Red Dead Redemption 2 is finally out and having spent a fair few hours this past weekend sampling Rockstar’s latest effort; the resounding impression is one of a landmark game set to influence the gaming world for generations to come.
The game isn’t perfect and the first couple of hours felt somewhat rigid due to being confined to the harsh climes of the Grizzlies mountain range. However, as the game opens up and the caravan inches down the mountain into the heartland, Red Dead Redemption 2’s scope opens up like bountiful nectar flowing readily.
From the first opening scenes where the gang struggles to make its way through a chilling blizzard to riding into Valentine for the first time alongside a singing contingent of fellow gang members, the beauty of Red Dead Redemption 2 is on full display. There’s no sense in mashing words here; the game is among the most gorgeous ever created. The way light plays a crucial role in creating an atmosphere regardless of the scene or locale is among the most accomplished. Watching the light creep into the camp at dawn is worthy of a canvas found in the most esteemed galleries around the world.
Simple animations, like the way Arthur Morgan shields his face as a strong gust of wind and snow pummels him; or the manner in which he lovingly leans over and gently reassures his horse when spooked by wildlife; or the way he expertly skins a deer, take the game to levels of immersion never before witnessed.
Controlling Arthur is where Red Dead Redemption 2’s biggest flaw may lie, though there’s a caveat to all this; a few more hours getting accustomed to the controls may yield a different impression. They can feel clunky and a tad unwieldy, though realistic in a strange way, there’s room for error, but not much.
When the first real gunfight erupts at the O’Driscoll outpost, the full breadth of how fun gun slinging is comes to the fore. Downing any enemy is unequivocally satisfying as are the combat mechanics such as taking cover, the excellent dead eye system, and the arsenal of weapons. In a similar vein, hunting with the bow is just as enjoyable.
The camp system has enough strings to its bow to remain satisfying but isn’t too complex that ensuring the gang remains fed and equipped is tedious. Having to care for a group of characters rather than look out for yours-truly plays greatly into the humanist undertones that course through Red Dead Redemption 2.
We have here a realistic story that doesn’t require any suspension of belief nor is sugar-coated. Yes, there’s sentimentality, but not of the mushy variety, but more one centered on justified nostalgia for better times and a genuine bond created by camaraderie.
The interactions between the gang members are at times tense, while tender and caring at others. In this dichotomy, Rockstar has managed to make players genuinely care for this band of outlaws, outcasts, and rogues with all the intricacies that come with living among a diverse group of people.
As we’ve come to expect from Rockstar’s games, the voice acting is beyond reproach, and the actors have captured the essence of each character incredibly well. The overheard passing conversations between NPCs are just as compelling as mission dialogue.
The small events peppering the game appear insignificant in isolation, but woven together create a world where each character has a unique personality and purpose. For example, I was trotting through open fields lined with rocky outcrops searching for small game to hunt. I came across an NPC struggling to control his horse. As I inched closer, the horse suddenly bucked, killing him instantly with a well-aimed hoof to the cranium. Unsure of what to do or if this was a prompt for a new mission, I did what every good outlaw does; I looted his body.
Sound effects recorded in a state of the art foley room are faultless. The soundtrack is suitably Western-inspired and never takes over, but sits aptly in the background, embellishing the experience rather than acting as a prompt for players to experience a particular emotion. It feels like Rockstar has held back, and with moderation comes subtlety, a running theme in Red Dead Redemption 2.
I found myself staring at little details in absolute awe at the amount of work put in; the way wading through snow leaves left powdered streaks on Arthur’s sleeves or the way he hunches over when the cold seeps into his bones. With these in focus, the polemical reports of Rockstar employees driven to ludicrous working weeks and crunch time lasting months on end marred my appreciation somewhat. It’s hard to find fault with Red Dead Redemption 2’s polish, but a bittersweet veneer carpets the whole experience as a consequence.
As I write this, my thoughts are fogged by an unflinching desire to load up the game and get back to roaming Rockstar’s near-pristine open-world, to see what the gang will get up to next, and discover what else this gem has to offer. It’s early days. There’s still much to explore, but everything points towards Rockstar having lived up to, at times, sycophantic levels of hype.