It is a frightening and scary time. A time of great despair wherein many are wondering if their way of life is over, racism is running rampant everywhere, women are fighting for and demanding their equal share and corrupt politicians are making backhanded deals to maintain their seats of power at the expense of immigrants with plans to deport them all to save their deals and positions of power. A frightening allegory of today’s times for sure, but this is all happening in 1889 at the outset of what was once the wild west and entrenches itself as the setting and time period of Red Dead Redemption 2 from Rockstar Games.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to the original Red Dead Redemption. We follow Arthur Morgan around this time as he deals with being in the Van Der Linde gang who are on the run after a ferry job goes wrong. Morgan is a tough and grizzled man, loyal to a fault and believes in what it is to be his idea of a man. He has a past he’s trying to deal with and a future he hopes he can even reach. John Marston is in this game as well, albeit a much younger and less experienced version of the man we have come to associate the series with. The game starts you off in the dead of winter, your group is starving and freezing, and they need to settle down to rest and recuperate. This bleak and dreary beginning is a common theme throughout the game and one you’ll encounter a cross the 50+ hours of playtime.
A lot of insane crazy ordeals follow, and that itself lends to the best thing to come out of RDR2. The story told in this game is Rockstar’s best narrative endeavor to date, a tragic tale of the end of a way of life and who amongst its cast accepts that fate or fights hard to grasp onto the one thing that mattered to them. A tale of letting go of the past lest be doomed to repeat it. Or in a certain character’s case, how the past comes back to haunt them. Every nook and cranny of the game is packed with something that tells a story. Whether it’s an NPC at the bar or the many people you have in your camp, there is always some sort of exposition that enhances the feel of the world and sucks you in and makes you feel like you’re living in the times. What aids in this is how you as Arthur can call out to anyone and choose whether to intervene in certain events that happen in a town or out on the field. The focus on character is a key to what makes this game feel good, and by the time the credits roll after its many epilogue chapters, you’ll have formed a bond with everyone in the game, even the villains of the story.
For the “game” part of this title you can upgrade gear and character stats as they’re slowly delivered into the game through the early chapters and missions. You learn to hunt for food for your camp and yourself, how to skin animals to sell them to the local market for money and also how to upkeep your weapons, clothes, and horse so that everything isn’t falling apart when you go on a mission with your posse. It might come across as tedious when described to you but a lot of it is done and implemented in a smart way to make those nuances feel like you’re part of the world of the west rather than just another thing to do. It’s brilliant in how all the side acts of hunting and maintaining your character all just play a part with the NPCs and how the world perceives you as well as how you interact with it. For an open world game, Rockstar shows why they’re the developer to beat when it comes to attention to detail, story and narrative effort and making the experience feel authentic. You literally feel like a cowboy playing this game thanks to the world being developed around you and how it reacts to what you do within the game as well.
However, for all the excellence in storytelling and graphical fidelity and music direction the game contains, it all gets trumped down with archaic game-play systems that Rockstar seems to always want to cling onto for whatever reason. Clunky, sluggish and slightly unresponsive controls plague this game more than the snowfall at the game’s outset and it outright nearly murders the entire experience. Mission structure is repetitive and mundane and overly scripted. For all the freedom the rest of the game offers you, that same freedom feels restricted during the actual missions as sometimes you’ll outright fail because you did something the game didn’t want you to. In one mission during a firefight, I failed a mission because I decided to flank around a house and lost because the game deemed I veered too far away from my crew. Once was fine, but to have it happen across several missions in the game pushed me to my limits of patience. I don’t like when my go anywhere, do anything game restricts me from doing just that. You take away the sense of freedom you build in the narration and design of everything else that’s featured and force me to go into a firefight head on, deal with a cover system that barely works when it wants to and struggle to have Arthur simply walk around a corner. The struggle of the control scheme is bearable as you can customize some aspects of the setup, but even that isn’t enough to ignore the cover system issues, the sluggish aiming and repetitive structure the missions tend to follow. You do one train robbery early in the game, and every train robbery going forward plays out the same way.
Yet despite all that, I still loved what was delivered in RDR2. The clunky handling of the game’s control scheme does knock it down for me personally, but literally everything else in this game is so well designed and beautifully created that I applaud the design team and their efforts. Recently in gaming news it came up that Rockstar made their designers and developers work overtime with no extra pay and that created a bit of a stir and controversy. The team’s efforts definitely show in just how expertly crafted everything in the game’s world is. How that world interacts with you and you with it, coupled with how cinematic the experience can be and how the camera frames the action with the way the music comes in during key scenes is so carefully orchestrated and orientated that I was left speechless at how this game just simply exists.. Early in the game there is a part when you go to rob a train and the music that plays as you’re simply riding on horseback with your gang through snow covered mountains is breathtaking and helped share the feeling of rolling out. Another epic scene later in the game has you teaming up with Native Americans and fighting against the U. S. Army and the score during that moment had me at the edge of my seat full of hype to see it through to the end.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is no doubt an expertly detailed game in terms of graphical fidelity and narrative effort, but at the end of the day the core of any game is how it plays and it is in this area the game does falter. I still feel the game is worth experiencing and will fully note that experience is going to be different for everyone. However, I cannot ignore that the difficulty in simply aiming a gun or taking cover in today’s day and age of video games still gives developers issue, and remains a sour and sore sticking point on an otherwise nearly flawless game. Fans of Rockstar’s work will no doubt eat this title up, but for anyone curious, do take heed that as pretty and detailed as this game is, there are glaring flaws within. Funnily enough, not unlike Arthur Morgan himself.