Platforms: PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release: 26th October 2018
So, it´s that time again: A Rockstar Game was released. Putting fear into the hearts of nearly any other publisher with their titles almost guaranteed to break all records each time they release. With your typical delays, Red Dead Redemption 2 finally launched and naturally sold quite a few copies, even though it was accompanied by many reports of month-long crunch and other horror tales of the AAA development. Nonetheless, when I wandered the wild west, the thing I constantly thought about wasn´t the constant pressure under which this game was created but the amazing writing and world, only occasionally salted by its mixed past.
Taking place many years before the first game, Red Dead Redemption 2 tells the story of Dutch van der Linde´s gang before they disbanded and got killed one by one by John Marston. Taking over the role of Arthur Morgan, someone who devoted his entire life to this gang and Dutch, we get to see how they slowly drifted into history, chased by Pinkertons and O´Driscolls after they got blown in Blackwater.
Naturally, this is pretty much the opposite of the first game, posing the great question of how one would write a prequel story without simply telling a story everyone already expected. Honestly, at first, I was sceptical how well Rockstar Games could portray this group of bandits since the first game wasn´t a really meaty experience for lovers of very complex and well-written characters. Instead, it focused on many, almost episodical adventures accompanied by a growing cast of people you never truly got to know.
Rest assured though, Red Dead Redemption 2 is in short, the perfect prequel. The tale about Dutch´s gang and their desperate attempts to escape the various parties by which they are chased isn´t only engaging but simply fascinating. Mainly because it nails one essential part: The characters. Naturally, for any Rockstar Game, the pacing is once again quite sluggish at the beginning, presenting us with a gang merely trying to survive through tiresome, risky labour and that reflects in the missions, which consist of nothing more than tutorial tasks and honestly, quickly boring things. However, what saves these passages already is the true core of this game and the main reason even people who weren´t hyped for this title should play it: The amazing writing, able to convey whole relationships, character traits, backstories and enrich it with many, many, loveable created nuances without relying on lengthy dialogues when not necessary. During the whole 2nd chapter, all the core characters grew faster than anyone since NieR:Automata, from Marston´s family, Dutch, Hosea or Micah. It´s this loveable bunch of dreamers, led by an ever-promising fanatic we´ve all seen before but crafted with so much finesse, that it´s a whole own micro-cosmos on its own.
As a result, the slow pacing actually pays off in a narrative regard, even more, compared to previous Rockstar titles. Why? Because Red Dead Redemption 2´s writing is so much more than the straightforward, plump one seen in the GTA series, while not concentrating on crazy, entertaining dialogues without much character depth like in the first one. Given, at times, some character designs or accents are quite on the nose but nonetheless, it´s the most subtle, focused tale I´ve ever seen from Rockstar Games.
Mainly not because of the characters but the things the game does with its atmosphere. It uses all this attachment, character creation, backstory and also knowledge of the first game to deliver a tale so slow but predatory in its darkness that it overshadows nearly every other game that tried their hands at it, especially this generation. Every chapter introduces a little more danger, takes away a little more warmth, confronting you with the feeling of being chased around in a country that slowly closes down on you. However, only in chapter 4´s end to 6 Red Dead Redemption 2 unfolds its true strength, utilizing everything of the past chapters to literally break the gang and the player alike apart. It can hold up a level of slow-burning writing to believably portray characters breaking apart because it delivers reasons for it, not because it´s needed. When main characters are killed due to bad decisions, of course, there will be doubts, of course, everything will start crumbling ad the bright, hopeful atmosphere will soon spiral into one of doubts and betrayal, in order to survive. At the same time, it mixes all this with character developments at every corner, some more obvious than others or foreshadows events only occurring far later.
Of course, the truly heart-breaking and engaging plot (that truly needs its sluggish pacing at times from a narrative view) isn´t the only thing the plot portrays. Throughout Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games vowed many important themes of that time into the mix, from the fight against Indians to capitalism or others. Those aren´t side stories either but the focus of each chapter, giving them the time to create some great substories on their own, focusing entirely on these themes. Naturally, they too are unbelievably well-written, offering some truly intimate fates, while always creating this feeling of fighting against something far bigger than any of those involved. You may win the fight against an evil major, but the next one is already waiting, though you´re just a little piece in a big machine with no effective impact. As a consequence, it has so many more, working facettes and does nearly everything better than its predecessor.
Now combine this writing with a breath-taking visual design, obviously created with way too much time and effort. On the one hand, only with the help of those two aspects can Red Dead Redemption 2 fully deliver on its atmosphere. Without spoiling too much, later on in the game, when everything´s going downhill, there´s a section of Arthur and Charles walking in a dark, misty forest, with only occasional light shining through. Only in combination with the timing of this part, its foreshadowing and metaphorical role and simply dialogue, can it summarize the entire situation. Nearly every mission has some great ideas or pictures to portray the importance and mood of the characters and the moment itself without needing words. On top of that comes a soundtrack, that is simply fantastic, featuring songs that capture every situation they´re used in almost too perfectly or create memorable sequences on their own. It´s simply heart-breakingly sad when the final confrontation isn´t much of a heroic act, especially when a pessimistic song reminds you of the time spent in this world.
On the other hand, when you´re simply riding through the giant open world or participate in a more “generic” shoot-out, Red Dead Redemption 2 still looks amazing. Everything is so detailed, mixed with some unbelievably well-done light effects, that can create stunning landscapes and some of the best-looking forests I´ve ever seen in video games. Additionally, it features nearly every biome you could hope for in a western setting. As a result, they aren´t only looking great, due to the many, many details and perfectly captured atmosphere but do so in a variety of settings without ever becoming boring to look at. Actually, they can entertain on their own most of the time! It´s just ridiculous how much time was spent on those thousands of details, even more, when you consider the crunch behind it.
And that´s needed at many points throughout Red Dead Redemption 2, as it suffers from many Rockstar problems, at least its gameplay does. At its core, everything got an overhaul in many needed ways. Mainly, the shooter sections feel way more rewarding and overall satisfying than in any previous title, due to the fact every bullet actually has some kind of impact. Every revolver or rifle shot lets an enemy falter at the very point he was hit, creating a truly amazing hit feedback. Combine that with the well-working cover mechanics and systems you know from GTA V and you got a nearly perfect experience if you wouldn´t be forced to play it on consoles where it becomes more of a Left Trigger Right Trigger mashing. Naturally, it works in every situation flawlessly, be it on horses, trains or what-not.
So, the action sequences are fun, a lot of fun, where´s the problem? Well, the typical Rockstar design doubled down here, for worse. As known from the prequel/sequel or GTA V, a lot of travelling is once again required … I mean a lot. Every chapter you´ll ride for hours through the world and while the environment is quite appealing to look at, it doesn´t save you from the inescapable boredom that will set in during 10 minutes of pure riding in autopilot while holding X. It´s not a new flaw but something that gets worse the bigger the open world is, and Red Dead Redemption 2´s is a giant one. In chapter 6 for example, it´s required to ride a 15 minutes path at least 3 times, which isn´t fun or interesting in any way. Unfortunately, fast travel through trains is a cryptic system, only transporting you from station to station but never to any place actually near your more remote missions. At the same time, wagons may take them with you too but in real time without any way to skip them or fasten things up.
However, this was to be expected and anyone willing to give this title a shot will probably be aware of it already. What´s Red Dead Redemption 2´s biggest optional flaw is sadly the survival/realism aspects. It has so many underlying things like having to eat to refill your cores and gain faster regeneration or having to equip your weapons everytime you leave your horse. There´s so much stuff added to every single thing of the original, like stores offering a slow catalogue to browse their items or having you buy them from the shelves, literally. All those things may seem more realistic and able to broaden the experience but in the end, all they do is add more animations to everything. And the more animations something requires or has, the slower and stiffer it becomes for the player. In the end, what happens when you actually try to pay attention to them all: Making your experience less fun than needed.
Luckily, it´s possible to ignore pretty much all of it, which I did. Given, it may feel a bit disappointing at times, when you think about having to ignore such systems but it´s for the better. Especially since the main and side missions are so fun. Given, most story missions are a joy to behold, offering amazing writing, great gameplay and unique ideas to create some of the best moments I´ve seen from Rockstar Games and shooters in general. Yet, I was more surprised by the quality of the side missions, which offer moments that couldn´t fit into the plot but are brilliant on their own: I´m talking about scary fights against animals in caves, fascinating sub-plots and a whole lot of charm and fun. Honestly, they´re often nothing less than shrunk down main missions and that makes them so amazingly good.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is first and foremost a video game and that´s exactly what it seemingly doesn´t want to accept. Clustering itself with dozens of “realistic” features in exchange for convenient fun, resulting in simply tedious, annoying moments. However, when all these things are ignored, Rockstar Game´s latest title may be the culmination of thousands of hours of crunched work but also their best work by far to date. Featuring some of the best character dynamics, developments and moments I´ve seen since a long time, it´s a 50 hour long brilliant journey no one should miss. After all, how many great western games are there?
[A Review Code was provided by Rockstar Games]