Red Dead Redemption 2 is the latest game from Rockstar and is is one of the greatest bits of entertainment you’ll ever experience. If you’re an experienced gamer or someone picking this game up for a play because of the hype then you’ll experience something that doesn’t just subvert games, but it takes time to tell its story rather than bursting through levels to power your main character up ASAP to fight the end bosses.
Your main character here is Arthur Morgan; an outlaw and a cowboy in the final dying days of the Old West, and the early days of industrialisation in 1899. As Arthur you get to ride round the simply enormous map in a super-detailed way and you get to experience yourself things like the forests being cut down or the railways expanding, or more industrialisation sneaking into your world. The world changes around you but there’s still loads of wilderness which means it can take minutes for you to ride from one mission to another, and the exploring I mentioned takes hours and hours. There is a fast track method of travel but it doesn’t immerse you as riding around on your horse, which of course is customisable in a way that makes you grow fond of this digital animal as you would a flesh and blood one.
From here on in there’s spoilers, so be warned.
You play as Arthur, part of the Dutch Van Linde gang and essentially his right hand though Arthur has also had Hosea to help raise him so the game sets up the device where the main protagonist has essentially two fathers (we find out during the course of the game that Arthur’s read father is a bastard he was glad to see die) who have ensured a vague code of honour for the gang to live through. As the game opens, something has went wrong in a heist and the gang are forced to run to the cold snowy mountains to hide and regroup before finding somewhere warmer to settle for a while. This first few hours of the game are basically your tutorial levels and you get to know the gang slowly. You also get to know Arthur and discover what he is as the game drives you into gunfights and train robberies where you decide whether to beat people to death or shoot them or let them go.
The honour system decides what sort of person Arthur becomes as well as defining how your experience of the game proceeds. So if like me you were killing everything in sight for the first 20 or so hours and then realised that the game was failing to give me the rewards I’d read about I changed my game. Also, I’d grown tired of Arthur as a killing machine so I stopped killing bystanders as well as looting their bodies, and my honour improved. My experience of the game improved as those first hours are hard before you end up being given the freedom to do what you want. When you are given that freedom you have the ability to explore possibly one of the best realised worlds you’ll see in a game.
The game is constructed into chapters that feel more like a season in a TV programme. The first few chapters lure you into a familiarity as well as a video game like invulnerability for your cast. It isn’t til the gang go to St. Denis (a very thinly disguised New Orleans) in what is supposedly Dutch’s big plan, that things start really going horribly wrong, and the Dutch of the start of the game who is a crook, but not a psychopath, is very much on the road in becoming a lunatic. The story then becomes how the gang splinters after Hosea’s brutal death as Arthur and Dutch go their different moral ways. By now I’d started playing Arthur as a bad guy trying to be better, so I realised the game lured me in and I’d become so immersed in the world and the life of this digital character called Arthur that I wanted him to be the doomed melancholic hero I wanted him to be. By now of course you know Arthur is going to die as he has TB, so your task is to redeem him while giving him a decent life (which you can through a few side missions) before he dies.
And dear god, this game is glorious in character building. It takes time to do anything which forces you to be patient, because when the game delivers what you want, it does so extraordinarily well. This from near the end of the game is one of the few moments I found myself laughing at how well, and how perfectly done, everything was.
I haven’t mentioned Micah, but as a bad guy Micah serves his purpose. He’s not Rockstar’s greatest villain (look to GTA: San Andreas for that) but as an out and out bastard he’s brilliant a he nudges Dutch towards being darker & less honourable. Dutch himself is a character you can use to hit those people who thinks video games can’t develop nuanced characters or relationships because Dutch and Arthur prove that to be wrong.
Eventually you come to the end, and depending on how you’ve live your life you die either in agony with Micah’s knife in your back or peacefully with the sunrise shining in your face. It’s a perfect end which makes the epilogue an often tedious task as you start playing as John Marston, the protagonist of the first game which is fine but you’ve invested so much into Arthur that having to actually shovel shit to get to the point where, eventually, you get to kill Micah. In fact the epilogue is one of the few negatives of the game (alongside a simply fucking awful targeting system that can be sort of fixed by fiddling around in the settings) but even then I can sort of see the point of having this slow epilogue that leads to something horrendously violent and cathartic but once done and you’ve sat through the credits (which is essential) you get to carry on playing as John, so you can visit Arthur’s grave where, depending on your honour, interesting things can happen…
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a triumph. It’s a work of art which makes you sad when you leave a fully realised world in a game that forces the player to reassess how games are played or experienced. You live as Arthur and through a mix of writing, acting and your decisions you form this amazing experience that is going to be hard for Rockstar to top. Indeed, I look at the entire industry and think how can anyone top this (Death Stranding looks promising) or even how Rockstar can top this?
I look forward to finding out out how the industry can go better than this game, but for now we have a work that is not just a spectacular bit of entertainment, but a genuine work of art that’ll be talked about for as long as we play video games.