It has been sung for over half a century. That the times they are a changin’, and it’s true. You can not stop progress and that’s the message at the core of both games in Rockstar’s western opus. Though he’s not centre stage for huge amounts of either game, Red Dead Redemption as a whole has been about the futility of complicated men, like Dutch van der Linde, resisting the changing tide and ultimately, like John Marston’s curtain call in Red Dead the first, going down swinging rather than sacrifice their old ways. Though the original was ahead of its time, I never expected the amount of heart Red Dead Redemption 2 would have. Rockstar take rascalish men, tear them down and use it as a lesson to swim with the tide which hit a whole lot harder than Grand Theft Auto’s attempts at pisstake social commentary which often fall flat.
It’s because it’s free from Rockstar’s satirical leanings that often bog down the writing in their Grand Theft Auto series that Red Dead Redemption 2 stands tall as a genuinely intelligent, human and authentic version of an Old West that’s on the cusp of oblivion as it is threatened aside by burgeoning industry and civilised life. I never buy into prequels but to see a younger, more optimistic Dutch van der Linde evading capture time and time again with a caravan of hopefuls desperate to believe that there’s still somewhere for them is truly a gift and it’s clearly head and shoulders above anything else Rockstar has in their stable, save for perhaps the original Red Dead. It’s a slow burn with a careful and considered message that unfolds at its own wary pace knowing it doesn’t have to resort to blockbuster set-pieces to wrestle back attention.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is an enormous slice of the American heartland, encompassing a number of states. Though the game follows the exploits of Dutch’s gang and Arthur Morgan, it’s the world itself that is the star of this game. Its size is nothing short of overwhelming and though large parts of it are expansive plains of red dirt, kicking it up on horseback was one of the smaller pleasures I had in the game. In fact, you can go anywhere in the game’s midwest setting and be floored by the detail poured into it. Though it’s a blank canvas for a lot of it, Rockstar make great use of the space with a spattering of experiences and interactions that can be had. To witness the people and places growing organically over time with little to no input from the player-character speaks to the care taken by Rockstar to ensure that this world felt lived in. Some might get prickly by a lack of fast travel but I can’t begrudge it on this occasion because this is a place that begs to be combed over to have its finest details unearthed and shared. Whether it’s enjoying a relaxing fish, taking in a quiet libation amid a saloon brawl or skinning a rabbit by ripping its pelt clean from its body, Red Dead doesn’t refrain. It goes all-in.
Though initials on the mini-radar beckon you to progress the story as is trademark in Rockstar titles, everything you do in-game feels like it carries weight. Even the personal favours asked of Arthur that don’t have any bearing on the group’s wellbeing feel like they’re worth seeing through. Doing good by your fellow man in Red Dead can net you a spoonful of honour which can be helpful in currying favour with those cut from finer cloth who might look down their nose at a cowboy like Arthur. It’s an elegant morality gauge that actually has the stones to enforce repercussions on the player.
Not only does the world around Arthur Morgan evolve organically, so does he as a character. Rockstar has opted against skill trees or levelling up, instead opting to implement a more like life ‘practice makes perfect’ system where performing an act is the only way to improve your proficiency in the area. This is the mere tip of a very big iceberg in terms of the fine details that amount to Red Dead’s authenticity. It’s a game so grounded and tethered to its period it’s hard not to admire the effort gone into not only building the world itself but penning a novella-sized script for even the bit-parts.
Though you’re not forced to deep-dive into stats for Arthur, you are expected to maintain his character to a certain degree. On the heads-up are three icons with an outer ring for health, stamina and dead eye. This outer ring is indicative of the immediate supply that can recharge once spent, this isn’t any different to other games with similar cool-downs. Rockstar introduce an inner core that the outer can borrow from for bigger efforts, though it won’t recharge and must be replenished with tonics or food. It might sound like needless busywork but it soon just blends in and hums in unison with Rockstar’s other hardworking systems. The same applies to any horse Arthur chooses to stable, over time a bond will flourish and the horse’s cores, too, must be maintained.
You’re going to be hard pressed to find a game similarly sized as Red Dead Redemption 2 that looks half as good as it does. It’s not even just about the obvious things, either. Of course, the regions look beautiful and the characters themselves look the part, but it’s again, the small details that really make this Rockstar’s most astounding work. Persistent trails in the snow long left behind by tired and dragging feet, sunlight glowing through a character’s outer ear helix and the way updrafts send dirt bending through the air at the mercy of the game’s lifelike weather. These are things that’d be easy to miss in everyday life, but to pick up on them in a game is next level. Not only is it obviously lush, it runs buttery smooth with its slick animation and boundless playground never once stuttering despite Rockstar’s unmatched ambition, which they deliver on without fault.
Considering the cast hired for this prequel were all relatively no-named actors, the performances on show are all stellar. From the top down to the small players, it’s a master class of subtle, nuanced acting that is rarely seen in the medium. Of course, it’s thanks in large part to the wonderful script which gave the cast a lot of material to chew on. Though Dutch, Arthur and Hosea make up the old guard and consume a lot of screen time, I can probably bank on the fact that your favourite performance will come from a seldom-seen background player who steals the show because the game has a lot of them.
My personal favourite was a sharp-tongued Irishman by the name of Sean. There’s a peace that washes over you when you’re feeding your trusty steed oatcakes while trotting through a bayou, especially when it is accompanied by one of the most serene arrangements video game music has seen. Gentle finger-plucked strings twang in time to the steady bass below it before ramping up for the hairier moments like shootouts when the tempo moves out of its crawl. It’s a soundtrack for all moods and I especially adore the triumphant strings that roar in over the top of the game’s more cinematic climaxes. It’s a theme so good it makes even a millennial like myself chomp down on a cigar and mutter Clint Eastwood lines.
Somehow, in a year that looked to be sewn up and won already by other gifted developers, Rockstar has gone and blown the competition away with a game so rich with detail and obvious care. Together, the Red Dead games are both a gripping saga and tragedy alike that paint these awful men not as heroes, but as failures of a bygone strain of masculinity and bravado all but extinct in their world. It’s a tragedy about how the world can be made to have meaning even when it’s done with you. Not only is Red Dead Redemption 2 a complete and profound achievement, it completes a two-part drama that will remain relevant far longer than any of the other candidates this year has put forward.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a triumph in world-building, character craft and downright skulduggery. Being bad has never felt so good as Rockstar toe the realism line while still keeping their sharp, trademark tongue in cheek. It's the keen attention to detail where Rockstar succeeds and this outlaw prequel comfortably outperforms their best works and in time, I believe, will be regarded as a once in a generation game.