Games like this just don’t come along that often. It’s so rare that a game’s sequel (when following a massive success like RDR) will live up to the previous game’s benchmark let alone blow it clean out of the water. I haven’t felt this immersed in an experience since New Vegas, most recently Persona 5 and God of War, the kind of game that grabs you by the collar and demands you play it. Most importantly, and arguably impressively, it’s one of those games that promises so much and actually delivers on all of it.
We have been waiting a long time to find out how our boy John Marston got out of the outlaw life. Finally, after all this time we are seeing some characters as their younger selves and meeting others for the first time. We know who lives and runs into John later in life. This is more about the journey and how we got to the point that RDR jumps off at. We finally get to see Dutch in the twilight of his golden age with the law on his tail and his mind spinning out at the constant threat of his long con coming to an end. Arthur Morgan is one of the original members of the Van Der Linde gang and assumes the role as “muscle”. From the snowy mountains to the steamy swamps we ride across New Austin doing everything we can for our makeshift family to just survive shortly after the infamous Blackwater incident. There’s something special about this story and how it’s told. The way it is clearly Arthur’s story, and yet we know its a stream that is going to meander into John’s life in some sense or another somehow, some way. Learning and, more impressively, understanding Arthur is a journey that seems to have benefitted the first game. Arthur is conflicted and that is something that is a constant throughout the entire game. This character trait (or flaw depending on perspective) is one that settles in as the game continues. Initially, he is the reliable right hand that holds the gang up when no one else can. Over time there is a dissonance that begins to rattle Arthur as the stakes get raised higher and higher in the face of insurmountable odds. The characters are deep and fleshed out, the story is long but an odyssey I can’t wait to dive into again. Pacing isn’t perfect but whether or not you have any investment in the Van Der Linde gang, this is something worth seeing out.
Home on the Range
This map is vast, detailed, and eerily alive in its own way. We went from clumsily walking into everyone representing the closest we could get to NPC interaction; to actually being able to “greet” or “antagonize” literally anyone. Don’t like the way that guy is looking at you? Tell him to fuck off! Wanna brighten someone’s day? Tip your hat and say hello. In certain instances, these prompts change allowing you to defuse or escalate a situation. These two very simple additions to the way the game plays completely change it and feeds into that Rockstar style of gameplay. Where systems and engines collide and create a situation that feels unique and genuinely spontaneous. Some of the events are obviously scripted but it’s the presentation of these events that, to me, so wonderfully hide the strings. The level of interactivity is another aspect that bolsters the world even further. See that stagecoach? Rob/ steal it, rob the train, free that prisoner on the way to the gallows, rob a store, rob a store’s under-handed side business, customize your weapons since you’ll be getting familiar with them, hunt animals, hunt rival gang members, search for treasure, rob houses. It’s a near-perfect outlaw simulator in this sense and I cannot stress that enough.
Melee combat in Rockstar games has always been minimal, to say the least, “serviceable” at best if you ask me. Red Dead 2 doesn’t do much more in offering a simple two-button combat system. It’s still a little anemic in my opinion but it at least has turned into a spectacle no matter what your camera perspective is. Random punches are now hardened fist fights and potential brawls that feel heavy, especially in first-person. I had a hard time imagining what Rockstar meant when they said that the guns would be ‘fully functional’ or however they specifically put it. The look on my face was probably pretty amusing when I pull the right trigger twice hoping to let off two quick shots, only to watch Arthur let off a shot and cock the hammer. I really liked how it felt once I got used to it and now 20+ hours in it feels just as good. I wish all the view options were made a bit more clear (I was looking for iron sights for a good while there). That said, once you get there, if you enjoy FPS it’s worth a shot no pun intended. It’s a little clunky but requires patience to line up shots if you turn off the aim assist. I’m bringing up the first-person option a lot and that’s because of its impact on the game and how important it is to get the perspective right. It’s hard to fuck up the trademark third person angle Rockstar has at this point. What was not hard is fucking up the first-person translation of that perspective like they kind of did in GTAV. This is not the case in RDR2, so much so I had to dedicate a whole section to it.
From Worst to First (Person)
GTA V took an interesting step when it debuted its first-person mode. It’s funny how far away the camera started in the first games of the series and now we’ve gotten to the point where we’re looking out the eyes of our character. It’s in no way new for video games but it’s definitely different for Rockstar and you could tell. A buddy of mine put it like this and I couldn’t have worded it better myself: “GTAV first person felt like a mod”. It did, it was stiff and janky because the engine and animations for the series have never really lent themselves well to the smooth feeling a first-person experience needs. Boy did they polish the shit out of that because I haven’t played more than half an hour in third-person on RDR2. It’s nice to have this side of the gameplay really be able to shine and not just be passable. I understand some may see my playing this way as heresy but seriously, try it, my immersion levels go through the roof playing this way. On top of all that, the shooting is better and more polished than GTA and feels unique to this game.
Aging Like Wine
Rockstar almost never ceases to impress me, this title decimated my opinion of GTAV when they originally came out (a game I wasn’t too hot on to begin with) but this is very different. Rockstar as a studio is learning with every game they make and it’s showing on most fronts. The point in history we play in is fictional in location but very very real when dealing with the bigger picture of the country as a whole. The industrial age starting and growing quickly, the age of outlaws slowly dying because of “civilization’s” growth, the last remnants of native life slowly being snuffed out, as well as some other hints that the country this game takes place in is changing. All of this is handled with a maturity that I think Rockstar has withheld from showing simply because it didn’t fit what mold the game they were making at the time. It’s almost hard to believe the same people that write the GTAV radio bits were the same people that really moved me with some of the strongest dialogue in gaming. Yes, there’s plenty of levity and humor but the heavy moments are just that and hit me in ways that other Rockstar titles and games in general struggle to do. If this is any indication it can hopefully prove to be a turning point for the studio from a writing standpoint. Personally, I love the hills and valleys of depressing realism to cartoony comedy, something that this game tries and competently succeeds at time and time again.
Peeves and Problems
Some of my gripes come more so from Rockstar than from Red Dead 2 if that makes sense. Character movement and control is better than previous titles but something about the RAGE engine they use makes conventional movement a chore more often than not. It certainly doesn’t help when one wrong move and you’re bumping into people and suddenly you’re in a shootout with the entire town all because you scuffed some dude’s boots. Speaking of being “Wanted”, the system could use some tweaking. If an NPC starts some shit, and I beat him within an inch of his life, why isn’t it self defense? Dudes knocking each other out in the streets all the time and no one bats an eye, your character doesn’t even need to draw his weapon to have a situation on his hands and that can be a bit bothersome. The formula of missions is repetitive despite how diverse the number of situations there are. Main missions mean something going to go wrong, if you are being stealthy, it’s gonna get real loud real soon. Side missions/ random encounters are where things dance a fine line between the contradictory ideas of painfully formulaic to entirely spontaneous and unique to you. You’ll see the same dude get kicked by his horse/ get bit by a snake twenty times. Only for your friend to tell you of this side mission/encounter you never even found. It’s probably tough to get that sweet spot since RNG is surely a factor in accessing these types of events to begin with. Others are just minor details that were overlooked if you can believe that. Little things like how I can’t choose my loadout when I replay a story mission. Some of these missions are so enthralling and cinematic, I often want to go right back and play it again. The issue is that when I do, I do not have any options in my arsenal depending on the initial encounter in said mission. So I’m going against an army of O’Driscolls complete with repeaters and a damn machine gun while I’m stuck with my two base pistols and maybe a shotgun. What the hell? Pacing is another minor gripe I have at the beginning and especially in the epilogue, this ride, however, is so enjoyable it doesn’t hamper the fun I have more so they just nibble at the grey matter in the back of my mind from time to time.
This game is immersive, detailed, made with love, and an achievement in gaming. It is by no means perfect but is definitely one of the best games I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Games like Destiny, Watch Dogs, Fallout 4 No Man’s Sky, The Division, and many more have gotten hype from talking about things that can’t/ won’t be in the game but sound good anyway. Rockstar talked a big game before the release of RDR2 and I really have a hard time thinking of any true bullshit to call them on. So I will join the ovation and applaud the studio for not only meeting my expectations after so long but exceeding them quite handsomely. TL;DR 9/10