Red Dead Redemption 2 is an unabashedly stubborn masterpiece.
I was strolling through the quiet road at the base of Mount Shan on my trusty steed, Epona. Suddenly I came across a rugged-looking man intently crouching over something and talking to himself. It wasn’t long before I listened in and came to know that he was a hunter tracking his prey. We shared a hearty greeting thanks to the contextual button on my PS4 controller. But then he went back to his hunter business. Curious, I followed him from afar just to see the climax of this random event. I wasn’t ready for what happened a couple of seconds later.
Without warning, a huge bear suddenly came out of the woods and rushed straight towards him. The hunter got in a few shots from his rifle but not before the bear jumped squarely on him and viciously clawed his face off. I ran towards the spot but found both of them laying lifeless and still. I couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt about my failure in saving him. Maybe if I drew faster, he’d still be alive and we could have shared a chuckle after his successful hunt. Worn with woe, I accepted his fate and rode back into the world.
This is just one of the many, many random encounters in Rockstar’s astonishingly detailed and exhaustingly beautiful open-world western opus, Red Dead Redemption 2. A world unnervingly polished to a marvelous sheen, the sequel’s responsive open-world design ensures it’s a treat to just exist there. It tells a heart-wrenching and worthy story that weaves many character-driven narrative threads into a glorious tapestry. It starts at a deliberately measured pace but soon reaches full steam and gradually culminates in a thunderous crescendo. When the sun has set on the somber tale of not heroes but flawed men and women with dark pasts and desperate futures, you can’t help but marvel at your own journey.
As Arthur Morgan, you have plenty of opportunities to do right by the Van der Lindes.
Throughout the story, the gang exists in a transient state. Moving from state to state, the crew finds itself mixed up in a wide variety of misadventures as they try to regather themselves and pull together the funds they need to finally disappear. As Arthur, you are essentially the gang’s fixer. In addition to participating in the various robberies and related crimes that take place throughout the game, you’ll also find yourself in charge of the gang’s camp. Its is a bustling communal space where you collect quests, manage resources, and just exist alongside the various personalities that encapsulate the gang. But your true calling comes from the wild.
Wild wild West-world
One of RDR2’s greatest strengths is the lengths it goes to in order to make its world feel like it is breathing on its own. Other Rockstar open world games have largely focused on centering the player in every way. Everything is typically built like a playground, chock full of activities that exist at the forefront, while the various NPCs just sort of mill around. Here, the various cities, camps, and wild areas all feel like they are moving along at a life-like pace. When you’re in your gang camp, you’ll see people doing chores, reading, playing games, and engaging in conversations that have nothing, in particular, to do with whatever quest you’re about to embark upon. These personalities, these people, are the core of what makes Red Dead Redemption 2 go. There is a humanity to these characters that Rockstar games don’t typically seem all that invested in portraying.
When you head into towns, Rockstar’s meticulous craftsmanship gets even more impressive. Each of the many towns and cities has its own character and personality, with the bustling New Orleans facsimile Saint Denis being the crown jewel. The cities are packed with things to do, from taking in a vaudeville show and getting your photo taken to meeting a memorable cast of strangers and perusing the intricately detailed shops. You can dive into a catalog at gun shops and general stores, or walk right up to the shelves and grab what you need.
All the exteriors and interiors in the game look authentic to the time period and make you feel like you are visiting a place lost in time. Even the civilian population is remarkable – you can interact with each person you come across. I rarely heard a repeated line of dialogue outside of some random encounters outside the city. New strangers continually pop up offering interesting side missions as well. This is world both alive and lived in. And Rockstar never misconstrues this basic foundation.
But the strongest case for this amazing open-world is its nothingness. Galloping through the path less-trodden, enjoying the simplicity and the Zen-like peace of the western frontier is such a delight. The stretch of calm is at complete odds with the gun-slinging robust action but just as vital to the game’s experience. Light bursting through a tree canopy, rain clouds forming and clearing, evening mists rolling into an eerie swamp- the gorgeous visuals of the game punctuates throughout these spectacular moments.
It’s an outlaw’s life for me
As Arthur Morgan, you have plenty of opportunities to do right by the Van der Lindes. You’ll find a settlement for your gang first, of course. Then you quickly learn how imperative it is to keep everyone alive by supplying them with food, medical supplies, and ammunition. You’ll have to rob trains, steal stagecoaches, hold up shopkeepers and civilians on the road, as well as complete missions, hunt animals, or complete bounty missions to earn your keep. On top of this, there’re plenty of other ways to earn money, such as games of Blackjack or Poker, and selling your wares to those that are interested.
Your camp has a group fund to which you can donate your money, as well as a ledger where you can spend that hard-earned cash to improve the camp by upgrading it. Living quarters, building better supply stores, and opening up the option to fast travel across the vast plains- all can be achieved through these upgrades.
Out in the wild, or engulfed in a mission, the three cores of your character need to be kept replenished if you want to survive. Health, Stamina, and Dead Eye all need to remain high or you’ll start to show signs of fatigue. It isn’t just Arthur that has these cores. Your horse is an extension of you, and looking after it is essential. It’s important to bond with your horse because you’ll have access to better abilities. For example, if you’re bonded with your horse it’ll come to you from a farther distance once you whistle it to return. Your horse also acts as your inventory whilst exploring, storing the extra guns and equipment for you to equip while in the wild.
Hunting is a huge part of Red Dead Redemption 2, as is fishing, and both can be done whenever you like. Planning every hunt is just as important as robbing a train. Learning which options are at your disposal can take time. But planning that next big kill proves incredibly satisfying when done correctly. Unlike so many modern open-world games, Red Dead Redemption 2 does not want you to achieve dominance over it. It wants you to simply be in its world, and to feel like a part of it. It’s a crucial distinction and a big part of what makes it all so immersive and engrossing.
The wild bunch
Arthur may be the story’s protagonist, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is an ensemble drama. The Van der Linde gang is more than just another clutch of scoundrels on horseback. It’s a community, a mobile encampment consisting of about 20 men, women, and children, each with their own story, desires, and role. There are villains and psychopaths, drunks and miscreants, and also dreamers, runaways, and lost souls just looking to survive. Each character has their own chances to shine, particularly for players who take the time to get to know them all. From the cook to the layabout to the loan shark, each has become real to me in a way fictional characters rarely do.
The game’s primary tale of Arthur’s journey through the gang’s final days is an extremely compelling one. The performance of Rob Clark as Arthur is a big part of that. Also at the head of the table sits Dutch van der Linde, as complex and fascinating a villain as I’ve met in a video game. Benjamin Byron Davis plays the boss man perfectly, imagining Dutch as a constantly concerned, watery-eyed killer. Time and again I was also struck by how seriously this game’s writers took these characters, themes, and subject matter. Glances of Rockstar’s satiric commentary famous from the Grand Theft Auto franchise can be seen here. But in its heart, the narrative remains about an invading modern world and a grim destruction of the old guard. And it is absolutely riveting in its execution.
See you, cowboy
Red Dead Redemption 2 is an incredible achievement in open world gaming. It is an intricate machine that disguises its machinery better than just about anything else that’s come before. It toys with our suspension of disbelief about all those ones and zeroes beneath. Ultimately, it is gaming’s Pinocchio moment- blurring the puppet strings beyond belief. In addition to its lengthy and engrossing campaign, it delivers moments of emergent storytelling more compelling than anything I can ever remember playing. Graphically and aurally, it is top-to-bottom stunning. Rockstar has single-handedly thrust open-world game design to the next generation. And I refuse to ever go back.