Red Dead Redemption 2 Review
Why does the landscape feel so warm and soothing to the touch as I graze across its valleys and rivers? My people have desecrated this land, invaded and defiled it, massacred and exiled its indigenous populations, stripped the environment of its natural sources for the sake of personal progress.
And yet the wild, natural forces live on; they glisten with awe-inspiring grandeur, be it the lush, green valleys and forestry, the blanketed snow-topped mountains obstructed only by the glow of our fireplaces, the glistening waters which carry forth Life with them in their ceaseless motion. Yes, it seems the landscapes of America are determined to prosper insistently. The nation itself continues forward in the direction of time.
With a wave of my hand, a portrait etched in bloodshed is splattered across the enchanting vistas, soiling the pristine wonder of it all by the deft appearance of Death, Itself. But the forests and mountains live on, and so too do their natural inhabitants. They refuse to recognize the notion of ‘dignity’ in acts of violence. Pride does not cloud their judgements. But it does so to Arthur Morgan.
The artists at Rockstar, who were infamously overworked during the production of their latest title, craft an indescribably gorgeous natural world in Red Dead Redemption 2. A world infested with the likes of outlaws and gunslingers, during the most progressive and consequently corrupted era of American history. But in their determination to so beautifully capture the serenity and beauty of these period-laden landscapes, the writers fail to capitalize on the undercurrent of malaise and deception which truly define the mindset of the late 19th century Wild West.
“Everything’s…changin'” speaks our embittered protagonist, in the throes of the dawning of a new generation. His criminal past is becoming a footnote in the placards of history, as he and his antiquated gang so desperately attempt to remain relevant in these developmental times. Law and order has tightened its grip on the still-burgeoning society, so cleverly interpreted through the game’s unforgiving Bounty methodology of punishing even the least harmful of players’ sins against others.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is about people, those who inhabit this ever-evolving community as it shapes itself into the dominating world force it is today. But the game is simply not enough about the people sacrificed for the name of prosperity, nor the landscapes weaving together the tapestry which allow the decision to progress in the first place. In one sense, the persistence of the world’s natural beauty is grand soliloquence depicted through interaction; a poetic illustration of determination in the face of oppression.
However, this unforgivably ignores the tragedy inherent in American civilization up to this point. Native Americans appear briefly following the game’s introductory sequence; one of the main characters remarks upon the tragic lives they lead. But this only obfuscates the act of laying responsibility where it is due, indeed further glorifying the cast of cowboys as though their brief ruminations somehow make up for a history of colonization.
RDR2 makes violence beautiful. Soaking the townships and wildlife in crimson red, scattering dozens and dozens of bodies across the plains, reaps of poetic, existential magnificence. The game’s cinematic aspirations only further inflate its self-important glorification of bloodshed. For a period piece, this artistic achievement (if it may be so called) historically confounds the nation’s own narrative, no matter how pristine and photorealistic those 100-hour workdays delivered in the final product.
Arthur Morgan is a sad-sap, lost soul struggling to get with the times, condemned to evading lawmen at every turn thanks to an unshakable past Life of crime. This wearied protagonist is gruff, cynical, always finds the time to laugh; his shallow, marginal lack of intellect gives him the credence to wax philosophical without allowing Houser’s script to be overwhelmed by heavy-handed ruminating.
In other words, Morgan is just dumb enough to let the player lose themselves in the role, yet just smart enough to still be considered his own character, worthy of a genuinely affecting arc. But Arthur Morgan also beats money out of strangers for selfish intentions. His violent behaviors make discussing his persona a trivial matter, given how the player can contribute their own money to the camp for supplies or work to raise their Honor level as high as they would like.
Ultimately, the game is too often undermined by its own contradictory storytelling aspirations; Red Dead Redemption 2 wants to allow its audience the liberty of pursuing either the identity of a criminal or someone a bit more wholesome (perhaps even heroic), but constantly forgoes this liberating, open world design philosophy for the sake of portraying its own fiction. Playing as Morgan, being forced to viciously beat a man for the sake of stealing back money he owes to gang leader, Dutch Van Der Lind, is frankly disturbing.
Which would be a fascinating conceit on its own if implemented deliberately and effectively through its narrative — you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do in the Wild West. Only, unlike Joel from Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, Morgan is never made cognizant of the monster he is, nor is the audience ever meant to question his violent actions. Even when 20 min following his brutal beatdown, he is off saving strangers from bandits and murderers.
An entire mission involves walking through a train, car to car, robbing people at gunpoint, the only instances of gameplay occurring whenever Morgan’s compatriot, Marston needs him to punch those refusing to hand over their cash. The entire sequence is established on a sickening cycle of walk, aim, brutalize. Clearly, Morgan left his dog-patting persona back at camp for this mission. Its worst sin is making this train robbery incredibly boring, since these people seem robotic and only exist for the player to beat and rob. Lifeless husks amid a vast, animated worldscape.
This issue stems primarily from the game’s insistence on governing every single step the player is meant to take. Like a film director guiding his/her actors, subtitles pop on screen at nearly every moment during missions, ordering the player around. Hitch the horse to the hitching post; walk into the saloon; follow Dutch; shoot the enemies; fish in the pond; collect the money; rob the household. For a game with such vast, minutely-detailed environments to explore, RDR2 sure hates the idea of letting its audience loose from its biddings.
There is a direct clash in intent between scripted level design and open world liberation, resulting in what appears as two different games, separated by thenatic goals. One aims to recall the specific story of a notorious gang at their lowest point, during their endless struggle to remain prosperous in a developing world out for their heads; the other an unbound period portrait of national burgeoning, as suggested through communal interaction by way of moral conditioning and upbringing. And there are two elements marrying these separate experiences, however insecure: Arthur Morgan himself, and the rousing impact of violence.
Alongside violence acting as a conduit for progression, other motifs arise throughout the unfolding story. Language barriers upend Morgan’s understanding of others, and thus his ability to show compassion towards them. Then there’s the protagonist’s disapproval of aiding others, even after an implied history of benevolence (“You must not know me as much as you think you do”). These point to fundamental misdirections illustrating Morgan’s own developing arc, as well as highlight the development of racism and isolationism which would eventually go on to widely infect the nation’s population.
But of course RDR2 never takes these ideas anywhere further. Houser’s script mentions thematic concepts at the drop of a cowboy hat, forgetting to take the extra step and forge worthwhile context from any of it. The briefness of its referencing the consequences of colonialism on Native Americans (“Poor bastards,” speaks one of the main cast, at the sight of a small tribe watching over them from afar near the beginning of the game. “We really screwed them over down here”) speaks volumes regarding the game’s failure to capitalize on key concepts woven throughout.
Rockstar sidestep important issues plaguing the historical period which they are so determined to recreate for interactive purposes, leaving the overall product feeling shallow and afraid to take chances. To delve into the ugliness hiding behind a prosperous veneer established upon historical credence.
The script simply can’t make America seem like the bad guys; in fact, by constantly describing Morgan and his crew as “bad men,” it instinctually plays upon the audience’s psychology–an attempt to use reverse psychology in order to persuade the player of Morgan’s moral righteousness without having to include a shred of evidence to support it. By showing self-awareness of his ill-natured personality, Morgan is therefore redeemed through confession, and the script dispels any need for actual moral insight.
The story’s deceptive saving grace is its wonderful pacing. The first few chapters dish out a variety of engaging cinematic sequences which feign innovation, usually relying on the diverse set of locations to offer plenty of unfamiliar eye candy for the audience to gaze at, as they shamble through firefight after firefight. The plot heavily revolves around its assorted cast of characters, each shining as individual groupies looking to come together and prosper under the communal spell of gang Life.
What’s most successful is the focused viewpoint on community-building during a progressive era, each supporting member serving as a cog in the machine of an expanding criminal family, outlaws not so much defined by their crimes but by their existence outside of everyday society. It is a shame then how the focused, well-plotted first few chapters eventually give way to monotony and aimlessness around the game’s third act, throwing players into firefights and extended horse-riding sequences nearly every mission proceeding forward.
The main draw of Red Dead Redemption 2’s narrative lies in Rockstar’s aspirations involving moral deliberation; what separates the good guys from the bad, and if there is really any such validation to the separation in the first place. But that proves an impossible task for a game so indebted to glorifying America’s violent history, so intent on painting the hero, Morgan without ever questioning his actions, besides calling him and his gang “bad men.” In RDR2, it really is cool to be the bad guy, and far more rewarding an experience, indoctrinated as it is within the contexts of the plot’s unfolding.
But outside of the linear, oft-contradictory narrative, RDR2 houses one of the most bountiful, exploratory ventures ever designed by a AAA developer. The open world constantly manages to surprise, thanks to the plethora of random encounters which allow Morgan, rather the player to play out moral negotiations all their own.
Striking up conversations with stranded townsfolk as you ride them back home engrandizes the breadth of RDR2’s setting, establishing wonderfully human connections with these scripted NPCs as you ride gallantly across the gorgeous landscapes of Wild West America. Indeed, if the game had chosen to forgo the usual Rockstar script, instead focusing on a strictly open world adventure akin to Breath of the Wild, where the only objectives are incentivized by the player, RDR2 may have been the developers’ finest work yet.
Instead, the developers dish out more of the same, fleshed out and prettied up in realistic, cinematic flourish, yet separated by ther intentions to both gamify and provide a narrative-driven experience. In regards to functionality and play, the game has more in common with SCS Software’s simulator titles than, say, Jet Set Radio, a similarly simplified gameplay exploit which still favors Fun systems over unnecessary extraneous activities. RDR2 simply has too much to offer that is not effective gameplay, a bevy of survival management mechanics which never feel fleshed out enough to prove significant.
RDR2 does not redefine storytelling, as New York Times columnist, Peter Suderman describes it, but reinvigorates it, opening up the prescribed limitations confining a straightforward tale to allow thoughtful dialogue to breath Life into the interactive world surrounding the characters (and players) involved. This is the game’s greatest achievement: unfolding the numerous, complicated layers of its Wild West locales through calculated systems which seem random and therefore universal.
What the game excels at is the delivery of its storytelling. The snowy, dreary, drawn-out introductory sequence acts as both tutorial and setup, relishing in the desolation the main characters are trapped within as they eagerly contend with a rival gang. It is a desperate bid for survival against the forces of nature, disempowering the player and their movements as it simultaneously teaches the core mechanics to deal with any harrowing dangers.
The rest of the game, following the mountain-set opening, throws the player into afflicting situations where a hasty, knowledgeable mindset is key to endurance amidst the rough countrysides of Wild West America.
What exactly is the purpose of Rockstar’s determined focus on delivering as realistic an experience as possible in RDR2? One’s enjoyment of the final product, with its multitude of physics-based and naturalistic details, is entirely left up to subjective interest. Ultimately the game feels less of a traditional gamey shooter in accordance with the developers’ previous output, which likely makes it their most unique title to date. It works moreso as a survival game akin to The Forest or Rust, only far more polished thanks to the studio’s infamous amount of crunch time forced upon its employees.
The developers’ hard work is apparent on screen at every moment of the game: be it the wildly expressive features detailing Morgan’s figure; the hundreds of NPCs who offer unique dialogue to players who confront them; or indeed the much-discussed and ridiculously overthought horse testicles which shrivel up in cold in-game weather. Therefore, whether or not the intensified work put into crafting the game was worth it in the long run will be entirely left up to how much an individual appreciates the game’s slow-burning, methodical approach to generating a lived-in experience.
It is difficult to recommend RDR2 without mentioning its litany of contradictions, development controversies, and lacking gameplay. However, similarly to last year’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, this title is frankly better than the sum of its parts. Rockstar have effectively enhanced their storytelling abilities involving pacing and characterization, delivering a grandiose, nationwide tale exposing the human consequences resulting from social and industrial development.
The game sacrifices the personal narrative of its predecessor, which allowed that title to breathe earthy grand eloquence into the heart of a modest redemption tale. But although RDR2 fails to paint its naturalistic landscapes as a reflection of its own characters as well as its predecessor, the resulting tale of a massive cast of individuals all struggling for their own place in the New World feels genuine in spite of itself. The dawning of a community, unified by a will to survive and develop on their own terms. The writing is so lovingly cared for and sincere (mostly), the events which unfold come across believable for the sake of survivalism.
RDR2 understandably mines deep into exploring the merits of survival game functionality. To more accurately transpose its narrative as a struggle to survive amidst similarly selfish bandits and naturalistic conditions, the gameplay must reflect that very struggle. The game purposefully sacrifices Fun and accessibility for a more determined approach to forging bona fide circumstances, often which spring up outside of branded story missions.
Because the greatest moments in RDR2 are not scripted whatsoever; they arise whenever a sunset appears just over the horizon, the rocky cliffsides and nearby running waters laying a serene calm over the landscape. Just as the wildlife nestles down for the night as the player character peers across the vista, contemplating where they, too shall go next.