I usually begin these reviews by clumsily burying the lede and attempting to provide some sort of context because I think it’s important. We live in a world of franchises, and while the occasional standalone masterpiece like “Return of the Obra Dinn” will pop up now and again, even it comes attached with loads of baggage. “Obra Dinn” was a “Lucas Pope game,” a personal brand that is rapidly becoming a complex and budding franchise of its own sort. Rarely, if ever, can you fully extrapolate a piece of art from the context that surrounds it. And if you do end up tearing your eyes out to do so, you’ll almost inevitably end up coming back to it.
But I don’t know where to begin with “Red Dead Redemption 2.” I feel like we almost have to rewrite the book on this one.
To go from “Grand Theft Auto V” to this is not a transition just any studio could’ve made. Heck, even going from “Red Dead Redemption 1” to this is a stretch, though at least that game had some more oppressive themes. Still. A Rockstar-developed game where criminal activity is actively encouraged and the best course of action is often to role-play like you are actually in a society of living, breathing people — that was not expected.
As the studio that created the genre of open-world playgrounds, I don’t remotely understand why Rockstar would’ve wanted to make this restrictive, serious response to nearly everything they’ve made before. Someone in a boardroom somewhere must’ve convinced someone else that this approach would make them more money than ever. I have no idea how they did that, but I’d love to hear the pitch.
Open-world games, Rockstar games in particular, have always had trouble putting a coherent narrative together because they try to cram linear narratives into games with mechanics which support screwing around, killing everything and causing explosions. Some games, like Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” have addressed this problem by keeping their linear stories light and freeform, instead relying on complex systems of mechanics to generate interesting and adventurous stories for the player.
“Red Dead Redemption 2” asks what would happen if you flipped that script: Make an open world, make all the mechanics for procedural, systems-based storytelling, show them to the player, and then every time the player tries to use them, punish the player and force them back down a small series of branching paths.
Compared to their earlier games, “Red Dead Redemption 2” feels like a visual novel, more of a simulation of what life as a highwayman in late-19th century America may have been like than an arcade machine for the player’s amusement. This can be frustrating, and indeed the game is not nearly as accessible, or even really as fun, as any of Rockstar’s previous titles. For a story-heavy game, the plot’s pace is agonizingly slow. If you do decide to play this game, you’re going to spend around a fifth of the game’s 60-hour playtime riding passively on horseback and listening to the characters talk to one another. And the game’s plot doesn’t really pick up until about 10 hours in, so if you’re hoping for a quick start you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
You reserve the right to disinterest. And given the way Rockstar management worked its scriptwriters in the lead-up to this game’s release — forcing them to work 100-hour weeks checking and rechecking everything — you’d be justified in ignoring the game on moral grounds as well. Work standards like that are deplorable, and with them running their scriptwriters into the ground like that, it’s a miracle this came out in any form at all.
All that said, if you stick with it, there is a light at the end of the “Red Dead” tunnel. This is the first Rockstar game where people matter. Where lives matter. Where the crimes you commit and the homes you ruin are not simply erased every time you respawn. Where groups like women and African-Americans are examined and treated with respect.
Some at Rockstar must’ve taken a look at the setting they were working with and realized just how oppressive and difficult a time it truly was. So the story was changed to focus on the minorities who were oppressed the most, and the mechanics were changed to make freedom something you have to earn — not something that is given to you.
If you get off your horse and forget to explicitly grab your guns from the horse’s satchel, you will not have your guns. You can wander into missions with next to no weapons if you are incompetent. They could’ve just warped all your weapons on to your person every time you got off your horse, but the dev team deliberately chose to let you forget them. That was huge for me.
There are plenty of minute ways this game could’ve done better in its execution. An oppressive atmosphere does not require so much of a slow, boring and restrictive start as “Red Dead Redemption 2” has. I sincerely hope the success of this game marks the start of some sort of “Red Dead Revolution” for Rockstar because going back to “Grand Theft Auto’s" cynical, bigoted humor would be a sad thing to see.
Final Grade: B+
Marty Forbeck is a video games columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.