In reviewing games, often the standard by which titles are judged is whether or not they achieve their own ambitions. Does the game create the mood it wants to create? If it’s a shooter, is the shooting fun? If it’s narrative-driven, is the story engaging? If it’s an RPG, are the available gameplay options sufficiently broad to allow for different approaches? If the answer is “yes,” it’s on its way to being a great game.
Red Dead Redemption 2 absolutely achieves its ambitions. From its Hateful Eight-style snowstorm opening to its closing credits, Red Dead Redemption 2 is pure, unadulterated creative intent. There’s little doubt that the shipped product matches what Rockstar’s core creative team wanted this thing to be: it bears all the polish and feature-creep that comes with a budget fueled by never-ending Grand Theft Auto V sales - and with a policy of straight-up labour exploitation. It’s one of the most well-crafted games ever made, with a clear direction and unparalleled production value.
Just fulfilling its creators' vision doesn't necessarily make Grand Theft Horse 2 good, though.
This confusingly-titled prequel centres around Arthur Morgan, who isn’t played by Josh Brolin but might as well be, and who initially lacks personal stakes but grows in humanity as the game progresses. His story stems from his membership in the Van der Linde gang, the group you hunted down if you played the first Red Dead Redemption (don’t worry; the calls-forward aren’t too egregious). The gang’s goal is to survive and get rich, as with any self-respecting gang of outlaws, and as they go along, the poor leadership of Dutch Van der Linde leads them toward ever more reckless acts, inciting a wide range of Westerny events and personal revelations. In the process, they (and you) get entangled with the law, rival gangs, the omnipresent railroad barons, and even sort of start a war. It's a lot.
The open-world Grand Theft Auto structure has never worked particularly well for creating a sense of urgency, and never has that been starker than here. Arthur spends most of his time meandering between different quest-giving characters on the map, meaning a good portion of it is spent on side missions and activities. At any given point, it’s unclear where the critical story path lies - meaning you’ll be alternately frustrated at the slowness of pace, or blindsided by a sudden huge plot development. So numerous and lovingly-crafted are the diversions, they often subsume the story, which - again - appears to be absolutely intentional.
Storytelling-wise, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a lifestyle gamer's dream and a game reviewer’s nightmare: a sprawling, truly enormous game, full of optional content and side-stories. Rockstar clearly wants you to sit back and take in the sights and sounds of the Old West. The story is long, the pacing languid, and the tone often one of quiet contemplation - maddening in a game that lasts 60 hours or more, where any given play session feels like you've barely scratched the game's surface. Arthur can roam the countryside herding sheep, spend hours fishing or hunting a single animal, play an array of tabletop minigames, or even execute menial chores for the gang. Or on the “outlaw” side of things, he can rob just about anyone (including on stagecoach or trains), rustle livestock, and fight off bounty hunters coming for his head. There's a lot to do, and that’s not even counting the bloated main story, with its bizarre digressions and preposterously lengthy and self-important epilogue.
Within missions, at least, the moment-to-moment storytelling is top-notch. Though much of the character development comes in the form of listening to dialogue as you mandatorily ride from point A to point B, the subsequent action tends to serve as payoff. Cinematics are well-directed, striking a wide range of tones and dovetailing seamlessly with gameplay. This game can stake the odd claim of possessing Rockstar’s finest and funniest “drunken night out” sequence ever, while other sequences boast poignant character beats and frantic heists-gone-wrong. All the voice-acting is engaging, and while it’s initially difficult to tell many of the outlaws apart, they quickly settle into their characterisation. Many sequences can even play out in multiple ways, with branching dialogue or interaction options.
Technically speaking, Red Dead 2 is nothing short of best-in-class, full of subtleties frequently worthy of gasps. Its landscapes, wildlife, weather effects, lighting, and animation are without equal in the medium right now, and though you won't see as much variety in its vast swathe of the West as in a more wholly-invented game like Horizon: Zero Dawn, it'd be hard to ask for more from this recreation. Visually, it's both realistic and beautiful, matched by audio design and music every bit as evocative as a pretty sunset.
Those technical qualities support an astonishing attention to detail in just about every facet of the game. The behaviours of its wildlife and human population (the cats hunt rats!); the vast array of in-game literature and photography; the way horses (and their infamously-realistic testicles) respond to your input and game-world elements; it’s all legitimately amazing. Playing in the optional first-person mode only heightens the effect - it doesn’t matter how up-close you get, everything just looks exceptional.
Immersion isn’t necessarily a virtue in and of itself, though, and in its quest for total realism, Red Dead 2 sometimes forgets to entertain. Arthur's health, weight, body temperature, metabolism, morality, and even beard length must be maintained, while horses must be fed and brushed regularly for optimum performance. You want to get from one point on the map to another? You’re either schlepping the distance yourself, finding a stagecoach or train station to pay for transit, or fast-travelling - but only from your camp, and only after you’ve unlocked it through a process the game does not help you to find. I’m pretty sure the Old West fantasy people have in mind when they pick this game up doesn’t involve this kind of busywork. It might be true(r) to life, but it’s a brick wall between the player and adventure.
Where this design philosophy gets truly tedious is its filtration down into the game’s most basic tasks, which often take place in near realtime, split into multiple component sub-tasks. To illustrate with one of many examples: where other games would have the player loot a cabinet with a single command, Red Dead 2 requires separate button presses to open each individual cabinet door and drawer, extract items one by one, and close the cabinet's components afterwards. Many such commands even require a button hold, rather than a simple press. Sometimes this approach makes for a genuinely immersive and reflective experience. More often than not, it's a goddamn chore.
It didn’t take many of the game’s countless hours of gameplay to find myself yearning for the comforting flash of interactive objects, the ability to use multiple items at once, or immersion-breaking yet sanity-saving workable fast travel. Even the animations get in the way: fluid and realistic at the expense of responsiveness, Arthur's animation makes him handle like a fucking truck. That’s not helped by a bafflingly awkward and inconsistent set of controls. Many’s the time I pressed one of the game’s context-sensitive buttons expecting it to do one thing, and having it do something catastrophically different. It could be seen as a comment on video game interactions that the same button used for talking to people is also used for drawing your gun, but in practice it’s just annoying.
It’s intriguing looking at this game now that Westworld is a going concern, deconstructing both Western fantasy tropes and the structure of interactive entertainment itself. Despite strenuous efforts to the contrary, there’s no escaping that Red Dead 2 is still a video game - where a HUD pops up to guide you around, where your bonding with your horse is measured in levels, and where cops can suddenly outnumber civilians if the game deems it necessary. You’ll never not be pushing buttons on a controller, and the developers must have been tearing their hair out over that. More fundamentally, this is still an Old West theme park where wanton violence only generates more "content," and where the characters exist only for your pleasure; the extra focus on player freedom, paradoxically, only draws more attention to how player-centric everything is.
Tone takes a hit in this regard, too. One of the first things the game has you do is beat up and interrogate a guy - but then it turns around and has you pat a horse. In fact, you can pat any horse, and any dog (although in the game's most unforgiveable oversight, you can talk to cats but not pat them). You can do that, then graphically kill and skin a deer, or shoot up a saloon full of civilians (or, as internet misogynists have taken to doing, serially murder suffragettes). With Westworld’s stark moral questions fresh in mind - how we treat NPCs, and how that reflects on us - the GTA-style playground of violence feels particularly dissociative and outdated. It’s hard to play the game in today’s media context and not think of poor Maeve being killed over and over again just to satisfy someone’s desire for a power fantasy.
Whether you enjoy Red Dead Redemption 2 is entirely dependent on what you want from the game. Closer to an Old West simulator than an action-adventure game set in the Old West, it's not without its moments of sprinting, but for the most part, it's clearly meant to be played at a laid-back mosey; a violent, expensive, hyper-masculine version of the "walking simulator" genre hardcore gamers tend to despise. And if that's your thing, great - you've got a breathtaking game on your hands. But just as life in the Old West was tough, Rockstar has replicated that experience, not in difficulty but in arduousness. There simply comes a point where the time and money that went into tightening horse bollocks in the cold might've been better applied to tightening the user experience.