With a game like Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s hard to know where to start. The game is huge in a way few others are. It’s a Rockstar game. It’s a sequel to a beloved game 8 years in the making. It reaches levels of detail almost intimidating to ride through, let alone try to boil down into a few pithy lines. But we’re going to try.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the biggest, deepest, weirdest, most interesting triple-A games I’ve ever played. It’s mind-numbing in scope and jaw-dropping in detail. It lives and breathes, but its seams show up all over. It starts from a tired story idea and takes it to new heights with amazing writing and fresh takes on Western tropes. It stands on the shoulders of its predecessor, but is different enough that hardcore fans of the original might be put off by it.
I loved my time with Red Dead Redemption 2, though, and despite being done with the story, I’m going to be diving back into the world as soon as I can.
Each Blade of Grass
Throughout the years, as game tech has advanced, we’ve been shown each new thing as if it’s the thing we’ve finally been waiting for. Part of me wonders how Red Dead Redemption 2 is going to look in 10 years. Right now, though, it’s hard to believe that games can look much better than this. We’ve said that before. A thousand times. But how much closer to photorealism can you get than what this game is offering?
The level of detail in Red Dead Redemption 2 is staggering. It was staggering in the game’s opening minutes, and it was staggering as the game’s lengthy epilogue closed out. This game starts beautiful and stays that way, and each time I would start to become accustomed to it, something would shake me out of my trance and say, look at this gorgeous game. At this stream. At this herd of deer. And look at the loose thread on the back of this suit. At this drawer handle hanging off the dresser, like that one you grew up with in your bedroom.
This game is crawling with detail. There are literally hundreds of species of animal in the game and, after 73 hours, I still haven’t IDed them all. A friend was watching me play the game as I’d stopped to fish for a little while. I was reeling the fish in, and it was just a few feet out in the water. Close enough to see through the murky blurriness.
She says, “is that a sockeye salmon?!” She’s a fish girl. And so I haul – Arthur hauls – the fish out of the water, and the info card pops up at the bottom: Sockeye Salmon.
Another example. In the opening moments, Arthur is in a snowstorm. When it clears enough to see my horse walking through the snowdrifts, I was stunned at how believable the snow is. It’s not perfect, because modeling something as complex as snow in realtime would take a lot more computing power than we have today. But with each step, I watched snow chunks kick up the way I remember when I’d be marching through the snow to the sledding hill as a kid. The way the snow pushes to the side was so realistic it gave me preemptive chills. Winter is about to get here where I live, in Minnesota, and it felt like I got a taste of a few weeks early.
And just as I became used to each environment, the game introduced me to a new one. Heavy forests give way to southern scapes reminiscent of Georgia and Alabama. The impressively-large city of Saint Denis, a stand-in for New Orleans, is surrounded by swampy, sweaty bayou that forces you to stick to the road, lest you run afoul of hungry gator. In these southern areas, the places that aren’t swamps are scarred by battlefields from the still-recent Civil War.
Tiny details everywhere hint at small stories. It doesn’t feel like some designer put a house at the back of that canyon, but rather that someone built it there. A wagon in a cave accompanied by a frozen, bundled-up body tells enough of a tale to leave us shivering, but not enough to take away the mystery.
We could spend all day going through the countless miniscule details that make the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 thrive and breathe. Even when I look at expansive games like the recent Assassin’s Creed titles – both of which I quite like – they just don’t stand up to Red Dead Redemption 2‘s incredible (and incredibly labor-intensive) achievement. If those games are huge, Red Dead Redemption 2 is epic. Dig into any corner, and you’ll find something.
Slow down, cowpoke
But getting through all of that takes time. Lots and lots of time. Between starting on PlayStation 4 and restarting on Xbox One to finish, I’ve spent about 85 hours with Red Dead Redemption 2, and I don’t feel like I’ve explored nearly all of the world. There are sections of the map that are unexplored, and areas I’m still finding hours after the end of the story. Getting through all of that takes time, and Red Dead Redemption 2 seems to expect that you’re going to be willing to put in that hard work.
A concept I can’t take credit for but have really latched onto is the idea of ‘friction.’ In general terms, it’s the resistance that occurs when two surfaces meet. In games, it’s the idea that interacting with the world causes you as the player to meet some resistance. For example, picking a plant from the ground would have you slowing down. In the recent Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, you can ride like the wind on your horse and just grab sticks without slowing down. It’s frictionless.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is friction defined.
There’s nothing that doesn’t have friction. Stopping to pick that plant requires that protagonist Arthur Morgan step off his horse, bend over, and pick the plant. What animation he uses changes depending on what plant it is (flowers, carrots, and berries each have their own unique animations) and whether you decide to stow your harvest or just eat it right off the bush. (Mm, dusty oregano.) It takes time. Many of the animals that I hunted down had Arthur going through unique skinning animations.
Indoors, it’s the same thing. Robbing a house means that you’ll have to open each drawer – and close it when you’re done if you want to leave a clean crime scene behind. If you stop at a hotel to wash up, you can take a bath and wash each of your limbs individually, or have a really awkward scene where a woman in a low-cut dress offers to wash your back for you. You don’t have to engage with any of this, but if you do it, it’s all there in full motion. Washing up is the kind of thing I can only really recall seeing in things like David Cage games – Detroit: Become Human, Heavy Rain, etc. – where every single thing I’m doing is a bespoke animation for telling a linear story in contained spaces. Not something I expect to see in open-world games. RDR 2 doesn’t pull a curtain over any of this. To be clear, nothing R-rated is happening in these scenes whether you do ask the gal to wash your back or not, but it’s still remarkable that all of this is accounted for.
And all of this sums up the pacing of Red Dead Redemption 2 in general. Story aside, even just interacting with the world around Arthur is intentionally slow and laborious. Everything has its own animation, its own brand of friction in the world. Many of the character animations are both uninterruptible and time-consuming. Rockstar seems more interested in this being an experience than a game.
That means that navigating the world of RDR 2 isn’t something to be done quickly. It feel distinctly unlike a video game. It’s more concerned with how things ought to look and feel than with how quickly we want to get on with things.
This should’ve been a drag, but it became something I liked about the game. I don’t know that I’d want to see it in any other games. Here, it helped me start to roleplay as Arthur Morgan, which is something I’ll get deeper into when I talk about the story further down.
It made me feel less like I was a video game character and more like I was a part of this stunningly-realized recreation of 1899 America. Like the world was responding to me and my actions, if only in a very microcosmic way.
The same goes for the times when RDR 2 does speed up and the action explodes. It’s explosive for sure, but this is not a responsive game. It’s not Destiny or Assassin’s Creed.
One of the biggest problems I had throughout my time with the game was interacting with the many menus. Even after 70-plus hours the menus didn’t feel natural, and there’s no way to get around interacting with them. For example, you switch equipment by holding down the left shoulder button, pointing and holding the analog stick toward the item you want, and then tabbing through the items with the right and left triggers. If you let go of the analog stick, the red highlight that shows you pointed that way stays there, but it doesn’t consider it ‘selected,’ and you have to go back into the menu again to re-select it. Meanwhile, the game outside slows down to a crawl, but it never pauses. There were tons of times where I was riding or in battle and got myself in trouble because I had to struggle through menus to equip the weapon I wanted, pull up my mask, and other actions like that only to find myself facing a tree.
And let me tell you, if there’s anything in RDR 2 that can take you out of the game, it’s running into a tree. It’s hilarious and horrifying all at once.
While each mission does award you a medal for completing it with certain conditions, RDR 2 is not a game anyone will (or should) be playing for skill.
Be the Arthur
The caveat here is that, to feel a part of the world, I had to roleplay, but not in the sense we usually think of with video games. Usually we’re talking more about character personalization and customization. But RDR 2 really shined when I intentionally played as Arthur. When I played along with the illusion, the illusion was absolutely vibrant and visceral. I would ride out of camp to hunt for some food, pausing along the way to help a few strangers, and then stop to kill a deer or yank a fish out of the water. With a few kills under my belt, I’d ride back to camp and offer up all the food to the camp’s cook, Pearson.
It felt like I was really doing all of that stuff, despite it happening through a pair of analog sticks and some face buttons.
Stopping to sleep – which prompts Arthur to write in his journal – and then waking up, trimming my epic beard, and stopping for some of the daily stew felt like just things that were just obvious to do to stay in character, despite them not having any real effect on the game.The meaning behind the actions gave them more weight for me than they might’ve otherwise.
The cracks in the facade started to show the less willing I was to participate in the illusion. For me, that wasn’t often, because I really enjoyed the illusion. But the more you treat RDR 2 like a traditional video game, the more it’ll feel like that’s what it’s trying to be.
And as a traditional video game, it doesn’t do a very good job.The seams are everywhere. While you can talk to anyone in the world, and the world in general has countless responses for you, each NPC typically only has a couple responses. If you go into a merchant’s shop to browse through their catalog, the merchant will talk to you while you browse, and if you’re browsing for a really long time, lines start to repeat rather than the merchant just going silent. Arthur will continue looting a body while a bandit buries bullets in his back. NPCs can walk into conversations like weird YouTubers pranking people, getting in the way of of the camera.
Some of these are avoidable, some are not. When I would try to loot the piles of dead bodies around me, the game made sure I knew what a long time that was taking. If I left the loot behind, things rolled smoothly. If I wanted to swap out my guns after a mission sequence had started, I often couldn’t walk all the way back to my horse, or my companion would ask what I was doing, leaving me stuck with a repeater and a bolt-action rifle when what I really wanted was my semi-automatic shotgun and a pocket full of slugs. As often as the game offers freedom, it resists choice. If you’re playing the story, you’re playing the story.
These are my people
At the core of this game, though, what makes it feel truly impressive, is the story that uses all the beautiful locales I was talking about before as its backdrops. Red Dead Redemption 2, despite the number in the name, is a prequel to the first Red Dead Redemption, set about 12 years earlier, rolling back from 1911 to 1899. Where the first game had you chasing down the lieutenants of Dutch Van der Linde’s gang, this time around, you’re one of them. As Arthur Morgan, you’re Dutch’s right hand, and work with all the big players from the first game. From John Marston right up to Dutch himself, the gang’s all here, literally.
As we explored the West in Red Dead Redemption, taking down those gang members one by one, we heard about this gang that John used to be part of, how it used to be something good, but that Dutch changed. At the end of the game, we met Dutch himself, an aging megalomaniac who had talked his way into control of a rebel group of Native Americans.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes us back to just after the good times ended. After a riverboat stick-up gone wrong, we meet a gang that has just lost some of its core members and watched their fearless leader murder an innocent woman in cold blood. Arthur is a staunch devotee of Dutch’s ideals, having been in the gang for many years, but as we meet him, he’s starting to see the first tremors of what will eventually tear the gang apart.
Over the course of RDR 2, we get to know Arthur perhaps better than any Rockstar protagonist to date. The picture that develops is one of a man trapped in the life he’s living in by his connections, obligations, and the expectations of the world around him.
Arthur sees the possibility of a better life around him, but doesn’t see a way out of the one he’s in now. As Dutch’s right-hand man, Arthur has a lot of weight on him to provide for the nearly 20 members of the gang. The other lieutenants are expected to contribute, too, but the onus is definitely on Arthur to be the chief provider. He also grew up from a very young age in Dutch’s gang, having spent something like 20 years with the crew, so he’s been listening to Dutch spin tales of freedom and individuality for about as long as he’s been able to make sense of ideas like those.
We take Arthur through one violent crime after another, and we see him making excuses to explain why it might be okay – they’ll never know I’m here, these guys are bad, it’s just business. But then in the quiet moments, we see another Arthur. He writes in his journal, consistently expressing concern about the way things around him are progressing. He talks with Mary Beth and Tilly, two of the younger women in the gang, about his feelings. He worries about all the killing he’s doing, and straight up tells Mary Beth that it makes him feel gross. Then we see him interact with the much-younger John, and while the two are often pitted at each other as rivals, Arthur seems to see John as a version of himself that can be saved.
Each of the nearly twenty members of the Van der Linde gang can be interacted with, and they’ll request favors of him or ask him to go on missions. The gang’s den-mother Mrs. Grimshaw might ask Arthur to pick some spices while he’s riding to improve the camp’s food and spirits. Charles Smith might ask Arthur to go out hunting. Micah or Javier might have a lead on a place worth sticking up. When people ask Arthur favors, there’s a feeling that he’s a sort of older brother to much of the gang’s peripheral members – the people that keep the gang running but aren’t generally involved with the actual rootin’ and tootin’ that bandits get up to. When he goes out with the other gang members, he’s looked at as a reliable, guiding hand that helps ground the work they do.
I want to avoid spoilers as completely as possible, though.
This story is about the Van der Linde gang falling apart. Even distant remembrance of the previous game’s story makes that an inevitability, so I don’t feel like I’m revealing anything that wild by saying that. And it sounds almost anticlimactic to tell a story we already know the ending of, much the same way that Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith ended with us laughing at Darth Vader’s “Noooo” instead of being chilled by what the former Jedi had become. We know what happens, and filling in too many blanks can take away the mystery and reduce a character to a joke.
But Red Dead Redemption 2 goes about it more elegantly than I could’ve hoped.
The camp helps you, while playing as Arthur, bond with the different members of the gang. The sketches that were Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella, and Dutch Van der Linde are colored in and given life. The antagonistic relationship they have with John Marston, who seems to be by the end more Arthur’s protege than Dutch’s, actually makes sense. The events of the first game give the good times of this one a sense of foreboding. Big events in the game lead to the gang having all-night parties with campfire songs and dancing and drinking, and walking around those parties felt strange. Both as Arthur, ever the outsider, and as the player who knows how all of this stuff is going to end up.
When things did eventually fall apart, despite knowing where it was going, it tore me up. Dutch’s slow descent from gang monarch and figurehead to a maniac spewing the political word-salad we saw at the end of Red Dead Redemption felt like a gut punch. Watching the gang fracture after working so hard as Arthur to make it work, was a painful disappointment.
None of this should’ve worked as well as it does. But it’s all these little details along the way that flesh things out. I bonded with people that I was pretty sure wouldn’t make it and watched relationships grow and evolve in ways I didn’t expect.
A Ragtag Bunch of Misfits
Between the explosive moments of gunfights, kidnappings, stick-ups, and whatever else, the game finds time to show the way Arthur bonds with the other members of the gang. One standout has Arthur riding into town with Lenny, one of the gang’s newer members. After a rough go, the pair is looking to cool off with a couple of drinks. But with so many adventures that begin with “just one or two,” things go sideways. The screen starts to swim. Time jumps forward, and Arthur is out back of the bar, and you’re watching yourself, Arthur, urinate from first person. Then Arthur’s back in the bar with Lenny nowhere to be found. Well, no, that’s not true. As Arthur wades through the crowd, he starts to confuse everyone in the room with Lenny. Text prompts flip backwards and change spelling. And then Arthur and Lenny are in a slapping contest. It keeps going and going. It’s genuinely funny and because of it, Lenny almost immediately feels as much a part of the gang as any of the original members.
Another moment later has Arthur out on a boat with Dutch and another one of the gang’s older members, Hosea, fishing. We hear the story of the time Arthur brought home some fresh-caught fish, only to have it embarrassingly revealed that he caught them from the town butcher rather than a lake or stream.
Arthur is someone who loves those close to him, but he often doesn’t know how to show it, and often goes about it the wrong way. That’s not to say he’s mean or violent, but that his upbringing has given him a certain set of actions through which to help the people he holds close. I see his writing in his journal as an expression of his inner self, while his outward behavior is less about the way he wants to act and more about the way he feels he has to act. He makes it clear he doesn’t have any interest in hunting down loan-shark Strauss’ debtors, but he needs to provide for the gang, so he does it. He sees some of the heists Dutch plans as being rife with ways to go wrong, but keeps quiet for a long time, not wanting to wound Dutch’s authority (or pride) like that. He shows love through the acts of providing, of picking up items that gang members request, because rescuing them all from this life is neither possible, nor something they want.
And it’s not just Arthur that stands out as a great protagonist. Earlier in the game, you meet two other characters, Charles Smith and Sadie Adler. Charles had a black father and a Native American mother. He’s posed a bit stereotypically as the most skilled hunter and tracker, but his racial makeup makes him exactly the type of person that ends up getting picked up by a gang – he’s an outsider to every society available to someone living in America at that time, and the Van der Linde gang favors outsiders and weirdos more than anything. He stands alongside Arthur as a voice of reason, questioning some of the bad ideas the other gang members come up with while also being ready to ride when it’s necessary. It’s rare that I find someone in a Rockstar game that I think would be a good friend, but Charles is definitely in the running
Even better is Sadie Adler. The gang scoops her up in the opening moments, rescuing her from a rival gang’s clutches. Sadie is nearly comatose after the trauma she experienced, and she’s underused in the earlier segments of the game, but becomes a driving force later on as her grief is transmuted into a roaring anger that is equal parts humanizing and inspiring. She’s been thrust into a life she never would’ve imagined, but it galvanizes her, and she capitalizes on it and uses it to becomes something new.
It’s worth pausing here to call out virtually all the major performances in this game. The performance capture and character animation come together to make these characters feel really special. Arthur Morgan is played by Roger Clark, who brings a deep sadness to the character. Benjamin Byron Davis brings Dutch’s speeches to life and makes him the kind of guy you’d follow to the ends of the earth. Alex McKenna turns Sadie Adler from a wilting lily to a raging fire and makes it feel right. Every character I spent a significant amount of time with felt like this. Carefully written performances brought to life by great actors.
The Long Haul
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a long game. I think that if I’d tried to race through the main story, it probably would’ve taken me a good 40 hours still. But the game begs to be played slowly and to be finished.
So many of the systems in this game are not required, but participating in them fleshes out the world and the game. That bath I mentioned earlier reveals an awkward side of Arthur we don’t see anywhere else. The time I spent hunting and fishing – I’d guess about 15 hours – drove home for me what a loner Arthur is. Pushing through the story wouldn’t have done that, but both the alone time and the way other characters respond to Arthur brings it out.
And the full breadth of these characters doesn’t reveal itself until the tail end of the story. It’s not until Dutch starts to crack that we learn who these people really are. We see what an agent of chaos Micah Bell is, and how much John can’t help but question what the gang does, even as he seems naturally talented at it. We see the way Mrs. Grimshaw cares for the whole gang without judgment right up until the very last moments.
It wasn’t until the credits rolled that I felt like everything had come back around. Leaving the game early would have left me frustrated by some character decisions that wouldn’t make sense until much later. It would’ve left me wondering what the purpose of some characters was, who only stand out much later in the gang.
And that would be my biggest recommendation: Don’t let Red Dead Redemption 2 sit unfinished, and don’t rush to finish it. Play through the end, and the epilogue. The more time I spent goofing around in this game, the more rewarding it became. I got better at hunting and fishing. I saw more places I hadn’t yet seen – and there are still more places to explore even after all that time.
There are flaws in this game’s story and mechanics, for sure, and some of it will be hard for many gamers to overlook. I’m not sure the story does justice to its Native American characters, or fully interrogates Arthur’s role in everything that happens. I can’t tell for sure whether the people who wrote the story believe the line that Dutch keeps repeating about the evils of progress and the truth of the individual.
As much as I enjoyed exploring the world myself, I know that many players are going to be deeply turned off by the clunkiness that informs virtually every interaction Red Dead 2 asks us to participate in. It’s a crime that this stunning game lacks a dedicated photo mode, instead asking you to navigate through its many menus to pull out an actual camera that Arthur ends up carrying with him.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is going to stand for a long time, I think, as the height of achievement in building huge virtual spaces for gamers to explore. The level of detail at this scale is staggering, even as I find myself unable to ignore how much required overtime went into making things happen, and how many of these details – like horse testicles ascending in colder weather – took real human work hours while actually doing little to flesh out the game world. But it’s impossible to deny what a beautiful, sad, huge, and remarkable thing Rockstar and its many employees, past and present, have put together.
DISCLAIMER: We received copies for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 from the publisher and played about 85 hours before starting this review on Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro.
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