By Marty Mulrooney
Red Dead Redemption 2 is an open world, Western-themed video game developed and published by Rockstar Games, creators of Grand Theft Auto. Although it is technically the third game in the series (following Red Dead Revolver in 2004 and Red Dead Redemption in 2010), Red Dead Redemption 2 serves as a prequel to the previous game. Set in 1899, it takes place in a fictionalised version of the American West and stars Arthur Morgan – a high-ranking member of the notorious Van der Linde gang – as the game’s anti-hero protagonist. Alongside his fellow gang members, including original Red Dead Redemption star (and fan-favourite) John Marston, Arthur must evade rival gangs and determined Pinkerton agents in an epic adventure that unfolds during the dying days of the Wild West and the dawn of modern civilization.
Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t just drop you into the middle of its vast open world; instead, Arthur Morgan starts the game high in the mountains during a vicious snowstorm. It’s pitch black – oil lamps can barely penetrate the dark – with both visibility and hope in limited supply. The Van der Linde gang is desperate, fleeing from the law following a botched ferry heist near the town of Blackwater that resulted in the loss of several gang members. Yet, despite locking players off from the world at large during the game’s opening hours, it’s immediately apparent that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a technological leap beyond anything that has come before.
Seeking food and shelter, Arthur and Dutch – charismatic namesake and leader of the Van der Linde gang – ride into the treacherous and unforgiving night on horseback. The controls have a tangible sense of heft to them, with each horse leaving realistic furrows in the thick snow. Soon, a gunfight breaks out with a rival gang – during which a shot lantern bursts into flames, completely unscripted – and every pull of the trigger feels impactful and real. There is a credible weight to Arthur’s movements that makes him feel like a living, breathing outlaw, battling the elements and his enemies in the cold and the dark.
By the time Arthur and his gang finally descend from the mountains down into the vast open world below, the player is fully invested. The size and scope of Red Dead Redemption 2 never stops being dizzying, but it’s the characters that will take you by surprise. Each member of the gang is a fully realised human being with their own personal dreams, desires and hopes for the future; and cleverly, spending time with them isn’t optional.
Main missions and side missions blur together as one in Red Dead Redemption 2. One moment you might be fishing with Dutch and gang co-leader Hosea, or tracking bison with native-American hunter Charles; the next, you’ll be robbing a bank with the entire Van der Linde gang by your side, or taking cover as rival gang the O’Driscoll Boys try to settle old scores. Later, you’ll sing and dance around the campfire, drunk on Kentucky bourbon and happiness beneath a canopy of stars.
Immersion is the name of the game in Red Dead Redemption 2. Players who choose to keep their guns holstered until it’s absolutely necessary to use them will be rewarded with one of the most convincing and detailed digital worlds ever created. Riding into a town as rain turns the streets to mud, greeting the townsfolk – or berating them – as they go about their daily lives is incredibly captivating, and having a dedicated button to talk to NPCs – rather than only being able to interact with them by shooting – is a masterstroke of game design.
There is just enough interactivity to make each encounter feel believable. In Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s entirely possible to diffuse a situation before it escalates to bloodshed, or convince a sheriff that you’re sorry for causing trouble and will leave town immediately (he’ll probably accompany you to the border). You can even pretend to surrender to law enforcement officers and roadside thieves alike, before sticking a sawn-off shotgun beneath their chins and blowing their heads clean off when they get close enough to see the whites of their eyes.
The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 continually compels you to explore and push against its boundaries. There is an ecosystem with hundreds of animals that can all be hunted for food and resources. Obscure treasure maps will have you on the lookout for distinctive landmarks. One moment you’re helping a crossdressing stranger hunt down escaped circus animals, the next you’re liberating some escaped convicts from their shackles. All the while, your chosen steed will prove to be an invaluable companion. Arthur’s horse is essentially an extension of his own inventory; it’s incredibly satisfying to dismount near an enemy camp before selecting the right weapons for the fight ahead.
Arthur can bond with his current horse by riding, brushing, petting and feeding it and many players will have the same four-legged companion throughout the entire 60 hour single player campaign. Arthur spends a lot of time alone but his horse is only ever a whistle away. Arthur himself must also be looked after and there are three cores for health, stamina and Dead Eye (your horse also has its own health and stamina cores). Eating and sleeping regularly is wise and there are also a variety of tonics available. Thankfully, the game has been designed in such a way that having empty cores – or a gun that needs cleaning, for that matter – will never stop the gameplay from being fun. All of this maintenance is entirely optional, yet it soon becomes second nature and doing such menial tasks regularly has the added side-effect of drawing the player ever deeper into this intoxicating snapshot of the past.
All of the above is incredible to witness first-hand – and only scratches the surface of the overall experience – yet it’s the story that ends up being Red Dead Redemption 2’s most compelling attribute. Arthur Morgan is a fascinating protagonist, raised and mentored from an early age by the revolutionary outlaw Dutch van der Linde. Arthur is the gang’s enforcer, collecting debts whatever the cost; and there undoubtedly is a cost, taking its toll. Dutch is like a father to Arthur, yet throughout the course of the game Arthur will start to question his once unwavering loyalty.
With Dutch, there’s always one last score; anyone who questions his plans is angrily commanded to simply have some goddamn faith. Arthur is given many reasons to question Dutch as the game progresses and it is this split within the gang – widening slowly but surely with every botched robbery and suspicious reappearance of the Pinkertons – that drives the narrative. Those who have played the previous game will know that none of this can end well; however, the devil is in the details. Arthur’s personal journey is absolutely heartbreaking and actor Roger Clark gives the performance of a lifetime. The script and performance capture across the board makes watching Red Dead Redemption 2 unfold just as much fun as playing it; it often feels like an interactive HBO drama.
Not everything is perfect. The HDR implementation is essentially upconverted SDR that can make the graphics look washed out at times, and the bounty system can be somewhat temperamental. Yet it cannot be stressed enough just how much of a technological leap this game truly is. In years to come, people will look back at Red Dead Redemption 2 and recognise it as a seismic shift within the video game industry. It’s the perfect storm of emergent gameplay, stunning graphics, convincing physics, the most detailed motion capture and facial scans to date, beautifully understated music, quality writing and world-class acting. Grand Theft Auto V is still an excellent game, but Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like the moment Rockstar Games finally decided to grow up.
Making a prequel to Red Dead Redemption – especially one where players don’t control John Marston – was always going to be a risky proposition. Yet, against all odds, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the better game. It manages to pay homage and respect to its predecessor while also enriching and imbuing it with fresh meaning. The very best stories reflect the world we live in today, no matter where or when they’re set; Red Dead Redemption 2’s underlying themes are timeless and Arthur Morgan wrestles with the same big life questions we’ve all asked ourselves at one point or another. When Arthur finally admits he’s scared, don’t be too surprised to find yourself crying along with him.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece. Not only is it the best game of 2018; there’s a strong argument for it being the best video game of this console generation. You’ll come for the mud, blood, guts and glory, but you’ll stay for Arthur Morgan.
10 OUT OF 10