“Red Dead Redemption 2” rarely feels as big as it is.
By all accounts and the various snowballing controversies around it, “Red Dead Redemption” would seem to be the biggest game of 2018. It’s the game every other developer and publisher has moved comfortably away from, similar to developer Rockstar Games’ previous world-dominating release “Grand Theft Auto V” back in 2013. It’s the only game this year to drive breathless coverage of announcements of announcements. Make no mistake: for better and sometimes worse, “Red Dead Redemption 2” is the big game, subject to the best and worst aspects of what is colloquially known as AAAA – that’s four As, not three – game development.
And yet, playing through it, It’s hard to shake a sense that “Red Dead Redemption 2,” the video game, the object, is content to be smaller than I thought it would be. It shows a newfound restraint with regards to Rockstar’s most indulgent tendencies, both narrative and systemic, a surprise in an open world space that has, since “GTA V,” tended toward bloat and excess. But the refinement of Rockstar’s approach to action sequences and a more sober, less caricature-driven narrative style are equally surprising, and successful.
“Red Dead Redemption 2” is actually a prequel to 2010’s “Red Dead Redemption” (in turn a pseudo-sequel/spiritual successor to 2004’s “Red Dead Revolver”), in which you play as Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van der Linde Gang. The setting is a fictionalized American West around the turn of the 20th century as the frontier age is dying a slow but inevitable death in the face of the industrial revolution and rise of a new, gilded civilization.
In structure, “Red Dead Redemption 2” is much like its predecessor. It’s an open world game full of story missions, side activities, and characters to meet, where travel is largely accomplished on horseback and via carriage. Law is more of an abstract threat than an ironclad system, and many disagreements are decided at the end of a gun (though less than you might think – more on that later).
Rockstar makes an incredible first impression with “Red Dead Redemption 2” in terms of ambition and execution. It is one of the most visually stunning environments ever executed in a video game, and that’s not a statement spoken with hyperbole. It’s a technical tour de force, establishing its bona fides as its characters drive new obvious paths through snow and mud, as light filters through an atmosphere that effectively depicts the enormous scale of its environments. Its characters are incredibly detailed and animated, painstakingly executed in a way that brings to mind the big-budget console exclusives companies like Sony and Microsoft use to sell their own hardware. You can see the muscles work under the velvet-y skin of a horse.
These sound like exaggerations. These sound like superlatives. They’re just facts. “Red Dead Redemption 2” is the rare example of a game that looks like someone threw money and bodies at the problem of a believable Wild West tableau for five to seven years while retaining a genuine vision. We can avoid the discussions of whether or not video games are art, but in many regards, “Red Dead Redemption 2’s” visual presentation almost always appears to have been executed like a painting from the late 19th century, rather than a modern piece of popular film. It is dramatic and distinctive.
I’d be lying though if I said those early impressions remain consistent. I was quickly struck by less favorable observations. “Red Dead Redemption’s 2” fundamentals are, to be blunt, some of the weakest parts of its package. The way Morgan responds to controller input is sluggish, literally; there’s a tangible delay in when a button is pressed and when something happens on screen. Animation takes a priority, and I often felt stuck waiting for an action to play out for far too long, especially during points of interaction with various elements of the game world, like getting on a stagecoach. If I boarded on the “wrong” side, I’d have to wait for my character to slowly walk around and climb aboard.
These are the kinds of moments that made me feel most frustrated with “Red Dead Redemption 2,” and they’re not new. Every Rockstar open world game has suffered from these kinds of issues, albeit to varying degrees. It’s the most rage-inducing when in gunfights in tight spaces, or when some enemies decide it’s time to rush Morgan for a melee engagement.
The good news, though, is that more than any Rockstar game of the last decade (save the excellent and underappreciated “Max Payne 3”), “Red Dead Redemption 2’s” encounters and gameplay scenarios seem tailored to the limitations and slowness of its mechanical implementation. Practically speaking this is most obvious in combat, where aiming with the left trigger features an aggressive lock-on component, aiming at the enemy closest to your targeting reticle.
This isn’t new — “GTA V” worked the same way. But it works better here. It feels snappier, and the margin of error is higher. Lightly moving the reticle up makes for an effective way to nail headshots, which, with “RDR 2’s” arsenal of turn of the 20th-century weaponry, led to very satisfying results. “Red Dead Redemption’s” dead eye system also returns, which provides a time-dilating effect that lets Morgan mark targets and rapidly burn his enemies down. Dead Eye gets some upgrades over time, including the ability to fire while the ability is active and to highlight lethal contact points on a target.
This control scheme also makes gunfights on horseback a more practically achievable thing, which are a frequent occurrence. The end result is a game that feels less like a chore to actually play than any open world Rockstar game before it, and, in a first for me at least, one where I actually had fun during action sequences.
It’s almost like Rockstar knew that the combat basics of “Red Dead Redemption 2” were such a fundamental improvement over its previous games, because the developer seems more confident here to allow for combat and action to occupy a much more pronounced space within the game. It doesn’t feel like punishment when things go wrong (which is good, because with the Van der Linde Gang, things almost always do).
Supporting this idea, demands for players to engage in a cavalcade of novelty activities in order to progress through the main narrative are comparatively minor. Rockstar set a standard for bizarre, slice of life activities-as-game-mechanics in open world games, but here, it seems more comfortable letting them serve as a bonus, rather than a requirement.
For example, “Red Dead Redemption 2” teaches you how to fish – literally because this is a Rockstar game – but it’s rarely required. You can do chores around your gang’s camp, but you don’t have to. “Red Dead Redemption 2’s” main story teaches you to hunt and sustain yourself, to build camp, and to do a litany of other things, and I did most of them exactly once during my time with the game. You still can. In fact, there’s a whole progression and crafting system tied to these activities and involved side narratives for several. But I didn’t want to; it wasn’t what I was here for, and I was surprised to find that Rockstar didn’t force me to do them.
There’s a reason this is a surprise. I’ll admit to bouncing off other Rockstar open world games. I’ve tried and given up on every Grand Theft Auto game since “3,” making it around 15 hours into “GTA V” before deciding that I just wasn’t enjoying myself, in large part because I just didn’t know what to do to make the story, which I was most invested in, well, go. I wasn’t interested in living out a virtual version of the life of a 40-something guy who wasn’t satisfied with his day to day existence – I’ll be there soon enough. This is something that’s accumulated around open world games as they’ve grown bigger and bigger in the wake of Rockstar’s ambition, and even the industry standard bearers have been far from immune to the bloat and crap getting in the way (which, admittedly, has had little impact on their games’ enormous financial success).
That’s not how things shook out with “Red Dead Redemption 2.”
Make no mistake, there’s still … just a preposterous amount to do and find in “Red Dead Redemption 2.” Gambling, secret plots, feuding families, jobs, complications, minigames. But amidst all of those things, things I wasn’t primarily interested in tackling – and which, in a time-constrained review scenario, I didn’t really have the bandwidth to tackle – I moved through “Red Dead’s” main narrative more easily than with any open world game I can think from the last five years.
At no point does “Red Dead Redemption 2” feel like it’s getting in the way of the player working their way through it expeditiously – the only obstacle is how much stuff they’ll want to do on the way there. There’s a level progression system, but there’s no real sense that story missions are anchored to them. Any mission marked in yellow on your map is a story mission, regardless of whether it seems that way initially, and I was surprised to see how cleverly bits of camp life and character interaction and development were tied into the story of growing discord and desperation that charts across “Red Dead Redemption 2’s” 30-plus hour narrative.
Few gaming legacies are as littered with superlative descriptions of “movie-quality” writing and presentation as Rockstar’s games. I don’t want to make that kind of comparison, because I don’t really know what it means. What I do know is that “Red Dead Redemption 2” is full of realized characters, and almost all of them were effective in a way that was likely intended. Sometimes this meant they were easily hateable or disturbing, and sometimes it meant they were relatable and human, full of conflicting desires and motivations and failings. There aren’t a lot of simple sketches in “Red Dead Redemption 2,” and it isn’t a cast of characters or narrative hooks relying on edgy stereotypes or smirking antiheroes.
Instead, “Red Dead Redemption 2” is full of family, a family full of people struggling to come to grips with the world as it rapidly changes around them. The Van der Linde Gang is composed of refugees and outcasts, men and women who either can’t find a place in the world or who are refused a place in it. Almost all of them do bad things, but many of them wrestle with those things in satisfying, believable ways, and relationships are built up slowly and effectively over time, sometimes to add flavor to triumph and success, and sometimes to twist the knife in when things go wrong.
“Red Dead Redemption 2” employs a trick to amp up the emotional investment I experienced. Holding down the left trigger while interacting with other characters will often provide Morgan a way to engage with other people that isn’t limited to violence. There’s also a rudimentary choice system in place that lets you decide how he’ll react at pivotal moments throughout the story, largely determining whether Morgan will leave his mark as a murderous thug or a conflicted outlaw. Some of these choices can add significant additional quest options and will play out in a variety of ways throughout the game. However, the illusion of choice presented in these moments can occasionally cut against the game – there are a number of times where murder and violence are the only solutions, and in a way that doesn’t feel consistently presented or executed.
“Red Dead Redemption 2” was the first time playing a Rockstar game where my reaction went past interest to investment. I cared about what happened to these people, I cared about their stories and their lives, and there were moments where I was genuinely saddened or excited by what happened to them. And as the story winds toward its various conclusions, I was completely invested in them, hoping for the best, and fearing the worst. For someone there for the story, who wanted a game to feel fun more than they wanted it to feel comprehensive, I was completely absorbed.