Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2

PS4, Xbox One


Our hat, you say? What, this old thing? We’re not sure where we got it, hon­estly. We don’t think it’s the one we bought at the gen­eral store in Straw­berry, though we sup­pose it might be. Per­haps it’s the one we lifted from the corpse of that rancher who took ex­cep­tion to us tak­ing a short­cut through his prop­erty, and picked his fi­nal fight. Most likely, though, we picked it up by ac­ci­dent, re­triev­ing it at ran­dom af­ter a dust-up in a bar or a shootout in the streets. We’ve grown rather fond of it, ei­ther way.

Chances are you’ll get through a lot of hats in Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2, and not nec­es­sar­ily in­ten­tion­ally. The UI can be a lit­tle fussy, es­pe­cially when it comes to pick­ing things up off the ground af­ter a ruckus. Stand over a fallen foe and you might want to loot their corpse, or pick it up in or­der to hide it. You might fancy swap­ping one of your guns for theirs or, yes, nick their hat. That’s man­age­able enough, at least in iso­la­tion – but ca­dav­ers do tend to pile up when Arthur Mor­gan’s around. This is a deeply vi­o­lent game, as any game set in the old west is bound to be, and it’s some­thing Rock­star cel­e­brates with film-grain kill-shot cin­e­mat­ics. But it is never re­lent­lessly so. Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2 is full of achieve­ments: it is a visual and tech­ni­cal marvel, well writ­ten and vividly per­formed, rich in com­plex sys­tems and op­er­at­ing on a level of scope and scale that bor­ders on the ab­surd. Yet its great­est tri­umphs come in ways you would not ex­pect from a Rock­star game, and cer­tainly not one with this set­ting. In amongst the mud, the blood, the grime and the gruel, there is hu­man­ity, nu­ance and heart. The big­gest sur­prise is, sim­ply, how sur­pris­ing it all is.

It rather sneaks up on us. A few hours in, we no­tice that noth­ing is ever play­ing out quite as we ex­pect. Mis­sions may be­gin in fa­mil­iar Rock­star fash­ion – a trek to a map marker, a cutscene, ex­po­si­tion through NPC chat­ter on the way to your first ob­jec­tive – but things of­ten turn on a dime. At its me­chan­i­cal core, this is a game of seem­ingly lim­ited vo­cab­u­lary: rid­ing and run­ning, sneak­ing, fight­ing and shoot­ing. Yet within that brief lex­i­con Rock­star finds, again and again, ways to sub­vert your ex­pec­ta­tions.

Take the early mis­sion in which Mor­gan heads out for a spot of fish­ing with Dutch Van der Linde, the gang’s leader, and Hosea Matthews, its brain and con­science. Set­ting out, you think you know what you’re go­ing to get: an in­tro­duc­tion to yet an­other of the sys­tems that rum­bles away be­neath the open world, and some team-bond­ing chat­ter be­tween the gang’s top brass. Min­utes later, how­ever, your horse is gal­lop­ing along­side a speed­ing train to chase down some runaway scum­bags. A cou­ple of mis­sions ago, you were on the run from the lo­cal law. Now, you’re help­ing them out. With the job com­plete, Matthews points out that there’s still time to cast a line. You bor­row a boat, catch some bass, and shoot the breeze un­til the sun sets.

We ex­pect things to es­ca­late in games like this. That stealth will at some point go loud, and friendly chats will turn un­pleas­ant; that just as things seem to be go­ing off with­out a hitch, some en­emy fac­tion will turn up to spoil it. Rock­star knows that, and cer­tainly de­liv­ers on it. Yet it also sub­verts it. Fifty hours in, we’re not sure we’ve ever done quite the same thing twice.

Much of that is a ques­tion of con­text, ad­mit­tedly. There are plenty of large-scale shootouts, but there’s al­ways a dif­fer­ent set-up, a dif­fer­ent set­ting, a new, more ur­gent rea­son for all the blood­shed. With so vast a world for you to ex­plore, Rock­star knows it has to keep you on the move; broadly speak­ing, each chap­ter is set in a dif­fer­ent re­gion of the map, the gang’s at­tempt to put down roots in­evitably thwarted when the law turns up or a big job goes south. The crew fol­lows suit, pack­ing up and head­ing out across state lines to an­other land, an­other tem­po­rary sanc­tu­ary, an­other set of fac­tions to fend (and rip) off.

And, nat­u­rally, an­other set of themes to ex­plore. While firmly pitched as a tale of a gang of out­laws strug­gling to find their place in a rapidly chang­ing world, late-1800s Amer­ica was about much more than the slow, sad end of the gun­slinger. This was a time of suf­frage and racism, a na­tion still com­ing to terms with the civil war, the end of slav­ery, and its treat­ment of Na­tive Amer­i­cans. Yes, this is a game about the awk­ward­ness of the en­croach­ing fu­ture upon a crew whose way of life is rooted in the past. But it knows its his­tory too – and, un­usu­ally for Rock­star, all of it is ex­plored with a sen­si­tive hand. For a stu­dio that has pre­vi­ously pre­ferred to im­part its themes by sledge­ham­mer, this is quite a step up.

Gone, by and large, are the car­i­ca­tures of Rock­star’s pre­vi­ous work. Sure, there are some larger-than-life char­ac­ters, but most of the cast are sim­ply peo­ple, with prob­lems, dreams and mo­ti­va­tions that are firmly rooted in the game’s plau­si­ble fic­tion. While the fidelity and an­i­ma­tion qual­ity of char­ac­ters nat­u­rally varies in a game of such scale, the main play­ers are lav­ishly, ex­pres­sively ren­dered. The gang are a de­light, and the beat­ing heart of the game, giv­ing pur­pose and ur­gency to the story be­yond Mor­gan’s tale. You will have your favourites, and your re­ally-not-favourites. To­gether, you will cel­e­brate col­lec­tive suc­cesses. When they hurt – and they do – so will you.

And while the story it­self fol­lows a fa­mil­iar arc – a series of rises and falls in the for­tunes of a sur­ro­gate fam­ily of mis­fits on the wrong side of the law – it’s told with a sur­pris­ing deft­ness of touch. It’s even sweet at times: at one point Mor­gan plays match­maker, help­ing two young love­birds from war­ring old-money fam­i­lies main­tain their tryst. His own ro­man­tic frail­ties,

Fifty hours in, we’re not sure we’ve ever done quite the same thing twice

mean­while, are laid bare by the semi-fre­quent reap­pear­ances of an ex he’s never quite got over.

The re­sult is that, hap­pily, Mor­gan, and his broth­ers and sis­ters at arms, feel like peo­ple – and it’s a re­lief to find that the nig­gling im­pres­sion the game’s PR cam­paign gave of an ex­ces­sively sys­temic game never quite comes to pass. There’s clearly a tremen­dous amount go­ing on be­neath the hood here. But the game it all pow­ers is so nat­u­ral­is­tic, and the me­chan­i­cal ab­strac­tions that risk un­der­min­ing it so well hid­den, that it never feels like a game of stat-man­age­ment. Only on a hand­ful of oc­ca­sions does the spell break. At one point we are ad­mon­ished for not hav­ing con­trib­uted to the camp’s cof­fers for a while. We’ve just re­turned from a lengthy spell away from the gang that was en­forced by events in the story.

It doesn’t hap­pen of­ten. The Honor sys­tem re­sponds to just about ev­ery­thing Mor­gan does, but changes are sig­nalled by a tiny icon that’s eas­ily missed or ig­nored. And in a world where the con­cept of ‘moral­ity’ has so many shades of grey, it’s go­ing to take a com­mit­ted role­player to fully tip the Honor scales in ei­ther di­rec­tion. We spend most of our jour­ney nar­rowly on the good-guy side, and given all that Mor­gan comes up against, we’ll hap­pily take that. We’re al­ready con­tem­plat­ing a bad-guy playthrough, mind you.

That we are even con­sid­er­ing one says a lot. Rock­star’s games, for all their sprawl, have never been par­tic­u­larly re­playable; once their story com­po­nents are com­plete they turn into con­text-free play­grounds for wan­ton havoc, and start­ing again means giv­ing up your at­tack planes, your prop­er­ties and su­per­cars and rocket launch­ers. Yet RDR2 of­fers you so many choices – not only at nar­ra­tive forks in the crit­i­cal path, but also in how you ap­proach mis­sions and re­act to peo­ple around you – that you’re of­ten left won­der­ing what might have been had you leaned the other way.

And if that doesn’t pull you back, the world cer­tainly will. This might not be the big­gest videogame land­mass we’ve ever seen – it’s up there, though – but it is surely the most al­lur­ing. The de­tail on of­fer is re­mark­able: fo­liage that re­acts to your pres­ence, wildlife that scarpers when it hears your horse’s hooves from a few hun­dred yards away, a dra­matic dy­namic weather sys­tem, a per­fectly pitched score, and plenty more be­sides. Yet what re­ally brings it all to­gether is the light. Over ev­ery hill is an­other beau­ti­ful vista, around ev­ery cor­ner an­other per­fect shot, im­mac­u­lately lit and framed. Our Share but­ton is in ru­ins thanks to this, one of the best-look­ing games we’ve ever seen.

Go­ing in to Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2, we knew it was Rock­star’s big­gest-ever project, worked on by a cou­ple of thou­sand peo­ple at eight stu­dios across the globe. We knew it was its most com­plex, too, pow­ered by an enor­mous suite of sys­tems that broke the world down into deeply in­tri­cate com­po­nent parts. Yet we did not ex­pect to be so sur­prised. It’s a game of re­straint, but with some bru­tal sucker punches; the tale of a one-man cow­boy army who is noth­ing with­out the peo­ple around him. It’s a game about the fear of the fu­ture that reaches as­tound­ing new tech­ni­cal heights, and makes Rock­star’s pre­vi­ous games look and feel like an­cient his­tory. It is a re­sound­ing tri­umph to which there is only one rea­son­able re­sponse – and an ap­pro­pri­ate one, too. Hats off.

On ap­proach to the Brath­waite es­tate, where we hope to sell the fam­ily a batch of moon­shine con­fis­cated from them af­ter a shootout. Like all good cow­boy tales, it’s at its best when you’re rip­ping off peo­ple that de­serve it

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