The dear little old lady didn’t see it coming. I didn’t have a choice really. She looked like she had money to spare, and I was drastically in need of the cash to engrave my new revolver at the time. As soon as I grabbed her to threaten she said she was going to report me. I considered letting her go but… nobody likes loose ends, least of all Arthur Morgan. I choked her, which, when I write it down, seems especially brutal.
The problem is, someone saw me do this in her garden. I hopped aboard my trusty steed, Bambi, and galloped after them as they legged it down a dusty path into the nearest town. Arthur whipped out his lasso and brought him to the ground, and I quickly put him out of his misery. Telltales are like buses though, and two further witnesses had seen my heinous crime. Arthur pulled out that shiny new revolver, time slowed down and I popped a bullet in each of their heads. WANTED. Lesson learned - don’t shoot two people in the face right around the corner from the sheriff’s office. Bounty on my head, lawmen in tow, I bounded out of town and headed for pastures new, wondering where I could get my shiny new revolver engraved now.
Open-world is a term that’s bandied around with ease. It’s its own genre now, however fluffy that idea may be. But do we ever stop to think about what it actually means? Open-world, as we know it in gaming, is a term that exists purely to describe a single massive level, preferably with no loading screens. One mega-texture spread over a sprawling landmass which is then littered with collectibles, markers, and quests. ‘Big levels’ would probably be the appropriate term. But they aren’t worlds. They aren’t, for the most part, places that feel as if they exist.
Red Dead Redemption 2 changes this.
How the West Was Won
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the sort of game that could have only be put together by the ballsiest of AAA development studios. The sort that has so much confidence its product will sell that it can consciously implement design choices that fly in the face of homogenised AAA design. It does this because it is moving the medium forward. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the next evolutionary leap for open-world games, setting a new bar that all but the mightiest studios are going to struggle to reach.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s opening four hours set the tone. This is no action movie. This is a Spaghetti Western. Red Dead 2 moves at its own, slow, pace. It will not be hurried. Moody shots of expansive vistas segue with torturously slow gameplay and more time spent trotting on a horse than Frankie Detorri. But there is a pay-off. Rockstar is expertly setting the scene with an intro ripped straight from Hateful Eight, rolling in a diverse cast of characters bit by bit. Nothing means anything without context, and the lengthy intro practically needs to be endured, but it’s a wait worth that’s certainly worth having. What follows treads the same magnificent footsteps as the first time we stepped out of prison in Oblivion, or wandered the planes of Hyrule in Ocarina of Time.
Rockstar’s new magnum opus builds upon the foundations of three open-world lineages. The most obvious is the GTA and Red Dead series themselves. RDR2 is a Rockstar game through and through. The ingrained structure is instantly recognisable - initials appear on a map indicating missions that need to be scratched off. There’s an open-world that simultaneously expands as you explore its vastness and contracts as you master its systems. There are Rockstar traits like tapping X to run, willfully ignorant of modern expectations. So far, so very Rockstar.
The second pillar is 2015’s The Witcher 3, which has been used as a stepping stone for greater, more immersive storytelling, along with its cohesive world building and massive, sprawling design.
And finally, there’s the looming shadow of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the gold standard for the application of diverse, playful mechanics within an open-world. Both are open-world games that radically alter the playbook, and both were made with zero consideration for the norms. Think of it and chances are you can do it if you put your mind to it. RDR2 doesn’t quite reach Breath of the Wild’s lofty heights in this regard, but its party trick is making you believe anything is possible. It blurs the lines between the rigid confines of a game and what’s possible in reality. NPCs can be killed, rules can be bent and even entire missions can be skipped in certain circumstances. It’s a cavalcade of decision-making with none of that Telltale-style ‘You have made a decision which will change the outcome of the game”. It may, it may not, but you’ll never know unless you try it.
The Wild Bunch
Which leads us to Red Dead Redemption 2. A prequel to the original, this is the tale of Dutch and the rest of the Van der Linde gang. They're a ragtag bunch of loners, drunks, violent thugs, grumbling wives and old men, led by the imperious Dutch himself. Chased out of Blackwater, they find themselves weakened and without a dollar to their name. And thus begins their odyssey across America, setting up camps, getting into scrapes, and robbing anything they can get their hands in. It’s textbook Rockstar anarchy, framed against the backdrop of the spread of civilisation, governance, and lawmakers. The party poopers, if you will. The Van der Linde gang is one of the few remaining bastions of the old way of life, of lawlessness, and players slot into this gang as the enigmatic Arthur Morgan. He’s one of the founding members of the gang, caught between the old ways and the youthful vigour of the posse’s younger members. A man stuck in the old ways while the world evolves around him.
But what a world. At the time, the original Red Dead Redemption’s map felt humongous. That initial moment when traversing over to Mexico felt very special indeed. It withers in the sun compared to Red Dead Redemption 2 though, a sprawling yet miniature version of practically the entirety of the US that encompasses the full gamut of environments. It stretches from the snow-capped peaks of the north down to the beautiful, verdant wilderness of the heartland, the boggy swamps of what will become Georgia, and countless other areas to explore.
Every element has been lavished with impeccable attention to detail. Different trees, bushes and plants are native to each region, silver foxes and bears roam the highlands while skunks, turtles and alligators lurk in the marshes. There are literally hundreds of unique animals in Red Dead, each with their own behaviours and preferred places to roam. On top of that, there are countless fish to be caught and dozens of types of horses. It’s a world of such bewildering variety and complexity that it becomes a struggle not to get lost in it. It is a magnificent tribute to the natural world, and to the dirty, sordid deeds that humanity can inflict on it.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching Deadwood, you’ll feel right at home in the town of Valentine’s muck-covered streets. The juxtaposition of filth and beauty is executed exquisitely. Even now, many hours later, I can return to Valentine’s streets and be amazed by the squelching of boots in the mud, the rowdy customer being thrown out of the saloon’s doors, and the salesman hawking his wares. It is just but one small backwoods town in a world of dozens, each distinct from the last.
Perhaps most special is how Rockstar has captured a moment in time. There have been historical games, for sure, but none have so cohesively nailed a place and a time quite like RDR2. The year 1899 really wasn’t all that long ago, we’re just 15 years from the start of World War One. Yet here we are, in the American wilderness, living one step removed from savagery. Slavery was abolished in some of these people’s lifetimes, yet racial divide is still a prominent issue. The KKK are gathering for secret meets in the woods. The suffragettes have formed and are throwing their lives on the line for women’s rights. Society is moving forward, and yet we haven’t quite yet hit the technological breakthroughs that occurred during the World War. People still live in relative squalor, while weapons are clunky and slow firing. It’s a turning point in history and we've been given the chance to live it.
And unlike GTA, where every inhabitant feels randomly generated and none of them actually belong anywhere, every NPC in Red Dead Redemption 2 feels as if they have a place they call home. They get up, they head out and hunt, they run their shops, they go and play some poker. The necessarily smaller scale of late 19th-century towns has allowed Rockstar to run wild with the detail. Every building can be entered, and every interior looks unique. Assets are reused of course, but never enough to notice unless you really begin to break it all down.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is vast but never wasteful. What’s particularly impressive is that Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t an experience that blows its load in the opening hours. Far from it, in fact. Red Dead 2 is one of those rare games that actually gets better the more you play it, gradually peeling back layer after layer of things to do and ways to mess with the world.
The concept is basic enough. RDR2 is a third-person shooter set in an open-world. It's GTA with ye olde rifles and revolvers, swapping cars for horses and weed for hard liquor. It's brutal and uncompromising, there are no soft edges. Entire heads can be blown off, Arthur can never be truly honorable, and hunting is there in excruciating detail. While aiming and shooting works as it always does, a squeeze of the left trigger can also be used for more than just murder. Every inhabitant and animal in Red Dead 2 can be interacted with in some fashion, whether that's to goad them, wave hello, or pet a passing dog. It's here where players can imprint themselves on Arthur's tale in a way that wasn't previously possible.
But what begins as a fairly straightforward cinematic adventure morphs into traditional Rockstar mission-based storytelling, before eventually rolling in countless systems like treasure hunting, fishing, bounty hunting, animal wrangling, poker tourneys, survival-like crafting; even just hanging out the camp. At any one point there are usually a dozen things to head out do, including 90 challenges for completionists that include shooting birds from atop a moving train, tracking legendary animals, or racing from town to town. Sometimes I found myself playing it without really aiming to do anything. I’d trot about and eat some stew, or head into town and pick out some new clothes, perhaps try my hand at a horse race.
High Planes Drifter
Red Dead 2 is the sort of game where every day I had something new happen, usually unexpected, that I just had to talk about, whether that was the discovery of a treasure map, a mysterious tombstone found beneath a gnarled, dead tree on an off-the-track gnoll, or the time I stumbled onto a Klu Klux Klan meeting and just hurled a stick of dynamite in their midst. Beautifully, it sent my Honor rating shooting up. 10 days later, all I still want to do is head home and play more.
You can just exist in its world because it is designed in a way that other open-worlds aren’t. In a shop, you can look at and buy any item in there, no matter how seemingly menial. Every NPC can be interacted with, whether that’s a brief hello, a chatter about the weather, or something altogether darker. How they talk to you changes depending on your infamy, the weather, the time of day, whether you’ve washed, if you’re drunk, where they’re going, or what they’re doing. In my hours and hours of Red Dead 2, I am barely seeing a single NPC line repeat itself. It can boggle the mind at times. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a product that exudes money, and of the millions of hours painstakingly devoted to its creation.
For a Few Dollars More
Crucially, nearly everything in Red Dead Redemption 2 outside of the core story missions is entirely optional. There is no leveling system outside of Arthur’s core stats, but these will rise almost regardless of what you’re doing. Instead, all of these activities are furniture to the main event. Interesting diversions with neat benefits and great writing, no matter how seemingly small. If none of it takes your fancy, you can ignore swathes of systems entirely. However, I never wanted to. Every action and every activity serves to immerse the player more into the world, and I found myself heading and doing things just because I wanted to, not because a game was telling me to. In my games I’d fly past the extraneous stuff, but in Red Dead Redemption 2 I find myself sitting down for a game of dominos whenever I swing by a train station, or pulling out my fishing rod and corn bait whenever I spot a particularly tranquil lake.
All of these systems back up a story that is admittedly meandering at times, taking its time to build up to bigger and better things, toward a brutal crescendo. However, the scene setting helps draw the player into the lives of the various members of the gang and it isn’t long until you genuinely care what fate befalls this gang of misfits and miscreants. Suffice to say, good and evil is not so black and white in this world. While camaraderie runs high in the gang, bolster by a boisterous boys club attitude, it doesn't take long to see trouble bubbling beneath the surface.
It’s here in the main campaign where the blockbuster set pieces happen, from train robberies to hold-ups, back-stabbing and gang warfare. A heck of a lot of time will be spent galloping from place to place on horseback, but the missions themselves are generally more varied and interesting than anything Rockstar has done before. Quite a feat considering the lack of vehicles.
Rockstar also hasn’t totally forgotten its roots. While Red Dead Redemption 2 is, by and large, a far more serious tale than we’ve come to expect from the GTA series, it’s packed with just the right amount of levity to lift the player out of the doldrums at opportune moments. There’s a handful of genuinely hilarious missions crammed in here, and the gang are constantly jesting with one another, both good-naturedly or with more sinister intents.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Still, despite falling in love with all that Red Dead Redemption 2 has to offer, it remains a game littered with idiosyncrasies. Some good, some bad, but it nearly all feels deliberate. In the few areas it does fail, they are the exact same failings we have already seen in GTA 5. The shooting mechanics can still feel a little shonky, taking cover behind objects can be fiddly, and the movement animations can make it tough to stop precisely in the position you’d like. Ordinarily, this isn’t an issue, but when trying to line up my sights for a photograph of a dead man on the floor (for posterity, naturally), I found myself had to turn myself backward and forwards several times to line myself up. This isn’t ignorance at this point, this is wilful design, but it can’t help but leave a slight sensation that a majestic game could be even better. Mouse support would inevitably help out a great deal here, so we’re itching for a PC version of Red Dead Redemption 2 to be announced.
In 2018, Red Dead Redemption 2 is antithetical to popular design in practically all aspects. Moving Arthur around feels cumbersome. His weighty heft is evidently designed to make the game feel grounded. This is amplified when Arthur painstakingly picks each individual item up, shambles slowly through camp, or the regular oh-so-slow trots down winding paths with other members. Red Dead Redemption 2 can move at a glacial pace sometimes, very much a product of the slow-burning Westerns that inspired it. It’s another move done purposefully with the express knowledge that it may not feel perfect. Rockstar doesn’t care if it feels great or not, it just wants the player to feel exactly how it wants them to feel. This slowing of the pace generally tends to work in Red Dead’s favour though. This is a game about jaw-dropping vistas, rambling conversations, and a constant reminder that games can be all the better when we actually stop and smell the roses. Having a gang by your side at nearly all times helps deepen the narrative too, the conversations with various NPCs allowing you to delve into the relationships and also learn a lot more about Arthur himself.
Red Dead Redemption 2 isn't just a great game. It's a game that sets an impossibly high new bar for how open-worlds can be handled. Its depiction of late 19th-century America feels both historically accurate yet abundantly open-ended, slow-paced and yet alive, grim and yet majestic. It makes the original Red Dead Redemption feel like a warm-up, the doodles on the page before the real thing has come to life.