Well, well, well. A most welcome and long-awaited return for Rockstar’s open-world western extravaganza that one might call Grand Theft Auto’s more contemplative, sombre and somewhat less psychotic cousin. The first game (I mean, yeah, it’s a theoretical sequel to Red Dead Revolver but that was a very different and way less ambitious beast), was one of my all time favourites, its combination of grit, wit, personality, narrative boldness and death-of-the-west stylings surprising absolutely no one by being right up my alley. I reviewed it on this very site way back in 2010, can you believe. The sequel, which is in fact a prequel, takes that same formula and through Rockstar’s investment of a squillion dollars and 15% of all man hours ever, renders it bigger, huger, vaster and larger than ever before. Is it better, though…?
Well, short, non-spoiler opinion, it’s fucking amazing – if not to say a quantum leap forward – in many, many ways. It’s also slow, weird, occasionally frustrating in ways that I mostly love but many might not. It’s biggest problems I felt were narrative ones, stemming largely from the bold and often very well-implemented decision to set it before the first game. Problems universal to the whole concept of prequels, one might say.
The world is simply astonishing. The weather and light effects. The sound of your horse’s hooves in the bushes. The way the clouds shift, or ravens scatter from a corpse as you approach, or the trees move in the wind, or the water in the streams and rivers behaves. It’s all amazing. I felt like I was playing on a new generation of hardware, it was so much more rich and realistic than anything I’d seen before. The effort and attention to detail. In the city, every building, advertising hoarding and back alley seemed to be individually designed. And the variety, from snow-capped mountains to rolling plains to steaming bayou, from cattle towns to the polluted big city, everything bursting with character and event, exploding with animal and human life. And it all works and interlocks just beautifully – cut scenes work seamlessly into gameplay and back. Only a couple of moments of juddering and a couple of crashes in at least 80 hours of gameplay. Technically, it’s mind-blowing.
And it’s not some empty exercise either, but packed with people, drama, chance encounters and ongoing side-stories. Sure, after a while you do start to see some of the same things repeated, but even after dozens of hours you’ll still be stumbling upon new things. The range of content and customisation is part of that. There aren’t just forty hats, there are ten colours of each one. Then there are twenty variations on Arthur’s main hat. Then ten special hats you can find. Then about thirty special hats you can make from animal skins. Arthur can’t just trim his beard to ten lengths, he can separately trim different parts of his beard. I’m normally the first guy to minimise the importance of setting, of world building, if you like, when compared to character and plot, but the sheer detail and quantity of content creates a sense of being in a real place I don’t think I’ve ever got from a game before.
And the characters, and especially something that rarely figures too strongly in video games, relationships, have by no means been ignored. Where John Marston, the hero of the first game, was largely a gruff loner, our new central character Arthur Morgan is very much part of a gang. You spend a lot of time wandering the wilderness alone, but on the many missions you tend to have at least one of the outlaws with you, sometimes a whole crew. There are vast quantities of dialogue before and during events. Then at camp you’ll see people sit down, chat, greet you, with an amazingly small amount of repetition. And they’re really well-drawn characters, on the whole. I’m not sure I can think of another game (Dragon Age, maybe?) that’s made me feel like part of a group of real people in the same way. When (and I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler) things start to turn bad and some of these characters are suddenly and shockingly killed, you really feel it. When the gang rides out mob-handed with blood on their minds there are moments of high drama. I think RDR2 feels more like a filmic experience than any other game I’ve played, while still being one in which you’re taking an active role.
World and character wise, then, it breaks new ground. Gameplay wise, it has to be said, it doesn’t impress quite so much. The controls are what one might call idiosyncratic. The various menu systems are slow and strange and not terribly intuitive. The game covers a vast array of different pursuits, from fishing, to gambling, to hunting, to fence building, to getting drunk and singing with your buddies, but the fundamental shooting mechanics haven’t really changed much since the first game, and they were a little clunky then. There’s a great range of different missions, and a lot of thought into the character work leading up to them, but often they boil down to shooting a whole lot of guys. They’ve clearly put so much effort and energy into making the world, and the characters, feel real and believable, it would’ve been nice to get some corresponding weight and believability into the action part of it. It’s an even stranger contrast with the fastidious character work when you’re suddenly mowing down disposable bad guys by the score yet again. And not in a way that feels terribly rewarding either. You rarely feel a sense of ‘wow, I played that really well.’ Something like Destiny obviously scratches a very different itch, but the fundamental mechanics of that game, the weight and slickness of the gunplay, are just so strong that shooting aliens never gets old. Shooting anonymous lawmen on Red Dead can get to be a bit of a chore – something you’ve got to do so you can get to the next bit of contemplative open world exploration.
I’m being ultra-critical because the game is ultra-good, and there’s a huge amount to admire in the way they’ve gone about the storytelling, but for a game that specialises in vistas of the teeming natural world, it doesn’t play to its strengths by starting in a snowstorm. It’s a ponderous, slightly claustrophobic introduction to the game’s many, many, many systems, and for a while I was interested, but not necessarily proper gripped by it. Morgan is a lot less immediately appealing than Marston was in the first game. Marston had a mission you could get your teeth into right away – he wanted to get back to his beloved wife and son and had to hunt down his old partners in crime to do it by any means necessary. Morgan’s place in the world is a lot more vague. Basically he’s right hand man to Dutch, the leader of a bandit gang running out of road, and has to do increasingly questionable stuff to keep the gang going as the modern world makes it tougher and tougher for them to survive. He’s an older guy, with a stack of elegiac disappointments at his back and a heap of worries about the future. It’s an interesting set up, a more original one, maybe, but it doesn’t have the simple narrative punch that Marston’s situation did. So it wasn’t until a serious 10-20 hours into the game, when I was really getting out into the country and experiencing the world, the way of life, that it started to properly grip.
And now we’re gonna get very spoilery, so if you haven’t played the game, I strongly suggest you go do so now and come back when you’ve finished…
Now the main mid-section of the game, as the gang are forced to set up in one location after another, new mechanics, challenges and sections of the world opening up all the time, is just great. You buy into the devil-may-care outlaw attitude to begin with, loyal to the gang, loyal to Dutch. But it’s very neat the way things turn gradually darker, and you find yourself in Morgan’s shoes as he starts to question future decisions, past decisions, and eventually their whole way of life. There aren’t many games that can make you feel just a bit guilty, though the meticulous character work does sometimes sit uncomfortably with, say, a challenge to drag someone for half a mile behind your horse.
Then, just as it’s hitting new emotional heights in a bank job gone wrong, there’s a weird little detour to a Caribbean island, a far less meticulous and believable setting that sucks out a lot of the drama. When Arthur gets back to US soil and the familiar open world the gang is starting to fall apart, and somehow the central story lost its way a little. Maybe it’s that inevitable slump that almost always afflicts open-world games, where you’ve done all the stuff you mean to and you’ve just decided to crack on with the plot. Maybe the behaviour of the characters, dragged towards a slightly unconvincing resolution, no longer seemed quite so believable.
In the end, for a man who can carve through hundreds of goons, Arthur’s remarkably ineffective when it comes to dealing with any of the key antagonists. Folk in the camp start to grumble about what a moaner he is, and you kinda feel for them. He airs the same doubts with and about Dutch over and over without actually doing anything, or really, for me, getting at the real nature of this most central relationship in the game. I mean, yeah, you could argue that Morgan’s indecisiveness, his split loyalties, are all part of a greater and more realistic depth of character but I’m not sure I really buy it or that it necessarily makes for rewarding storytelling.
The overarching problem for me is that the whole thing still feels like Marston’s story, in which Morgan is really only a secondary character. One that we know was never even worthy of a mention in Red Dead 1. We already know that it’s Marston who’ll have the big face-offs with the other gang members, and finally with Dutch, in the first game. The irony is that even in this game it’s Marston who has the final stand off with personal nemesis Micah. The sprawling epilogue doesn’t help in this regard. At the end of Red Dead 1, when Jack takes over the story from Marston in one of the most bold and memorable moments in video game history, it’s only for a final, extremely punchy and effective little coda. At the end of Red Dead 2 we switch from Morgan to Marston for a seriously extended epilogue, and there’s a sense that this is the story we were always really working up to. A bold decision on the part of the designers, but one that inevitably gives the main part of Red Dead 2 the slight sense of being a sideshow. Morgan has no grand showdown to participate in, no real resolution to his muddy relationship with Dutch, or even to his enmity with Micah. His ending is a bit of a jumble.
Part of the result is that, brilliant though it undoubtedly is, I’m not sure Read Dead 2 really adds much thematically. The first game tackled the death of the west, the fading of the outlaw way of life, whether it’s possible to break free of a cycle of violence pretty damn effectively already. Red Dead 2 circles a lot of the same issues at much greater length without necessarily landing any firmer hits.
It’s interesting. From the first game, it’s some of the best narrative moments in gaming history that I really remember: crossing the river into Mexico, the final face-off with Dutch, the death of Marston and the passing of the story to his son. The second game had many great moments, for sure, lovingly detailed missions and settings, almost too much story, but I think it’s the emergent moments that I’ll really remember. Hunting bears in the woods above Big Valley. Riding back into town after a week in the mountains with a beard like Father Christmas. Just the way the fingers of light came through the trees, glimmering on the water after that storm on Roanoke Ridge…