Review: Red Dead Redemption 2
After a long build up, Red Dead Redemption 2 is finally available. The game will no doubt be in the running for game of the year awards. It deserves active consideration as one of the best games ever.
As confusing as this is for the game’s numbering, Red Dead Redemption 2 is actually a prequel. In the first Red Dead Redemption, Marston is charged with taking down the members of his former gang, an unwitting agent of a shady US government plan to deal with the last remaining outlaws. In the sequel, players are very much part of that gang, getting to know the men depicted as their enemies in the Red Dead Redemption. Marston, however, is not the protagonist here, with the player instead stepping into the boots of outlaw Arthur Morgan.
Set in a time when the last remaining outlaws are being hunted by law enforcement, Red Dead Redemption 2’s story starts with a gang of criminals on the run, in the snow, and near death. Their controlling leader ‘Dutch’ continues to think of bigger schemes that seemingly offer to make them wealthy, but that get the gang more and more into trouble with the law and the rival gang, the O’Driscolls.
The concept of sin and redemption loom large. The first Red Dead Redemption was a story about John Marston’s attempts to overcome past misdeeds, the central idea being that any man exits life red, dead, or redeemed. The overwhelming sense that he can’t escape the sins of his past permeates that game. Red Dead Redemption 2 similarly stands out as a thoughtful game. The relationship between Dutch and his followers is one narrative element worth considering. Dutch dispenses complements and fosters tight loyalty among his crew, but insults them viciously when they fail or if they ever question him. This methodical manipulation is similar to techniques deployed by cult leaders and, at some points, church leaders who abuse their power. Its inclusion will hopefully spur people on to consider these themes.
Read Dead Redemption 2’s pacing is initially slow going. The introductory missions take a solid two hours to get through. Initially the game’s control scheme comes across as slightly overwhelming. More than once, Insights ended up confusing the game control inputs and pulling a gun out in a packed saloon, starting a gunfight and necessitating a restart from the last checkpoint. These mechanics become clearer with time, however.
Like Rockstar’s other series, Grand Theft Auto and LA Noire, the Red Dead series is open world, giving players a generous scope to explore the in-game territory. As well as riding a horse across the plains, the in-game world offers blackjack, poker, dominoes, and target-shooting minigames. Players are responsible for Arthur’s survival and well-being, meaning that they need to ensure that he eats, sleeps, and bathes. Mission levels see Arthur engage in gunfights, riding horses through dangerous paths, and escorting other characters.
The game’s action is faster and more intense than the first game, with enemies presenting more of a challenge. Riding through the game’s open world is a tense experience, as background characters are equally as likely to attack as they are to be trustworthy. In exchanges with these characters, the player has the choice as to whether to attack or to try to engage with the person peacefully and try to deescalate things, an option that works in a surprisingly high amount of occasions.
As this might suggest, players shape Arthur’s character throughout their game (as they did with John Marston in the first Read Dead Redemption) by making certain ethical choices. For example, early in the game, Arthur is given the choice as to the fate of several enemies who are left unarmed with him. The player is left with the question as to whether these enemies might later become a threat. The game also manages to tap into current political sentiment, with the Klu Klux Klan featuring as an enemy that the player may find. The player also has the option to kill them, without losing any honour points.
From a technical and visual standpoint, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece. There are a number of little touches that work to give the title an unprecedented level of detail. For example, when the player chooses food to eat out of a can, Arthur will eat out of it and throw it on the ground, littering the game environment with an object that remains visible. Arthur also gains or loses weight depending on how often he eats, a small visual detail that helps players keep track.
Of course, it is impossible to separate Red Dead Redemption 2 from its wider context. The game’s technical achievement comes directly as the result of questionable labour practices. Rockstar staff who worked on the title complained that this came as a result of crunch, unpaid overtime that is a notorious issue in the videogames industry.
Rockstar have responded to the attention generated by reporting on the game’s grueling schedule by telling staff that they do not need to work overtime. Time will tell as to whether or not crunch will remain as an industry practice. Those who play this masterpiece will hopefully think of those who sacrificed their time and well-being while delivering it.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is rated MA 15+ and is now available on Playstation 4 and Xbox One.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor