Game of the Year

A VERY SPE­CIAL GAME OF THE YEAR - PER­HAPS THE GEN­ER­A­TION.

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THERE’S NO WAY to say the fol­low­ing without sound­ing wildly de­fin­i­tive, so here goes…. Red Dead Redemp­tion 2 is the best look­ing video game of all time. Yes, EVER. And that in­cludes Un­charted 4. It’s also the best game of the past five years. Com­pare this Wild West epic to GTA 3’ s blocky Lib­erty City and its cast of fugly thugs you prob­a­bly kneecapped on a tiny TV 17 years ago, and the evo­lu­tion is as­tound­ing. At times, it’s scarcely be­liev­able how good Rock­star’s lat­est sand­box looks and feels.

COW­BOY MEETS WORLD

A pre­quel and com­pan­ion piece to 2010’s Red Dead Redemp­tion, the story of crim­i­nal cow­boy Arthur Mor­gan un­folds like one of Ser­gio Leone’s som­bre yet know­ingly play­ful Spaghetti Westerns. Of course, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly lasts a cou­ple of hours, not up­wards of 70. A twist­ing tale of torn loy­al­ties and out­dated ideals, it fea­tures sev­eral re­turn­ing (al­beit younger) char­ac­ters from its pre­de­ces­sor, in­clud­ing a fresh-faced John Marston, who has a pleas­ingly cru­cial role in Arthur’s jour­ney. Mourn­ful, melan­choly, ma­jes­tic, the game’s sweep­ing tale of out-of-their-depth out­laws plays out across the back­drop of a rapidly chang­ing U.S. heart­land in the dy­ing days of the 19th cen­tury.

Be­fore wad­ing fur­ther into the Old West weeds to tell you ex­actly why RDR2 is the best game of the last half decade, it’s dif­fi­cult to en­tirely sep­a­rate the ad­ven­ture from the re­cent ac­cu­sa­tions lev­elled at Rock­star Games. Much of the con­ver­sa­tion sur­round­ing the launch of the open-world epic has fo­cused on claims of a caus­tic cul­ture of 100-hour work­ing weeks. What­ever the truth of the mat­ter, this is a com­plex is­sue that could spill deep into this re­view and be­yond. RDR2 bears all the the hall­marks of an in­ten­sive, eight-year-long pro­duc­tion sched­ule; a labour of love (and per­haps less pos­i­tive as­pects of triple-A de­vel­op­ment) which nev­er­the­less stands a cut above its con­tem­po­raries. As of right now, the cow­boy clas­sic rep­re­sents the cur­rent pin­na­cle of video game de­sign. This is an all-time great: a mas­ter­piece that de­serves to be men­tioned along­side Oca­rina of Time, Half-Life 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Skyrim, and most re­cently, The Witcher 3.

Though whether such bril­liance jus­ti­fies the cost in lost time with fam­i­lies, over­whelm­ing work stress, and the gen­er­ally dis­pos­able na­ture of de­vel­oper cul­ture at the AAA level… Well, does any­thing?

WHEN IT COMES TO SCRIPTED STORY MIS­SIONS, THERE’S NO OTHER OPEN-WORLD – WELL, PER­HAPS GTA 5 – THAT COMES CLOSE TO MATCH­ING THE SHEER QUAL­ITY OF REDEMP­TION 2’ S CORE CAM­PAIGN QUESTS.

WILD WEST IS BEST

The world these emer­gent ac­tiv­i­ties oc­cur in is as­tound­ing. For­get GTA 5’ s Blaine County, or the blus­tery beauty of The Witcher 3’ s fan­tasy king­dom: RDR2 has the most im­pres­sive map you’ve ever ex­plored. Hon­estly, it’s as­ton­ish­ing. Far big­ger than GTA’s fic­tional Cal­i­for­nia – and re­mem­ber, you can’t zip around Mor­gan’s Western world in a he­li­copter – it spans snow­cov­ered moun­tain re­gions, dense swamps, dra­matic oil fields lifted straight from There Will Be Blood, and even a size­able New Or­leans-in­spired city. There’s also a se­cret, sprawl­ing area folk will lose their minds over.

When it comes to scripted story mis­sions, there’s no other open-world – well, per­haps GTA 5 – that comes close to match­ing the sheer qual­ity of Redemp­tion 2’ s core cam­paign quests. Over 60-odd hours of sher­iff­shoot­ing, bank-rob­bing, bridge-blow­ing ac­tion, there’s only one generic, cookie cut­ter ‘tail the tar­get’ ob­jec­tive that springs to mind. The ma­jor­ity of Arthur’s law-break­ing mis­sions all cen­tre on strong story-build­ing. Most in­volve con­stantly in­ven­tive tasks, in­clud­ing un­likely cos­tume changes, out­ra­geous modes of trans­port, or chal­lenges as var­ied as min­gling at a cock­tail ball to teach­ing a young boy how to fish. Con­sid­er­ing there are 104 main mis­sions – for con­text, Franklin, Michael and Trevor’s Los San­tos ca­per ‘merely’ has 79 – such va­ri­ety is even more im­pres­sive. Story-wise, this is per­haps the bold­est triple-A game ever made. Arthur’s tale un­der­goes the least pre­dictable, most am­bi­tious twists you could ever imag­ine. If you’re sen­si­tive to very mi­nor spoil­ers, you might want to step away un­til the next para­graph. Still here? Lovely. Then let’s just say the fi­nal 15 hour epi­logue (yup, you read that right) is noth­ing short of as­ton­ish­ing. Wholly sur­pris­ing and thought­fully ma­ture, it’s an ex­am­ple of the sort of high cal­iber sto­ry­telling we all de­serve in 2018, but few big bud­get games have de­liv­ered since 2013’s The Last of Us.

FACE THE MU­SIC

A word – al­right, sev­eral gush­ing sen­tences – on the mu­sic. Woody Jack­son has done a sen­sa­tional job on the sound­track. The com­poser has scored ev­ery Rock­star ti­tle since the orig­i­nal Redemp­tion, and this is his most au­rally arous­ing work yet. The last game was cel­e­brated for sev­eral won­der­fully judged mu­sic mo­ments, the most fa­mous be­ing Marston’s ride into Mex­ico to Jose Gon­za­lez’s ‘Far Away’. While RDR2 may not have a song that’s as note-per­fect as that haunt­ing melody, the tracks that ac­com­pany the story’s key mo­ments all work beau­ti­fully. As for gen­eral back­ground mu­sic, Jack­son’s score is both elec­tri­fy­ing and eclec­tic. Some­how, it can dove­tail be­tween shred­ding your nerves dur­ing a ter­ri­fy­ing cave as­sault in­volv­ing can­ni­bals, and perk­ing up a scene where your cow­boy chums cel­e­brate some suc­cess­ful DIY by down­ing all the whiskey.

Just how good is Red Dead Redemp­tion 2? Over the past few years, I’d ar­gue the only games that de­serve to be con­sid­ered at this same ul­tra elite level are GTA 5, Metal Gear Solid 5, and The Witcher 3. This is a stone cold 5/5 clas­sic that com­bines bril­liant writ­ing – Rock­star’s Houser broth­ers de­liver an­other af­fect­ing, scythe-sharp script – amaz­ing tech, and one of the most boldly struc­tured plots to ever grace a triple-A ti­tle. The story is so well told, you’ll emo­tion­ally in­vest more in a horse dur­ing one cru­cial scene than you did even for Kratos in this year’s stel­lar God of War re­vival. If you only buy one game this year, it ab­so­lutely has to be this won­drous Wild West quest.

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