Eight years after the first Red Dead Redemption set the standard for both Western-themed and open-world games, the series returns with a sequel that aims to raise the bar to new heights and launch another legacy for the franchise and developer Rockstar Games.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is indeed one of the most technologically stunning pieces of software ever seen in gaming. Still, after several hours of gameplay, I believe that while Red Dead Redemption 2 is certainly a game worth experiencing, it may not be for everyone. Moreover, I feel that the lasting legacy of the game will not only be its various technical and visual achievements, but also a hard lesson on the value of these achievements in light of the cost endured by the team responsible for them.
A Beautiful and Deadly Look at an End of an Era
Red Dead Redemption 2 begins in 1899, 11 years before the first game. The player takes the role of Arthur Morgan, another member of the Van der Linde Gang that John Marston, the protagonist of the first Red Dead Redemption, was a part of. The end of the Wild West is nigh, and outlaws like the Van der Linde Gang are being hunted down as the United States is finally being tamed by law and order.
The game opens after a botched boat robbery, with the gang headed into the mountains to escape pursuit from Pinkerton enforcers. The situation is dire, and Morgan and the others must first survive a brutal snowstorm before continuing their escape from the authorities.
Immediately, you can see how gorgeous the game looks. Fresh, white powder blows through the howling wind and covers the mountain, creating a beautiful, but harsh, landscape. Snow realistically builds on clothing, and you can see the frost developing on characters’ faces. Just looking at the screen made me want to grab my blanket and wrap myself up. Later in the game, once you make your way down from the mountains, you encounter lush, green hills teeming with wildlife, and there’s nothing more peaceful than a ride through the countryside as the sun peeks through the foliage as dawn approaches.
While at a small livestock town, citizens and fellow travelers go about their day trading chickens, hanging out at the saloon, and more. You’re able to interact with virtually everyone in town, from greeting passersby, to insulting people in order to start fights, to holding up the local general store to fill your pockets with much needed money. When things eventually go south, you have plenty of weapons to fight with, including knives, revolvers, rifles and shotguns. Most weapons can be even further customized to an almost ridiculous degree. You’re not only able to upgrade parts to improve your weapon’s performance, but you can also choose from a variety of ammunition to use and even get engravings to give your weapon of choice its own visual flair. Combat is fun and brutal, with Max Payne-esque cinematic kill cams and the return of the Dead Eye mechanic that allows you to take down scores of enemies with ease, making you feel like a true gunslinger. Even with all this magnificent violence, this is nothing like a Call of Duty or even a Grand Theft Auto game. Guns are slow to fire and reload, and running around out in the open while trying to put bullets in your revolver is a fast way to get killed. You’ll need to fight carefully, line up your shots and make every bullet count.
Arthur Morgan’s Drawer Simulator 2018
Clearly, immersion is a huge factor Red Dead Redemption 2, and that’s dedication to realism is taken almost to a fault. It is a slow, methodically paced game, possibly even slower than the first one. Much of the game I’ve played so far comprised of traveling by horseback, and while the cinematic camera option allows you to enjoy the sights and make the game feel like an actual movie, it’s not exactly the most engaging of activities to hold down X to keep your horse galloping. Your base camp, where you and your fellow outlaws live, can be upgraded by contributing money and supplies, and there are plenty of improvements available to make the camp your own. Money is scarce in the early game, however, so don’t expect to be able to contribute more than a few dollars at a time. Gathering supplies and hunting animals can also take a lot of time and effort, requiring frequent use of the compendium to see what is used in which recipe, and patience to track down what you’re looking for. I still don’t feel like I’ve scratched the surface of the game, and while it’s cool that there’s so much to do, I can see these activities dragging on, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever get around to completing a majority of them.
Oddly enough, I find myself comparing Red Dead Redemption 2 to the Shenmue games in the sense of how much attention is put into the littlest things, for better and for worse. The first time I searched through a cabin for supplies, it felt like Shenmue. I had to open every cabinet and drawer to see what’s inside, and I had to manually pick up every can of food and bottle of medicine to add it to my inventory. There were also plenty of other objects I was able to look at and pick up to examine in great detail, and it took me a good while to make sure I felt satisfied with my search. In one really cool feature of the game, you can decide to turn off your map and HUD, triggering NPCs to instead tell you directions to a location, using landmarks to guide you when and where to turn. It brought me back to walking around Hong Kong in Shenmue II, asking strangers where to find the next key location. The immersion is great, and I personally enjoy the slower pace, but while Shenmue revolved around these minute, mundane activities so it felt like it was a key part of the experience, there’s so much other stuff to do in Red Dead Redemption 2, I felt like I might be wasting my time.
“Just One More Big Score…”
When discussing Red Dead Redemption 2, it would be remiss of me to not touch upon the controversy surrounding the development of the game regarding crunch and the working conditions of the employees of Rockstar. Throughout this review, I talked about the painstaking detail put into the game, and after reading the testimonies and stories of those that worked on it and other former Rockstar employees, it seems clear that there was an emphasis on the “pain” part. For every impressive visual, animation, and detail in the game I observed, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Was it really worth it?” and honestly, the answer is “no.” No amount of realistic physics, breathtaking vistas, or anatomically accurate horse cocks was worth the long hours, sickness, mental exhaustion and more the team endured to make this game. Are all of these details impressive? Absolutely. Are they necessary? Not really. The game is already massive, and there are probably a ton of things I will not even notice in my playthrough. And yes, there is a twisted sense of irony that a game that asks players to do an overwhelming number of tasks in order to complete it had an unnecessarily grueling and brutal developmental period. While crunch isn’t a new concept in video game development, there hasn’t been as much discussion about it as now. If there is one thing that comes out Red Dead Redemption 2, I hope it is that it becomes a starting point for a push for change in the gaming industry, a push to treat its employees with care and respect, and for companies to realize that throwing in more features doesn’t necessarily make for a better game, especially when these features are added to the detriment of the teams’ health and well-being.
With that being said, should you play Red Dead Redemption 2? The game certainly isn’t for everyone, even if you were a fan of the first game. The beginning of the game is slow, almost painfully so, and if you’re a completionist, the sheer amount of activities can look downright intimidating. But if you’re willing and looking forward to immersing yourself in the game’s world, then you won’t be disappointed. The game is undeniably beautiful, I’m genuinely interested in learning about the different members of the Van der Linde Gang, and while I keep on saying that the game is slow, I actually enjoy it quite a bit. As I said before, it reminds me a bit of Shenmue, so for me that’s a plus. And with Red Dead Online coming soon, there will be plenty to do for a very long time. As for the controversy surrounding the game, it’s up to you to decide whether it’s a deal breaker or not, but don’t feel guilty if you do decide to support the game. At the very least, supporting the game supports the hundreds of people that worked on it, and it’s important that they get the recognition and credit they deserve. And unlike the eventual tragic fate of the Van der Linde Gang, hopefully their sacrifices will lead to a better future for them and others throughout the industry.