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