Review: Red Dead Redemption II
Anything (and Everything) but a Western
It was somewhere around the sixty-hour mark of Rockstar Games’ 2018 release Red Dead Redemption II that I said aloud, to nobody in the house, “Where the fuck was this game all this time?” I put my hands through my hair, exasperated. Amazing things were happening on the screen. I was riding into battle. Shafts of sunlight slanted through a distant rainstorm as we followed a curving road around a mountainside. I took a deep breath, knowing that I was in for one of the best experiences gaming has on offer.
The good news is: I was right. Red Dead Redemption II, when considered in its entirety, is a staggering achievement; a dazzling display of unforgettable characters, Dickensian plot lines, and world-class voice acting - all set against one of the biggest and most relentlessly beautiful game worlds ever created.
It’s too bad there’s just so much about it that is so goddamn awful.
Now, I typically don’t like to swear in my reviews. I try to keep these things clean - to let the language convey my mood. For a game like Red Dead Redemption II, however, a game whose very title is exhausting, clean words just aren’t going to be enough. This game frustrated me on a personal, visceral, marrow-deep level. On some occasions, this game transcended gaming. On other occasions, it fell flat on its face. I can’t wax poetic about this game using “clean” language because I still don’t entirely know what to say about, despite having beaten the campaign last month. Was it good? Certainly. Was it fun? Hell no. Was it necessary?
Necessary. Yes. That’s what I’d say, all things considered: Red Dead Redemption II might be the first necessary game I’ve ever played. This is a book set in motion; this is the literature of the gaming world. That word - literature - has a lot of connotations, and not all of them good. I chose it for this reason. In terms of achievement, this game is undeniable. In terms of what was achieved...that’s not as clear.
Let’s start with the narrative.
There are two stories at play here: the story of the characters and the story of the land. The combined story is, for lack of a better word, Homeric. Red Dead Redemption II is big. And it feels big. I clocked in at somewhere around 70 hours with probably 6-10 more hours to play in the Epilogue when I threw in my hat and said, “Okay. I’m done.” I knew how the Epilogue went, and I’d played through Arthur Morgan’s story to its final, shattering moments. For lack of a better phrase: I needed a break.
And so will you, if you saddle up and ride south with this gang. Red Dead Redemption II is exhausting: a thousand miles wide and a thousand miles deep, it’s a complex tragedy set in the American south, filled with sad, anachronistic cowboys longing for a west they remember but can’t seem to find. Players expecting a western will be savagely disappointed. This game is anything and everything but a western, splitting its time between the swampy bayou, snowy mountains, rolling green fields, and the oppressive city of St. Denis. Hell, Red Dead Redemption II would rather see our anti-heroes join a rebellion on the tropical island of Guam in a chapter reminiscent of Apocalypse Now than give us the dusty, windblown deserts of the original.
This is all by design, of course. The cowboys want to go back out west, but they can’t - we share their frustration by feeling it too. Similarly, traveling across the expansive world proves an experience as intimidating - and occasionally boring - as it is liberating. The world is dangerous, occasionally annoying, and consistently surprising. One subplot I saw through to the end was tracking down a serial killer, who left his mutilated victims gruesomely displayed around the world. While the ending was anticlimactic, little things like this - hunting for a murderer - combine to make this world feel alive.
It’s all fictional, of course. None of the places in the game are real. Yet the undergirding of this world lends it a sense of credibility; cholera and tuberculosis are rampant, as is the pervasive sense that life is just plain hard. Racial tensions abound in a ravaged country still haunted by the Civil War, creating a setting that proves a perfect backdrop to the slow - but inevitable - decline of our gang, run by the charismatic, enigmatic, entrancing Dutch van der Linde.
Now, a word about the characters. Arthur Morgan is without a doubt one of my favorite characters I’ve ever encountered, whether in a book, a film, television series, play, or game. Likewise, Dutch van der Linde, his father figure/boss/nemesis, is the perfect villain, precisely because we want to love him even though he’s a villainous bastard.
Players of Red Dead Redemption will remember Dutch - and John Marston, Bill Williamson, and Javier Escuela - from the first game. The gang is all certainly here, but they’re different. They’re younger, less tired, more clearly focused versions of themselves. Arthur’s story, like the game he lives in, is memorable and profoundly sad. It’s not sad for the reasons I thought it would be; but I’ll save that discussion for another post.
But what about the bad? I went on and on about how awful this game can be - but so far, I’ve only been singing its praises. Simply put, the best parts of this game are buried under hours of repetitive, unnecessary bullshit made worse by the most uninspired gunplay and interaction design I’ve ever contended with.
Take my discussion about Arthur and Dutch, for example. These are great characters, with great arcs: Arthur burgeons into a hero as Dutch steadily slips into madness. Yet like much of the rest of this game, their arcs only come into focus in the game’s final 10 hours. By that point, the gang is all dead or disbanded, and the story has run itself into its final, agonizing moments. Such a strong conclusion makes the unwieldy bloat at game’s middle even more unforgivable.
Ultimately, I couldn’t help but feel like Red Dead Redemption II needed more time in the oven - which sounds absurd, given that it spent almost a decade in development. I can’t shake the sense, however, that this game was built around gaming structures and conventions that were outdated four years ago. Red Dead Redemption II feels old - and not in a good way. It feels like a PS3 classic, despite being for the current generation of consoles. Not only that, but some creative decisions (like having to individually loot every item in the world) end up feeling like a job rather than a game. I’m all about immersion - but when immersion comes at the cost of an enjoyable experience, the game has failed on an intrinsic level.
In the end, my final judgment of Red Dead Redemption II is not so much a critique of its content, but rather of whether this experience needed to be expressed as a game. When I ask myself: “Would this experience have been better in any other medium?” I have to conclude that Red Dead Redemption II might have been better as a book, or a television series. Its greatest attributes - the characters, the plot, the world - all could and would have come through just as well, if not better, on HBO. I love the story of Red Dead Redemption II, but feel that it was told by the wrong storyteller. As I said before, it’s a necessary game - even if only because it shows that a challenging path boldly taken does not necessarily not lead to greatness. As one of my favorite characters, Rains Fall, says late in the game: “Sometimes the correct path, the bravest path is the least obvious, and also the gentlest.”
It appears Rockstar would have done well to heed their own wisdom.
Sights & Sounds: 2+
General Effect: 1
A strong - but flawed - prequel to a legendary game. 8/10
You might like Red Dead Redemption II if you liked:
Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar Games)
Max Payne 3 (Rockstar Games)
Gone With the Wind (Film)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Film)
Apocalypse Now (Film)