He always had a plan. One more big score and then leave the country for good. His charismatics and perseverance might easily seduce you – Arthur Morgan, his right hand – to follow him blindly. Dutch van der Linde, the leader of the Van der Linde outfit, a band of misfits and outlaws, slowly loses himself along the way; blindly focused on that one big score. Obtaining it would somehow solve the outfit’s troubles. However, unknowingly, its pursuit would lead to the outfit’s demise.
Above is a summary of the plot of one of the biggest game releases ever. Red Dead Redemption 2 was anticipated by many around the globe and has proven to be a massive sales success for Rockstar Games. The game is praised by critics for its excellent depiction of the Wild West, its graphics and its layered narrative. Acknowledging its gameplay might not be for everyone, critics tend to agree: Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece. As self-proclaimed experts in story-driven video games, do we agree with this bold statement?
Be warned, this article contains spoilers.
The game starts with the Van der Linde Gang on the run. A heist in Blackwater has gone terribly awry. Although the stolen money should be stored somewhere safe and sound, the gang is unable to obtain their freshly stolen loot as the law heavily seeks after them. Meanwhile hiding in the snowy mountain peaks Ambarino, the Van der Linde band regroups and sets course for the future: Move camp, blend with the locals, find information about a big score, steal it, and escape. Things never turn out as planned and so the gang will need to relocate a couple of times. It might seem repetitive at first but with each move, the gilding at the mask continues to crack. A stubborn belief in their own ideals is plotting members of the gang to turn on each other. Everyone starts to question each other’s choices and everyone starts to follow his own agenda because of it. As the story moves on, it becomes all too apparent a falling out is inevitable. When you as a player have reached that point, you realize this is more than a tale about the adventures of a gang. It is a tale about – surprise – redemption. Not just for the main character Arthur Morgan, but for each and every member of the Van der Linde gang.
The suffix “2” in the game’s title might lead you to believe we are dealing with a sequel here – and in a strange, spiritual sort of way, we probably are. However, let it not be mistaken RDR2 is a prequel. Events in the game take place nearly twelve years before the first Red Dead Redemption. If you think this would vastly limit the scope of the narrative, you are wrong. Sure, we already know a thing or two about certain events and what characters will outlive the game. Yet, the game is very much aware of this ‘curse’ and instead tries to keep you guessing what caused the event to happen in the first place. For example, Arthur Morgan’s absence in Red Dead Redemption surely made me believe he would perish even before I started playing. This prevented me from truly binding with the character at first. But the game is so immersive, it’s hard not to get attached. You can help others in need (or not), you can get ambushed, you can rob a store, look after your horse, get a haircut and so much more. You are in control to tailor the experience the way you see fit and your actions will have a lasting impact on the game world. Someone you’ve helped in the wild might recognize you later and award you. Walk around with your gun unholstered and people will be scared and on guard. As I started to care for Arthur, and tension in the gang increased, I became more interested to know how the conclusion would turn out. And boy, was it heavy.
The main story-line will occupy you for a good 50-60 hours. While a lot of the side missions are optional I would recommend you to try to do as much of them as possible. Especially the ‘Stranger’ missions are a lot of fun. These weirdos and freaks often lead you to areas you’d otherwise not quickly come across or introduce you to new gameplay mechanics. Either way, their stories are often funny or well-written enough to make it worth your while and help increase overall immersion. Occasionally you might also run into a peculiar event, not necessarily marked on your map. These encounters are easy to miss but often have a surprising twist. That friendly gunsmith in Rhodes? Yeah that guy had something strange going on in his basement for sure.
When you’ve reached the end of the main story-line, you’re far from done with the game. Prepare for some additional content as the Epilogue kicks in. The Epilogue will set you back another good 8-10 hours and allows us to experience the early days of John Marston as a rancher. Switching perspectives from Arthur to John is a huge twist I didn’t see coming. John and Abigail are working hard at building a new life, while painstakingly trying to suppress their outlaw histories. While playing as John, we get to bond with his son, get to build Beecher Hope’s ranch and we’ll slowly, but surely, transform back into the outlaw we love him for. When he puts on his iconic outfit, things are about to get serious. I couldn’t have thought of a more perfect ending myself.
A feast for your eyes.
If the touching and vivacious story didn’t manage to leave you in awe, surely the graphics will. Just when you think you’ve seen all the current generation consoles have to offer, this title hit the market. Admittedly, the game is smart in using a lot of (volumetric!) fog and lighting to decrease viewing distance, especially in dense areas, but boy does it look good. No jaggy edges, super crisp textures, amazing particle effects and beautiful vistas. What’s even more amazing is that the vast open world seems to support all sorts of terrain; Snowy mountains, hot swamps, rural terrain, deserts and dense forests. It’s transition is seamless. The type of terrain also affects your body temperature and it’s wise to have an additional outfit stored on your horse. Your body temperature, as well as your hunger and thirst, have an impact on your so called “core”. Your core health (or stamina and dead-eye) is responsible for regeneration of your overall health, so you’d like to keep your cores in optimal condition. As seen in games like TES: Oblivion, your stats increase aligned to your use of them.
The game’s overall mission design is decent but less revolutionary than it’s graphics. In typical open world fashion, you will be travelling a lot to reach a certain point, clear an objective and return to camp. None of these tasks feel mundane, but they do not feel unique either.
Perhaps a more criticized point is the game’s animation. It looks superb but, as typical with Rockstar Games by now, feels ‘weighty’. Ever since Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar have always put heavy emphasis on physics and animation in their games. Their game engine is infamously capable of blending hundreds of animations from various states, but in order to do this the animation needs to finish to a certain point first. Personally I had no issues with this but I have to admit the game didn’t feel as snappy as say, Max Payne 3. Nevertheless the overall tension of the game matches the weighty feel and so you never have the idea you’re at a disadvantage because of it. The heavy controls and the slow pace of the game has made some people in my direct vicinity put down their controller, but trust me when I say the more you play, the better it gets.
… and ears.
That also can be said for the game’s music. Red Dead Redemption in my opinion, has one of the most memorable soundtracks. Red Dead Redemption 2 unfortunately does not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s just less memorable. Woody Jackson is back to score the sequel, but this time he and Rockstar wanted to do something different. The first game leaned heavily towards the ‘spaghetti-western’ soundscape and for the sequel the creators wanted to make sure the game would have its own footprint. To achieve this, Jackson started experimenting. Slowly pushing sounds more into the Appalachian genre. It fits the game perfectly. Distinct enough to set it apart but still retaining that western feel. The game sounds mysterious when it needs to be, relaxing when casually exploring and tense when engaged in heavy gun fights. Yet some more returning, memorable themes seem to be absent. Maybe the game contains too much unique sounds (is that even a bad thing)? One theme you’ll definitely remember kicks in near the end of the campaign, D’Angelo’s May I, Stand Unshaken?. When this song starts playing you’re on your way back to camp after an intense confrontation. At this point the game mutes all other sounds so you can focus on the music and your thoughts. It doesn’t take you long before you start realizing the gang is doomed.
Things get more interesting in the epilogue. When the game shifts to John’s perspective, so does the music. In a trip down memory lane, the game slowly starts picking up the spaghetti-western sounds again. If you’ve played the previous Red Dead game, you’ll recognize a lot of the musical cues. The more John starts to give in to his outlaw history, the more recognition returns to the soundtrack. In the final stand-off, John must venture up a snowy mountain. A totally badass rendition of the Theme from Red Dead Redemption kicks in and it’s beyond perfect. I never felt so invincible in a videogame before.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game where a multitude of studios around the globe worked on for a period of 6 years. The project had over 2000 people involved making it. Let that sink in. Now imagine how managing all that must have looked like. Mind blown. So what does someone from the industry think?
“Every generation a game comes along which pushes the limit of the hardware and makes every other developer sweat. Red Dead Redemption 2 is that game. It feels like an indie game on steroids. Like an indie game with an insane budget. After finishing the story of Red Dead Redemption 2, I’ve been left in awe. With the Van Der Linde Gang as a supporting cast and stellar writing, which merges near-perfectly with the game’s systems and slow pace, I have a new favorite character in fiction with Arthur Morgan.“
Lennie Hakola, Senior Producer at Remedy Entertainment.
A Sudden Stop.
My partner in crime over at AlanWake.info, Rachel, also found some time in her ever-so-busy schedule to play Red Dead Redemption 2. Before we head into the conclusion Let’s see what she has to say about her experience with the game. For this particular occasion, I have asked her to write a few words about what she thinks makes the game special or stand out.
“One of the biggest games to come out of 2018 was undoubtedly Red Dead Redemption II, and with so much anticipation and expectation for the title, the bar was set extremely high.
The game delivers on a number of demands that fans wanted to see in the sequel, and expanded on the successes of the title’s predecessor; focusing on its sense of adventure, freedom, immersive environments, quirky characters, a ridiculous eye for detail, and delivering a huge amount of content.
The charm and greatest appeal of Red Dead Redemption II is in the freedom it gives the player. While morally grey, Arthur Morgan is a slate for how the player wants him to be, whether they want him to greet people in the street and pets random dogs or rob townsfolk straying too far from populated area. Your choices as Arthur influences how people respond to you, your reputation, and your value to bounty hunters in the area. While your story-based activities may not make you an entirely good-guy, how you treat others impacts how others treat you and has a great effect on the atmosphere of the game and your personal experience. While Arthur brings a lot of his own personality to the game, he’s essentially a time-appropriate vessel for the player to explore the world; it’s less Arthur Morgan’s story and more the story of Arthur Morgan.
The setting is a big part of conveying that sense of freedom and with its locations, Rockstar has made some rather impressive improvements into creating a lush and immersive environment. Whether you’re exploring dusty trails or riding through a luminous green forest, the locations are always so awe-inspiring and with the weather dynamics and day-to-night cycle, it creates some incredible vistas.
The sense of adventure is tangible, and the ability to get lost in the environments or spend days riding around the plains is a major part of its charm. Everything from the animation, the lighting, the level design’; everything complements each other perfectly to present a well-balanced experience. Atmosphere drips everywhere, that carefully placed indications of a side mission can change a lazy afternoon ride into saving a snake-bitten resident, encountering another rider who falls down dead, discovering a giant’s bones, or being ambushed by the Night Folk. While it’s a huge map, adventure lurks everywhere, making it a rich environment to explore; it’s something that was heavily praised in the previous installment and expanded upon in this prequel.
While the main focus in the game is its single player main story, I find myself drawn to its side mission and random encounters. Tracking down a serial killer, especially one that leaves clues in hope of being found is disturbing and interesting; on par with the husband seeking anniversary flowers for his dead and mummified wife in the previous Red Dead Redemption game, or tracking down the culprits in LA Noire’s Black Dahlia case.
The darker cases are just one aspect of the game’s rich collection of content. If you get home one evening and fancy a relaxing title, you can always spend some time fishing along the game’s coastlines or playing cards. If you want something with a bit more action, you can always play one of the main missions or attempt a challenge. The game not only provides the sense of freedom with its focus on exploration, but how the player wants to experience the game.
With a game this big, it’s impossible to have a few bugs; while fishing the catch will fly out of the water and hover above, strangers can randomly start accusing you, staying in a place just a fraction too long after scaring away criminals will turn the investigation on you, horses can randomly jump and collapse or slide down a slight incline and die. Saying that, it’s impossible for a game to be perfect but the charm of RDR2 is that it’s a game that wants to be as close to perfect as it can be. And even if it’s not your type of game, I think you can still appreciate the work that went in to it.
With games, especially large-scale projects such as this title, it’s easy to forget the human element involved; a lot of long hours, self-doubt and difficult conversations, long before the game was released to critics. Prior to its launch, RDR2 was thrown into the spotlight as the industry criticized Rockstar’s policy to crunch, in the midst of a strong marketing campaign. While unfortunately commonplace in game development, it highlighted the dangerous impacts of poor management as it affects mental and physical health. It’s a truly exceptional game but that’s not the only thing that matters in development. When I think of the title, I think about the successes that those developers have made rather than the brand, and the time they’ve dedicated to getting the product out there.”
A few closing words.
So there you have it. During this article you have seen opinions from three sides. Two different perspectives from people who are drawn towards story-heavy videogames and one short but bold statement from an actual game developer. All three praised the game and it’s lasting impact. So yes, Red Dead Redemption II definitely is a masterpiece. That achievement will probably only be surpassed by its own creator as they venture forth to a new project.