Into the sunset, fellers
Getting lost in another world is a perfectly good way for some people to cope with problems in reality.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind got me through some really tough times: no matter what happened, at the end of the day I could relax and lose myself in Vvardenfell until I dozed off. That was all the way back in 2002.
Open world games have considerably evolved since then. Rockstar is proof of that.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4 [reviewed on a PS4 Pro], Xbox One)
Developer: Rockstar Studios
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Released: October 26, 2018
Red Dead Redemption 2 makes the ballsy and possibly confusing move of pivoting itself as a sequel in name and a prequel in the grand timeline of the Red Dead world. Whisking us away to America’s frontier in 1899, this iteration actually precedes John Marston’s journey by 12 years, allowing for a decidedly different snapshot of the old west.
The late 19th century isn’t exactly a period that’s explored all that often as it’s after the more popular Reconstruction and California Gold Rush eras. Under President William McKinley the mythos of the “wild west” is beginning to fade amid growing support for the temperance and progressive movements: in all, a fascinating glimpse into US history. Enter the outlaw Arthur Morgan, our “hero” and proponent of the famous Van der Linde crew, led by the unstable and sometimes well-meaning Dutch.
As Dutch’s right-hand man at the height of the gang’s notoriety, you’re kind of a big deal from the get-go. Although we ultimately know what happens to the men in Dutch’s crew by way of Red Dead Redemption, what we get here is a master-crafted character study not unlike the one Vince Gilligan is currently giving us with Better Call Saul in the wake of Breaking Bad. Arthur isn’t quite as interesting as former protagonist Marston out of the gate. He’s less bombastic, more calculating in his thought process. In that way, he’s a better conduit for the player and more of a slow burn.
The world around him is similarly grounded. Two of the cardinal sins of modern open world games are bloat and extreme gaminess, both of which frequently take you out of the fantasy. Ubisoft is mostly guilty of the former, filling maps to the brim with pins and forced points of interest to extend playtime. The latter is a transgression that many studios are guilty of in a misguided attempt to balance simulation and arcade fundamentals. Red Dead Redemption 2 never really falls into either of those traps. Now there are 144 cigarette card collectibles and plenty of small things to rummage around for if that’s your thing (as well as stamina and health “core” meters to manage), but bloat isn’t the focus.
Comparably there are invisible or otherwise subtle meters that dictate anything from “honor” (how people react to you) to bonuses like more loot, but they’re not obvious. Red Dead Redemption 2 goes for the genuine undertaking of the facilitation of bromances with the camp system (which has flashes of Final Fantasy XV or the droves of relationship-centric JRPGs in recent memory) and backs up those relationships with strong mission design. More often than not you’re going to be saddling up with friends or new acquaintances, fighting, or running alongside them.
You will be fighting quite a lot, which is arguably the best bit the game has to offer. Dead Eye (read: super slo-mo vision) returns and although the concept is as old as dust (17 years removed from Rockstar-published Max Payne), it allows for the further beautification of some of the more hectic confrontations (as does the first-person viewpoint). It also knows when to figuratively slow down. There’s a bunch of role-playing (RP) type things that will keep people busy for well over 100 hours. Fishing, poker, cosmetic alterations, that type of stuff. It’s never in-your-face, merely there if you want it.
Rockstar threw an insane amount of money at the production of Red Dead Redemption 2 and it shows. There are scores of musical tracks helmed by the talented Woody Jackson, some of which are literally tuned to specific missions. Hell, it has roughly 200 different types of wildlife and each had unique sounds recorded for them. (I’d be remiss to not at least mention the crunch controversy and Rockstar’s response so that you can make up your own decisions, even if it didn’t directly impact this review.)
So are all of these stats bullshit? Well in my effort to thoroughly dig through the massive 92GB file size (on PS4), they’re mostly justified. The key thing to remember is that Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t just comprised of open ranges and fields. Each individual city feels full of life and the go-go nature of the story allows us to head into places like torched villages and snowy mountaintops. Amid all of those grand gestures, the smaller details matter too. There’s impressive penmanship on display within the pages of in-game journals when Rockstar could have gone with the easier route of a traditional typeface. Vendor menus look like a real Sears, Roebuck and Company catalogs.
All of that does come at a small cost, like a several-minute load at the start and roughly 15-second restarts after failures/deaths. It sounds like no time at all, but it’s more about the parameters involved: you’ll mostly encounter the former condition as your paper-thin allies are killed, glitch into a bottomless pit, or get snagged by an invisible rock and fall off their horse, instantly failing a mission. Then there’s the typical open world snags like strange animations and odd physics that can cause instant deaths.
The gear-swapping radial wheel can be finicky and not work exactly how you want it to. There’s also some silly moments that require suspension of disbelief; like when your crew robs someone wearing the same clothes they always wear, while calling you by your real name, and expecting not to be caught because they have small bandannas over their mouths. Those are all minor complaints and unlike some other open world games, don’t dominate or significantly break Red Dead Redemption 2.
As I found myself wandering aimlessly for the umpteenth time, dealing with some of these random annoyances, it hit me why I was so connected to this world: Rockstar isn’t afraid to throw constant conflicts your way because they know the minute-to-minute gameplay can support it. Gunplay is fantastic (Rockstar has pretty much always nailed it), horse fundamentals are slick, random events/skirmishes keep things exciting, and the serene yet complex environments are the backbone for it all.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the epitome of ambition and like most things Rockstar, will meet the expectations associated with it. With all of the advancements since the last Red Dead and everything they’ve learned from Grand Theft Auto V under their belt, the series is in a better place, able to provide a more natural and less gamey world to explore.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. The online component is coming later this month and is not part of this assessment.]