Red Dead Redemption 2 Simply Astounds
Warning: Contains mild spoilers
Coming out under horrifying working conditions with 100 hour work weeks, the end result of Red Dead Redemption 2‘s production was surprisingly well done. In fact, I found it hard not to play and put in an even longer playing week just recently. The game is immense and well done overall.
We follow the deep and immersive story of Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van der Linde gang – a founding member as we are told as it once was just Dutch, Hosea (the “odd couple”), and Arthur Morgan as a young boy. Through his story we learn more about the histories of John Marston and Dutch Van der Linde himself as both are major characters in this game as well. While set in a world of backwards prejudice, especially once you head down south, the Van der Linde gang is multiethnic and tolerant compared to the society around them. Dutch is hateful toward the Southerners due to his father’s death on the Union side in the Civil War and Arthur Morgan does his part at times to protect against white supremacy and refers to Ku Klux Klan members as “hooded rats.”
In fact, in an adept sense of morality, killing Ku Klux Klan members doesn’t reduce your honor like killing non-criminals – you lose it even from killing agitated passerbys who fire at you first, but not from killing the Klan. One band of outlaws you fight in the South are a group of Neo-Confederates called the LeMoyne Raiders. Then, at one point you will likely come across an out of work slave catcher who laments the fall of his industry – while sobbing there in front of you, it is understandable for you to think it’s worth the loss in honor to kill him; if you choose to do so you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that you gain honor rather than lose it.
It’s certainly a progressive critique on the modern era to be honest. While despising the Klan, they also make light of it as all of its members are comically inept. Sadly, the Klan is not something to make light of and it inadvertently serves to mask the dangers of hateful fools. Clippings in the newspapers speak of a bumbling President sending troops to the Mexican border and it offers a strong critique of capitalism where the commons are depleted and the strong force their will on the weak, to paraphrase Dutch. However, it offers no solution to this issue – whereas the Assassin’s Creed series has a more socialist/anarchist bent.
Yet, the beauty of the game isn’t in the story, but rather in the random events and attentions to detail that exist outside of that main story. It truly feels like Westworld: The Game in that respect.
It’s not about giving the guests what you think they want. No that’s simple. The titillation, horror, elation—they’re parlor tricks. The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before… something they’ve fallen in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be. – Robert Ford, Westworld
Certainly, I found that sense in this game several times. The first was with a robbery I walked into at Catfish Jackson’s, where we see a drunken father smacking around his child, clear abuse. As I noticed this I came around the corner to stand up for the child – though he clearly was startled by it and took his father’s demand to hide in his room. I ended up killing the father, and he was terrified – oops – and so I went to looting, taking everything I could from the home. I even saw a letter from his mother that – after replaying it several times – I realized the father was hiding it from him – though I did manage to do it once in a way that I at least was able to tell him that his father was hiding letters from his mother. Yes, I redid it several times because that first time I went in his room and started looting, I grabbed a cigarette card and he cried his mother left them to him – I immediately wanted to put it back, but I already input to grab the second to which he begged I leave him just one. I could not put it back.
The thing that is so offensive about the NPC memes going around is the level of dehumanization involved – NPCs do not matter, they’re not real, they’re only there for you, the player. Back in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City I often resolved boredom by going “clubbing on the beach.” By that I meant I would run to the beach with a bat and beat people to death and loot them until I got a one star wanted rating and ran away – they’re fake so it’s no issue. However, Nate – that child – whether it was the writing or voice acting extracted genuine empathy from me. He was real to me. I fell in love with the game there. Unfortunately, I never found the happy ending for Nate where I could tell him about the letter without killing his father (you need to find the letter before they find you for that).
Of course there are other little things hidden across the map, from a real – well not quite live – Manbearpig à la South Park to an obscure reference to the Heaven’s Gate cult at Ham’s Bethel. In a room full of bunk beds, the group of cultists killed themselves with poison in March 1997 all wearing matching Nike jumpsuits and shoes. Their belief was that their souls would be beamed up into a spaceship trailing comet Hale-Bopp – which is pretty much the story at Ham’s Bethel despite me not being able to find a single person who got the reference when even searching for it. Though, woe to them, it marks the 2000th year: 2000, to be when the ship returned, not 1997. Four comets passed us in that year – so they jumped the gun a bit. In fact, we can tell this cult leader was legit due to the appearance of a flying craft shining green light in the early morning of a half moon if you enter the shack at that time – it quickly flies away if you exit the building.
The number of small events like this are numerous. You have a witch’s altar hiding out there and the body of a freed slave planning to escape lynching – apparently unsuccessfully – to Canada. In fact, while there is all this hubbub of missing gold between the Braithwaite’s and Grays, there is a chest on an island north of St Denis containing a letter which seems to limit the story to one of two things happening to all that gold.
There is a second place, which you should be able to find, where you can find a flying saucer of some sort out there – which is kind of sad since it was famously a cigar-shaped craft people reported seeing in the skies only a few years before. I’ve heard odd humming in the very Northeast of the map at night and then later down by Van Horn which may be another. I’ve also found oddly painted trees, the first pointing to the second with what appears to be an attempt to draw the same arrow, only with it being incomplete with a bunch of blood.
That many have completed the game (I decided to restart in Chapter 6 myself) and players collectively haven’t found all the secrets yet tells you about the depth of this game.
However, be careful about listening to the “experts” too closely. IGN will tell you that legendary animals don’t simply appear – you need to track them first. However, I can say that I first hunted the legendary ram by clumsily hunting by horseback with my bow and arrow and was shocked to find I had killed a legendary animal. I hadn’t found a trapper yet and originally thought it decayed at some point when it disappeared from camp. Luckily, it actually turns out it goes straight to the trapper once you die (sans pay). You must find the first clue before you find the second from what I’ve seen, and finding the third seems to force the legendary animal nearby, but you might just happen upon it randomly.
Now, the game still has its glitches – though they are generally humorous when they play out. For example, I went hunting buffalo, in search of a perfect pelt – and those buffalo don’t seem to stick around too much. Well, I must have caught two while spawning – I shot one at a distance and sought out the corpse to find two – as I approached the one closest to me I was startled by a sudden volcano of dead buffalo spawning from the ground. None were harvestable, but I probably should have noted the time as that’s probably when the buffalo show up there – perhaps spawning at that moment.
Then, I was treated to another fun glitch after coming across a train robbery – I believe it was the LeMoyne Raiders robbing the train and I caught them at the end – killed them, looted them, then took their wagon full of whatever else they looted, then I got stuck in a hole in the fence. Well, you can see how the game decided to rectify that below.
There are some control issues – such as how easy it is to tackle someone in St Denis instead of running to mount your horse or how switching to my rifle that I like to store on the bottom of my weapon wheel, rather than the left, will sometimes make me accidentally camp if I was just using the binoculars.
Then, there is – of course the age old issue of police in Rockstar games. I get shot at, and unless it’s also shooting right past the cop they will do nothing about it – but you bump the Sheriff by accident and he’ll quickly round up a posse to hunt you down. The cops are hyperaggressive and make actual cops who often escalate problems in real life seem professional.
Oh, then there was that time I lost a horse to a fast travel cut scene.
All-in-all, it is amazing, and I cannot wait for another Red Dead whether it follows Van der Linde back in time – perhaps to when the gang first formed – or if we get something different than Redemption (remember, the first in the series was Red Dead Revolver, not Redemption). In the decade or so it will take, we will have a much more expansive map with many more secrets to find.
Yet, there are some things that would have been nice. Since we have never seen Arthur before, and possibly will never see again, it would be nice to have some more options with designing him. Perhaps we could choose a different face, hair color, or even pick a different race or gender – they could have had the same basic story with a few tweaks in dialogue, especially if there isn’t a Red Dead Redemption 3 featuring a younger Arthur, there would have been no loose ends to tie up with that – and it would give some more customization for players.
Now, this game does already take that to a new level for games like this, with growing hair and styling of facial hair – I prefer a goatee look with a handlebar mustache and despise that mission when you have to shave it all off. While Rockstar is certainly not behind the curve on this, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been better or that future games might not benefit from the idea (ahem – Bully 2).
There is also the issue of a sudden regressiveness. Back in Grand Theft Auto you could very readily bed a prostitute – it was part of the raunch that we all grew to love about the brand – its sense of reality and naturalness. However, Arthur Morgan may come across many prostitutes, but when they proposition him he is left only with the options to politely decline or reject them outright. What happened to the raunch? Is Arthur Morgan too noble to enjoy casual sex or have we had a misogynistic whorephobia come about in Rockstar?
With all the being on the run, you also lack the ability to build anything of permanence – you can upgrade the camp a bit, but you cannot build anything of permanence. Arthur doesn’t get much of a legacy, especially as he lies about who he is and conspires to rewrite events as have been lacking his appearance. Perhaps it would be better for a future game, but if you could build your own homestead and decorate it with your memorabilia – a bit of customization (while Assassin’s Creed games typically allows upgrading a home a bit, they’re bound to merely one way of upgrading due to it being a set event in the past – Red Dead isn’t reliving someone’s memories and so could give you much more customization.
However, despite where the game could be improved, that doesn’t in any way reduce the majesty of what it accomplished. Anything can be improved. To create a game as open-ended as this with storylines you get to just happen upon is a great accomplishment. If you tire of doing one thing there is plenty more you can head off to do at any given time and very little is mandatory (and if you can’t get past part of the mandatory main story missions, you can skip that checkpoint – I could have used that chasing the train in GTA4 where I just got stuck. Of course, I got stuck even earlier in GTA5 where I could not figure out the correct place to turn on the prologue and had to give up without having the ability to freely roam at all. Red Dead Redemption 2, by contrast, is much more manageable.
I’m already ready for another installment – perhaps following a young Dutch or Hosea – perhaps some now unknown big gun from Arthur’s youth, or perhaps even Susan Grimshaw seems like she has some real story behind her as well – I can see her as an active member of the gang in her youth. I crave an even larger map to explore for these events, perhaps have entire storylines unlocked by handling the random events in the same way, but with the large download size with Rockstar’s largest map ever, I don’t expect that better can be done realistically until we get more advanced systems to play upon.
Overall, this may be the greatest game yet created – possibly outranking my love for Romance of the the Three Kingdoms XIII.
All images and video taken from in game play. Fair Use.
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