So here we are.
Red Dead Redemption II. Eight years in the making, with a GTA in-between. Huge waves of hype and expectation on its shoulders. The big question on everyone’s lips: Have Rockstar Games delivered “The Greatest Game of All Time”?
Well, it’s hard to say.
The one thing I can tell with absolute certainty is that I loved my 90+ hours spent with Red Dead Redemption II, though the game seemed to have me caught in some kind of time warp as I’m sure it felt longer than that. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, who knows, but generally, the game did a wonderful job at keeping me captivated.
This was in many ways down to just how gorgeous the game is to look at. As soon as I passed from the early “tutorial area”; a gleaming, dense mountainous region covered with snow, into the wide open vistas and lush forests, I was awe-struck. Rockstar have created a world that looks stunning, and is visually fresh and interesting wherever you go. The detail in the environments is incredible, too. There were many occasions on my adventures where I would pass a tree, or see a rock, and I would actively go towards it, expecting something to happen because almost everything looks like it has a story to tell. It’s remarkable.
This extends to the people and creatures of the world. I can honestly say in all my years of playing videogames (and that’s a lot of years), I have never experienced a game-world so immersive and engaging. I’m not just talking that kind of superficial – oh-every-NPC-has-a-daily-routine – thing, I mean just how surprising, and off-the-cuff the world appears to be. Now of course, it becomes fairly clear that most of what happens when interacting with NPCs for example is scripted, and a few things do re-occur, but that doesn’t matter because the game does an amazing job of drawing you in by attempting to make your character and a stranger have short conversations that, while brief, seem to be logical exchanges. It’s a small thing, but it’s very cool.
Speaking of the character, I loved Arthur Morgan. I loved his characterisation and I loved just playing as him. In my eyes, he is easily Rockstar’s best protagonist since Niko Bellic (sorry, John Marston.) When the first trailer appeared, I was sceptical. Arthur seemed very unlikable. He seemed like a brutish thug; hard-faced and angry, and in many ways he is that. But as you delve deeper into the game, his layers are peeled back. Hell, even a couple hours in, I had already made up my mind that I liked him. He’s complex, and dryly funny, but I think what makes the character, and Rockstar handle this very well, is that you see his struggle with morality creep through more and more, even when there’s violence and chaos around him, you get a lot of chances to see into him and how he feels deep down, and it’s not heavy-handed, which it could have been. This is helped by the Journal, which can be easily overlooked as it doesn’t serve any gameplay purpose, but if you take the time to read Arthur’s inner thoughts, it provides vital context to our hero.
So I had a blast playing as Arthur; you can customise him to an enjoyable degree; there are a lot of different clothing options, including special garments that can be crafted with the right materials, and barbers so you can give him the sharpest haircut in the West. The dynamic hair growth (borrowed from The Witcher 3, and why not?) is a very nice touch and looks great, especially after there’s a cut scene that involves a passage of time, and by the end of it Arthur has a huge beard, which again, keeps the immersion high. The strength of Arthur’s character helps the narrative, and I certainly think the game is all the better for returning to a single protagonist, as opposed to GTA 5’s three. While I maybe didn’t enjoy the story perhaps as much as I could have – for reasons I will go into later – I still thought it was very good. In classic Rockstar fashion, it’s well-written, well-acted and quite moving, especially in how it all ties in with the original game and Arthur’s role in that.
In terms of the supporting cast, it’s great to see John, Dutch, Bill, Javier, Abigail and Old Uncle again. Even little Jack Marston. John and Dutch, are especially given a lot of screen time and it’s very cool to see their characters develop into something like we saw in the first game. Most of the new characters are interesting enough, Sadie being the stand out for me, and the camp system – A hub area of sorts where the group lives, that Arthur can upgrade by donating funds or goods – gives you the chance to interact with everyone that little bit more, though I would have liked to have gotten to know a couple of the minor characters more; a few seem only there to make up the numbers, however, most of them get a little time to shine which is nice.
Perhaps “bad” is a strong word, but I’m trying to keep the Western theme here. The game is not without its flaws, which goes without saying really and what I didn’t enjoy about the game, while certainly not a deal breaker, is worth mentioning. We’ve got to be fair, after all.
First and foremost, the controls. The controls in Red Dead Redemption II are a bit clunky, and they take some getting used to. What I found, was that because of the context sensitive scheme Rockstar have gone for, it was often difficult to differentiate one action from another. Occasionally, I’d want to mount my horse in a town, but if a passer-by happened to be standing next to my trusty steed, I would instead tackle the poor soul to the ground, which would instantly send the town into panic and my wanted lever up, which was a frustrating occurrence that happened more than once. I will also mention horse riding, which is also awkward, and very often, if you’re not careful, leads to both Arthur and horse crashing into rocks, trees, small animals, people, buildings, you name it. When in full flow, riding across the beautiful landscapes is exhilarating, but this can quickly be stopped by a turn being unexpectedly awkward, and next thing you know, you’re careening off a cliff.
The clunky controls are probably most frustrating during combat, which is a shame. The game feels like GTA 5 in terms of gunplay, but less fluid, and there are several moments where you’re running away and you’re expected to look behind you and shoot, which just doesn’t work and invariably, I ended up careening off a cliff. Seeing a pattern?
In the grand scheme of things, any issues with the controls are small, minor inconveniences; it’s just a shame that Rockstar don’t seem to have any interest in streamlining them, especially for combat, but after a couple hours, you kind of get the hang of them.
My biggest gripe with the game however is the pacing. This is something that crops up fairly often in open world games – There’s a high-stakes story unfolding and you’re a vital cog, but all you want to do is go off and play Poker etc. – but I think Red Dead Redemption II struggles with it that little bit more. So often during the story, events transpire that urge you to act, that promote urgency; characters are often heard saying that the group can’t stay here, or they need to do something quick, which is all well and good for drama, but far too many times, I would find that the design of the game would immediately plonk you back into the open world compelling you to just head off and explore. Like I said, a common issue and one that can easily be brushed off, but for me, the very essence of the tale Rockstar is trying to tell goes against the open world structure that it lets you do it in. Dutch and the gang are wanted criminals, they are in hiding and on the run, but frankly they do a terrible job of it. The game seems intent on undermining this entire aspect, the crux of the story in many ways. As Arthur you’re allowed to do whatever, which is great, but it’s very jarring to be walking around camp after your location is discovered – Dutch, imploring you to act quickly because you could be compromised again at any moment – to then have free rein to go off hunting animals for a week. Now, to be fair, the games throws a few curveballs at you, especially later in the game, that made getting through the story missions seem a much more time sensitive task, but I just feel like a tighter pace was needed more often for the story’s sake, and a greater balance could have been found between story beats and free-roaming. Indeed, personally, the more linear sections of the game were arguably my favourite parts; the beginning, as the gang regroup in the snowy mountains, I thought was superbly well done because the progression of it made sense. There is another important narrative section later on that follows a similar principle, and the story flows all the better for it. In terms of the missions, I thought there was a slight lack of memorable set-pieces. I kept expecting GTA 5-esque heist missions, with elaborate planning, and multi-tiered structure, but other than some train robberies, and a cool, hopefully Maverick inspired theft on a riverboat that’s hosting a gambling competition, you get nothing like that. I’m probably being a little harsh, as the missions are generally hit rather than miss, which given the sheer amount of them, is pretty impressive.
This should really be “The Ugly” but never mind. The game is beautiful, so I bypassed it!
When I first played on Red Dead Redemption II, the game it most reminded me of was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which is high praise as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been asked a couple times – “Do you think Red Dead Redemption II is the best game ever?” – And my answer is no. When it all comes down to it, it’s a silly question really. You get from a game what you get from it; subjectivity is an amazing thing. I still prefer The Witcher 3, and why? Well, I’m not entirely sure. Since finishing the game, I’ve even thought that I maybe preferred GTA 5. But these games are all their own unique experience; The Witcher 3, GTA 5 and Red Dead Redemption II are all worth your time and money (Especially The Witcher 3, I love that game!).
It may not objectively be the greatest game of all time, but it is still an absolutely remarkable one; another Rockstar classic that deserves all the praise it gets. It’s not without its problems, and there are more than there probably should be, but the sheer ambition of the open world, the emotional, well-written story and unbelievable visuals made my time in the Wild West well worth it.