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Red Dead Redemption 2 Review: A Fistful of Details

SPOILER WARNING: This review contains spoilers for the story of Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2 and minor spoilers for Breaking Bad and Destiny 2.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review

  • Available: Xbox One/PS4
  • Played on: Xbox One

Introduction – The Hateful Eight (Years in Development)

When Red Dead Redemption 2 was announced in 2016 a selection of screenshots and trailers were sparingly released over the following two years. Excitement surrounding the game naturally began to build and reached unprecedented levels weeks before the scheduled release. The teaser trailers showcased the realism of the game world by revealing beautiful western vistas populated by animals so realistically animated, it was easy to forget they were not real. The gameplay trailers on the other hand focussed on the solid and realistic gameplay mechanics.

A lot of the excitement also stemmed from fans of the previous title in the series. Red Dead Redemption, released in 2010 was arguably the game of the previous console generation. Even eight years later there are still so many moments that remain fresh in my mind. The first time you ride into Mexico while José González plays sombrely in the background, or how the story ends unhappily contrary to traditional storytelling tropes are personal highlights.

Being critically acclaimed and commercially successful, it would be a hard act to follow. But the game had spent eight years in development and Rockstar had directed all of their game development studios, which encompassed around 3,000 employees, to work on the project. Clearly a mammoth amount of time and effort had been allocated towards the game. Leading up to and after the release, allegations surfaced of unethical working hours, with some employees claiming 80 hour weeks were not uncommon during crunch time. 

I am not in a position to say whether this practice is unethical or the significance of these allegations towards Rockstar’s reputation. However it is important to highlight these issues when discussing the game because something incredible has been achieved here. It is very likely this will be a game discussed for many years to come and the debate over the human cost of such a game will be at the centre of this discussion. But for now, let us begin with the story.

Story – The Ballad of Arthur Morgan

The story in essence is simple. At its basic level you are an outlaw on the run hoping to live in freedom. This isn’t a groundbreaking premise, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Some of my favourite games have simple stories. In the Wolf Among Us, you play as a detective investigating a murder and in Dragon Age: Origins you embark on a quest to defeat an ancient evil. But within all three of these games, and especially within Red Dead Redemption 2, the story is elevated by superbly written and well developed characters.

In fact, Red Dead Redemption 2 is more of a character study than a conventional story and is easily comparable to some of the great television series of recent years. In Breaking Bad, the main focus isn’t on Walter White’s rise to power, but rather how his actions change him and how the repercussions resonate through everybody around him. And the same can be said about Arthur Morgan. The intrigue of the story doesn’t depend on whether Arthur lives in freedom or not, but rather how he changes as a person as events unfold around him. We are forced to witness these changes as his personality deviates and distorts as one heinous act after another is committed either by himself or by his gang.

When we first meet Arthur and the Van der Linde gang they are on the run from the nearby town of Blackwater after a job on a boat has gone terribly wrong. Details surrounding the job are sparse and Dutch seems reluctant to provide any clarity. Instantly this raises your suspicions as a significant question remains unanswered. However these suspicions are immediately dismissed as you see Dutch and Arthur save an innocent woman and exclaim “we shoot people who need shooting and we save people who need saving”. In the context of 1899 frontier America, this is a hard moral code to challenge. Perhaps they are not so bad after all.

Arthur Morgan routinely shooting people who need shooting…

As the story progressed I found myself bonding with Arthur more and more. At first he is polite and caring and it is clear he treats the gang like family. Of course this caricature is quickly erased if you chose to have no honour and act like a true outlaw. This initial image I had of Arthur was predominantly positive which made it so much harder to stomach when the colours of his true outlaw nature first rise to the surface. One way this is illustrated, and I believe the best way throughout the game, is through the story line involving Edith Downes.

Edith’s husband owed the gang money, but he was sick and passed before full payment could be made. Arthur is asked to collect the money while Edith and her son are in mourning. This is understandably a difficult time for the family, but Arthur arrives at their homestead and demands the money. I thought to myself, surely the gang would waiver the debt given the current circumstances, but Arthur, seemingly out of nowhere, intimidates the son and threatens to put him in the ground next to his father. After this moment, the seed that was initially planted surrounding the job in Blackwater began to sprout and I was left with an uneasy sense of dread and a lingering question. What is this man truly capable of? The same question I found myself asking at the moment Walter White chose not to save Jane, treating her like another pawn in his ever evolving game.

Rockstar double down on this theme by returning to Edith Downes life at various points throughout the story. The next time you see her is in Saint Denis and you realise her life has spiralled out of control as she scrambles to provide an income through any means necessary. The moment you see her down one of Saint Denis many backstreets, her skin is pale and blemished and she offers to provide her services to you for a fee. It is a heart breaking moment as you are forced to bear the consequences of Arthur’s actions. Similar to the way Spec Ops: The Line makes you witness the aftermath of chemical warfare, the game makes you feel an emotion which is rarely expressed in entertainment; guilt.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Edith Downes and her son
Edith Downes and her Son in the mining town of Annesburg in the final third of the main story. Source: gtabase.com

When Arthur is diagnosed with tuberculosis, after returning from Guarma, his personality shifts to be more caring and moral. At this time Dutch’s personality also begins to shift and creeps into dark and immoral territory. Both characters drift further apart until they reach a point where they are true polar opposites of each other, like many of the great hero-villain dynamics in literature and film. As you have spent around 40 to 50 hours with these characters by this point the effects of these aggressive shifts are hard hitting and a final positive resolution seems impossibly frail. Thankfully the conclusion of the story does most of the characters justice. Arthur inevitable falls, but ensures that John Marston and his family are allowed to live in freedom before he takes his final breath.

Epilogue – The Outlaw John Marston

It is difficult to discuss the epilogue of the game without being biased because it has clearly been designed for fans of the original title. I personally thought the epilogue excelled, but I’m not sure this opinion would be shared without knowledge of the first game. Without this knowledge, the epilogue could be criticised as being slow, mundane and having little relevance with the main story.

The style of narrative delivery throughout the epilogue takes inspiration from slow television family dramas with the relationships between John, Abigail and Jack being examined and allowed further time to develop. We witness John and Abigail arguing as he periodically returns to his life as an outlaw. We experience John struggling to connect with his son who prefers reading quietly to riding out on horseback. When asked what Jack wants to be when he grows up he reluctantly expresses his love for literature and reveals he has aspirations of being a writer. This scene was especially poignant knowing that Jack eventually takes up his father’s mantle as a Marston outlaw and seeks revenge after his father’s murder.

The fan service extends into the epilogues second act as John begins to build the family homestead – Beechers Hope. Accompanied by arguably the best original song in the game, the aptly titled “House Building Song”, we witness one of the epilogue’s finest moments. Not only does the song ooze with charm and charisma, the accompanying montage shows John, Uncle and Charles working together and simply enjoying each other’s company – something that was commonplace in the peak of the Van der Linde years. It’s also a genius decision by allowing players to actively participate in the construction of Beechers Hope knowing that this is the location of John Marston’s untimely demise.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Inside the barn at Beechers Hope

Inside the barn at Beechers Hope. Outside here, in the original Red Dead Redemption, John Marston is shot in cold blood by a mob of lawmen.

The final mission of the epilogue has some great moments. Heroic trumpets blare as you scale a mountain fighting through waves of Micah’s men, the moment Dutch makes a surprise appearance and the overall feeling that Arthur Morgan is finally being redeemed. But the conclusion was ultimately dissatisfying with tension in the final standoff alleviated by an uncharacteristic action from Dutch, who shoots Micah.

A similar moment occurs in the main campaign of Destiny 2. Towards the final act Ghaul, the game’s main villain, murders his second in command over a small disagreement. It is unclear why because both characters have had a life-long friendship and both share the same philosophies and ideologies. The same can be said about the relationship between Micah and Dutch who by this point are both cold-blooded fully fledged outlaws. On one hand it illustrates that Dutch has completely descended into madness, but it sacrifices believability to highlight something which is already known.

Overall the epilogue is superb if you have prior knowledge of the previous title and potentially lacklustre if you don’t. It is slow paced which may deter certain players, but it’s packed with nostalgic moments for returning fans. Returning to New Austin was a joy and reminded me just how good the original game was.

World Design – A Fistful of Details

Some of my favourite moments across my play through were simply going on hunting expeditions for legendary animals or just taking some time to explore new areas of the map. This is not a unique game mechanic as both activities are found across many games. Far Cry 3 and 4 have legendary animals to hunt and Skyrim and Fallout 4 encourage you to explore their open worlds. But here they excel due to two factors: intelligent world design and an obsessive attention to detail.

Each area of the map is so well crafted that the world feels genuinely alive and lived in. These feelings are supported by the many plants and animals which populate each area, as well as through random encounters with strangers on the road. A lot of the random encounters simply require you to observe an event, with people hunting, panning for gold or just travelling from settlement to settlement.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Western Vista
One of the many beautifully detailed Western vistas that populate the open world.

Whilst most towns have similar establishments; a saloon, gunsmith, post office, sheriff’s office and somewhere to sleep and bath, each establishment is individually crafted. Visiting a saloon in two different towns is a completely different experience. In Valentine, the atmosphere inside the saloon is raucous as people visiting the town drink and look for trouble. There were multiple times when visiting the saloon, I would get into a brawl. I even saw a man get thrown through the front window of the saloon while I was just passing by, crashing into me and immediately pulling me into a fist fight. I wasn’t even inside the saloon and I got involved in a brawl!

Inside the La Bastille Saloon, Saint Denis’ most up market saloon, the experience is completely different. Everybody inside is smartly dressed, polite and speaks with a clear dialect. I will never forget the first time I visited here. Everybody inside stopped and looked at Arthur, quickly realising he was from out of town. If you have ever been into a small country pub away from where you live I am confident you will have had a similar experience. It was such a small detail, but it highlighted a human experience that happens frequently in real life.

This is a tiny example, but intelligent design choices elevate the game to something extraordinary. The level of detail is astonishing and there must be hundreds if not thousands more details weaved throughout the game. Discovering these is one of the game’s greatest allures and makes exploring consistently intriguing. It’s not just the experience of exploring the world, but exploring the game and discovering how deep the details go.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Bastille Saloon Saint Denis
Outside La Bastille at night. Venture inside at your social peril.

Gameplay – Slow West

In order to summarise the gameplay succinctly it is best described as a slow, open world, story driven game with RPG elements. I would even go as far to say it is an RPG-lite or a “diet” RPG with all the emotion, but zero meaningful player choice. You role-play to a certain degree with levels, weapon statistics and an honour system, but the key moments in the story mostly have minimal player choice. On the other hand, there are times when your actions affect the game world as previously highlighted with the Edith Downes story line. Additionally, after you burn down the Braithwaite manor a pile of ash and soot remains in its once dominant place for the remainder of the game. If you return to this location you can witness a truly unsettling image with the charred remains of Ms. Braithwaite visible in the buildings wreckage. It still remains this way in the epilogue, seven years later, but vegetation can be seen growing through broken foundations. These moments are themselves, however, scripted and part of the main story.

A handful of organic moments that can affect the game world are also present, but only in short supply. One of these moments occurred while I was exploring an area in the south of Lemoyne. At the bottom of the map, near the shoreline, there was a small house which I entered looking to scavenge some supplies. Within the first room I found a letter written by the parents of a young man pleading for him to come home after he presumably ran away. After entering the bedroom the son spotted me and he immediately turned hostile. In the midst of all the commotion I panicked firing off three rounds from my revolver, laying him to rest. Later, on a mission for Leopold Strauss I had to return to this location to collect a debt. On arrival a prompt came on the screen telling me I couldn’t complete the mission because of my recent actions in the area. I was confused and decide to return later.

But then I heard something down by the shoreline and decided to investigate. By the water there was an elderly man laid against a log drinking whisky and crying uncontrollably. Immediately I realised it was the father from the letter, the father whose son who should still be alive. I returned later to complete the mission and the father put down his whisky and shouted “you killed my son”! In order to complete the mission I had to kill him and collect the debt.

After the mission was over and the dust had settled, I put down my controller and genuinely felt deep guilt and sadness. It felt similar to the emotional story-telling in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series, or even the harrowing moments in a complex RPG like the Witcher 3. It was a powerful moment, but really it was more impressive that Rockstar had accounted for this outcome – once again, the detail in this game left me stunned.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Braithwaite Manor burned down
Returning to the Braithwaite Manor seven years later, shows vegetation retaking the land and growing through the destroyed foundations

Many people have highlighted the issues with the heavy and clunky controls for Arthur and I also found there were multiple times he didn’t perform the action I wanted. This was especially frustrating during gun battles when Arthur unintentionally covers on the wrong object leading to some cheap deaths. While I was trying to escape the law in Saint Denis I quickly ran down an alley and jumped over a fence feeling pleased everything had gone as planned. When I got into the street I saw a trolley travelling in the opposite direction and ran towards it hoping to make my escape. However, as soon as I pressed A, Arthur locked onto an elderly woman crossing the street and immediately tackled her to the ground! Not what I had intended…

Conclusion – 3:10 to Game of the Generation

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a monumental game that left me in awe on multiple occasions. The world design is simply exceptional and is elevated by thousands, of excruciating details that most games would never even consider. There are some issues with the controls, but they are significantly overshadowed by the mature and gripping narrative. Of course, this game is not as perfect as I had hoped it could be. The week before its release I was describing to my partner the potential significance that this game could have. I expressed to her that video games as an art form are severely underrated and that we, as a community, have not yet had our Citizen Kane moment that cinema has. I was convinced that this game was that historic moment and in some respects it is. The story is the best I have seen put to a video game, but the game play has not made a significant evolution in the same fashion. There is no doubt that this is a landmark game and a huge stride forward for story telling in video games. A significant step towards our Citizen Kane moment, but one that ultimately illustrates we still have a lot further to go.

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