It’s been over a week since I ‘finished’ the most anticipated game of 2018 (or maybe even of the last five years); Red Dead Redemption 2. I say finished in quotes, because I clocked in around 50 hours in a little less than three weeks just to finish the main campaign, but the more I learn about the game after finishing, the more I become convinced I haven’t even seen 10% of what there is to do and see in this enormous game. Still, I have some thoughts on this game, especially compared to the original Red Dead Redemption, which is among my favorite games of all time.
So let’s dissect in true Western fashion, here’s the Good, Bad and Ugly of RDR2. (Beware, major spoilers are ahead).
Let me just start by pointing out that there is very little wrong with this game. This is a triple A game by a triple A studio who actively tried to push boundaries with their latest title and succeeded. So you can call it a quad A game if you like, I will not argue with you.
What every blog, vlog and review has already pointed out, is that the attention to detail in this game is just off the charts. There are many moments where you think “wait, they really thought about that, that is insane!”. My default mode is already that I am perpetually in awe by open world games. I always think that every piece of grass, every rock, every doorknob has been designed, created by someone and put there specifically. And considering the scale of most open world games, it never ceases to blow my mind. And what RDR2 does is take this to another level. Not just the size of the game (I mean the entire map of RDR1 is playable, are you kidding me?), but also the decisions and possibilities seem endless (everyone plays as Arthur but nobody looks alike, the combination of clothes and hairstyles seem infinitive). It is absolutely mind-boggling to me to think that people have created this, translated it to zeros and ones, put those on a disc that you can buy and put in a magical device which allows you to enter and participate in an entirely made up world. Just to get an idea of the level of detail, you can watch this video or many others about (hidden) details in this game.
This game has at least three original songs that could easily chart by themselves. But apart from these very well placed songs in the game story, it’s the instrumental songs in fight missions where I think I had the most fun. Running, shooting, horse riding while the most classic Western cowboy tunes you can think of accompany your actions. I love it.
Check out That’s The Way It Is by Daniel Lanois (number 1) and May I? Unshaken by D’Angelo (number 6) from this list:
Or, Cruel, Cruel World by Willie Nelson:
- Combat system
The original combat system from RDR1 is more or less unchanged in RDR2, which is the right decision. This system offers great balance between story and action. Meaning the game itself is not particularly difficult, and that is a good thing. Countless reloading of end-boss missions as most games do is tedious and frustrating and does damage to the story immersion. RDR2 does this just right.
Games I enjoy the most, tend to be immersive story games. This is the reason why I like RDR1 so much. RDR2 has another great immersive story. It is not specifically unique, but it’s deep and broad and interesting enough to keep you engaged for 107 missions. And that’s quite a feat.
There is no other game where so much attention has been given to the NPCs. They really seem to have their own life, particularly the fellow gang members. Usually great games, at most, have a partner backstory to the protagonist/ antagonist story. But not RDR2. Everything seems to be full of life and people and animals minding their own business. Things happen without you having anything to do with it. You are not playing the game so much as you are participating in the story.
These five good aspects combined I’d like to argue that RDR2 is not a game in the classic sense, but it is not a movie either. It is something else. With lack for a better word it is a hybrid of a movie and a game. Playing RDR2 means you participate in a life-action movie where you are the director. It is a unique experience.
There is a great NY Times piece, that more or less states the same, titled: Red Dead Redemption 2 Is True Art. I recommend reading it.
Bonus: personal favorite part
As a big fan of the first RDR, the part where John Marston gets his outfit from the first game was a goosebump part for me.
- Arthur dies
It’s pretty clear from the beginning, Arthur will die. And if you played RDR1 you know this for a fact, because there is no Arthur in RDR1. And maybe that’s part of the reason I never really felt as emotionally connected to Arthur as to John Marston from RDR1. It wasn’t until towards the end when Arthur falls out with Dutch that I started liking him more, but I think it was too late by then. Because not soon after, Arthur dies. But even before that, Arthur could sometimes be quite the asshole. In missions where he has to beat up some poor dad in front of his wife and kids, I particularly didn’t like that I had no say in this and it certainly didn’t help to increase his likeability. Also the backstory for Arthur is unclear (to me), how did he and Dutch meet, what happened there? So, even after spending 50 hours with Arthur and of course generally liking him and feeling bummed out in how he died (why!?) I didn’t really miss Arthur after that, like the first RDR. I remember after finishing RDR1 it struck a chord and I thought about it for a couple of days.
And this is where the comparison with the first RDR comes in. John Marston from RDR1 is one of the greatest game characters of all time. He is the torn and wounded protagonist who is trying his best to put his bad past behind him. He is looking for redemption! It was just that bad luck (or bandits) seemed to follow him around. This context provides a great and rich story and character paradox. As stated above, with Arthur the actual redemption part is short-lived and a bit unfulfilling.
The John Marston of RDR2 comes across as a young loose cannon, with his heart in the right place nonetheless. So that seems to fit with the first RDR which, in timeline, follows after RDR2. Because he is just a little bit older and wiser and determined to do the right thing. So the John in RDR1 is much more grounded in what is good and bad (and therefore more likeable).
- Finale: choice
Throughout the game there is plenty of freedom of how to go about it. Sometimes there are choices that might or might not impact the outcome of a (side)mission, but they all seem to be insignificant (no great impact on the main story). So I was rather surprised when in the final mission of the Arthur timeline I had to make a REALLY CRITICAL decision. To go with John or to go back for the money. I thought this was really unbalanced with the rest of the story. Because what happened was that during the following scene part of my brain kept thinking: have I made the right choice, what would happen if I had chosen the other option? And that’s not really what you want to be thinking about going into the final mission. I don’t understand why the game/story designers put this there. I did however make the right choice, so much became clear after googling the horrible alternative ending (do so at your own risk).
These rampaging gang members and their criminal ways seemed to cause less of a problem for me than the potty mouthed conversations. There is a lot of comedy and character development within the dialogue, which is certainly a strong suite of this game, but the swearing for swearing sake? For a game with this level of attention to detail (and accents, clothes and horses etc.) I would think that this is not how they talked back then. I am not a big fan of gore and violence either, but to a point I can understand what’s needed for a game like this. But the dialogue was sometimes just unnecessarily over the top with profanity.
So here is a nitpick. I did not like the trees, I said so from the first minutes, and I still thought so when finishing the game. The game is gorgeous and the level of attention to detail is astounding, the shoes, the spurs, the saddles, the faces, the fingernails, I have never seen it before in a game. But the trees? I think I’ve seen better. So maybe in RDR3 they’ll fix that?
As we await RDR Online, there are still hundreds of possible gaming hours left in this incredible game, I mean I still have to explore all of New Austin (and I will get to it as soon as I finish Undertale)! So, to point back to the NY Times article about RDR2, it features this great quote: “As a technical achievement, it has no peers.” I strongly agree. But from an emotional engagement point of view, in my memory I still think the first RDR has one up on RDR2.