Rockstar Games have left a footprint on this industry unlike any other company today. Their games are considered seminal works and literal pillars of today’s modern gaming conventions. The original Grand Theft Auto 3 set the benchmark for open world sandbox gameplay. San Andreas elevated the genre into a cultural tour de force with an RPG simulation. Lest we forget, Grand Theft Auto 5, is the best selling game of all time. So it comes to no surprise that Red Dead Redemption 2, their first truly next generation game, is being met with unmeasurable levels of hype. It only took 9 years of development, an estimated $750 million dollar budget, and 3000 employees. With Red Dead Redemption 2- can Rockstar raise the bar again?
In Red Dead Redemption 2, the opening hours are cold. The dead of night acts as a back drop on what is to be a morbid, triumphant, heartbreaking, and monumental journey ahead. As the lead character, Arthur, walks through a blizzard, I can’t help but utter one phrase:
Tiny details overwhelm the senses, performance capture obliterates player expectations, and small pockets of dialogue are meandering and grim. I saddle up whilst my horse and NPC partner make trek up the road. The Blizzard ravages a tiny group of forlorn men and women looking to survive. The minutia snaps into focus like a 35mm film: hoof prints deform the snow tracks, snow particles flood the screen, and the amber glow of a fire lantern illuminate the darkness.
Dutch looks back at me and I can hear his voice crack in agony: “I can’t believe we lost Davey too.” I don’t know who Davey is, I don’t know what’s actually happening, and I don’t even know where we are going. I just know one thing: I’m smitten.
Modern Day Art
Rockstar games aren’t games in the traditional sense. Part social commentary, part satire, and part simulation- they stand to blur the lines between film, videogames, and performance art. Red Dead Redemption’s greatest and possibly most important contribution to modern day videogames isn’t just it’s core gameplay- but it’s ability to breathe life into a world and make you, the player, feel every part of it.
Players will find themselves traveling through multiple cities, environments, and locales. What sets Red Dead Redemption 2 apart from other games in the genre is the game’s insistence on keeping everything grounded and pushing simulation. Each NPC can be interacted with, fought with, or even killed. The choice is ultimately yours, but so are the consequences.
Class Leading Performance
Arthur is the every-man, the average joe- someone looking to do better for the gang. A cross between Joel and Gordon and Freeman. Dutch, the leader of the gang, plays a father figure, with burly commanding rhetoric, but a humility and sense of freedom you wouldn’t associate with someone from the time and era. Most interesting however, are the secondary characters and their footprint on the world.
These performances were pulling the best out of the medium. As a player I was beginning to have uncomfortable conversations with myself about not just the game world and it’s hyper realistic choice driven narrative- but also about the importance of social acceptance, historical persecution, and the need to embrace and understand.
Moments of Candor
The setting and era are just as much characters in this world as Arthur or any number of NPC. Red Dead isn’t meant for you to just blaze through missions (which you can), but it approaches players with a fine touch asking them to be deliberate. This first happened when I met Charles. A half Black, half Native American gang member who is dealing with a personal catharsis of identity. During long horse rides with Charles, I began to feel like he was not only the best and most trusted member of the gang, but also the one who had the biggest weight on his shoulders.
Slowing down is something I can’t stress enough. Making sure to investigate the environments and pay attention to tiny details IS a part of the gameplay itself. For example, in Saint Denis, I was in a dingy shop finding a trap door. As I walked into the cellar, I noticed two men begging for my help in Spanish. These men were slaves and were a part of a grander underbelly of corruption. As I cut them free, you could feel the tension pulse through your fingers. The game’s goal isn’t to make you shoot everything; it’s to overwhelm your senses and transport you into 1899.
Don’t be Wreckless
Now, the most difficult thing to communicate is how the game plays. This is a Rockstar Game. You will accidentally crash into a pedestrian, start a fight with a homeless person, kill your horse, and make all manners of malady’s because you either weren’t paying attention or the game is trying to evoke a sense of realism.
My biggest gripe is how the game prides itself on removing convenience. At first it might seem like an annoyance, but this harkens back to the days of yore where games expected you to experiment and work for everything. For example, Fast Travel is locked behind a $800 fee from your camp. Guns and weapons do not auto-equip the player. Instead you need to insure you go back to your horse, equip the right items, and than proceed on. It’s at these points where I feel like the game is borderline frustrating, but admittedly these are nitpicks.
All that said, the core mechanics of the game follow a traditional third person shooter model with a huge focus on keeping the world grounded. Player’s won’t be sprinting indefinitely across the map nor will they be able to withstand freezing cold temperatures without a jacket. RDR2 comes layered with a light RPG system that ties directly into the overall experience. Much like the beloved GTA: San Andreas, you must maintain, groom, feed, and level up your character if you want to get the most out of this game.
Horseback riding is the main form of travel between towns. In a pseudo-Tamagotchi fashion, you as a player are tasked to not only take care of your horse, but also build a relationship where doing so will level him up – letting you travel from point A to point B much faster.
And you’ll be needing that horse, because if you care to level up your satchels or create any number of stat boosting gear- players will have to invest time into hunting and burying themselves deep into the world’s animal life. I got lost and spent dozens of hours trying to get all the legendary hunts, completing my herbal/flower compendium, and trying to find just the right skins for the next Talisman.
I haven’t even began talking about the Opera house, Horse Racing, Fishing side quests, or the myriad of mini games like Dominos or Poker. The game is busting at the seams with content.
A Narrative that redefines the word “Epic”.
What gamer’s will celebrate is what could possibly be the most ambitious narrative of all time. Taking inspiration from the greats of the past decade: Last of Us, Uncharted, and Bioshock Infinite; Red Dead Redemption 2 sprawls a total of 60+ hours of gameplay divided amongst 6 chapters and 2 Epilogues. The story doesn’t pull any punches. The game will force players into tragedy, heartbreak, loss, and victory. It’s extremely hard to be specific about the story without spoiling things, but I can safely say this is the best story Rockstar Games have ever produced.
Initially the game starts off slow, but those of you willing to push through will find themselves in sheer and utter awe that represents the best of the best. Each main mission is expertly designed with that sharp creative spark Rockstar is known for, but with one huge caveat: This is the most mature story ever produced in a Rockstar game.
Those of you fans of the slapstick humor and satire of previous GTA entries need to steer clear. Red Dead Redemption 2 prides itself on maturity. That’s not to say everything is serious. Players across the game will witness a wealth of side missions with just as much depth as the main story, but with the tropes, humorous quips, and stereotypes you’ve come to love from previous games. There’s something here for everybody.
With all that said though- I’ll need to cut it here. Ultimately, I’ve spent nearly a 100 hours into Red Dead Redemption 2. When the credits finally rolled, I could feel the whiplash from the journey. The game is the definition of grandiose. Details on another level, genre defining world building, and a sandbox that literally obliterates every other open world game this generation. This is an essential game to play, and one you should run to the store and buy. Go. Now.
A New Benchmark
A cut above everything else