Preface: I’d like to say here that if you found Rockstar’s business practices unsavory and have decided to boycott or otherwise ignore this game, I sympathize completely. I think that’s a fine reason to miss out on this thing. No piece of commercial art could possibly be important enough to ruin so many people’s mental wellbeing like that. I still think the end result of their efforts was worth it, even if a lot of the crew who worked on this game will never be compensated as such. Anyway, enjoy whatever your choice was.
So I still remember when they announced this game. I thought it was a bad idea. The original Red Dead Redemption, for all its faults (wonky mission balance, some truly awful side characters like Seth, a weird middle act and some trademark late 2000s Rockstar action gameplay), is perhaps the greatest game made since the dawn of the new millennium. It was certainly one of the few big-budget titles that had anything actually worthwhile to say about the world. It was rich, and evocative, and lonely, and it made you feel less like a heroic cowboy than it did a broken man staring down the tracks at a future he doesn’t understand.
In John Marston, Rockstar found perhaps the most identifiably human protagonist in all of gaming: taciturn, romantic, stubborn, charming and sinister all in equal measure. A true person, with some good opinions and some bad ones. He’s wrong about some things, and curiously right about others. He doesn’t always know what he’s doing. He’s not an almighty paragon of virtue and heroism, and not a cruel, callous renegade. A man. He’s made mistakes in his past, and forces bigger than him now hold not only his life, but the lives of the people he cares about in their hands. He struggles against his fate and escapes his old life, only for it to come rushing back behind him like a bat out of Hell and drag him back down with it. He sacrifices himself to save his family, only to ensure his son’s quest for vengeance ruins his life, too.
So I guess my questions coming into this behemoth of a game were twofold: what does Red Dead Redemption 2 have to say about the decline of the Old West that the first one didn’t, and why are we so excited by this stuff in the first place? Few periods in American history continue to hold as much sway over out culture as Wild West tales do. If you think about it, the actual “Wild West,” as it were, only lasted a few short decades at most — after the gold rush brought young men westward, but before the sweeping hand of industrialism brought civilization. People in RDR2 talk about their way of living as though it’s some ancient, immutable force in the world when really it had only been around for 50 years at most. Hell, even the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral only lasted half a minute and only had three victims. Even our own cultural recreation of this mythos, the Golden Age of the Wild West movie, only lasted from the 50s to maybe the mid-70s.
So why does this relatively small period of our history still continue to hold such sway? My personal theory is that the American West represents the one true uniquely American experience. We’ve had wars, but so have the Europeans. We’ve all had diseases and plagues, depressions and industrial booms. We’ve all had political successes and tyrants. What we have that pretty much the rest of the world (save maybe Australia) doesn’t have is all that wild, open space, untouched by civilization and the passage of time. It yearns both to the futurists as a great beast to be tamed and to the Luddites as a place to escape from the Hellish modern world. There’s a reason this game is set in 1899. At no point in our history has the sword of progress swung so heavily and so quickly as it did in the short few decades that started the 20th century.
Anyway, what I’m getting at is that this is a great setting. It’s also a surprising one. Not that it’s intricately detailed or stunningly rendered, but because it’s not really set in the West. In the 25 hours or so I’ve played, most of the action has been centered in three fictional states: Ambarino, New Hanover and Lemoyne. Ambarino is an analogue for Colorado, New Hanover for the Dakotas and maybe some of Kansas, and Lemoyne obviously Louisiana. You’ll notice that those states are trending in the Easterly direction. There are story reasons for this that I won’t get into, but the most obvious affect it has on the game as a whole is that it feels even bigger and more diverse than it already is. In reality, the rolling cotton fields on Lemoyne are but a couple miles in game from the craggy highlands of New Hanover, and barely farther still from the deep, snowy mountains of Ambarino (this game’s weather systems are unbelievable, btw), but to me the distance feels like forever. That’s an exceptional feat to pull off, and it really helps the middle parts of this game feel less saggy than the interminable New Austin and Mexico sections of the first, where you’d do the same three types of mission for the same handful of characters in the same handful of locations. Things are paced much zippier this time around.
Speaking of, the core gameplay loop here is great. Your general goals in RDR2, plotwise, are “make money doing crime” and “don’t get killed or captured by doing crime,” so you’re pretty much free to do whatever. Being stuck doing missions with the same crew of miscreants feels more natural since, after all, you’re all a part of the same gang. Missions are placed radially from the central camp location, so heading out to do a couple, pick up some supplies, then head back to camp has a great rhythm to it, as does the food and sleep cycle. Arthur Morgan doesn’t have to eat and sleep every day, but it helps keep your scaled health and stamina ratings maintained if you do, and just helps the cyclical, more bite sized gameplay loop here.
The content of that gameplay is still perhaps a bit too gun-focused for my tastes (though it is still great; I think Dead Eye shifts the difficulty balance so badly that the only real challenge lies in the game just sending dozens of bad guys at you every time, which tends to feel unrealistic). All your old favorite pastimes return here, with poker again logging my most time thus far (first-person poker is not something I knew I needed in an RDR game until now).
On the technical side, the level of detail at such a large scale here is just astounding. Unlike, say, Skyrim, another famously huge and detailed game, all the objects exist in-game and don’t need a specialized menu to view. If you pick up a book and read it, the words are right there on the page. Arthur’s journal is written in real cursive. All the maps are real. Everything has a layer of textuality to it, a veneer of realness that gets as close to real as anything I’ve ever seen. Of course, photorealism isn’t what I really want from a game. That’s a pitfall lots of people fall into. I don’t care about polygon counts when there’s so much capacity for artfulness in this medium. Thankfully, RDR2 delivers this in spades.