A Review of Red Dead Redemption 2

I have a lot of weird, conflicting feelings about Red Dead 2 that, of all things, I think can be summed up in the game’s cinematic camera mode. It’s a mode we’ve seen in Rockstar’s previous open worlds, meant to provide the kind of thrilling cuts you’d expect in a Hollywood car chase, but funnily enough blasting through the streets in a Lambo doesn’t exactly lend itself well to a camera that could be providing a shaky helicopter perspective one second then locking itself to the wheel arch the next. Horses, as it turns out, move slowly enough that the same mode here likely won’t result in the wreckages found in the developer’s more contemporary cityscapes.It’s the same mechanical template, but it makes more sense when transposed to a different setting. It lets you take a break from the long rides between objectives as your horse automatically follows the path, allowing you to bask in the splendour of its environmental design and weather effects. Snow is legitimately blinding, god rays shining through the mist paint the vast wilderness as some mysterious, heavenly plane; all framed from the kinds of dynamic angles you’d see in the highest budget blockbusters. From animation to shot composition to environmental detail, this mode asserts in no uncertain terms that this is one of the best-looking games ever made. When taken on its own, however, you find that, mechanically, the mode is a means of further automating what little control you had during traversal. It presumes you’ll get bored mindlessly turning corners while watching the backs of your characters for minutes at a time, so gives you a way to break up the monotony inherent to your interaction.In short, it’s a means by which you can play the game less. It’s the developers saying “gaze in awe upon what we made. What we made is more important than what you do with it.” See, Red Dead Redemption 2, taken as a whole, feels like an almost complete shift when held up against Rockstar’s other games; less like the frantic, player-focused action romps of yore than a slow, fairly rigid interactive story—a game that isn’t so bothered about being played as it is about guiding you along its “experience”; its saga of characters dealing with the agonising decay of their way of life—each treating it with varying degrees of inevitability.Over the month it took me to complete the game (a remarkably and enjoyably prolonged period of time given the disposable nature with which people tend to chew up and spit out games nowadays) I saw characters convincingly grow and wither and die. I saw each of the game’s identically structured chapters culminate in the one big job meant to save the gang going increasingly awry and I saw leader Dutch’s mask slip away in the process—gradually revealing him to be the same kind of self-interested egomaniac he so often and vitriolically spoke against. I noticed it in the little details; from his ongoing lack of subtlety to the fact that he gives the same spiel to the Pinkertons as he does to John in the first game; gloriously reframing his noble death speech as merely a failed attempt to buy time and save his own skin.On the other hand, we have Arthur; initially striking me as a meathead blank slate but slowly becoming one of the most nuanced, likeable protagonists since BJ Blaskowics. A man who, in his recognition that his gang’s way of life is going to end, lines up with our knowledge of exactly what goes down; whose gruff exterior belies a man with a surprising penchant for words and an artistic eye. Whose borderline-absurdist view on life leads him, perhaps unwittingly, to help those in need – to protect them directly against Dutch’s bluster – making him a far more convincing paragon of his leader’s ideals than the leader himself, made all the more endearing for the fact that he never sees himself as any kind of hero.He’s a man who simply wants to experience the beauty of life’s small details with what little time he has left. And it’s a good thing too, because Red Dead 2 is all about selling you on its world through its minutiae, even if it doesn’t make things as easy for you as a player as it perhaps could. You’re not going to get constant dialogue to make your solo horse rides more engaging, because who the hell just talks to themselves? You’re not allowed to run through camp because, well, who the hell just sprints through their own home? Stuff like this may seem inconsequential, hell, even downright irritating, but it also represents an impressively subtle and naturalistic approach to characterisation for a game in which you can ride your horse of a cliff if you want to.On a more personal level, I found aiming to be such an automatic process that I struggled to notice anything other than aesthetic differences between a clean gun and a worn one but you can bet I maintained them anyway, taking the time to hold square as Arthur lovingly rid them of any muck. I customised them, painting them a garish gold and engraving handles with the most intricate, expensive designs I could, knowing full well Arthur’s grubby mitts would be covering them up the whole time.I liked the idea that, moreso than in other shooters where you might pick up a weapon and throw it away when something better came along, these were Arthur’s guns. I’d slowly pull them out of my horse’s cargo whenever I jumped off, even though there wasn’t any mechanical benefit to leaving them there or any reason as to why they weren’t simply on my back the whole time. Even if it didn’t necessarily impact moment-to-moment gameplay in a particularly noticeable way, the detail provided the world a tactility it would have otherwise lacked.That said, this was just one system in a wealth of systems I just couldn’t place the same level of meaning on. Take bounties, for example; whose limiting of fast travel ended up the far more perilous punishment for going off the rails than the few hunters the game would occasionally send my way to be summarily dead-eyed (and even then, money became such a non-issue after a certain point that the entire system was rendered almost redundant). And while the similar structuring of all of the game’s chapters serves to contribute to the growing sense of dread that Dutch’s much-talked-about plan isn’t all it seems, it doesn’t change the fact that almost every mission over the game’s entire 70 hours sees events devolve into an incredibly basic stop-and-pop cover shooter, feeling entirely at odds with the game’s storytelling strengths; making me feel like Rockstar are stuck in a kind of limbo—refusing to commit to an entirely story-focused experience for fear of alienating more action-oriented fans, with the action that does feature feeling stymied by the developer’s more… filmic ambitions.Take the moment I came up against a bounty I had to collect for the local sheriff. Interpreting Arthur’s character as a no-frills, get-the-job-done kind of guy, my first instinct was to creep up on him and use the lasso to get him on my horse as efficiently as possible. But nope, by greying out my reticle I found that the game had other ideas in mind—instead forcing me to “confront” him by pressing circle; or rather, the game wanted me to trigger a cutscene that would lead to a high-larious caper in which I’d have to stop him falling off the cliff then dramatically catch him on horseback. Or take the moment my horse would inexplicably slow down as I hammered the controller to escape multiple threats, because that was the trigger point for getting shot off said horse. Or when I spent ages running through a corn field, again lasoe in hand ready to catch the straggler I’d been looking for, only to find that character model wasn’t actually present in the world—rather, after running over a certain point, the dude would magically appear behind me, leading to a brawl whose intended surprise and tension was inevitably lost in how scripted it all was.In each example, the resulting cutscenes were all framed nicely, I suppose; in a vacuum you could say they were each a suitably “cinematic” sequence of events, but none were my sequence. I could have handled it; I wanted to handle these encounters in a totally different way – more in line with who I thought the character was – and the game betrayed my ability to do that in favour of its grander cinematic vision; something which I very recently praised the first game for avoiding. That game proved that you didn’t need big, showy set pieces in order to resonate with an audience, as long as what was there was consistent with how you played the game in other areas.In Red Dead 1 you had a barn and some dudes and you knew you were a goner. Here, the same set-up is just another shoot out whose undoubtedly impressive focus on the detail of its animations nonetheless has it playing like a Wild West Uncharted with less explosive set pieces and more rickety firearms. And for the missions to devolve into this predictable framework of ride to place, shoot at dudes is confusing, given the sheer density of controls and systems the developers could have weaved in. Button modifiers on top of button modifiers potentially allow you to do everything from pointing your gun up to fire warning shots to exploring a rudimentary dialogue system, and yet the missions never give you any choice as to how you use them—trying to talk someone down when you’re meant to shoot them (or vice versa) will either have no effect or result in a failed mission. At least there was narrative justification when Red Dead punished you for going off script—you were under strict orders from the Pinkertons who were holding your family hostage.Here, the same restrictions seem more focused on Rockstar forcing the cool stuff they programmed in front of your eyes. Like the side missions that seem to appear organically in the world but will repeat if ignored, the new controls give the illusion that this is some new type of mechanical framework for Rockstar to explore, when in actuality we haven’t moved that much further forward than a game released five years ago.In all, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the best TV show I’ve ever played; its daunting length almost wholly justified in how it sells the glacial decline of an age and the relationships of the utterly compelling characters within it, while the act of actually playing the game mostly feels like operating the remote control to get to the next episode. Taken holistically, I’ll cherish the month I spent with Red Dead 2; it’s rare you get to lose yourself in such an excessive, high budget piece of work delivered with the kind of swagger you can only get from a Rockstar game (again with the obvious caveat that said excess is not worth the wellbeing of the people realising it), that expects you to sit through its long story told so confidently that you perhaps gloss over its inconsistencies. But when examined with any great detail, you find those inconsistencies, the ways in which it lags behind more mechanically accomplished games, are difficult to miss and I can only hope that whatever they do next can perhaps more effectively weave their need to keep players engaged through action with their lofty storytelling ambitions.So I hope you enjoyed my piece on Red Dead Redemption 2. If you did and feel like supporting the show directly, feel free to check out my Patreon like these wonderful folks currently on screen, who also get access to things like episode soundtracks and patron-exclusive written pieces. Your unbelievably generous support makes this show possible and I can never thank you enough for that. Special thanks go to Mark B Writing, Rob, Nico Bleackley, Michael Wolf, Artjom Vitsjuk, Ali Almuhanna, Timothy Jones, Spike Jones, Laserpferd, TheNamlessGuy, Chris Wright, Ham Migas, Travis Bennett, Zach Casserly, Samuel Pickens, Tom Nash, Shardfire, Ana Pimentel, Jessie Rine, Brandon Robinson, Justins Holderness, Christian Konemann, Mathieu Nachury, Nicolas Ross and Charlie Yang. And with that, this has been another episode of Writing on Games. Thank you very much for watching and I’ll see you next time. .


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