It's time to saddle up and head out west for Rockstar's latest epic adventure.
Every now and again, our perception of story-telling and art is transformed, never to be the same again. We all remember these experiences fondly, where we're reshaped somehow, whether it be powering through to Pink Floyd's The Wall, watching the city bend on itself in Inception, or arriving in the neon-drenched Vice City for the first time. They are dear to us, these experiences, and it takes true masters to create them. That's why Rockstar holds such a special place within the industry, because almost all of us have at least one of those moments from one of their projects, be it a bank heist in Grand Theft Auto V, shooting up Saint Mark's Bistro in San Andreas, or saving the band Love Fist in Vice City.
For many gamers though, escaping certain death on a trusty steed across the US/Mexican border with a million stars overhead, with José González' Far Away keeping protagonist John Marston company, is one of the most powerful moments the medium has to offer, and most certainly one of the few experiences that changes the entire way you think about storytelling, about character, about the power these digital stories we all hold dear can have.
It's on the backbone of moments like these that Rockstar wanted to return to the western universe with a follow-up, using that moment as a foundation that Red Dead Redemption 2 was born. A quest to do better, to do more in order to immerse you, to enthral you. Now we can finally tell you whether the ambitious task that Rockstar set for itself many years ago has succeeded, whether or not they've managed to once more create an experience, a moment which we'll remember and which will reshape our understanding of the capability of the medium.
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While Red Dead Redemption 2 shares a straight similarity with Grand Theft Auto V and the original Red Dead Redemption from 2010, it's immediately and abundantly clear that many of the mechanical underpinnings of previous titles have been ditched in favour of something newer and heavier. This is the start of something brand new for the studio, yet it's forged in the flames of something utterly familiar.
The Old West, the Wild West, is dying ever so slowly. Through the fires of industry, the land is being repurposed; retooled to suit the needs of a more modern population, now entrepreneurs instead of victims, doers instead of thinkers. To suit the modernised way of thinking is the arrival of state, of legislature and law, of Uncle Sam, of the framework of society which creates safety and security, but at the cost of that very freedom which European settlers set out to find. This way of thinking does not suit Dutch Van der Linde. He wants to escape the pressing thumb of government, of rules, of the establishment - and he does so by physically avoiding it, which leads a trail of like-minded individuals through the still untamed terrain, protecting them from a more modern way of thinking. This is where we find ourselves, as Arthur Morgan, righthand man to Dutch, a trusted bodyguard and loyal member of the gang. Morgan was found by Dutch as a boy and was raised to follow the same ideals, so his loyalty knows no bounds, his resolve is unshaken, and despite the gang usually surviving on the backs of other, less fortunate souls, he sees little reason to question Dutch's motives. After all, he sacrificed marriage, children, and property to these ideals, ideals that he himself believes in.
But as you might've expected already, this is no fairytale of people discovering happiness and a lasting retirement. This is a tragedy, as it should be. This is a tale of being so close to what you want, but never quite being able to reach it, as is the case with most of the tragic lives lost, exhilarating heists, and broken connections in Rockstar games. First off, the game does a wonderful job of introducing us to characters old and new, who not only have interesting things to say but engage with Arthur, creating narrative strands all on their own. At the centre, we find Arthur, a stalwart, loyal, no-nonsense enforcer who appreciates when people cut the bullshit. He feels a fatherly responsibility for the group, as does Dutch, and be it the drunken Bill Williamson, the sassy Sadie Adler, the wise Hosea Matthews, or the quiet Charles Smith, he looks out for these people, as they look out for him. Throughout the story they swear at one another, share intimate moments around the bonfire, do unspeakably heinous acts of savagery to others and then share a beer afterwards. They are not heroes by any stretch, but the group slowly becomes one combined character that you look out for, and the various characters become the faces of that character.
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Very rarely has a game done a job of having the player care for a community of distinct personalities, where it's so easy to point out the character weaknesses and strengths in each individual, yet get you feeling an immediate responsibility for them all. This is due to a constant barrage of clever writing, which routinely reminds you of events that have passed, as well as follow-up on important story beats. It's a narrative attention to detail seldom found anywhere, and certainly not to this degree in any other Rockstar game.
As the game progresses, the camp migrates across the game world. This shifts the story from act to act, creating a strong sense of progression and momentum from start to finish. Once the camp settles, you're free to utilise all the various systems it has to offer. Whereas many Rockstar titles have given you either a base, housing, or at least a home for your character to inhabit, nothing has gone as far as the base camp in Red Dead Redemption 2. From here, you may interact with every single character, and they'll have unique and interesting tales to tell every time you return, you'll be able to fully customise Arthur's appearance, from clothing and shoes, which can be bought around the world, as well as shave. Now, Arthur's hair and facial hair grow in real-time, meaning that you'll see stubble a day or two after you've had a clean shave. Furthermore, there are mini-games to participate in and master (such as playing cards or dominos). The camp will thrive and grow with the more effort you put into supporting it, so if you deliver a few animals, donate a few dollars here and there, Chef will be able to prepare better meals, resulting in better stamina gathered from eating, and the camp residents will offer up more ammunition types to purchase. Not only that, the camp ledger provides you with upgrades to each character's tent, as well as the available medicine, ammunition, and food. You can even spend pelts on customising the appearances of the camp.
The camp is a mechanic, sure. It serves a systemic purpose for the player, and further anchors Arthur to the game world through tactile design, such as shaving, eating, sleeping, chopping wood and grabbing new missions. But much more importantly, it ties directly into the aforementioned bond you form with this band of outlaws. It becomes dear to your heart, and more importantly - it becomes home in a way Rockstar has never achieved before.
But once in a while, even the most homesick pipsqueak must leave the nest to explore the surroundings, and once Arthur does, you'll be struck time and again by a world unlike any other, a space so enthralling it's hard to pick back up your jaw. The setting is perfectly realistic, and never strays too far from the world and historical period Rockstar is trying to portray, yet it's also designed in a way as to create constant aesthetic variety from roaring rivers to snow-covered mountain peaks, from dusty deserts to alligator-infested swampland. There are different biomes which contain different types of wildlife, which all have distinct behaviours and traits. Almost all of them are tied to hunting challenges too, and their pelts can be sold for money in the various towns, and meat can be donated to the camp. Wildlife is abundant, with herds of bison still grazing on the various plains, grizzly bears hunting in the mountains, and pronghorns darting in and out of the trees. Hunt animals with a bow, find and break in new steeds, and fish in rivers and lakes for sturgeon and salmon. The world in Red Dead Redemption 2 is brimming with character, but what surprises you instantly about this, is how it feels to be outdoors with Arthur without the company of other people. While humongous, much of the world is wild, and as yet untamed, meaning that you'll be hunting, gathering herbs and fishing in desolate locations. It's outside the realm of civilisation, at least for a little while, but you never feel like you're in an empty space. That takes careful design, that takes talent.
No matter if you fancy yourself as an outdoorsman, it's important to visit towns every now and again. After all, Rockstar has introduced a number of systems to ground you to the world, and by living in the rugged wilds Arthur's clothes will dirty up, his stamina will drain if he hasn't slept, his guns will get dirty if they're not properly cleaned. Just like the cowboys of the real west, visiting towns is a necessity, and despite the fact that it may seem redundant on the surface, actually having errands to run in town and meeting new people in the process is a legitimately fantastic way of experiencing the historical period in which the game is set. The camp, the forests, the rivers, the mountains - that's your home, and small towns like Valentine or huge metropolises like Saint Denis are a necessity, a necessary evil. Still, once there you can upgrade your weapons at a gunsmith, selecting each individual part from the barrel to the stock. You can pay extra for gold plating, or simply upgrade it for a faster reload time. If you're poor, which will happen often, a simple clean will suffice in order to prevent misfires. The hotels offer you rooms to rent, and from here you can replenish your stamina and even take a bath. General stores offer up gossip and a wide array of usable items, and the doctor will sell you tonics. All of these stops are necessary if you want to be a fully functioning outlaw, and it never ever becomes tedious. It's immersion, and that term is vague, but it fits so neatly here. It's just immersive busywork.
What's not busywork at all though is the missions you undertake over the course of the at least 50-hour story. The camp residents, and also new characters you'll meet along the way, will offer up missions big and small, which range from heists to hunting, from escaping deadly Pinkerton agents to taking a friend into town for a drink. It's a brilliantly paced narrative with relaxing moments of utter calm where Arthur and other characters converse and become alive before you, and heart-stopping action where each bullet is not only made of lead but the will to survive. The variety here is better than it's ever been, even besting GTA V, which stands as the pinnacle of perfectly paced linear missions within an open-world framework. The game excellently and masterfully switches at the blink of an eye between a polished, linear experience, only to open the world back up to you. It's difficult to delve into too many details without spoiling some properly memorable moments, but it's safe to say that no two missions ever feel the same.
An aspect that ensures variety is the constant barrage of ways in which the player is offered mechanics to interact with the game world, and that's not only in a narrative sense, where Arthur can greet passersby, defuse tensions, or even rob people but also in terms of combat. Each and every weapon feels distinct, and has immediate advantages, each feels satisfying to fire and reload. It feels weighty, purposeful and wholly realistic. Same goes for Arthur - he moves deliberately, yet patiently, and while the overall movement patterns and action may seem slower than what many are used to, there's a point where you realise how flimsy other, similar characters handle themselves. After a lighter, more responsive control scheme in Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar goes back to something heavier, and the game is all the better for it.
In addition to the main narrative, there are side-missions which appear as bigger circles on the map, where the quest giver must be located by keeping an ear to the ground and your eyes open. Not only that, missions may open up simply by interacting with the surroundings. At one point Arthur sees a letter lying next to his bed in the camp, and it happens to be from his former girlfriend. Reading this letter opens up a whole chain of missions which would've been hidden had Arthur not picked up that specific letter. There's also the usual Strangers, which give you meaningful collectibles to find, and there are bounties to collect across the entire game world. Not only that, one of the camp residents will task you with "persuading" citizens to pay back their outstanding loans. Almost all of these activities award you with medals, just like in Grand Theft Auto V, and it's hard to imagine being done with Red Dead Redemption 2 if you set your aim at earning a gold medal in the majority of the available activities.
Regardless of the activities you choose to engage in, there's one constant - this is one of the most beautiful games ever made, and that's regardless of whether you're playing in the first or third-person mode. That's not a statement to be taken lightly, and while graphical improvements are abundant, it's again design, craftsmanship, and atmosphere that make the bigger difference here. These are all vague terms surely, but in a way, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most hand-built game Rockstar has ever made, and as you force your way through the wilderness, you find yourself stopping, noticing a small lake in a clearing. At moments like this, you can actually see how a designer has placed each and every object in this particular scene. The area may not serve a specific mechanical purpose, they often don't actually, but it's there and someone created it. Still, it's not like the game is all bark and no bite when it comes to its technical make-up. Facial animations have drastically improved to serve up more believable scenes, a deluge of animations creates constant tactile feedback, so as to anchor the player heavily to the world. If there's even a hint of a negative here, it'd be that the framerate did suffer in a few places during the playthrough on PlayStation 4 Pro, but it was never enough to ruin the immersion. Was it there though? Yes.
Bill Elm and Woody Jackson return for a triumphant soundtrack consisting of 192 individual pieces of scored music, which naturally reacts to what Arthur is doing at any given time. While not necessarily a new trick, it's incredibly effective, as powerful drums arrive to punctuate a wild and roaring shoot-out, it perfectly underpins the western atmosphere. However, it's the melancholy of the music that hits you in moments of tragedy, and safe to say, it's enough to make you let go of a tear or two over the course of the campaign.
But we're beating around the bush here, stalling for time, because you all know where this is heading. We didn't know, but the notion did come into focus several times, from the very first time we sat down to play to spending six hours with the game earlier this month. That notion grew, and now, after having spent dozens upon dozens of hours in this breathtaking world, the notion has transformed into something ironclad and bulletproof. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a watershed moment, an instant classic, it's both another high point for a studio which has constantly delivered them for decades, and yet it's also a culmination of a journey, a journey to not only create a world that's interesting and brimming with content but a world where you can get truly lost. As a result, we have no issue calling Red Dead Redemption 2 exactly what it is, and what it deserves to be - a masterpiece.
Red Dead Online, the multiplayer part of Red Dead Redemption 2, is set to launch next month. We'll review that separately when the servers are up and running, so stay tuned for that.