Live like an Outlaw, Die Like an Outlaw, in Rockstar’s latest
Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Death lives in Red Dead Redemption 2, a prequel to a 2010 Spaghetti Western–inspired opus. By the end of the new game’s countless stagecoach stickups, bank heists and massive gunfights, you might feel as if you’ve murdered half the population west of the Mississippi.
The game is set in 1899, 12 years before Red Dead Redemption, where you played as John Marston, a former outlaw hired by Pinkerton detectives to track down and eradicate the remnants of his old gang in exchange for his amnesty. In Red Dead 2 the focus is on that very gang—the Dutch van der Linde Gang—more in its heyday but still feeling the harbingers of progress that will doom the lawless lifestyle of the Old West. This time you assume the role of Arthur Morgan, Dutch van der Linde’s loyal right-hand man, while Marston appears again as a supporting player.
Very much a thematic companion piece to the original, this chapter depicts the slow decay of the idealistic, vengeful Dutch and his myriad of followers under constant pressure from government agents, rival gangs and other burdens of civilization. The plot is episodic in nature, as the gang gets caught up in all sorts of mini-dramas, like a Montague and Capulet–style feud in aristocratic Louisiana, while moving from place to place to evade the law.
Rockstar, known for creating sprawling, open virtual worlds, has made its most lived-in, captivating one yet. From the Grizzlies (Rocky Mountain stand-ins) to Valentine (a Dodge City–like cattle town) to Saint Denis (a raucous New Orleans stand-in) you ride your horse into the mythic West, living a cowboy dream without consequence. What more can you ask of escapist entertainment?
Attention to detail is what separates Rockstar’s 64-hour behemoth from its open-world imitators. You don’t grind away at side tasks just to improve a character statistic or reach some meaninglessly adorned benchmark. You fish, race horses and play poker simply because they’re fun, even if they have no bearing on the game’s main story. Sure, it’s a great thrill to steal a horse and evade a posse, but one can just as easily spend hours taking in the quiet pleasures of a campfire or, stranger still, browse the aisles of a general store. Epic as it is, the game’s greatest pleasures are often unearthed in the most unusual and miniscule nooks.
That isn’t to say Red Dead 2 is perfect. The rigid structure of the game’s main story, in which you and the gang carry out various missions from a series of camp hideouts, restricts it from venturing through major dramatic upheavals. In spite of whatever chaos, conflict and carnage occurs within a mission, you simply canter back into camp at mission’s end without disruption or repercussion. There’s a certain safety baked into this formula. At the end of the day you always know the cattle drive will still be there for the next episode of Rawhide.
At one point, for instance, you are captured and tortured by a rival gang leader in a twist that threatens to turn the game world upside down. Instead, within minutes of playtime, you’ve returned to camp, ready for another mission with all major traumas suddenly evaporated. Too often character behaviors and plot events occur singularly instead of within a larger continuum. The result is a story with no rhythm or momentum, so that when major events do occur, like a bank robbery gone wrong that splinters the gang, they feel inorganic and lack the proper emotional heft they deserve.
Plot grievances aside, Rockstar has given birth to a new kind of big-budget epic here with Red Dead Redemption 2, reminding us that there’s still plenty of innovation to be found in open-world games, and that a great gunslinger knows never to rest on his laurels.