We’re almost 1,500 words in here and I still haven’t really talked about this game’s protagonist, Arthur Morgan. That’s not to say he’s not a good character, because he very much is. It’s just that compared to the role John Marston played in RDR1, he’s less vital. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the world overshadows him, but he’s definitely closer in spirit to the more customisable player characters in Rockstar’s past — more Claude Speed than Niko Bellic.
Still, he brings a much different energy than Marston did. He’s a gruff, stoic sort who keeps his thoughts mostly to himself and exhibits the kind of rugged masculinity all those Ford commercials convinced you still exist. He’s also a hilariously strong person physically, routinely hoisting up deer carcasses on his shoulders and punching people out with one hit like some sort of romantic figure out of folklore. Paul Bunyan played by David Harbour. He’s a more classical video game protagonist than Marston was, more malleable. His voice actor Roger Clark does a fine job, though he sometimes sounds a little to oarch compared to Rob Wiethoff’s version of John Marston. Wiethoff, who happily returned to his iconic role after retiring from acting, always gave a very naturalistic performance, the voice of a man who has seen the sort of hardship and pain an outlaw might have and come through the other side a little more broken and gruff. Clark in comparison sometimes sounds like a guy doing a cowboy voice. I won’t hold this against him, since he still does very well. Also, who doesn’t like doing a cowboy voice?
The other characters, especially the returning Dutch Van der Linde — the Great Man at the center of this gang who finds himself equal parts messiah and crook, con artist and revolutionary — are great too. My personal favorite is the aging grifter and father figure Hosea, followed closely by Charles Smith, the son of a native woman and freed slave who recently joined up with the gang and is finding himself perhaps too competent for them, is close behind. They’re all interesting enough, including the younger John Marston, Abigail, Uncle, Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella.
One of the few universal complaints with the first game (and indeed all of Rockstar’s games) is how much riding from one place to another there is between (or during) missions. While RDR2 does not in any way turn away from this trope, it does make it feel more integral. Firstly, by once again having these conversations be by far the best and most interesting character writing in the game. Second, by changing the pacing around like I mentioned earlier. And third, by making the horse mechanics the core of the entire game this time. Your horse stores your extra guns, ammo, items and camping supplies, so if you want to make a go of it out there in the wastes, you need to both care for and keep track of it. Unlike the cars in GTA V, which I never felt much attachment to, I already love my horses in RDR2 probably as much or more than any of the other characters. I’ve been naming my horses after Arthurian Knights, and even though there are faster, tougher and stronger horses than little Griflet, he and I have already been through so much that I can never think of replacing him. I even reloaded my game once when he ran headfirst into a moving train trying to catch me one time.
The horse mechanic in this game is one of many things, along with the cooking, weapon degradation, wide open setting and slow, deliberate, player-driven pacing that remind me a lot of last year’s Breath of the Wild. And while I’m sure Rockstar was paying attention while Nintendo completely deconstructed and redefined the concept of the open world, I’m not sure they cared. Rockstar is a famously insular studio. For better or worse, they’re the people other developers copy, not the other way around. It may just be coincidence that so much of this game hits the same survivalist beats as Breath. If you asked me to compare the two, I’d still lean with Zelda, even if it doesn’t have the sheer graphical fidelity, sharp satirical writing (which is again better than GTA’s since it doesn’t feel the need to be funny) or proven Rockstar polish of Redemption. What it does have is the stuff I care more about: a playful, warmhearted soul, wondrously inventive and systemic gameplay and a true sense of adventure. Still, not being quite as good as my favorite game to come out since I was a child is no shameful thing.
I’m still not done with this game (the compendium tells me I’m roughly 42% done with the whole thing by the time of this writing), and I really don’t have any idea where the whole thing is going, which is exciting (and is a big departure from RDR1, where Marston’s ultimate fate was pretty sadly apparent to everyone but him before too long), though I can’t say if I know for sure what it has to say, yet. I suppose what I’ll say in the end is that if you like Rockstar’s particular style of open-world game, it’s just more of that, but the MOST this time. If you don’t, you still might get drawn in by the deliberately slow and thoughtful pace punctuated by moments of extreme violence. If that doesn’t get you, then why are you even reading this, but I’d at least still say it’s maybe the first game this year that really feels neccessary. We’ll see if that makes it a great game after the dust settles and we mosey on down a few more trails.
We’ve still got Red Dead Online to look forward to, remember.