author: matt thomson | contributor
Rock Star Games
Eight years ago, when I was an overweight fourteen-year-old with no friends, I played the first Red Dead Redemption on my Xbox 360. The game completely blew me away like no other had up to that point and I must’ve played through John Marston’s epic tale of redemption, revenge, and the death of the Old West at least half a dozen times. RDR left a huge impact on me and instilled a deep love of Westerns few pieces of media outside the works of Sierro Leone have lived up to. Three weeks ago, as a scrawny twenty-two-year-old (also with no friends), I popped Red Dead Redemption 2 into my PS4 and, thankfully, all that cowboy magic from the first came back.
RDR 2 takes place in a fictionalized version of the American South Mid-West in the states of New Hanover (North Texas and Oklahoma), Lehmoyne (Louisiana and Mississippi), and Amarillo (Colorado with a splash of Utah), and West Elizabeth (A combination of southern Colorado and Gulf-side Texas). You play as Arthur Morgan, the aptly named protagonist torn between his morality, loyalty to his gang, and finding peace as he follows his outlaw leader Dutch van Der Linde as they’re chased from state to state by rival gangs, Pinkerton agents, and their outlaw past. The game features a wide and varied caste of primary and secondary characters, each of whom is extremely well written, mo-cap and voice-acted, and with more layers than a god damned ogre.
Your interactions with these characters, along with experiencing their progression through the course of the story, is easily the game’s main strength. This part shines especially bright during the first half as each cast member is masterfully established and able to maintain a distinct presence throughout. Even most minor characters with whom you interact with for just a few side missions leave lasting impacts that few open world games can accomplish with their chief protagonists. In terms of dialogue and characters, RDR 2 is without a doubt Rock Star’s best-written game and possibly of the entire year. It also has the best sound track since Vice City, with masterful production that elevates each scene, hunt, and gunfight far above the norm. Traditional horns, violins, and acoustic guitars are mixed expertly with soft hints of synths along with other modern styles and instruments creating a fresh but truly Western blend which when added to the already elite sound design cement RDR as an auditory marvel in its own right.
However, while I could gush endlessly about it, RDR 2 absolutely has its fair share of flaws. For starters, this game is VERY long. Let me put it this way, between assignments and classes, I’ve played this game for two weeks straight, a feat made possible by a squandered social life consisting of a cactus and an obese cat, and I’m barely sixty-five percent through the main story. Seriously, I had to delay this review thrice just so I could give the plot a decent overview. Adding to this, basically every action in this game is very drawn out, from skinning animals, buying supplies, playing poker, and all the way to eating breakfast. Each act comes with a lengthy set of detailed animations, which quickly turn what was a five-second annoyance in the original to 15-20 seconds chore in the sequel. In a game two-and-half times larger than its predecessor with triple the activities, the time spent in animated limbo begins to add up. Plus, with only a horse for travel, exploring this games world would probably take you just as much time as it took real trappers and settlers a hundred odd years ago. While some die-hards (like myself) will defend this as creating an authentic and immersive atmosphere, for those without a lot of spare time I’d imagine RDR 2 might be too big of a bite to handle.
Combat is probably the game’s weakest aspect, one that unfortunately takes up the most playtime both in and out of missions. Other than the ability to dual wield pistols and nerfing the players Dead Eye ability slightly, the game has made virtually no improvements from its predecessor. While it looks and sounds great, at it’s core its standard bare-bones third-person-shooter action with a broken cover system. Difficulty is also a bit of an issue; it’s simply too damned easy. Besides a surprise ambush from cannibals and getting Hugh Glass-ed by a bear, I’ve only died twice so far during any missions or general combat. Even using sub-par weaponry and refusing to use cover, I was still able to mow down every bounty hunter and outlaw coming my way bafflingly unscathed. The sound and level design tend to make up for the lackluster gunplay during most missions, however, by the 50 per cent mark it starts to become a glaring issue.
The main plot can also be a bit garbled at times. While the first half is pretty much immaculate, it slumps significantly near the middle and even takes a brief nose dive during the Fifth chapter after you become stranded on a barren island, “because plot.” Luckily, it mostly recovers by the sixth chapter and while the end of Arthur’s story is a tad predictable (especially for any fans of classic Westerns) it does come to a satisfying and heart-wrenching conclusion. While later missions rely too heavily on sub-par shooting galleries rather than unique set pieces or clever writing, most of them are still fun to play and, thankfully, the dialogue remains consistently spectacular throughout.
If I had Colt Navy to my head, I could summarize Red Dead Redemption 2 as a flawed masterpiece. It’s easily Rockstar’s best game since the original, and in a lot of ways it’s arguably the greatest Western Epic since The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. The soundtrack, characters, and dialogue manage to overcome the mediocre combat and glaring second-act slump to make this the most entertaining and immersive game I’ve played in years. If you have the time, along with a spare eighty bucks lying around and a pair of cowboy boots lying around, I’d say this game is undoubtedly worth a playthrough or two. Now, if you don’t mind, it’s about time I ran into the sunset and started robbing innocents and blasting every living animal I can find. Have fun, partner!
Rating: 35 horseshoes out of 8 spurs. [Editor’s Note: Or 5 out of 7]