In April of 2020, I finished a play-through of Red Dead redemption 2. I know I’m terribly late to the party but this review is partly my thoughts on the game itself, and partly what I would have done to change it.
I’m a huge fan of open world games and if you’ve been listening to this podcast for any length of time you know that I play a lot of them. I’ve played the Ubisoft ones, the Rockstar ones, I even play CD projekt ones. And each company’s design teams have a philosophy and a style that’s unique. They all seem to focus on different mechanics to enhance the experience of your virtual chore list.
Rockstar seems to be chasing the idea that they’re making a movie that you play through. Something more cinematic that guides the player actions, more than its contemporaries. For me, Rockstar adopted this approach to game creation around the time of Grand theft Auto 4’s release.
Based on the scale I use of 0 to 3 points for games I would say that Red Dead Redemption 2 for me lands at a solid one. I will be spoiling the plot of the game but not yet first I need to talk about some of the details of the mechanics and design that are really great the things that I appreciated about the game.
Setting the table in the old west
It’s clear from the moment you start playing the game that Rockstar really loves westerns. Searching for your lost wounded companions in the snow capped mountains looking for shelter to recover lick your wounds and wait for the blizzard to subside so that you can move down away from this Rocky icy prison,Rockstar waste no time introducing you to the cast of characters the basic problems and the systems that you can use in the game.
A ton of care and craft has gone into everything from the catalogs in the general stores when you’re purchasing supplies to the feed and horse manicuring that become a strangely addictive mini-game in and of itself.
The towns are organized around the hotel, the post office, the general store. How the main street is where all the respectable businesses are and the back streets are where you’ll find your junk salesmen and hawkers.
Backroom card games, drunks stumbling along in the street, hunger cold and heat all create a really immersive vibrant and seemingly complex world to adapt to.
But this is a video game after all, everything from The wanted system to the train schedules are programmed and exploitable. But this is no way diminishes the fine polish and obvious care that was taken when building each and every one.
Aside from these mechanical wonders, the music is absolutely mind blowing. Every instrument the dynamic responses to player inputs such as galloping leaves you breathless in Wonder at how much effort it took to construct such a thing. Literally I could listen to the game for hours.
I would be remiss if in this criticism I didn’t point out the fact that it is a genuine technical marvel. And to my tastes, the best version of RDR2 you can play is the online experience. It allows you to rely on and enjoy the crafted world and all of it’s systems freely in a way that the main campaign doesn’t really require you to.
I recall upon starting up the online experience for the first time in landing in a snowy landscape I was unable to do much except for run from shelter to shelter as hyperthermia chased me across the snowy barren plains.
This feeling of tension, insecurity or vulnerability was such an earned thing that even through my frustration I felt that it was a brilliant component to their game.
But TLDR; this is not a review of RDR2 online, this review focuses on the main campaign which I believe suffers from the lack of an editor’s touch.
Starting here I’ll begin to spoil aspects of the story and what I believe to be the critical issues with the game itself.
A great YouTube game reviewer who goes by the handle NakeyJakey, has a lengthy review that definitely identified some of the things that I felt were wrong with the game and although I don’t agree with all his points or even the metaphor he chose to relate his point, I think most of our thoughts are shared in terms of what Rock Star thinks is fun and what I think is fun.
If you don’t know
If you haven’t played the game yet the basic plot relationship with and to a band of outlaws who are running from a group of government agency law officers known as the pinkertons led by a charismatic and morally compromised patriarchal figure Dutch who is also a known villain in the original game that came out on the previous generation of hardware.
Throughout the game you’ll be working to keep the gang safe, earn money, and deal with the consequences of other people’s actions at the behest of Dutch.
Now that we’ve dealt with all the simple stuff from here on in it’s going to be spoiler Central.
I have two points that made the game unsatisfying for me:
- Most of the game play systems aren’t consequential even though I am forced to use them initially.
- The Loyalty arc for Arthur, doesn’t ring true for me.
Systems without consequence
My first criticism of the game has to do with the emphasis on these interesting gameplay systems that initially are your means of survival and income but then immediately become forgotten after your first Big heist.
When you get to your first real base camp after leaving the mountains, you are compelled to hunt and sell animal parts in order to gain enough income to start replenishing the camp and your own supplies. money seems very hard to acquire and everything seems expensive in the early stages of the game. But after one robbery you start to see how easy money can be made and how inefficient and ultimately empty the hunting and bounty system is for you as a player.
This goes into one of my first axioms in entertainment which is please respect my time. Don’t make me hunt and bounty for 4 hours only to essentially abandon these as a needed form of income for the rest of the playtime.
My second major issue with the game has to do with the relationship between Arthur Dutch and the gang. When discussing this part of the story, the writing and how the characters react with a friend of mine, he offered up the observation of the game wanting to tell a story about the cult of personality and the difficulty for people to break away when they feel a sense of loyalty to others.
As someone who played the first title, I already know something that the other characters in the game don’t know. I know that Dutch is not a good person. and try as the writers might to get you to empathize with some of duchess’s decision making or even occasionally allow him to make good decisions, I know that in the end his ego or selfishness or something will ultimately drive a wedge in between you and everyone else.
So knowing this it was very hard for me to at all like or trust Dutch as a player which means that playing as Arthur a person who claims to trust Dutch almost implicitly was very very jarring. I have empathy for Arthur but it was like watching a slow motion car crash. I know that the car crash is going to happen and I’m just waiting for Arthur to come to a realization that this person is not good for him and will ultimately hurt everyone.
And I feel like the game doesn’t make that transition in any subtle way. Arthur is a deeply complex and interesting character he is strong and quiet and compassionate and ultimately he is the big brother to everyone he comes in contact with. Fiercely loyal and occasionally willing to bend his own morality to help someone he feels will benefit for it.
However given that, once Micah’s characters are introduced to the story I feel like the game doesn’t try to mask Dutch’s weakness to influence at all. He very clearly respects people who are powerful or bold or even foolhardy. Even if you forgo the fact that Micah is an agent working for the pinkertons, his influence on Dutch seems ludicrous compared to Arthur whom Dutch seems to frequently say is the favorite.
And this is basically where the game started to lose me and just continued as every mission became a weird contention between duchess foolishness and idealism which is more like selfishness masked by grandiose self-delusion. Arthur has to complete a task that is supposed to get us to that next safe place that duchess found for us and it turns out surprise surprise that that place and the thing that Dutch wants you to do is not safe and is going to get everyone killed.
It’s not until very late in the game that people start to rebel and Dutch’s true colors are revealed but even as this is happening Arthur seems to be unreasonably willing to forgive duchess crimes against the group and sometimes against Arthur.
There are many small and medium-sized characters whose missions and locations are fun but ultimately run a ground because in the back of my mind I know I have to deal with Dutch and Micah in the future.
However the post game game is probably one of the better parts of it. After the main story resolves between Arthur Micah and Dutch, you pick up with John Marston. The protagonist of the original game and is the only significant member of the gang trying to part ways, but is constantly being forced back in by Dutch.
Fixing Dutch Arthur and Micah
Aside from cutting out chunks of the game such as the section where you’re on the island in the Caribbean which I believe is Cuba or something similar, the thing that I would change the most if I were rewriting it would be to alter how Arthur reacts to Micah’s addition to the gang.
Post jailbreak, the tension that is expressed by the members of the gang and Arthur should play out as a slow tug of war as Micah’s influence grows the gang starts to split between Arthur and Dutch as a leader.
There is some hinting of this close to the end of the game but it’s not well paced until everything implodes.
I’m not saying the game shouldn’t have lost or deal with bad or abusive family Dynamics or any of these other ideas that are trying to be expressed in the game’s writing, but at some point I was tired of seeing the writing on the wall and I wanted someone who seems so reasonable like Arthur or some of the other side characters to make a decision to start breaking with Dutch and have their be a contention.
If the game slowly started to break into two halves then there would be a war between them. Dutch could attempt to win people back and Arthur could be a great leader and provider and convince members of the gang to stay with him which would allow you as the player to genuinely influence the party’s size and success based on how you are taking care of them.
This would better allow you as a player to have a reason to engage with the other gameplay systems they introduced to you such as the camp improvement to-do list, hunting, fishing, and bounties. It makes these systems meaningful in the story because you would be using them as a way of keeping the party healthy and out of trouble.
This would also allow the robbery or outlaw system to feel more like a risk/reward. Robbing trains would be lucrative but it would create opportunities for harm to the gang which would affect their loyalty to you. etc..
I think this would have made for far more engaging and gratifying as an arc. Plus you could employ a branched ending that still leads to the story arc with John and his family. If Arthur’s gang wins at the end, then John only faces a few remaining enemies. Or if Arthur’s camp is overtaken by Dutch, then John has leave just like he did in the main story. In fear.
Red Dead Redemption 2 ultimately left me feeling disappointed. Partly in myself. What must have been a monumental creative effort just didn’t stick the landing for me. I like it when studios build interesting interconnected worlds that feel lived in which Red Dead certainly has a lot of life. I just wasn’t a fan of the yarn they spun with the interesting lives of the Van der Linde Gang.
It’s an uncompromisingly beautiful, character driven vision of the American west that delighted me in it’s aesthetic but in it’s story I could not find purchase.
See you next time.
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Illustration – Evan McIntyre