Effing Hell, I Never Wrote an RDR 2 Review

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So, it’s January. A time to make promises to yourself that you will never fulfil and start up on another “New Year, New Me” crusade. My quixotic quest for self-improvement seems to take the same forms every year. Exercise more, write more for yourself. The exercise part is going pretty well, however, the writing has seen better days. I mean, this is nothing new, this is about the thirtieth time I’ve promised myself that I would post more on this blog or any of the previous ones, and every single time, I’d failed in the starting blocks. Now, with fresh energy brought on by January 1st, I’d made a new commitment. One post per month. On this blog. About any goddamn thing. Sifting through my head, I’d dumped some drafts down the drain and then I realized something.

I never wrote a review of Red Dead Redemption 2. Not a single piece about a game that I’ve spent hours in. What the hell, Adam? Suddenly, there’s a topic. A topic that was relevant around 3 months ago, which in the writing-about-shit-you-watch-or-play world might as well be 3 years. Nevertheless, a stupid New Year’s resolution is a stupid New Year’s resolution, so here you go. My spoiler-free review of Red Dead Redemption 2. (note that I will not be reviewing the online mode)

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece in storytelling and immersion, while also being a victim of its own open world design. The writers had a big task ahead of them, particularly when it came to pleasing fans of the first game. After all, we’ve come to know and love John Marston, and to see him reduced to a secondary character was going to sting. Luckily, Rockstar writers are Rockstar writers, and if they can find a way for you to root for a bunch of pixels, they will do it in a way that works. How can we honestly doubt them after they made us kinda-like a dude who murdered people for fun and may have been a cannibal as well?

The trick here, of course, was using young John as a foil to Arthur, the new protagonist. Gruff and cynical, Arthur was a far cry from the charismatic and kinda-naive John we knew in the first game. This contrast worked especially well given that Rockstar decided to use the prequel setting to show us a different John and see him turn into the man we loved from the first part.

With Arthur’s character and Rockstar’s own new story concepts, we’ve also got a chance to get a character who’s more of a carte blanche than any of the previous Rockstar heroes, save perhaps Claude from GTA III (who was a carte blanche for all the wrong reasons). Whereas previous Rockstar Games left us with characters who didn’t really stray from the baseline they were established in, Arthur’s character is impacted by players. While Arthur is still, for the most part, “Arthur”, for the first time in a Rockstar game, it kinda feels like there’s a bit of you in your protagonist.

This is because of a system filled with choices, ranging from obvious to subtle, that impact the way Arthur speaks to other characters, his tone and some in-cutscene dialogue. Like the dialogue wheel from Dragon Age II and Inquisition, only, you know, less obvious and less intrusive. (I mean if you didn’t choose the sarcastic option every time in Dragon Age… who even are you?)

This, however, also brings us to the first major misgiving of the game. The honour system. Look, morality meters have been around for over 20 years now, and they just need to go. Away. Whence they came. What was once a nice way to skip around design limitations has now become a design limitation. How does letting five fish go make up for the fact that you trampled a pedestrian with BoJack, your trusty horse? Now, if this was just a gimmick designed to lock away customization options (that’s one of its functions), I’d be moderately fine with letting go 300 fish just to get that “Lemoyne Gentleman” look. Unfortunately, your honour also affects some story elements, which I was hoping was something we were done with when The Witcher 3 came out.

In a game where the NPCs react to how you’re dressed, remember when you’ve shot them through their knee, have daily routines and form a living world, the fact that your “fish I let go” count affects the otherwise-excellently crafted protagonist in any way is absurd. Did someone accidentally let Peter Molyneux into the studio when discussing this? While other immersion breaking things like Arthur acting like he can’t afford a life outside the gang when you’ve just made him filthy rich can be forgiven, because “open-worlds-gonna-open-world”, this antiquated system has frustrated me to no end in terms of its narrative significance, and the fact that I couldn’t ever raise it, because as soon as I did, some idiot in Saint-Denis (the game’s take on New Orleans) would just merrily walk right into my horse’s path.

This, however, is allayed by the game’s incredibly rich world, that despite being, in large parts made up of “empty” land manages to be filled with detail and things to do, to the points where some people would rather just chill and hunt rabbits early on in the story, rather than progress it — a sentiment that I can understand, given the way the world feels truly alive, perhaps unlike any other open world game I’ve played. Not because of missions or busywork, but because of its vibrant beauty.

Which brings us to perhaps the most maligned part of Red Dead, its mechanics. Yes, you ride your horse a lot. Yes, there isn’t much in the way of quick travel, yes, it takes ages, yes, the animations are clunky, yes, the game feels a bit unresponsive because of its attention to detail, and no, it doesn’t bother me one bit.

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Saint-Denis, everyone.

While I can imagine it bothers some people, especially those who love fast-paced, fluid action, it always felt like a part of the narrative to me. A part of the point the game was making about change, about the hard life the men and women of the Van Der Linde gang have chosen in their escape from the unstoppable march of civilization. It’s no wonder then, that the game’s biggest city, the aforementioned Saint-Denis, where a lot of the game takes place is hard to navigate and unpleasant whenever you stay there for longer. Especially with all those darned suicidal pedestrians around.

On the other hand, the wilderness is where you are truly free. At least when you’re not riding your horse head-first into a tree. Between the pleasant views and the beautiful details everywhere, you almost want to stay there. You almost see the gang’s point, and that’s a wonderful part of Rockstar’s design.

The missions themselves, however, can be viewed as a mixed bag. Starting off as simple “ride, shoot, ride” only later does the game introduce some twists to the tried and trusted formula (and those twists, are really fun). Even more can be found in the always-entertaining Stranger missions, which seem to enjoy surprising you with colourful characters that are a great break from the rather bleak world of the Van Der Linde gang.

Speaking of the Gang (and even the entire game), all of its characters are brilliantly performed by the actors who mo-capped and voiced them. Rarely has any performance felt forced in any way and the main characters are played flawlessly. Particular plaudits have to go the way of Roger Clark, Benjamin Byron Davis and Rob Wiethoff, Alex McKenna and Peter Blomquist (who also played Harlan Fontaine in L.A. Noire, this guy’s good!) who have crafted absolutely brilliant portrayals of fascinating characters.

There isn’t much more I can say about the story while remaining spoiler-free, which is why I’ll leave with the final thing that makes this game a darned masterpiece. The Soundtrack is absolutely brilliant, with the likes of D’Angelo and Josh Homme contributing some of the best original songs I’ve ever heard in a video game. Perfectly balanced between modern music and Ennio Morricone-style classics, this game will sometimes leave you riding your horse in cinematic mode and just taking it all in, slowly.

Years ago, people were stuck in a debate on whether games could be considered art. These times have long passed thanks to games like Grim Fandango and Shadow of the Colossus, paving the way for a magnum opus in Red Dead Redemption 2. A piece of art so good, it might just be the best Western story ever told. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful. Go play it, if you haven’t already.

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