Cowboy Simulator 2018
Usual review protocol dictates that you kick off with a detailed low-down on the game in question’s premise and basic mechanics. That’s what I’d normally do, but some games crash the public consciousness so thoroughly that after a while, it all seems a little redundant. Put simply, if you’re on this website and reading these words, you already know almost everything there is to know about Red Dead Redemption 2 by now – most of you are playing the thing yourselves – so let’s jump straight into the meat of the discussion.
There are two things I can definitively say about Red Dead Redemption 2: One is that I loved the game to bits, for providing me one of the most immersive and emotionally engaging experiences I’ve had with a game in years. The other thing I can say, is that I completely understand why some people don’t love it.
2010’s Red Dead Redemption saw Rockstar finally make the transition from Hollywood pastiche-merchants, to delivering a game that delivered character work and theme-grounded vision on a par with the best storytelling of other media. While its follow-up, Grand Theft Auto V, was fun in a, well, Grand-Theft-Auto-y kind of way, it was always a bit of a shame to see Rockstar co-founder and creative head Dan Houser put that newfound sense of subtlety and maturity aside and go back to the well. There was the sense of new potential left unexplored, a step forward not fully taken.
With Red Dead Redemption 2, we finally get that next step, and the results are mostly glorious. While most of the attention has been on protagonist Arthur Morgan, the game’s real star is tragic gang leader Dutch Van der Linde. In the first game, he’s known mostly by the way other characters talk about him; by the time we finally meet him, he’s long succumbed to homicidal mania.
Here, he’s around from the start, and the game’s first surprise is that, far from the murderous boogeyman we remember him as, he’s actually a pretty solid guy. He’s a bit of a bullshit artist, tending to promise a little more than he can pull off, but he seems to genuinely care about his people, among their numbers Arthur and a younger, more naive John Marston. Sadly, we join events just as they’re going irrevocably south for the gang: on the run after a botched ferry heist, hungry and exposed to the elements, the game charts their efforts to outrun the law and notoriously ruthless Pinkerton Detective Agency, and find a new home.
Naturally, being a prequel, we already know that they fail. The story Rockstar is telling here is how that failure came about, and how the gang collapsed. Some of the game’s strongest writing is in the character work, doing a great job of re-introducing us to characters like Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella, giving them a depth that wasn’t as apparent in the first game. It’s Dutch who is most fascinating, though, with the game pulling off a convincing portrayal of how too many things going wrong in a row can beat down even the strongest personalities, turn them desperate and ultimately savage. It’s genuinely sad to see Dutch get progressively consumed by rage and paranoia, letting down his devoted charges. It certainly clarifies why Marston was so haunted by his memory in that first game.
Oddly, the weakest part of Red Dead Redemption 2’s cast is arguably Arthur himself. While immensely likeable, he also suffers from Prequel Syndrome in that he’s the character put there to be your guide through other peoples’ backstories. His role is mainly to react to what’s going on around him and as such doesn’t always feel as fleshed out, because at the end of the day the story isn’t really about him.
Red Dead Redemption made a point of reminding us time and again that despite his delusions of gentility, Marston was at heart a bully and a thug – a likeable and sympathetic bully and thug, mind, but a bully and thug nonetheless. While Red Dead Redemption 2 carries on that theme of perception, in this case the disconnect between the romantic stories told of the heroes of the West and the brutality it actually takes to make that kind of name for yourself, Arthur feels written as a simpler kind of rough-and-tumble good guy. His role is to be counterpoint to Dutch’s increasingly amoral leanings, and while the game gives you the traditional ‘light and dark’ morality scale, Arthur never feels like he should be played as a heel. Even occasional bouts of open-range therapy with the girls at the camp, in which Arthur bemoans how he’s been killing innocents and animals for fun, feels more of a wink to those who like their open-world games chaotic, than convincing character moments.
The game also reprises the theme of changing times and the death of the old West from the first installment. This also shows up some of the protagonist’s limitations: while it was previously informed the irony of it being witnessed by Marston, a character struggling with his own personal need to change, Morgan’s flinty-eyed reluctance adds no new layers to the theme.
These quibbles, however, do little to diminish Red Dead Redemption 2 as one of the best narrative experiences you can get in gaming. The genuinely strong story succeeds in filling in a previous life for a lot of these characters and, a couple of slightly-too-cute cameos aside, avoids the classic prequel pitfall of getting too clever about things and reinventing parts of the original story that didn’t need it. If the first game was about how external forces can crush a way of life and the people who live it, the sequel shows how such collapse can happen just as devastatingly from within.
Special mention needs to go to Woody Jackson’s absolutely sublime soundtrack: while missing Bill Elm, his collaborator on the first game, he again pulls off a damn-near perfect melange of Western music tropes with an emotional punch that stands up to the best of Hollywood scores. Now, Rockstar, please get that soundtrack album out because I’m buying that sucker the second it becomes available.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is also Rockstar’s finest moment when it comes to immersion and worldbuilding, creating one of the most intricately-designed and consistently detail-rich landscapes ever seen in a game. At one point, I put the story missions aside and spent at least a couple of full days’ play – some 10-15 hours – just exploring the land, poking my nose into curious spots and reacting to situations as they unfolded, and still hadn’t seen large portions of the map, or come close to encountering all of the game’s humorous, bizarre and at times utterly fucked-up personalities and sights.
It’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone, just to enjoy the sheer scale and variety of the world Rockstar has wrought. Sure, the story is very deliberately-paced, and the travel can take a while, but if you’re kind of gamer who digs poking around a virtual world, soaking up the atmosphere and seeking adventure, then Red Dead Redemption 2 is an absolute must-play.
I’ve mentioned that a few times now: the kind of gamer you are. This is where we get into the thorny stuff, because as wonderful as Red Dead Redemption 2 is, it’s also a massive conundrum of a game. Let’s be honest here: Rockstar’s open-world games have always struggled a bit when it comes to controls. They’re fine if you’re just roaming the world, taking things in methodically, but they’ve never handled anything that requires, quick, responsive control well. Rockstar is a company that makes the world’s biggest mainstream games, for a very particular audience. If you love story, atmosphere and immersion, Red Dead Redemption 2 will be the most exquisite digital catnip you ever did nibble. If you enjoy games for their gameplay mechanics, however, it may not be for you.
There are times when Red Dead Redemption 2’s controls are, to be honest, straight-up bad. Heavily reliant on radial menus, most of what you do will require a very specific coordination between the bumper buttons and the right stick that sometimes feel like you need octopus fingers to pull off smoothly, especially when trying to select and change weapons in combat. That’s even before you have to deal with the very obvious input lag, which can be adjusted to but never feels completely natural. In fact, if I could give any piece of advice to new players it’s to always run in case of a gunfight and pick off enemies at range whenever you can; the combat controls are simply not made for close-quarters shooting. The many quick, ignoble deaths suffered by Arthur as he stumbled around like a drunk, one-legged man trying to draw a bead on some guy six feet away from him made for some utterly frustrating moments that did a disservice to what the game does well.
It’s honestly baffling that after eight years of development and all those 100-hour weeks Dan Houser unwisely boasted about, these things weren’t tightened up a bit.
Then again, maybe it’s not. It’s been obvious for years that Rockstar isn’t in the business of making games to be mastered, but experiences to soak in. For Rockstar, controls and gameplay mechanics have nothing to do with player skill, but are simply a delivery method for this experience. While a lot of the narrative around this game has made a meal out of it being some revolutionary step forward in open-world games design, it’s really just the latest evolution of an experience Rockstar has been iterating on since the late ‘90s. The success of this approach depends on the individual gamer’s response to the direction in which that template has evolved.
In many ways, Rockstar has joined the ranks of gameplay auteurs such as Swery and David Cage in that their games have a defined feel and mechanical style that may be intrinsic to their artistic vision, but may not jive with players of differing proclivities. As someone who’d rather dry-hump a field of broken glass than subject myself to another Quantic Dream game, I completely get why Red Dead Redemption 2‘s deliberate, often clumsy controls might turn some people off. Besides, while ‘artistic vision’ can be used as a reason it shouldn’t always be an excuse, and the wisdom of some decisions should absolutely be questioned. Red Dead Redemption 2’s controls feel barely improved compared to those of Grand Theft Auto V or even Red Dead Redemption, making the game sometimes feel old to control that feels less like art in action, and more like hubris on Rockstar’s part.
And yet… And yet, I can’t help but love this game for its story, its characters and the absolute triumph of worldbuilding that it represents. With its often intimidating plethora of side activities and survival and crafting mechanics, it’s as close to a full-fledged cowboy simulator as we’ve ever seen, and it’s been a joyous, and often genuinely affecting, experience.
Having said all that, mind, I’m a story/experience-centric player, which puts me smack-dab in the demographic Rockstar made this thing for, so do note my bias where necessary. It’s a great example of why I’m glad that Doublejump doesn’t do review scores, because I wouldn’t even know how to score this thing. Did I enjoy the game? I loved it; in fact, it might just end up being my game of the year, but at the same time, I’m also very aware that this isn’t a game for everyone, and while I love the game for the experience I had with it, the problems that some have raised are very real.
Is it the greatest open-world game ever made? No. Is it Rockstar’s masterpiece? Yes, so far.
An ornery beast from an ornery company, Red Dead Redemption 2 is every bit as remarkable an experience as we’ve come to expect from Rockstar. Rockstar has made an art out of making narrative experiences that transcend some not always completely refined gameplay, and one has to wonder if the studio can get away with it again the way it has here. For now though, for those who love what Rockstar provides, Red Dead Redemption 2 provides the best ride yet.
Cav reviewed Red Dead Redemption 2 using a PlayStation 4 code purchased at retail.
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Also published on Medium.