The original Red Dead Redemption came out on consoles in 2010. It was a complete anathema to most games, a truly singular piece of work. For a start it was a western, a genre of game that is so niche as to be practically nonexistent. Further, it came from Rockstar Games – a studio famous for creating the controversial Grand Theft Auto series – and yet was a measured, deliberately paced rumination on life in the old west, that rarely resorted to graphic violence or empty snark to make its point. Conceptually and creatively it was a rare and beautiful thing and in terms of the final product it was an absolute masterpiece and one of the finest video games ever created.
The idea of a sequel to this wonderful title seemed unlikely, after all, the first game was respected and critically beloved but hadn’t exactly set the world on fire sales-wise. Despite this, Red Dead Redemption 2 is here and once again the bar has been raised.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is actually a prequel to Red Dead Redemption (and has no discernible connection to Red Dead Revolver which is totally fine because it was a bit naff). This time around you play Arthur Morgan, second in command to Dutch van de Linde of the infamous Van de Linde gang (the same people you were hunting in Red Dead Redemption).
Prequels are always a risky proposition as finding out how things happened is often a disappointment, and probably should have been left to the imagination. Happily, in this case, going back in time was a good move; think Better Call Saul as opposed to the Star Wars prequels.
The original RDR was a focused narrative about a man who is forced to hunt down his former gang members. It had a classic film feel, and easily could have been the plot for a spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood as the man with no name. RDR 2, by comparison, is more like an entire TV series. The mechanics of being a member of a gang are initially daunting, because you’ll have dozens of people chasing you for help with missions, food acquisition, conflict resolution and even debt collection. The original’s mysterious man on a mission vibe is gone, but in its place is a deeper, often much more nuanced look at group dynamics at a strange, iconic time in humanity’s history.
Subtext aside, there’s also a lot going on with the story proper. Dutch and Arthur have come off a disastrous job that ended in violence and loss of life, and they spend most of the game’s massive runtime trying to piece themselves together and earn enough cash to get out of the life.
If you’ve ever seen a western, or watched a crime movie, you can probably figure out that things won’t go according to plan and there’s a bittersweet fascination in watching a group of lawless idealists facing the blunt and thuggish realities of greed and human nature.
Gameplay-wise Rockstar hasn’t exactly broken their mould. You’ll head to various characters to trigger missions, run into strangers out in the world and come across all manner of unexpected events as the dizzying array of systems come together in surprising ways.
You might start off heading towards a mission, but then a woman will call for help from the side of the road. You’ll go to help her and then – bugger! – turns out she was a honey trap and now some bandits are shooting at you. You blow those fools away, but someone witnesses the act without understanding why you shot them and now there’s a witness to a homicide! You chase after the witness, but do you threaten them or kill them? Because the last thing you need is the law on your tail, but can your hands really take being stained with more blood?
These sorts of random confluences occur all the time, often in unique and surprising ways, giving the open world a feeling of life and authenticity.
On the downside, the law are incredibly obnoxious and frequently appear to have psychic powers when they’re giving chase, which can sap the joy right quick when you’re moseying about more densely populated areas.
Perhaps this is Rockstar’s way of making you agree with Arthur who hates the big city and would rather be riding on the plain, but crikey it’ll give you the roaring shits at times!
While we’re on the subject of negatives, it should also be noted that at times the controls are a little clunky. You’ll quite often pull a gun when you’re trying to say hello and punch a horse accidentally, which is objectively hilarious but also a tad irksome. In the scheme of things these are minor, but worth nothing anyway.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is also paced unlike any other video game, including the first RDR. It’s deliberately paced, which is reviewer speak for ‘slow’. The map is massive, and your starting horses are quick to tire, and fast travel options don’t open for ages. You’ll be forced, very often, to ride across lengthy sections of America, but that’s the game training you to understand the rhythms of the title.
The game is slow because the west is slow, drink it in, don’t be in a rush to finish everything, and take your time. It’s difficult at first, particularly in the game’s slightly claustrophobic opening sections, but it becomes seductive and then utterly engaging.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is perhaps not as focused as the previous game, but it’s not trying to be. This is a sprawling epic, a whole series on Netflix as opposed to a single movie. It also has an unexpectedly emotional core that may have you tearing up at least a couple of times, and never relies on the easy cynicism of GTA V or even the constant wry disappointment that typified so many of the missions in RDR.
This is a tale to be savoured and enjoyed, it’s a fine whiskey so try and sip it if you can. Even if you ignore every side quest (and you shouldn’t!), the game is a good 50-60 hours long, so expect to be at it for a while. That’s before the online content drops some time later in the year so in terms of value for money RDR 2 is hard to beat.
Ultimately, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a sprawling, epic masterpiece. While the story isn’t quite as focused as the original RDR, the world and characters it offers the player are second to none.
Gorgeous to behold, fascinating to hear and an absolute delight to inhabit, RDR 2 is an embarrassment of western-style riches and a must own title in any console owner’s video game library.