By Mike O’Brien | ★★★★★ |
Disclosure: Rockstar Games provided Quench with a pre-release press copy of Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4) for review purposes.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a sublime Western odyssey. Its predecessor, though widely considered one of Rockstar Games’ maturest efforts, is a paler one in just about every sense. It’s by no means perfect; as with any game of this scope and ambition, it fumbles occasionally. But make no mistake – these shortcomings are negligible detractions from what is otherwise an unrivalled product of its kind, one which shatters expectations to deliver an experience that elevates the criteria for immersion and open-world game design.
Rockstar faithfully captures the dying breaths of the American frontier in its forlorn war against the progress of civilization. After a string of botched jobs leaves civilian casualties in its wake, romantic outlaw Dutch Van der Linde flees the state with his loyal gang of runaways to pursue the impossible dream of building a savage utopia. As his right-hand man and surrogate son, player character Arthur Morgan finds himself embroiled in a personal conflict between loyalty and pragmatism as Dutch’s ideological crusade barrels towards its natural demise. Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar’s most serious tale yet, eschewing its usual on-the-nose satire to depict the brutality and humanity of doomed anarchists resisting their extinction.
As a character, Arthur Morgan is an instant classic and the perfect agent of the Old West’s ambiguous ferocity. Superficially, Arthur is the archetypal cowboy; a no-nonsense brooding brute of masculine stoicism, a classless outlaw with a dubious but loyal code. But where Arthur’s inexpressive and cynical nature makes for an unsympathetic first impression, his journey is compellingly transformative. At eleven years old, his father was imprisoned for larceny, leaving him to face the gruesome and reprobate landscape of 19th century America without guidance or opportunity. The tall tales and visionary charm of Dutch van der Linde indoctrinated a young and directionless Arthur, fathering him with a loving but criminal philosophy. It makes sense, then, that Arthur is an inarticulate, untrusting, and cultureless beast. In many ways, he is the quintessential child of the amoral and Darwinian frontier – but subtle glimpses of Arthur’s lonesome behaviours illuminate his tragic humanity. Arthur’s doodles of your discoveries on the in-game map and drawings in his notebook reveal artistic pursuits left uncultivated. His journal is a particularly introspective resource, a clumsy space for regrets, musings, and the fragile sensibilities his ultra-masculine world bars him from expressing. Even his infantile enthusiasm during circus acts and crude cinema suggests that, despite his grueling thirty-six years on Earth, Arthur is no more a ruthless bandit than a lost boy in a strong man’s visage, struggling to manoeuvre the assured decay of the only life presented to him. What’s more, Arthur’s volatility, stoicism, and uncertain identity make him an excellent projection of the player’s actions, regardless of how they choose to play.
The Van der Linde gang – the ragtag surrogate family to which Arthur belongs – is the pièce de résistance of Red Dead Redemption 2’s living narrative. From aspiring novelists to petulant dullards to fierce widows, every member of this twenty-three person unit is distinctly individual, each complete with their own passions, values, routines, and insecurities. Between journeys, Arthur can freely interact with them at camp, and it’s here that you’ll witness some remarkably human interplay. It’s a dynamic environment, one where characters can be upbeat one day and miserable the next. They each perform vital duties, form cliques, and comment on recent events. The unprecedented volume of dialogue in the game lends credence to the camp’s natural chemistry; be it singing around the campfire on moonlit nights, affectionately goading a friend, or defusing a tense conflict, you’re unlikely to hear the same line of dialogue twice – an outstanding feat for a game with so many developed characters and an abundance of interactive options.
Perhaps most importantly, Arthur is seldom the centre of attention, and this lack of ‘main character syndrome’ does well to immerse the player as just another member of the gang rather than someone whom the game revolves around. Every individual is an essential element of the camp’s overall atmosphere, and as the uncompromising arm of the law pushes the gang further into strife and grief, the aura of fear and resignation is instantly palpable, sometimes through body language alone. There’s a truly bittersweet charm to the fleeting moments of joy and respite, and it’s a testament to the excellent writing that only a handful of these brief encounters is necessary to feel like you’ve known them for years.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a player-led journey which revolutionises open world design and gameplay mechanics to create a genuine experience of life in the Old West. The enormous states of New Hanover and West Elizabeth comprise Rockstar’s largest open world yet, one abundant with natural vistas, seedy boomtowns, and treacherous wildernesses to explore at one’s leisure. The freedom to traverse these environments is utterly seductive, and the degree of interactivity is immersive beyond consciousness. Protagonist or not, Arthur must play by the rules of nature; he needs to eat and rest, clean his weapons to prevent rusting, and dress appropriately for the weather. Every facet of this life is multidimensional – take hunting, for instance. The ecosystem consists of over 200 animal species, each belonging to a habitat. Players can follow tracks in the dirt, leave bait, and call animals to lure them. You can only carry two sidearms and two longarm weapons at a time, meaning you must consider which weapons to bring and which ammunition is appropriate for any given prey or predator. A repeating shotgun is a good choice for warding off bears, for instance, but use one on a deer and you’ll ruin both the pelt and the meat, leaving a useless carcass in its stead. That’s how multifaceted a single aspect of Red Dead Redemption 2’s gameplay is, and there are many – gambling, fishing, crafting, drinking, foraging, duelling, homesteading, robbery, and bounty hunting are just a fraction of the activities available – not to mention the dynamic encounters you’ll have with strangers during your exploits.
On top of providing a stellar gameplay experience, this authentic simulation of life on the frontier is used to prompt consideration on the game’s broader theme of order versus chaos. The open air is gorgeous and enchanting, especially when compared to the game’s urban locales like the smog-filled Dickensian city of Saint Denis. Through Arthur, you develop a vicarious affinity for living in his world, and even from our 21st century perspective, the appeal of Dutch’s anti-civilization rhetoric can seem compelling – but is he right? You may lament the systemic depravity of civilization in Saint Denis, a place where the cancerous air pollution of factory work leaves widows and children destitute in a man’s world, whilst the military and police abide by the prejudiced interests of a wealthy elite. But is the idyllic open air much better? A beautiful but lawless land where strangers can stumble from the woods begging for help, only to draw steel from its scabbard when your back is turned? Where a woman’s distant screams are drowned by the callous laughter of her captors? I made these observations not through scripted story sequences or linear narratives – I stumbled upon them incidentally, through bloody skirmishes I’ve survived, lives I’ve witnessed, and conversations I’ve eavesdropped. Red Dead Redemption 2 provides an open experience unique to each player, using their individual journey and gameplay experience to masterfully frame the ideological challenge of whether human nature is capable of forging a world fit for its virtues.
All of this is made possible by an overall level of polish and fidelity that very few games can rival. Authenticity is the name of the game here – the cultural landscape, the architecture, the fashion, the dialect, and the topical concerns of 1899 America are captured with astonishing precision, and as a result, it’s unquestionably the most realistic environment in video game history. Instead of canned effects playing at random, sounds in the world are diegetic to create a sense of life, and the soundtrack – whilst quieter than the spaghetti western eruption of Red Dead Redemption’s score – has a perfect answer to any situation.
Fans of previous Rockstar games – Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption in particular – will rejoice to hear the game is complete with an engine that emulates physics dynamically to great effect. There’s something unspeakably satisfying about the thunder of a well-placed rifle shot eviscerating enemies to a bloody stupor, and the impetus with which individuals fly from horses and fall from heights is almost vertigo-inducing. The gruesome elements of blood, bones, and exit wounds capture the visceral brutality of frontier combat, but they also impact the experience, too: Arthur’s clothes can be stained by blood and dirt, and people will be less trusting if you don’t bathe.
Everything is animated with jaw-dropping detail; each action from skinning prey to looting corpses and reloading weapons is uncannily lifelike. People, including inconsequential passersby, are facially expressive to the extent that virtual characters seem closer to brilliant actors than the products of quality animation. Miscellaneous and completely unnecessary details go a long way in constructing a brilliant illusion of reality as well, like how your primary horse will exhibit jealousy when you bring another one to camp, or how the structure of Arthur’s ear cartilage is visible under the right lighting.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has been the recipient of near-unanimous praise, and rightfully so. But it does have a series of shortcomings which ought to be addressed, not least of which is the game’s completely unnecessary morality system. Arthur has an ‘honour meter’ which changes when you commit ‘good’ or ‘bad’ deeds, which is problematic for two reasons. For one, the game’s value judgements are capricious and inconsistent; I found myself chastised for killing a man in self defence on multiple occasions, yet massacring twenty police officers as part of a heist was apparently permissible. More poignantly however, a crucial theme of the game is that morality is complex and difficult to discern. In both story missions and open-world exploration, the player is often prompted to make difficult decisions quickly, the consequences of which are demonstrable enough for the player (and Arthur himself) to adequately reflect on their choices. The quantification of honour, then, is not only redundant but incompatible with the game’s philosophy, thus its presence is merely the source of frustration for players who feel unfairly penalised. Red Dead Redemption 2 is similarly fickle on what constitutes crime, as accidentally trampling a rabbit in the wild landed me a $5 animal cruelty bounty, whilst burning my rivals alive on their own campfire seemed only to gather concerned glances from locals.
Elsewhere, the game can feel clunky at times, particularly when it comes to close-quarters combat and navigating interior spaces. Some buttons perform multiple functions contextually, making for some awkward moments wherein trying to mount Arthur’s horse accidentally caused him to strangle a homeless one-legged civil war veteran to death on the street. Whilst gunplay is satisfying and enjoyable for the most part, aim assist controls and the slow-motion Dead Eye mechanic feel like necessities compared to games like Uncharted 4, even after tweaking with controller sensitivity and deadzone settings. It also has an infuriating habit of regularly resetting your weapon loadout, leaving you without any of the longarm weapons you had previously selected, and often with different sidearms, too. Other miscellaneous critiques include one absurd story chapter which seems wildly out of place, and Arthur’s gratuitous lack of urgency when it comes to contextual actions like reaching to open drawers or turning to face a lootable object.
For your money, you’re getting at least a 60 hour main story, with nearly double that including side content, as well as access to Red Dead Online in late November – but it’s so much more than that. Red Dead Redemption 2 is an expansive fusion of so many elements and systems into one seamless journey that calling it a game almost feels like an injustice. Experience is truly the word for it, one that urges you to take your time and immerse yourself not in a third person shooter, or a sandbox game, but a triumphant simulation of an extinct life, one with such masterful storytelling both linear and emergent that whether you’re watching Dutch’s descent, or sauntering the world at your own pace, it will speak to you.
Some games are great. A handful are amazing. But fewer still are important in the way that Red Dead Redemption 2 is. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a gateway to another dimension of storytelling, a world whose message permeates everything within it. It’s a quintessential exemplar of the artistic reach of the video game and an undeniable masterpiece.