While I generally write about writing here, those who follow me at least a little know I also like to write about life, the universe, and other stuff. Other stuff often includes reviews of books, movies, television shows, and other media. In this case, the other media I’m reviewing is a video game, specifically Red Dead Redemption 2.
I’ve played other Rockstar games. I still remember the original top-down Grand Theft Auto game, and I played most of the sequels, at least a little. They never hooked me like they did other players, though. There was something about the ultra violent messaging that turned me off. Grand Theft Auto V, with its wide-open world, was pretty fascinating. I played through all of 3 and all of 4 to get to 5, and never finished 5. It felt like more of the same, but with prettier graphics and nicer mechanics.
Red Dead Redemption was never released to PC, and so I never felt the lack of it. Given how I felt about GTA, it didn’t seem a major loss. Now I’m hoping Rockstar will revisit that decision and update the original game with a PC release in a year or two. Because I want more of what this was. But I doubt any follow up – even the original, of which RDR2 is a prequel of sorts – can match what this game felt like.
Note: this review covers the single player story mode, not the online game. I’m a Luddite when it comes to online play and dislike a system where other players can randomly kill you. I went online one time… I was killed three times by other players, twice by the same one who apparently was waiting for me to respawn. It SUCKED.
RDR2 felt like Skyrim to me, at least at first, but with far better visuals (not surprising given how long in the tooth Skyrim has become). The game world is beautiful, and there are gorgeous vistas at nearly every turn. The designers attempted to pull in a wide range of American landscapes and seamlessly combine them into an iconic representation of America in 1899. For the most part, they did a fantastic job, though it could be a little jarring to at one moment be guiding your house down a steep, rocky mountain pass reminiscent of Colorado, and the next be galloping across a flattish plain with buffalo herds running before you. Still, I can’t fault them for the attempt, and I found tons of moments to stop and stare at the world they’d created. There are plenty of people going about their business, and a ton of wildlife to inhabit this world, too. Birds flit through the trees, rabbits scurry for the bushes, grizzlies and cougars try to eat you. Small herds of wild horses and buffalo dot the world, along with deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and tons of fish.
You begin as Arthur Morgan, a gunslinger running with Dutch and his gang. Dutch is a smooth talker with grand plans for a better future, and treats his gang as family. Opposing you are the Driscolls, another gang who will play a large role in the early portion of the game. There are other gangs as well you will encounter, each of them with unique traits. I took great joy in destroying the Lemoyne Raiders whenever I encountered them, a pack of southern racists who sometimes wore white robes and burned crossed. Shooting a robed leader and watching the heavy cross fall and crush the other two assisting him was one of my favorite moments.
But, at the 5000 foot view, the gangs weren’t really that different. They engaged in surprise random attacks from time to time, sometimes camped in random spots for you to encounter, and there were story plot lines that involved each of the different gangs. All in all, though, they were “bad people you can shoot without losing honor.”
A note on honor: I didn’t realize this game had the system in place for a while. So early on I went on a rampage of killing and stealing like any other Rockstar game. Only halfway through did I begin to feel… guilty about all that. My own feelings began mirroring those of the main character, who wanted to engage in more honorable criminal activities. My honor went up after that, but for a few minor accidents (shooting a distant flash of white I thought was a wolf but turned out to be a prospector in a white shirt, for example… oops).
The game is divided up into chapters. And chapter 1 blows chunks. You must do all the scripted missions and cannot deviate at all from what is expected. You can’t even leave the area in between missions to start exploring, which I tried to do once early on. I suppose this is the training wheels of the game, helping you get used to the mechanics. But it was frustrating as hell at times.
Missions themselves were fine. The major issue was that many of them involved long rides and you couldn’t avoid the ride. Rockstar used those rides as a chance to give us some backstory. I found the mechanic a bit off putting, to be honest, but I get what they were trying to do.
Finally, you enter chapter 2 and the world opens up to you for you to explore. With the exception of Blackwater and environs to the south, where you’re currently wanted dead or alive. Entering that area brings down the law immediately, and you’ll be lucky to get back out with your head still attached. It’ll open up late in the game, never fear.
There are lots of reviews of this games. Tons of spoilers, too, or players guides. I’m going to try and avoid those, though there will be some mild spoilers here, and talk about two things: the things you can do in the game; and the way I felt playing it. I will also add the music, especially the original songs sung by artists like Willy Nelson (who sang the song this post is titled for), was fantastic.
Your actions are wide open. However, you do need to progress through much of the main story line to open up some activities, like being able to sell coaches or horses you steal. Or fence the items you take off the bad guys (or good guys) you kill. Or gain access to more lethal weaponry. You can hunt or fish, which I found enjoyable activities. There are random side events you can ignore or participate in as you like. You can rob a train, catch and tame horses, search for hidden treasures. Some characters have lists of things they want or need that you’ll have to hunt down, and they aren’t easy to find. You’ll locate dream catchers, or find talismans that help boost some of your stats. There’s plenty to keep people occupied beyond the main story.
But the main story drew me in more and more as time went on. I explored less and less, and started moving quickly from mission to mission. When it came to side events, I tried to do more good things, help people. In the end, I wound up with a highly honorable rating, which I was pleased with. But, in the end I was also near tears. Still am, to be honest. The third act of the story is a downward spiral of bad fortune and ill favor that colors the game. It’s not often you play a game where it feels like you’re on a path to destruction with no way off, and no matter how well you do its all going to end badly. And it did end badly, and beautifully, though I’ll let you decide if Rockstar did right by its game and the characters within it.
A game moving you to tears is a rare phenomenon. I chalk it up to good writing, an anti-hero that we could love, and strongly connecting to the western tropes that made the best cowboy movies so fantastic. There are heavy shades of Unforgiven in this narrative, one of the few western movies I’ve enjoyed. The killer who has aged, who is trying to do right, by both family and those in need. Having to resort yet again to killing to make things right, protect the innocent, but at the cost of so much of what matters to you.
Throughout the game play I found myself connecting to the NPC’s who inhabited the world. Their lives became increasingly important to me. The game, though, makes it impossible for you to save those destined to die, though you’ll try. I even felt connected to my horse. Earl Gray was a lovely mustang I caught and tamed myself and who became my trusted steed. He was durable, had incredible stamina, never complained. Yes, I even cried about him.
After the main game is over, you move into the epilogues. Now you play as John, a younger member of Dutch’s gang who escaped the carnage with Abigail, his lover, and their son, Jack. It was a sort of catharsis after the emotional drain of the main story. John buys a ranch and they try to build a life together. John even gets revenge against an important character from the main story who had seemingly gotten away with what he did. But it didn’t have the appeal to me that playing Arthur had. It felt… wrong. Even my horse was wrong. I went through the steps, finished the game, and took one final journey. I visited a friend of Arthur’s, a woman he had helped after her husband had died, to make sure she was doing well. She remembered Arthur very fondly. Then I went and found Arthur’s grave, and took a picture to help me remember. His grave was in a beautiful site, with a lovely view, and covered in flowers.
Maybe I’ll go back to the game in a few weeks. There’s tons more to do to get to 100% completion. Legendary animals to kill, their skins to sell to the trapper to make new items for myself. Fish to catch. Rock carvings to find for a gentleman who is recording them. But for now I’m taking a break. I’m savoring a game that did something I hadn’t expected from a company that had previous seemed only interested in death and destruction. It made me think about life, our choices, our mortality, our endings. It made me grieve for a character whose artificial life I inhabited for a short period of time.
And it made me miss my horse. Damn, but I loved Earl Gray.
Red Dead Redemption 2 gets 10 out of 10 stars from me. Play it if you’re interested in westerns, or Rockstar games in general. I can’t speak to online play, but the single player story mode felt transformative, elevating the art of video game story telling in profound ways.