“I wanna be a cowboy, baby” sang Kid Rock back in 1999. He never would be one of course, instead he just spent his time looking like he was wearing his dad’s clothes. Had Robert James Ritchie embarked upon his career in 2018, he would never needed to have sung about his western fuelled dreams, instead he could have just played Red Read Redemption 2. For those without easy access to a time a machine, Rockstar Games’ crowning achievement is the closest they will ever come to actually ‘being’ in the Wild West.
The world this legendary studio has created in RDR2 is one of the most atmospheric, breathtakingly detailed and terrifyingly expansive game environments I have ever inhabited. Expectations are understandably sky-high for this sequel to the 2010 classic, but if Rockstar were under pressure to deliver on their grandstanding they certainly haven’t shown it, RDR2 almost effortlessly delivers on its many promises.
Taking on the role of Arthur Morgan, a magnificently charismatic member of the Van der Linde gang, the game immediately throws the player into the thick of it. Freezing, near-broken and disarrayed atop a snow-swept mountain, the gang are on the run from the repercussions of a mysterious heist that went badly wrong.
Rockstar seamlessly introduce the members of the gang over the next hour. Whilst each of them is an individual, brought to life by some outstanding voiceover work, they are also part of a collective; the player’s family. They form the foundation that RDR2 is based around, not only giving the player missions but also their motivation. Your over-arching objective is to protect your gang, your family by any means necessary.
It is these missions that, as you would expect, provide the backbone of the RDR2 experience. They are amongst the best that Rockstar have ever crafted and a significant step up from the last game in the series. The tasks you undertake introduce the varied elements of the game, but more importantly provide ample opportunity to form bonds with your gang.
The most effective missions are often those that involve no combat at all; getting drunk with a protégé at the local town’s bar, teaching John Marston’s son how to fish (no more spoiler’s on how the previous game’s protagonist is integrated into the narrative, but suffice to say it’s brilliantly handled), or having a heart to heart with Arthur’s mentor and father figure – Dutch van der Linde – as you both ride across the great plains. It is taking the time for these more peaceful character moments that make the emotional gut punches further into the story so powerful. You genuinely care about your gang and what happens to them, aligning you with Arthur’s motivation to keep everyone safe and buy them a future.
How you go about this, outside of the main narrative, is up to you. Hold up any shopkeeper, perform train heists, steal stage coaches, hunt a vast array of animals for their valuable hides – the entire game world, once the short snow-covered prologue is complete, is yours to explore. However, in certain states you begin the game wanted Dead or Alive, making successful exploration without a bounty hunter’s bullet between your eyes rather tricky. The game world is vast and there will be many lengthy expeditions on your horse required to see it all. Often the game runs the risks of these journey’s being too long, of taking too much time to get from A to B and then back to A again. Fortunately Rockstar has two cunning tricks up their virtual sleeves to keep the player engaged during these moments.
Firstly, the game world is breathtakingly beautiful. When it comes to environmental detail, RDR2 is a significant improvement on every game that has come before it. The sun glistens through leaves, casting the shadows of the leafy canopy onto the earth below – the dappled shade even moves across the forms of your posse as you ride through woodland. Climb a peak and the entire world spreads out beneath you, I found myself spending a full ten minutes just watching the weather change despite the fact that I had a looming deadline approaching. Visually this game is simply jaw-dropping. And the snow, by Zeus’s fuzzy soup strainer, looks better than real snow. Every time you begin another epic ride across the world, your eyeballs will be in for a treat.
Secondly, the world lives and breathes like no other. Gone is the trope of many open-world games that has NPCs remaining silent and stationary with a question mark above their heads until you interact with them. Instead, NPCs have their own agency and feel much more alive for it. As you go about your business, events occur around you and you can choose to engage with them or not. Prisoners being transported call out for rescue, a trapper needs to be saved from his own bear trap, a member of your gang will find you and ask your help to carry out an impromptu rescue, you’ll even have other criminals from rival gangs try to hold you up or assassinate you – which they usually end up regretting.
The weaponry available to you, despite being antique, is wonderfully satisfying to use. The guns have real weight, heft and sense of recoil, with a kinetic power that cannot fail to excite. Shotguns see your foes punched through the air, sniper rifles slap into a far-away henchman’s head, causing it snap back with ferocious force, occasionally triggering a close up kill cam. Then there are the tomahawks; if there’s a more enjoyable weapon to use in video games then I’ll be shocked.
It’s a shame then, that most encounters devolve into the player hiding behind cover while hordes of enemies run towards their position to get shot. Little more is required of you than doing an ‘Arnie in Commando’. Your foes don’t even attempt to flank you, though they will seek cover, not that it does them much good thanks to Arthur’s all-powerful auto-aim and Dead Eye to slow time. The effect of this is to make you feel like an absolute bad-ass, the down-side is that most shoot-outs are a breeze.
Fisticuffs are also borderline forgettable. Your enemies wait in an orderly fashion to get punched in the face, circling around you politely until you deal with their buddy. It’s a little underwhelming but serves its purpose. Fortunately, despite the weaker elements to the combat, the sheer majesty of the overall experience made any issues with it fade into the background.
Amongst all of this action though, you’ll have to spend time maintaining the health of Arthur and his horse. You’ll need to wash, eat, and rest and you’ll also need to brush, feed and give your horse time to chill out. Failing to do these things will have a detrimental effect on both you and your equine pal’s stamina and health – and given that your horse won’t come back from dying, that’s a bad thing. You’ll even need to make sure you’re wearing the correct clothing for the weather or climate of the area you are in, as well as oiling and maintaining your weapons.
If this all sounds a little too much like busy work then you’d be right. The micro-management required of you can occasionally drag, but on the flip side it offers you a phenomenal amount of scope to customise your character’s appearance. Every item of clothing can be altered, every weapon can be upgraded with scopes, rifling and an assortment of hand grips. You can even plait your horse’s tail. Oh, and Rockstar’s boast about horse’s testicles? It’s totally true. I spent several hours of traumatic exploration in first person view to research it. My horse, Barry, was not impressed.
The hype being created for Red Dead Redemption 2 and the expectations of the passionate fan-base made a part of me believe that Rockstar Games could never deliver on all of their many promises. They did, and then some. From the feeling of a realistic living world they’ve created to the emotional bonds you build, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the video game experience of this generation.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4
Also available on Xbox One