we earned. The script is telling me one thing but reality doesn’t reflect it so I’m getting rather mixed messages. Also, as much as I enjoy the aspect of camp contribution in theory, it’s oftentimes a bit too burdensome with too litte of a reward. Congratulations on getting those rare perfect pelts so you could… put some animal hide on the table? With several of the upgrades, I couldn’t even tell you the visual difference before and after upgrading. Apparently our barn for chicken has somehow improved now. Hooray? I feel like Ys 8 made for a rewarding system.
I should probably also bring up that the aiming is absolutely terrible and coming straight from the predecessor where that wasn’t the case was just utterly baffling to me but maybe auto aim helps. I wouldn’t know. And speaking of inexplicable derangements, don’t ask me what purpose Chapter 5 or half of Chapter 6 were supposed to serve. Just… don’t.
There are also a couple of riding segments that are entirely too long for their good and they do get glaringly obnoxious in Red Dead Redemption 2’s last chapter inbetween the missions as the only way to fast travel is to make it back to camp and that is not all too close to anything else so you might just ride to your destination instead, skipping the camp entirely, as the mission marker is probably closer to you anyway. And since a lot of the strongest parts of the game hinge on the camp, you’ll miss out on a lot of the good. Now, technically, one could argue that with the massive amount of side missions, you’re bound to encounter something new every so often and while that does hold truth for the biggest portion of the game, the more encounters you make also means conversely the emptier the game gets and by the last chapter, this kicks in quite tremendously. Combine all of that as well as the fact that you’ve seen the map in its entirety already so you’re not as easy to be impressed anymore and what used to be exploration becomes tedium instead. Luckily, the epilogue improves upon this and gets things back on track but reaching the finale should feel a lot less barren as far as I’m concerned.
— 🔥Goth Loli Connoisseur🚒 (@_ZakuAbumi_) February 13, 2019
The integration of collectibles is also downright idiotic. It was fine and engaging when you had huge objects hidden on maps of the size of 3D Liberty City and Vice City but having several sets of these, making them easy to miss out on… with a map this vast? There’s giving an additional fun incentive in terms of exploration and then there’s looking for a needle in a haystack… except there are way too many haystacks with a needle each inside them. Sometimes, less is more, even in a game where most of the time, more is more and then some more and even more to that.
So there are issues with Red Dead Redemption 2. Major ones even. Such as weapons constantly being switched without your doing – the entire inventory is a clusterfuck actively working against you. For a game that prides itself as a Wild West adventure, the entire “shooting things” angle has no right to be this weak. Pretty much every ego shooter from 20 years ago has this stuff figured out for good reason. Why doesn’t Red Dead Redemption 2? I just don’t know.
But then I’m immediately back to catching people with my lasso and dragging them behind me as I keep riding ahead on my horse listening to their screams. Or feeding them to alligators. Or shooting off their limbs GTA 3 style. And on my way to who knows where I might encounter a grandmother in need. Or catch some fish. And then cook it. And with my camp set up, a cutscene of psychos trying to kill me might trigger. There is so much to do and so much to experience and all of that in a quality that really makes you wonder how this game is real in the first place. This is what video games can achieve apparently. It really does feel like Red Dead Redemption 2 is a product from the future.
All these little animations, the carving, the cooking, the crafting, what I at first deemed annoying ended up being enjoyable, contributing to the holistic picture Red Dead Redemption 2 was painting. You know, usually I’d hate this game for being so concerned with being a simulation rather than giving me the smoothest possible gameplay experience. But when it’s this good at simulating? I’m all for it. So when people tell you that this game is raising bars for the open world genre left and right, they aren’t kidding.
Fittingly, the use of insert songs is well-handled and fully realized in Red Dead Redemption 2’s story-centric themes. They are used rarely but when they are, you WILL remember those calm, self-reflective moments in Arthur’s journey.
All of this adds to the theme of self-discovery and redemption, a very ambitious undertaking from a video game. Red Dead Redemption 2 tells a story of redemption and how you approach life after all is said and done. The redemption angle here actually shines through whereas I couldn’t have figured what part of the first game was supposed to reflect its title. I still can’t. So it’s all for the better that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a story of trying to stay who you are in these ever so rapidly changing times and achieving your personal victory through that even though you might lose many other things in the process. It’s a game of survival – though whether you die or survive but your morals do; ultimately, what’s the difference? That’s both for Arthur and the player to find out. It’s a very harsh and ruthless but also in many aspects hopeful character journey.
Ultimately, this is a game as a complete package so well-put together with the budget, manpower, talent and creative vision behind it that you don’t see released any year. Long story short, buy Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s an experience one could safely recommend to anyone, accessible and yet still entirely successful in what it’s trying to do. I don’t have much patience for long games anymore. But this one I poured my hours into.
I dread returning to normal video games. On one hand, it’s good to be back to something that doesn’t give you as much trouble with wanting to be played. But then again, I sure will miss leaving behind footprints in the mud just like Arthur Morgan did.
Final Verdict: Very Good.