This is meant to be a review.
But I can tell you with all confidence that this is 2018s game of the year.
My first draft for the opening paragraph of this review read as follows, “RDR2 is a phenomenal game that simulates survival in a western setting” etc, I looked at that and kinda sniggered at myself for writing that. However, it helped me realise how I do want to write about Red Dead Redemption 2.
So, I think this is just propaganda I’m writing.
I find this game hard to review to be perfectly honest. I feel I just can’t properly convey all the features and characteristics this game has going on, I’m very afraid that I might miss something and make all my own points and experiences invalid, but fuck that you’ve read this far so far.
Like this game bear witness to me as talk about my time with RDR2.
Okay, Red Dead Redemption 2 is an open-world 3rd person game set in the ‘American Old West’, specifically the tail end of this period in the year 1899, we’re placed in the role of Arthur Morgan right hand man of Dutch van der Linde as the story follows the fate of the eponymous outlaw gang. The game shares the same recognizable gameplay as 2010s Red Dead Redemption such as shooting, horse riding etc but builds upon those as well as expands its gameplay. New features include the management of the van der Linde outlaws camp, the maintenance of and nurturing of your horse, crafting and cooking just to name a few, and like most Rockstar games their renown pedigree for quality is ever present.
The open-world of RDR2 is rife with opportunities and potential gameplay wise, from its towns to its mud infested swamps, with control of Arthur being weighty but done deliberately to assist players in noticing points and objects of interest. Contextual cues help players identify what Arthur is capable of interacting with and offer a range of ways, depending on what Arthur is interacting with, to engage with the focus on Arthurs attention in that moment. Arthur’s interaction with NPCs boil down to ‘greet’ and ‘antagonise’ mostly, which essentially mean Arthur can have a positive or bloody exchange with NPCs, especially with the third option to ‘rob’ NPCs in RDR2. To summarize Red Dead Redemption 2s gameplay is contextually heavy but succeeds in player immersion and engrossment, while a lot of the outcomes are predictable there are some standout moments created by the game and by the player themselves.
Design wise RDR2 is a visual and sound triumph, the graphical quality is immediately apparent with detailed character models and attractive landscapes such as forests and sprawling plains. Lighting in RDR2 is especially fantastic most notably in cutscenes where a lot of attention has been paid to how the lighting is cast on the characters skin. The sound is exceptional with guns sounding loud and powerful, with particular care being taken to consider how weapons and sound in small and open spaces. Voice acting is of the usual Rockstar quality, the voice actors always know and understand their characters communicating exactly what the scene and the character calls for.
My opinions on Red Dead Redemption 2s gameplay and design may seem sparse because my interest in the game lies truly with the story.
For all the quality this game does possess I believe Rockstar truly worked hardest on the story and strongly desired for us, the players, to bear witness.
Okay, if 2010s Red Dead Redemption is about the end of the ‘cowboy/outlaw’, with John Marston being the last of that archetype, then Red Dead Redemption 2 is about the erosion of the ‘American Old West’ and the demise of outlaw gangs as seen through the fate of the van der Linde gang. From Red Dead Redemption 2s opening act with the VDL gang being caught in a snow storm as they evade pursuit from Pinkertons, we seemingly join them as their fortune takes a turn for the worst that forces them from the West towards the East learning of a botched job at Blackwater brought on by an uncharacteristic Dutch and the deaths and capture of some members of the gang. I just find the Winter/snow setting to be such a telling introduction, as Winter often represents Death/End of a cycle, to me it communicates the ‘beginning of the end’ of the VDL gang. Even though their fate seems sealed the journey to that end is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game.
The bulk of the story follows the VDL gang moving from locale to locale continuing to evade the Pinkertons relentless hunt to apprehend them, whose efforts to bring the gang to justice are funded by industrialist Leviticus Cornwall who holds a personal grudge against the gang, as they rob, con and blackmail at every possible opportunity to get themselves back on their feet. Common belief amongst the gang is their experiencing a spell of ‘bad luck’ that eventually things will pick-up and return back to normal for them, however, the game eventually makes it clear that the root of the VDL gangs ills aren’t in bad run of chance, but rather, the force of an ever expanding US federal government working in contingent with its co-conspirator industrialisation as they leave the new created civilisation behind them in their wake as they mover further West. RDR2 almost characterizes them as a new bigger more powerful gang in comparison, potential rivals and competitors who are making the VDL gang obsolete. This becomes most apparent when the story takes the VDL gang to Saint Denis, a hub of industry and rising political institutions created in the vain of ‘for the people, by the people, of the people’ mantra of American independence. Not only do the gang realise how alien Saint Denis is to them but how alien they are to Saint Denis, they swiftly find that their ‘brand’ of criminality is not the norm in Saint Denis and that influence, connections and indirect methods are the standard practice for criminal enterprise as exemplified by Angelo Bronte. The rise of cities such as Saint Denis and the birth of crime lords such as Angelo Bronte threaten the VDL gangs very existence. Again, RDR2 just excels at presenting this slow, organic and inevitable death of the outlaw way of Life, its almost as if the game is a historian.
The heart of Red Dead Redemption 2 story lays in the Van der Lin gang, most especially with its eponymous leader Dutch van der Lin, he is by far the game’s most interesting character. I’ll describe him as best I can. To summarize, Dutch van der Lin is a romantic and a man that believes in the smaller and more private freedoms that a now self-governing America has to offer, bringing him in stark contrast with growing American federal government. He’s arguably a ‘robin hood’ type figure living outside of civilisation, using violence and crime to take from those with much in abundance and giving to those less fortunate while he and his gang also subsist on the forcefully taken gains too. Dutch absolutely believes that himself and the gang embody an idyllic-life despite how contradictory and hypocritical that seems with the illegal nature of the VDL gang’s way of Life.
As the story of RDR2 chronicles the VDL gangs’ days as fugitives, it also deals with the gangs’ perceptions of Dutch and the ever-growing divergence his character takes as the toil of the gangs compounding misfortunes, constant upheaval and widening marginalising perturb him. Who was once a source of assurance, leadership and faith Dutch van der Linde slowly but surely devolves into a paranoid, authoritarian and hypocritical figure a shadow of the VDL gangs former focus of affection and stalwart loyalty. The VDL gang kind of remind me of a quote from Uncharted 2 from Elena about ‘honour among thieves’, that despite the destructiveness and illegitimate nature of their lifestyle, they are still people capable of creating and being in meaningful relationships. Red Dead Redemption 2 makes very clear that members of the gang truly and willingly give themselves to Dutch van der Linde, with some giving their entirety as seen from a poem by Molly O’Shea which I found to be very affecting, certain members of the gang will, as players will no doubt find, cede what they can’t even afford to Dutch van der Linde.
As Arthur Morgan we witness his opinions of Dutch go from:
“Dutch is right”
“He’ll figure it out”
“Let’s….lets just…give..Dutch…more time”
“Dutch you mustn’t”
“Dutch how could you?”
“All them years…I gave you ALL of me”
As Dutch unravels the story always queries, has Dutch truly changed? Or was he always a monster?
I promise you, you will never in your Life forget Dutch van der Linde.
The story of Red Dead Redemption 2 is the strongest feature with Dutch van der Linde being the single most captivating attraction. I could talk your ear off about how I understood it and how it made me feel.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the game of the year. I will shout and stand behind this assertion with my whole fucking chest, its gameplay is exciting, and its design is attractive, but its story is hypnotic.