Score: 9.5/10 Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One Developer: Rockstar Studios Publisher: Rockstar Games Release Date: October 16, 2018 ESRB: M
Red Dead Redemption 2 defies easy categorization.
Rockstar Games’ ravenously anticipated follow-up to its beloved 2010 western opera is, on the surface, an open world adventure in which players are free to explore a rambling, magnificently drawn map of several fictional U.S. states, getting up to whatever high jinks they can, from robbing stage coaches to hunting wild game.
It’s also undeniably a shooter — from your choice of a first- or third-person perspective — complete with an array of pistols, revolvers, shotguns, and rifles; a “dead-eye” slow-motion effect that helps ensure you’re the most lethal gunslinger in the west; and even quick-draw duels.
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Another label I’d not hesitate to apply is “simulation,” as it strives for — and brilliantly achieves — a period perfect atmosphere that goes far beyond its loving depiction of homesteads and horses to include minute details, such as era-specific tradespeople going about their busy lives, time spent performing camp chores such as hauling hay bales and fetching water, and hotel baths in which it takes a minute or more of player interactions to scrub off a week’s buildup of cowboy grime.
But if I had to settle on just one descriptor, it would be interactive story. During its marathon production — which lasted some seven years — Rockstar produced 300,000 unique animations, recorded half a million lines of dialogue, and employed a shocking 1,200 voice and motion capture actors. The result is an emotional, immersive and sympathetic tale of American outlaw life in 1899, the very final days of the Wild West.
The tale follows Arthur Morgan, one of the main members of a nomadic gang — the same one to which John Marsten, protagonist of the original Red Dead Redemption, once belonged — that is caught between growing civilization in the west and the established society of the east. He’s a hard and uneducated man of action with a gravelly mumble voice reminiscent of Jeff Bridges’ in True Grit, but he’s also surprisingly pensive. He knows his way of life is fast coming to an end, and he’s troubled by his bloody deeds, often confiding his guilt to the women of the gang’s camp, who worry about Arthur but refuse to absolve him of his sins.
His primary rationale for all he’s done is his mentor of the last 20 years, Dutch van der Linde, a gentleman bandit whose Robin Hood-esque philosophizing helped attract a band of loyal and strangely kind-hearted thugs who somehow manage to justify their often wicked ways by thieving from those who can afford it and helping those who can’t help themselves. But times have been tough, and Dutch has become desperate, forced to recruit less honourable henchmen, work with shadier associates, and take on riskier jobs for reasons less noble than he’d like.
This ragtag group of men and women is Arthur’s family, and after spending scores of hours with them — I feel like I binge-watched half a dozen seasons of Deadwood over the last week — I almost came to think of them as my family as well. There are siblings both wild and reliable, aunts and uncles set in their ways, and a grandfather figure who provides a level-headed contrast to some of Dutch’s riskier undertakings. You’ll love some and hate others, but when things go sideways — as they almost inevitably do — they’re all in it together and have each others’ backs.
It’s Arthur, however, who proves the most interesting. The game is a fascinating study of a conflicted man who knows right from wrong, but doesn’t always allow this knowledge to inform his decisions. His common sense and decency manifests in all sorts of ways, from his steadfast refusal to buy into the racism of the time to his support of women, both in roles traditionally reserved for men and in their quest for the right to vote. And yet he’ll kill — albeit often with hesitation and regret — almost anyone who gets in his way during a job. As the game progresses this duality grows and at points almost tears him apart. He’s a classic antihero: A bad man seemingly headed for tragedy who we nonetheless like, root for, and want to see make better choices.
But it’s not all dark. A healthy dose of Rockstar’s signature adult humour is injected into the proceedings, often by way of side stories. Quests involving colourful characters — like an inventor working on a means of execution more humane than the noose, or a writer chronicling the exploits of an aging duellist — provide plenty of comic relief, sometimes with a bit of over-the-top gore or a hint of cultural commentary easy to connect to current events. From start to finish, whether intended to make us laugh, ponder, or cry, the writing never falters.
The upshot of all of this storytelling is that, unlike the vast majority of open world games, there is extraordinarily little repetition. Every mission and virtually every chance encounter is scripted and purposeful, designed to develop characters, progress the story, or better familiarize us with the game’s sophisticated controls and systems. I never felt like I was doing the same thing twice. There’s no grinding, no endlessly repeated tasks included simply to lengthen the experience. Even tasks that occasionally do repeat — helping a man thrown from a horse on the road, or a woman attacked by marauders — are accompanied by original dialogue that gives them each a flavour and distinct memory of their own. Thought and reason has been put into everything we do, and it helps the hours fly by. There’s neither a chance nor a reason to grow bored.
Supporting and enhancing everything is astounding attention to detail, which can be both a blessing and a curse — though far more often the former.
This is a game that knows it has interesting things to show us, and it won’t take no for an answer. Some weapons need to be cocked or have rounds chambered between shots, and all of them have to be regularly polished with gun oil — actions that the player must both perform and watch play out. Hunted game needs to be retrieved, skinned (a disgusting but oddly satisfying animation), and properly stowed on your horse rather than simply scooped up while walking past. Fast travel is available, but not readily, forcing us to spend long minutes simply galloping along (though an optional cinematic camera angle can make these journeys through gorgeously rendered landscapes beautiful to just sit back and watch). Store catalogues are so thorough that they’re essentially replica books from the era, which can turn a quick trip into a shop to pick up some canned beans or horse tonic into a 15-minute odyssey as you get lost reading mesmerizing ads and product descriptions.
Not surprisingly, these meticulous interactions demand an equally complex control scheme, meaning that various buttons on the gamepad are used in different ways, depending on context. And there have been many times when I meant to do one thing but accidentally did another — potentially robbing or shooting some innocent — because I’d forgotten the function of a button had changed according to the circumstances. Thankfully, controls are typically shown in the bottom right corner of the display, and as I became more careful and accustomed to how everything worked my mistakes grew more infrequent.
And in the end, these are minor complaints of excess — the sort of problem most games would welcome. They hardly take away from the overall experience, which delivers one of the most ambitious and finely directed stories ever told in the medium of games, one populated with a huge cast of memorable characters and filled with compelling ruminations on eternal human questions to do with family, loyalty, morality and mortality.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the must-play of the year, and elegant proof that grand-scale single-player games are far from obsolete.