***SPOILERS LAY AHEAD***
This has been a long time coming. Like a really long time. On the 25th of October 2018, I anxiously awaited to midnight release of Red Dead Redemption 2. With the first game being one of my fondest memories of the 360 gaming era, I was both nervous as to whether this game would fall flat of my rose-tinted expectations, all the while incredibly excited by the prospect of a current gen update of the Western sandbox.
So, as you can tell by the timely release of this review, I did not complete Red Dead 2 within a couple of weeks, as any well-respected fan would. Instead, I completed the game just last week; over a year and a half after I booted up the game on that faithful midnight launch.
You may be wondering why it took so long. Did I not like the game? Did it fall short of those dreaded expectations? No. I am here to profusely declare that I genuinely and wholeheartedly loved every second Red Dead Redemption 2.
Anyone that knows me will know I skip between games like nothing else. I see an advert for a new sci-fi movie, it puts me in the mood to play a bit of Prey. The Resident Evil 3 game is announced, I’m straight back to repurchase Resi 2. So, whenever I sat down to play Red Dead Redemption 2, I had to be in it, because suitably I believe you need to be all in to work your way through its expansive campaign and open-ended world. This is a long long game; my game time capped at around 80 hours, and I’m far from a completionist. This is the kind of game that you can play for 3 hours, only managing to collect some pelts, supply some meat to your camp, and make around $4.39. It is an incredibly immersive experience, but one that requires a level of patience and an ability to see the bigger picture.
And what a picture that is. The campaign, which follows the infamous Dutch Van Der Linde Gang is one of surprising nuance and impressively natural story arcs. You play as Arthur Morgan, a heft of a cowpoke, who grunts and rumbles his way through the campaign, with a delectable likeability, yet simmering level of intimidation. He no doubt will go down as one of the greatest videogame protagonist right alongside his equally brilliant companion John Marston. The genius to Arthur Morgan is that his arc, and to a degree personality, can be altered by how you play him throughout the story. Is he an honourable man, growing tired of the lying, robbing and murder? Or is he condemned, stuck in his old ways of treachery.
Surrounding Arthur are a collection of equally memorable characters, from the aforementioned John Marston, to the devilish ring-leader that is Dutch. It took me a while for these characters to really grow on me, but as we parked down at what would be our second from last camp, drinking, singing and chatting around the campfire, I knew that Rockstar had made something special. These people changed from NPCs, side-mission givers, and camp-fillers to a form of a rag-tag family, and one that left me caring for almost every one of them.
It is through that care, that as the numbers began to dwindle through death or abandonment, that the games overarching message became abundantly clear and left some pungent emotions in the aftermath. This was family bound together, but they were of a dying breed. With the attitude to gunslingers changing, and with it flickers of civilization materialising, they either get with the times or die clinging onto the ways of old. It is through the incessant white-knuckle grip that Dutch had on the gang, that causes the family to be eeked out of existence.
It is heartbreaking and entirely encapsulating, and like the previous Red Dead will be one of the few open-world games that’s story spoke to me so deeply. I got whole-body goosebumps as Arthur made his last heroic ride to salvation (is was in my playthrough), and moments like that will stay with me for a long time.
To top things off, the epilogue to the campaign, which in itself is of reasonable length, felt like the perfect rounding off of Arthur story, while simultaneously adding more weight to the tragedy of John Marston’s in Red Dead 1. It was also powerfully nostalgic to ride to a cliff’s edge to see the dusty town of Armadillo in the distance.
Yet every bit as enthralling as the campaign, is the sprawling map the game leaves open for you to explore, coupled with graphics that shouldn’t even be possible on consoles – although my PS4 Pro made it sound like I was stationed right outside Gatwick. From wide-open fields and small river-side towns to grimy and claustrophobic cities. From the Heartlands to the Grizzlies and down to the Bayous of Saint Denis. Red Dead 2 is host to some stellar map design and one of the greatest examples of an open-world ever to bless gamers.
Unlike many other open-world games, Red Dead doesn’t over encumber you with countless icons of side missions, challenges and collectables, and leaves those up to your level of curiosity and exploration. Often one to skip past many laborious side missions, I found myself drawn into many of the games naturally occurring mini-stories, from people locked in basements, to dodgy money-laundering in the back of general stores. This allowed for much of my game time to be spent simply trotting through the countryside of Western America, curious to all that it offered.
If there was something to critique, as no game is truly perfect, it would be the gameplay which is considerably dated in comparison to everything else. While the auto-aim can become repetitive and leave combat lacking, without it you are left with infuriatingly fiddly shooting. And a lagging responsiveness to traversal, often left Arthur running past or into objects, and occasionally over a deadly drop.
Yet the saving grace of its lacking gameplay is its impeccable animations. The way in which Arthur will lug himself up onto his horse, or slowly swagger through camp made those slower moments all the more interesting to watch. Partnered then with the cinematic cutscenes, and equally cinematic over-the-shoulder gameplay, meant that each encounter looked as if it was straight out of a western film – even if it wasn’t accompanied by the most intuitive or fun gameplay.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a behemoth of a game. You’ll have to remain committed to see it through to its eventual end, and although at times the road may seem endless, when you get there every second that came before feels worth it. This is a masterclass of expansive arcing storytelling and open-world design, and is undoubtedly one of greatest games of this generation, if not of all time. The incomparable level of detail found within the world, the award-worthy performances, and the thrilling and emotional story can only leave you dying to see what Rockstar conjures up next. Whatever it may be, much like Red Dead 2, it will definitely be worth the wait.