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Red Dead Redemption 2

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: Take Two
Developer: Rockstar Games
Release Date: Oct. 26, 2018


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In-Depth Xbox One Review - 'Red Dead Redemption 2'

by Redmond Carolipio on Jan. 2, 2019 @ 5:00 a.m. PST

Red Dead Redemption 2 is an epic tale of life in America's unforgiving heartland, featuring a vast and atmospheric world that will also provide the foundation for a brand-new online multiplayer experience.

Buy Red Dead Redemption 2

Arthur Morgan is a dead man walking. That might sound like a careless spoiler, but anyone familiar with the Red Dead legacy (and judging by the sales numbers, many of you are) should know by now that all rarely ends well for the protagonists in Rockstar's visionary series into life during the zenith of the so-called Wild West. In western epics like this — and in other genres beyond — people rarely die having finished all of their business. It's among the harshest of realities, where the knowledge that they did "just enough" against forces often out of their control serves as the fire that warms their dying moments.

The threads of mortality and the fear of the "ending" of things subtly bound together my entire Red Dead Redemption 2 experience over dozens and dozens of hours. The game takes place before the events of the original Red Dead Redemption, near the closing moments of the outlaw era and the 19th century. If you're intimately familiar with the story of the original RDR, you'll recognize more than a few characters in this game who are destined to perish at the other end of John Marston's gun barrels, while being introduced to other people who carry varying specters of death around them. It's like the Western equivalent of "Rogue One," where you just know damn near everyone you see didn't make it.

The game's beginning reminded me of Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight," where you first meet the central characters in the middle of a suffocating deluge of snow in the mountains. This is where you first meet Dutch van der Linde, the magnetic and charismatic leader of a gang of outlaws. He's the sharpest point in a trident of outlaw leadership, along with the much older Hosea Matthews as well as Arthur Morgan, who gives off the impression as Dutch's bagman. He's the trusted hand of the outlaw king, in a way. Given the way everyone interacts with him as the game progresses, Arthur has been awesome at his job.

While I mention Tarantino, there are slight echoes of other Westerns to be found here. There are elements of the spaghetti western, complete with the twangy gunfighting music you'd hear in an Ennio Morricone classic to other elements that give off vibes of "True Grit" or "Tombstone." If it's chewable Western fantasy you seek in the vein of "Django Unchained" or "Magnificent Seven," you might not really find it in abundance. It's not that kind of game; RDR2 is a long ballad with branching versions, the slowest of slow burns for at least 50 hours if all you seek to do is blast through the story. I got the impression that playing it that way would be missing the artistic point the game might be trying to make: The Western it really wants to remind you of is "Westworld," where the player is given a world to ravish, sample, pillage and try to alter at his or her leisure — up to a point.

There aren't words big enough to describe the kind of design potential and quality of work that has been reached, unlocked and put on display here. Rockstar has created a world so rich with detail and teeming with evidence of meticulous craftsmanship that one can only wonder, even fear, the kind of superhuman effort it took to create it. It's a work of such technical excellence that it automatically triggers hot-take discussions on work-life balance for game designers, which you can find online if you like, but not in this review.

When you're not visually ingesting the wide-open country vistas as you gallop up hills and dirt paths, you can start out in places like run-down cattle towns such as Valentine, where you can walk into a saloon and play poker, pick a fight, grab something to eat, or even get a haircut for your fully customizable version of Arthur. I found myself planning out trips to Valentine in between missions to make it to the barber so I could maintain my Arthur's low-key "Stone Cold" Steve Austin look. On the other end of the spectrum was the city of Saint Denis (I think of it as an offshoot of early, early New Orleans), which is a visual representation of the century's turn, with my horse's hooves clacking on the city's stone streets as I made my way to the upscale saloon, the doctor or even an art gallery. You'll also see industrial towns, Native American tribal villages, mountain passes, ferries, and abandoned forts.

You can burn an entire day tracking down bounties for towns and cities' local law enforcement, with each bounty being a small mini-story unto itself. One bounty that stands out is tracking down a lady who enjoys seducing and then killing men after they've done her bidding. Before she plunged a knife into Arthur's chest, I managed to lasso and hogtie her (you can do that to people), stow her on my house and bring her to justice, all while she feigned everything from pure innocence to mental illness. A much easier bounty was the leader of a gang of disgraced racist soldiers (or wanna-be soldiers) called the Lemoyne Raiders who forgot the Civil War ended decades ago. He was wanted "dead or alive" from the authorities in Saint Denis. Easy choice. Arthur dumped his carcass behind the Saint Denis jail, collected his $100 and bought some clothes with it.

However, I also found choice to be a bit of an illusion for Arthur. In terms of character ownership, I found Arthur to be similar to Henry of Skalitz from "Kingdom Come: Deliverance." In that game, you were able to completely shape Henry into the exact person you wanted him to be, as long as you maintained him. Yes, you could control how he looked, but you also had to remember to have him sleep, eat and bathe, so people didn't react negatively to him being dirty or bloody. You could also control whether he could be a complete asshole. It was an intricate, fascinating way to become connected to a character, and there was almost always an "honorable" way for him to do things.

For Arthur, there's a meter that measures "honor" that appears at the bottom of the screen when you hit "down" on the directional pad. If you do unscrupulous things, like steal from the blind or choke out a bar patron or shoot a dog, that naturally takes down your honor, and what's worse, people will treat you like the raging douchebag you are. You'll get comments along the lines of, "We remember what you did," or "There's no place for YOUR kind around here," if your meter stretches into the red. If you're an honorable type, like the kind who gives medicine to a snakebite victim or gives someone a ride home on horseback, people will say nice things to you or even give you discounts at the store. Sometimes, a person I helped would end up sitting on the bench outside of the gun store or the general store and reward me with the ability to buy whatever item I wanted and have the store put it on their tab. Thanks for the free volcanic pistol, friend!

However, your goodwill can only extend so far, as RDR2 harshly reminds you that Arthur is not a good dude, or at the very least, must do dirty business. This first became evident during one of the story missions, when a gang member — a German bookkeeper known as Herr Strauss — dispatches Arthur on a debt-collecting mission, with the green light to smack around anyone who isn't keen on paying up. The first person I had to collect from was a Polish immigrant who literally had to give me the valuables in his home to pay up after getting some hands from Arthur. That made me feel dirty. Then I had to collect from a kind, God-fearing man with tuberculosis, and then later his family after he died from the sickness. Horrible business, indeed.

I bring up these actions, as well as the potential for you to turn Arthur into a marauding barbarian, because I got the sense the game wanted to force a sense of balance. For instance, there are key story missions that involve Arthur risking his life to help people, especially oppressed Native Americans. During my initial playthrough, the narrative seemed to click because I played Arthur to the tune of "honorable badass with a code." If someone were to play Arthur as a rule-breaking, people-robbing, lawmen-killing destroyer, would it seem to make narrative sense to have him come across as concerned about the plight of oppressed tribes? I understand there are complicated people in any world, but that can be a stretch, and therefore distracting for players like me, who are drawn to character.

One of the most prominent wrinkles of Rockstar's game-making is their designers' gift for narrative and dialogue as a way to give the player clear windows into the souls of their characters. I found many of them to be predictable in RDR2, but well-written as to be believable. Besides, I don't think trying to fool anyone was the point. The story is less about twists and surprises and more about the inevitable end of an era, of Dutch's grand plans, and Arthur as the last outlaw knight trying to make sense of it all. I enjoy all of the face time for Dutch van der Linde, as the constant but flickering scion of hope and leadership for his gang who is slowly seeing the walls closing in as the law and evolution of society draw nearer. Arthur mostly comes across as the even-handed conscience of the group, respected by all. But I enjoyed how other, newer characters in the gang shone through. There's the Iago-like Micah, a cockroach of a man who'd make viewers scream at the TV for Dutch or Arthur to just kill him. There's the perpetually annoying useless drunk named Uncle, the wise and balanced sage Hosea, and the fascinating Charles Smith, half-black and half-Native American. My favorite side character of the gang is Sadie Adler, a grieving widow the gang rescues from her burning home at the start of the game and eventually becomes the one of the game's most lethal gunslingers. I personally thought there wasn't enough of her.

There are a couple of more names you might know: Bill Williamson, seen as the dumb muscle of the group and whom veteran RDR players will remember as the one who famously mocked someone's use of the word "implore." That someone was John Marston, one of the gang's key members here and the future protagonist of the original Red Dead Redemption. His progression from being perceived as just another guy in the van der Linde gang to a capable, gunslinging family man who becomes closer buddies with Arthur near the end of the story added a unique energy to the story.

With all this heaviness, Rockstar maintains its tradition of adding odd dashes of humor within its characters and some of its missions. One story mission consisted of Arthur going on a bender with Lenny, one of the group's younger members (and one of its few black ones). As the night progressed, the letters for on-screen command options during conversations got scrambled. There's also an exiled French artist in Saint Denis who eventually convinces Arthur to come to his art gallery show, only for it to end with Arthur punching people. This was my key to the full RDR2 experience: The more you choose to immerse yourself in the game's world, the more you get to encounter.

Some of what you and Arthur encounter is truly epic and weird. I stumbled upon an initiation ceremony for the Ku Klux Klan and promptly ended it by tossing dynamite at those gathered. I tracked down famous gunslingers for an author's book. I helped a cross-dressing animal wrangler track down his missing animals: a painted donkey posing as a zebra, a dog dressed as a lion … and an actual lion. I once rescued a grown man dressed as a child sailor from a makeshift prison in the basement of a gun store because the gun store owner was traumatized from the loss of his child years ago and clearly never got over it. I bought ammo from him the next day, with him saying, "The last time you were here, it was bad enough."

I once brought an injured man to the doctor in Saint Denis and witnessed him amputate the man's arm (slowly, with a saw) and then toss the poor bastard's arm in a nearby can, watching it land with a wiggle. While wandering around Saint Denis weeks later, I saw that same man, sans arm, get publicly hanged for crimes. That's just a rare and ridiculous example of intricacy that shows the kind of thought that went into building this world.

And yet, I think what the game suffers from the most is probably a bit of schematic over-thinking, at least when it comes to the controls for Arthur. The RDR2 controls demand a sense of constant vigilance and awareness that other games don't typically require. One of the aspects I had the most trouble with was the need to pull the L2 trigger to bring up a list of possible interactions with any person or being I got close to, one of them being R2 to actually draw my weapon and point it (but not fire). Every button has a purpose when you pull L2, but it can lead to some awkward exchanges and some tragic brain locks, which has led people to accidentally shoot dogs they're trying to pet, smack horses they are trying to brush, or give a beggar some hot lead instead of money. I also didn't find a fast, efficient way to manage my weapons of choice during gunfights without having to constantly go back to my weapon wheel and make sure I had the right stuff in hand.

On the one hand, this control system asks you to weigh every action you're about to take, but that doesn't help much when you get ambushed and have to fight your way out. Its expansive nature also does its part in opening up your interaction with the world. There are separate control schemes for everything you can do, such as hunting, where you can click the thumbsticks to activate an ability to track down animals. There are also defined controls for cooking, fishing, poker, setting up camp and some old-fashioned (albeit clunky) fisticuffs, complete with parrying, grappling and the chance to hurl someone through a saloon window. Some of this gets a little extraneous, as you'll sometimes mash buttons to build fences, hammer nails, or do other tedious work.

Stuff like that is sprinkled into what I found to be a solid collection of central story missions that broaden in scope and impact the characters and the world at large. The van der Linde gang starts out by simply trying to evade the law and eventually finds itself embroiled in familial blood feuds, an adventure on a remote island, tribal disputes over land and rights, and coming apart from within. I found the inter-family feud series the most compelling because it's the best example of a tried-and-true storytelling device that reminds you that no matter what you think of Dutch and the gang, there are worse people out there. Sometimes, a gang of outlaws is necessary. At the start of the storyline, Dutch mocks the area where these feuding families are, saying, "We have encountered a land so stupid, a backwater, so backwards, that even we are like geniuses." It's true; these people are idiots — but they are truly awful idiots, written to the point that when their time comes, you find yourself rooting a little bit for Dutch's fiery rhetoric.

In search of John Marston's kidnapped son, the gang unleashes an assault on the home of the bitter, twisted old matriarch of an inbred family who used to sell slaves. She's the one who took the kid and sent him someplace else, so as her mansion burns around her and the floor is decorated with the bodies of her small army of sons, you can't help but feel a twinge of satisfaction as Dutch drags the old lady outside and leaves her to weep in front of the flames. It's a bittersweet time for Arthur because it's the last time everyone in the gang is on the same page.

Even though the game's been out for quite some time, its sheer size has me gun-shy about exposing more of the story. It's meant to be experienced in its entirety, and as I mentioned before, I get the sense that you're supposed to get a sense of what's coming before Arthur does. There's a historical undercurrent to all this fiction. You know what happened to the outlaws and the Native Americans and this period in time.

Is it too much? There's a lot of meat packed into RDR2, and I've already heard many people mention that it might be simply too much game for them to enjoy. I can't really fault them for that. It's not the quicker and friendlier experience of something like, say, Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, God of War or Marvel's Spider-Man. You can't really get fast travel in the game until you upgrade Arthur's tent in the gang's camp, and even then, it takes you to general areas and not pinpoint spots like other games. You'll do a lot of riding and moseying and staring out into the vast landscape, and even though it's lovely to see through "cinematic" view (press the speaker button in the middle of the PS4 controller), it takes time. Robbing stagecoaches or trains at will can only be so much of a distraction, unless you choose to do it with friends.

That's where the vast potential of Red Dead Online comes in. I saw it as a slightly stripped-down, online version of the game world I was just in, where I can take part in a variety of missions and tasks with a number of people — even get the chance to "posse up" with strangers who hopefully, understood the meaning of working together. There's the typical deathmatch stuff along with horse races (neither of which I found appealing), but I was most interested in taking part in missions, like raids on camps, stealing things or hunting down a target. There's a certain oomph when you're chasing down someone with a group of sensible folks, which I found few and far between during my online dabbling.

You begin your online RDR life by creating and customizing a character, and I had a hard time finding a face I wanted to use, either male or female because … man, without some serious editing and adjusting on my part, the faces I saw were flat-out ugly. The faces weren't ugly in a distinguished and possibly cool way; they look like nuclear accidents. I'm not saying I need Idris Elba or Gal Gadot faces, but nobody in the story mode of the game looks like these people at all. I did, however, enjoy not having to head to the store to buy stuff. Instead, I could use cash or acquired gold to buy things from a handy catalog, which can make the prospect of spending time to upgrade my individual camp much more appetizing. The online component is far from the reason you should dive into the game. I still found myself flipping over to the much richer story mode and trying to unlock more random pieces of narrative.

This was a tale of two (or really, one-and-a-half story playthroughs) for me. During the first one, I was like many people and wanted to mash through the story and reach its end, and it was a truly satisfying experience, aside from what I thought was a really soft ending. Then I jumped in again, this time looking to interact with every possible encounter, using as little fast-travel as possible. That's when I ran into most of the crazy side-stories I mentioned above. That's when Arthur really got to know many of the people in camp instead of just riding with them on designated story missions. I've gone from waiting for it to end to sort of gearing myself up for the end when I see it the next time. We know what happens to Arthur Morgan at the end, but there's a moment during that end where he gets to see a pretty sunset, and the game lets you take a long look. He's dying, but that long look ends up being just enough.

Score: 9.3/10

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