Redemption is a theme so central to the Red Dead Redemption franchise that it was included in the titles of both ‘Red Dead Redemption’ and 2018’s ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ which acts as a direct prequel to the events of the first game. Aside from an enrapturing story and gorgeous graphics it may be the self-contained nature of Red Dead Redemption 2 that is its crowning achievement.
Having only cursory information with the first game myself, the prequel does not require the player to have any previous knowledge going in and, in fact, may inspire such players to go back and play through the first game as I have now done. There is therefore no better time for anyone to jump into this cowboy-toting franchise and fall in love with the crooked misfits of the game’s ‘Van der Linde Gang’, taking the protagonist, Arthur Morgan, on an awe-inspiring journey of family, the American identity and, of course, redemption.
The Times They are a-Changin’
The game begins in the year 1899, the era of a declining prevalence of ‘traditional’ cowboys, outlaws and American frontiersmen. We are introduced to one of these gangs of outlaws, holding out against the oncoming tide of civilization; residing not in the typical deserts of the wild west, but amongst snow-adorned mountain peaks. From the start the story of Red Dead Redemption 2 does not pull any punches, and wears its atmosphere of desperation on its sleeve. The ‘Van der Linde’ gang is the group our character, Arthur, is associated with and times are bleak for the group, surviving on dwindling supplies slowly freezing to death they are hiding from the growing presence of law enforcement after a botched robbery. We get our first taste of action when, upon arriving in the mountains, Arthur and the leader of the Van der Linde gang, Dutch, go out in search of refuge.
They happen across a rickety farmhouse that is occupied and appears luxurious compared to the harsh alpine climate. This is where the game first lets the player make a decision, albeit a small one. Dutch attempts to cajole the occupants of the house but the atmosphere soon turns antagonistic and the game prompts you to ‘protect Dutch’. However you react to this situation, either immediately shooting at the occupants or waiting to see how the situation develops, sets a precedent for the moral dilemmas you will find yourself in throughout the story.
No matter how you react to this initial situation, things turn ugly and after looting the house and its occupants the gang return to where they first found a shack with now more enemies after them. The tone of Red Dead Redemption 2 is therefore set, as the Van der Linde gang move from place to place, getting increasingly desperate as more enemies end up on their doorstep. Although the game has a rather simplistic binary morality system, with some actions giving positive or negative ‘honour’, it belies the complex morality presented in the story.
Whilst many games put the player in the shoes of a ‘chosen hero’, ‘Red Dead’ shows us the moral underpinnings of a traditional outlaw. Through this dynamic one of the key themes of the games is expertly told. The diminishing ‘traditional’ ways of the Old West are put right up against encroaching civilization, a dynamic perhaps most obviously demonstrated by the Van der Linde gang’s troubles with the Pinkertons, a private security agency hired by an oil magnate. As the gang flees from these security forces we are taken on a tour of various fictional states in late 1890s America, coming into conflict with rival gangs, the military and conniving, extremely wealthy families.
The story is split across six chapters and this dynamic pervades the whole story, with a brief interlude halfway through that I do not want to spoil here and must be experienced for the first time. This interlude represents a turning-point in the game’s story, and from there although the broad idea of relocating the Van der Linde gang remains constant, the mood of their camp, and of the characters, changes as a general sense of decline pervades the story. This all hurtles towards a conclusion that you absolutely will not want to miss; the fate of the Van der Linde gang proves to be some of the most compelling and emotional storytelling you can find anywhere in gaming.
Camping and Community
The main way players will bond with the Van der Linde gang occurs through gameplay, centring around the camp that the gang set up wherever they flee to.
Moseying around this camp serves as the game’s hub, complete with the ability to make wardrobe changes, buy/store supplies, start various story missions and even shave your ever growing facial hair. A constant through-line in the story is Dutch’s desire for more money to completely escape encroaching federal influence in the Wild West. This plays into the camp gameplay as at any point you can voluntarily donate your own money to the settlement, making it possible to upgrade the type of supplies and ammunition available.
These camp mechanics work and are engaging on several levels. For instance, donating to the camp and taking time to talk with its members gives the impression of improving morale and dialogue dynamically changes as people speak more positively of Arthur and his contributions. Conversely, taking money from the camp and ignoring its occupants results in people more likely to be upset with Arthur, resulting in minor changes to dialogue in the game’s story. One potential downside to this morality system, it could be argued, is that it initially seems simplistic.
Engaging in positive or negative acts has little bearing on the story and at any point it is quite easy to switch to from a ‘good’ play through to a ‘bad’ one and vice versa. I instead see it as a fairly positive feature, tying into the theme that Arthur is a character looking for redemption, that can be helped or hindered by his actions at any time.
The gang, camp and how these communities interact with Arthur is one of the reasons the story and characters of Red Dead Redemption 2 will stick with any invested player long after completing the six chapters of the game’s story
Taming a Wild Stallion
If there was ever going to be a criticism levelled against Red Dead Redemption 2 it would have to be in its controls and the general pace of gameplay. Playing whilst surviving the harsh conditions of the Wild West results in gameplay that is extremely intricate, almost to a fault. The game does have satisfying shooting and cover mechanics, a notable one being the return of ‘dead eye’ from the first game, where time slows down and allows Arthur to make Swiss cheese out of unsuspecting pioneers. However, often to get to these amazing set-pieces you need to trudge through the quagmire of the game’s controls that end up being fiddlier than an era-appropriate fiddle-player.
Take, for instance, the relatively simple act of riding a horse. There have been numerous occasions, particularly whilst still learning the controls, where dialogue heavy moments of riding with your fellow gang members has been ruined by trying to keep the horse in line with everyone else and not swerve directly into someone else’s path. Although this may not happen with everyone, and is certainly mostly the fault of the player, otherwise engaging sequences may be detracted from by Arthur drunkenly crashing into the path of his fellow outlaws.
An additional constant gripe with the controls is that upon approaching any mission you must be certain of what loadout you have equipped, otherwise the game will default to a specific set of often sub-par weaponry. These controls, however, are not necessarily problems as I found they were quickly internalised during gameplay with only slight mistakes whilst surviving the rest of the game.
There are many ways to categorise Red Dead Redemption 2 as a game and it is often dependent on the player. For instance you could play Red Dead as a survival game, picking wild herbs to craft medicines and having to choose your outfit to combat the heat and snow alike. You can also spend a considerable amount of time filling out the ‘compendium’ by hunting, fishing and foraging for rare plants. There are also rewards for doing this, side missions will task you with hunting specific animals, and legendary beasts litter the map that provide great rewards for taking down. The survival mechanics are so engaging and rewarding it is possible to get lost in the wilderness for hours at a time, tracking down rare boars to sell their pelts for a tidy profit.
However, all this exploration and rolling around in nature will have a cost. Unless you often bring back food for the camp, some of its members may accuse you of being neglectful of those who you are tasked with protecting. Moreover, the realism in the game extends to the maintenance of your weapons. Wading through water with your guns equipped will ruin their ‘condition’ status, resulting in jams and doing less damage than a perfectly pristine rifle. The same effect will happen by using the same gun a lot, and since ‘gun oil’ is found quite rarely, and costs a fair sum to buy, the game forces a bit of variety in what weapons you choose to fight with.
Despite almost being inconsequential to the story, the survival mechanics of Red Dead are engaging and will be necessary should you choose to follow the game’s interesting side quests and shoot for the lofty goal of 100 percent completion.
The Good, The Bad and the Drop Dead Gorgeous
Red Dead Redemption 2 is by far one of the most graphically impressive games available on the market today. Overlooking picturesque landscapes may in and of itself be a key selling point, there is simply no better fully realised world to explore than the one available here. Whilst in specific areas you can feel the hustle and bustle of a realistic industrial city, there are also some truly solitary experiences to be had. Even in these moments, the world seems alive as random events help immerse you in this imagined great American expanse. The gameplay too, aside from some teething problems, seeks to facilitate the player’s interactions with the world, and, by proxy, the characters and story.
The negatives of a game such as Red Dead Redemption 2 will be very personal and will not necessarily apply to everyone all the time. As I have previously stated I had some initial trouble adapting to the control scheme, which led me to the idea that those who are new to gaming may not want to pick this up first. However, anecdotally, I know those who have limited experiences with these types of action games and yet have had little to no trouble at all with the controls. In a sense, it feels as though critiquing Red Dead is akin to critiquing a great work of art, you may not necessarily ‘like’ Renaissance paintings, but it would be impossible to deny its genius and brilliance as a shining example of the medium.
Something we have not yet touched upon is Red Dead Redemption 2’s multiplayer component. Unfortunately, this aspect of the game is not as intricate as the single-player story so it has not been focused on. Despite being perfectly serviceable as a multiplayer cowboy experience it did not leave any real lasting impression, and I did not feel the need to rise up the ranks to experience it all. Moreover, there is a narrative component to the experience but it feels far emptier compared to the single-player, mostly due to your character being completely silent.
Some will definitely get more out of this game mode than others but the multiplayer is similar to the multiplayer presented in ‘GTA V’, another Rockstar title. The whole game map is accessible in multiplayer and there are numerous events, races and general tasks to occupy your time with. Yet, levelling is a slog as the game pushes its premium currency to help those wanting to purchase cosmetics without sinking hours into repeating similar tasks multiple times. Conversely, it is certainly fun to roam around the expanse with a group of friends, acting as true cowboy outlaws, but I would still recommend buying Red Dead for the single-player narrative over the relatively bare-bones multiplayer.
Red Dead Redeemed
The misadventures of Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang is a story that must be experienced by anyone with the means to get their hands on it. Available on most platforms, it remains one of Rockstar’s finest titles. Never before has a story stuck with me so consistently and for so long. Weeks after playing the game it is easy to recall the names and personalities of the entirety of the Van der Linde gang as well as their ultimate fates in a story that will certainly stand the test of time.
Those who are repulsed by the idea of roaming gorgeous American landscapes as a tough cowboy will certainly not find much to enjoy here. I only hope that they are few and far between and have already realised the experience would not be for them. For everyone else, there is so much here to sit down and appreciate, few games resonate as widely and impressively as Red Dead Redemption 2. Through an engaging interplay of mechanics and story, Red Dead Redemption 2 stands apart as a true example of video games as art.