Image taken from Windows Central and owned by Rockstar Games
This may not seem terribly surprising, but the makers of genre defining titles like the Grand Theft Auto series and the original Red Dead Redemption have done it again. There is nothing necessarily revolutionarily about Red Dead Redemption II. It is in context of gameplay and theme similar to its predecessor, but it inspires a new level in what we should aspire to in detail and level of quality.
Every sandbox-open world game that comes after RDR II will be under its shadow in terms of trying to capture a living world, where the artificialities which are still present feel and seem subdued and you soak up a virtual outlaw’s paradise in a way that feels almost uncannily real. It doesn’t hurt that this is one of the most earned melancholy stories the gaming industry has ever produced. No matter how much fun you can have in the large wild west world that Rockstar has created, the passing of time is heavy in the air. There can be no escape from the modernizing and ostensibly “better’ world that is encroaching on the outlaw gang you call family.
Mostly set in 1899 at the dawn of the chaotic 20th century, Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang are on the run from the authorities after a botched big city robbery. Said authorities are now finally able to actually start enforcing law and order. As the story unfolds, you get the sense the gang and Arthur are also running from something even more frightening to them: who they really are as people and the inevitability of change. Arthur’s morality and to some extent fate will change on how well the player allows him to recognize this. Those who stay stuck in their ways are doomed, and those who do try to change tragically might not be much better off.
Over the really long journey across a beautiful, expertly realized recreation of several Southern and Western states that have for convenience sake been shrunk from the real thing, you will rob, kill, drink, eat, play, hunt, fish and do just about anything possible that was possible at the end of 19th century America. Your mileage in how you enjoy the activities mandatory or otherwise will vary despite how well thought out they are overall. The poker games and other such gambling options I suppose can be an awesome way to get money and some fun but despite an in depth tutorial, I never can seem to understand such games and this is not just a problem I have with Red Dead. It probably also stems from me being wisely wary of games of chance in the real world or it’s an unwillingness to try hard enough on my part.
Most of the time is spent exploring, shooting and riding your horse and Rockstar does all it can to keep the somewhat limited range of options of play varied and engaging. The extreme length of the story does mean that despite the very best efforts, the pace can slacken and it becomes at times a chore to once again engage in a shootout. Of course they’re ways to mitigate such a grind through the growth and experience that both Arthur and yourself can earn at mostly your own pace.
Your health, stamina and “Dead Eye”, the last of which is a special ability to slow down time and mark targets to shoot, can be all upgraded in ways which reward your commitment to not only the various interlocking systems of narrative, adventure and side activities but also to actually trying to put on a good effort in the moment to moment. With time, the basic mechanics of just everything can go from being efficient to something that through mastery can be truly impressive to engage with in the end. The game wants to make you the ultimate gunslinger, and not just in improving your levels but in your fashion sense and commitment to improving and upgrading your weapons. That too can be accomplished by buying, stealing and even crafting the necessary parts.
Two areas that helps accentuate Rockstar’s desire for you to get out there and experience their colorful world is both through the incredible amount of variations in interaction with its inhabitants and the the plants and animals to be harvested and hunted. There are over a hundred species of animals just waiting to be studied, tracked and skinned. It’s a completionist’s paradise and one that feels more rewarding than obligatory. Better yet, everything from items to find like cigarette cards, dinosaur bones and rock carvings to the various manners of hunting will give you a reward both monetary and through further refining Arthur’s capabilities. It also gives you a reason to see all you can see without the excuse of ” just because”.
All of this doesn’t account for the game’s greatest strength being its grandiose yet oddly intimate narrative to tell and the aforementioned interactivity. Often, whether it’s with your fellow gang members or with the average frontier man or woman, you can choose to “greet” or “antagonize.” Arthur is written and voiced in such a way to make his behavior either honorable or dishonorable fit who he is. Greet someone to make friends, negotiate or defuse confrontations either purposeful or accidental. Antagonize to get them sad, piss them off or just show your own cynical interpretation of the world you inhabit. The number of types of encounters are so large and creative that even when they do repeat, they still feel oddly organic and worth experiencing or getting Arthur involved in. This system alone justifies Rockstar’s mission statement to make a “real’ virtual world. While it is not perfect, it’s so consistent and willing to course correct that even some notable hiccups are forgivable rather than an exposure of the figurative “man behind the curtain.” The people who made Red Dead Redemption II are still human after all.
What makes RDR II so successful is despite the considerable, maybe obsessive realization of the gameplay and technical systems, the game doesn’t forget that Arthur’s story matters, especially as it acts as a meaningful prequel to the first game. If you have played the first game which I strongly recommend as that is indeed in itself a masterpiece all its own, then you know that things are not going to go smoothly for the Van der Linde gang. Rather than suck the tension out of the experience, it instills in equal measure dread and genuine sadness. Characters who appear in the original are obviously going to survive the eventual collapse of the gang in this entry but their fates in the former are to put it bluntly, not of the “riding into the sunset” variety. As for those who are absent in the original like most notably Arthur, that would be a great disservice as well as brazen spoilers to tell. That being said, a growing realization that this can’t end nor should end in any blatantly happy way becomes the most powerful quality the story has. These are criminals we are following after all. Even if you attempt and succeed in the titular path of redemption with Arthur, I’ll just say that redemption comes with a heavy, heavy price. What that price is you should find out yourself.
It also acts as a great character study not just for Arthur but for the gang’s leader Dutch Van der Linde. As the situation deteriorates ever so gradually for his posse which includes women and children, you start to see the duplicity of the man who for both Arthur and the first game’s protagonist, John Marston, who acts as a non-playable member of the group, is a father figure. You will both look up to Dutch yourself and will also if you pay close attention notice the reality of who that man really is. It never explicitly illustrates and shoves down your throat what kind of man he is, it is something that sneaks up on you and more than just the pressure of the encroaching law enforcement on your heels, makes you truly question what you are doing. In the end, it is Dutch that represents the downfall of the Old West gunslinger: not so much the march of progress and a more civilized world, but the insidious hypocrisy of criminals thinking they are better than they really are. Arthur’s own story diverges upon either realizing that truth or refusing to do so.
Red Dead Redemption II wants you to truly embrace its morally grey world, it wants you to take part wholesale in its period piece odyssey. It succeeds due to its near unbelievable level of quality, that makes what comes next for games across the board daunting to live up to. In terms of a game that is made up of individual parts, RDR II is close to peerless. It is anchored by Rockstar committing wholesale to a prequel we didn’t think we wanted next from the series but now can’t imagine not being there.
Find a horse, rear that horse, and saddle up for a journey that despite being about the impermanence of the world, more-so the human world than the natural one, wants you to stop and enjoy the moment to moment as it likely was in 1899. Enjoy or if you desire make amends for a criminal lifestyle that was once common but is now alive only in legend. The Old West is dead. Long live the Virtual West.