I confess that Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption (RDR)is among the handful of games that I played during the PS3/60 era purely due to word-of-mouth, and what I experienced actually lived up to expectations. After Volition provided competition for Grand Theft Auto with Saint’s Row, Rockstar wisely began to pivot over time from extravagant satire to stories featuring fewer sociopaths as main characters (Trevor in GTAV indicates that there is still more work to do). RDR specifically appealed to me because despite extortion as the root source of John Marston’s quest, the underlying motive is that he is a family man. While the game accommodates its fair share of ridiculous characters, violence, and tawdry sex, what I remember most is the wholesomeness of Bonnie MacFarlane, Abagail Roberts-Marston, and John Marston himself, who declines propositions from wenches in burlesque houses by insisting that he is married. For characters such as these, I looked forward to how Rockstar would build upon this kind of narrative foundation in RDR2.
Before I get started, I would be remiss by failing to mention the controversy surrounding RDR2‘s development. When Rockstar VP Dan Houser said in an interview that “we” were working 100-hour weeks to create 300,000 animations, etc. among other numbers that came from the PR department, he did not include himself in that number, and a throng of articles on the topic of “crunch” in video game development spawned like flies on piles horse dung—to drop [lol] this apropos metaphor here because someone was tasked to animate that [insert specific swear here, but this is a Christian site]! For further reading on the subject, our very own Michael Mendis published an outstanding essay, “Why We Can’t Shake Crunch and How We Can Do Better” at Love Thy Nerd, that already does all of the necessary heavy lifting.
*The subtitle of this review is the name of a mission in RDR.
I am convinced that some of our readers will click on this review just to ogle at the catalog of grievances I have against RDR2. I will uphold my obligation to disclose content concerns, but I am also pleased to report that this game is mature in an urbane way rather than a juvenile one. As I mention in the introduction, Rockstar’s transitioning from satire makes room for complexity. Characters may not fall on their knees and repent, but they certainly perform an “about-face” in terms of the impetus for their actions. Furthermore, though RDR2 is a game concerning outlaws, they do follow a code where they steal from the rich and kill only those who would threaten their lives or the lives of others. When someone steps out of line from protocol, they are admonished.
RDR2 is set in the Wild West at the turn of the 20th century. Conspicuously-located revolvers on belt buckles are the standard fashion policy to be expected, and they have a tendency to leap out of their holsters into the hands of hot-heads with amazing speed. Pistols, rifles, shotguns, throwing knives, tomahawks, and dynamite encompass the majority of offensive options in RDR2. Blood from stab wounds or gunshots is common, but the game rarely encroaches upon the gratuitous as seen in DOOM or Mortal Kombat.
However, there are close-contact and Red Eye situations where a shotgun can be used to reduce a bandit’s head into cherry Jell-O. Additionally, there is one gang whose call sign consists of the macabre. Disembodied torsos, heads on pikes, and butchered horses appear near their territories or public locations for the purpose of terrorizing the locals.
Violence in RDR2 is not limited to the blood-n-guts; the same rival gang that enjoys placing the disemboweled on display keeps a female prisoner in their hideout, committing crimes with her so heinous that she may live her life in a permanent state of tears. NPCs frequently discuss the threat of lawless pillaging and plundering as motivation to wage micro-battles, but rape is rarely explicitly referenced; the usual euphemisms suffice. However, one of the main characters does threaten to help himself to the charms of another main character’s wife—they come to a consensus that this would only happen over his dead body, of course.
After her husband tragically dies, a woman turns to prostitution to support herself. The cause of her husband’s death is related to the main story. She then becomes a reoccurring character in side-missions.
The protagonist can pay a fee of ten cents to take a bath. All of the critical body parts are covered with soap as he bathes. For an extra nominal fee, he can hire a female assistant, who will scrub some hard-to-reach areas for some 19th century impropriety. These working ladies specialize in showcasing some prodigious cleavage.
Language and Crude Humor
In the first half of the game, male and female members of Dutch’s gang alike often engage in the recital of some lewd lyrics. Male or female, the singers tell stories about the ravishing of some lass’ maidenhead—sometimes their own.
During some side missions, twin brothers ask the protagonist to assist them in the performance of crazy acts such as taking a punch in the face without losing consciousness, or enduring a kick in the unmentionables without taking 1000 HP damage to a 100 health bar.
Of course, the standard M-rated language exists too, but because RDR2 is set in the late 19th/early 20th century, the number of f***s and s**ts are significantly less frequent than in a game like GTAV. In fact, the Lord’s name taken in vain is the most common swear.
If I want to see positive imagery of a church, all I have to do is watch a movie like Hidden Figures. If I want to see positive imagery of churches in video games, well, none readily come to mind. I can say with confidence that that I did not detect a single inkling of sarcasm in RDR2 in regards to Christianity. The key is how Rockstar deploys the faith to mobilize social justice. One priest compels the player-character to destroy a human trafficking operation using means that he as a man of cloth cannot. This priest is later found instructing waifs approaching adulthood how to read.
Racism and Bigotry
As with Mafia III, I am not ashamed to admit that I take great pleasure in unleashing some digital discipline upon digital avatars of hatred. The Lemoyne Raiders in particular are the RDR2 version of ex-Confederates who are still salty about their defeat. Rather than holding that L, they engage in the kind of behavior that earns them a bunch more. In Chapter 3 of RDR2, Dutch’s gang takes advantage of the rivalry between the Grays and Braithwaites, families that profited from slavery, by hiring themselves to sabotage the other. Combined with mediating between the progressive youths of the family, this section ends with one of the most satisfying setpieces in the game.
When a group of women decides to take to the streets in protest for suffrage rights, a group of
incels men accosts them, declaring that their place is in the kitchen. Two members of Dutch’s gang, an African American man named Lenny, and a Mexican named Javier, endure racial slurs and epithets. Oftentimes, the characters using them do not even identify their ethnicity correctly!
Drug and Alcohol Use
Only tobacco and alcohol manage to outnumber the presence of guns in the world of RDR2. The usage of tonics, smokes, and booze is s core game mechanic. I imagine it is almost impossible to play the game without putting them to use, as they impact statistics such as health, stamina, and Dead Eye meter.
During the winter of 1899, a heist in the town of Blackwater goes sideways, and the responsible party flees with its tail between its legs. The Dutch Van der Linde gang is in disarray as it evades the authorities. Most members are cold and hungry; others are wounded, dying, or completely unaccounted for. In a demonstration of his charisma and leadership, Dutch rallies the men and women to make camp, though the most rugged men are recruited to scout, hunt, look for supplies, and search for missing people. RDR fans aware that RDR2 is a prequel are rewarded with a John Marston cameo, as Javier Escuella and the player-character, Arthur Morgan, find him on a snowy and windy mountaintop, wounded.
RDR2‘s introduction lasts long enough to teach players all of the basics such as hunting in a way that reminds me of the “witcher sense” or the return of the Dead Eye slow-mo targeting mechanic. Players should become accustomed to the repetition of a heist followed by a camp relocation for the duration of the game, for “I have a plan” is Dutch’s signature phrase. He reassures his gang of outlaws that Promised Land of the Wild West is within their grasp if they only had more money, but with the looming threat of authorities in pursuit from that direction, they continue eastward. Yet more than imprisonment or the gallows, a theme of RDR2, concerns the encroachment of modernity upon individuals who desire to maintain the status quo.
I want to reiterate that the length of the introduction to RDR2 far exceeds that of every game I have ever played. One plays a “GTA clone” such as this with the anticipation of being able to play missions or explore the randomness of the sandbox arena. Those looking forward to freestyling will be required to wait; approximately ten gaming hours could pass before every activity in the game becomes available. Even the mere three hour-long (or so) introduction must be endured before one can acquire a horse. While RDR2 artificially strives for the feel of an open world game, its strict, heavy scripting is proof that it is still a sandbox game with rules. Failing to keep up with a group of riders on horseback, falling behind a train, or traveling too far away from combat missions while they are in progress will result in mission fails. Indubitably, these instances impede immersion.
RDR2 frequently stands undecided at the threshold between being a video game or some transcendent cinematic experience. The members of the Dutch Van der Linde gang exude character to such a degree that I could identify a signature characteristic about all 20+ gang members with the exception of Lenny, who only seems to exist to pad the number of minorities in the group. Players looking for maximum immersion will invest a considerable amount of time simply hanging around camp in between missions, listening to John and Abigail argue about their son Jack, Sean MacGuire make advances on Karen Jones, Susan Grimshaw scold Bill Williamson about his hygiene, Sadie Adler complain about Simon Pearson’s cooking, or Dutch and Hosea Matthews scheme. The camp is a thriving community given the number of characters who might be present at any given time, making RDR2 often feel like an episode of a western on TV.
Players will also spend time performing mundane chores at camp. While tasks such as feeding the horses hay, bringing water to the wash bin, or chopping wood for the campfire are necessary, I often felt that I was the only person doing this work, taking note of the other NPCs stuck in their “animation loops” without ever offering to help. Combined with the monotony of walking across the entire camp six up to nine times while performing chores like carrying sacks of provisions to the kitchen wagon, this is an example of an area where RDR2 is simultaneously too realistic yet too much of a video game grind to be fun.
The tension of ludonarrative dissonance is constant. Some may be familiar with “hardcore” modes in games like Fallout, requiring players to feed and rest their characters so that they do not suffer status ailments from hunger or exhaustion. The same is true here, though these mechanics are permanent rather than toggled in the options. If Arthur does not eat, he suffers HP penalties; exhausted, his stamina and Dead Eye atrophy. Even his horse requires upkeep lest it under-perform at times when it is imperative that she (my horse was a mare named Roach) be swift and robust. Luckily, one can maintain a veritable arsenal on his or her steed, the likes of which makes the Punisher’s signature battle van appear to have the capacity of a Yaris. Arthur’s (active) horse is a double-edged sword though, because should she be left behind somewhere, one might find themselves running on foot for thirty real-time minutes in the RDR2 landscape to retrieve her. Yes, it is as boring as it sounds, but that was a one-time event before I could find stables to “recall” her.
One problem that never goes away, though, is that horses run into trees. Yes, despite this being my one main grievance in Witcher 3 in 2015, and Eiji Aonuma, producer of The Legend of Zelda, taking pride in making sure that horses do not run into trees in Breath of the Wild in 2017, here is RDR2, a game released in 2018 with horses running into trees, getting me killed. Once, my Roach ran full-speed right over a cliff into a ravine! I was on a plain, and because of a wonky camera angle, I did not see the edge, but neither did my horse. Man, what???
I should expect a certain level of wonkiness in my sandbox games. Here is one example.
Speaking of boring, RDR2 suffers from an -itus of cinematography. There is indeed a “cinema mode” in this game, and it is one of its best features, providing fantastic camera angles and scenery of the sort where I, who usually cares not one iota about camera modes in games, found myself sorting through over 100 viable photos to use for this review. Nevertheless, the instances that I refer to when I say “an -itus” are frequent, long periods of time when I end up nodding off to the piddle-paddle of my horse’s hooves because no one is talking, and no music is playing. Or, perhaps someone is talking too much about an uninteresting topic, and they just sound like Charlie Brown’s schoolteacher. RDR2 lulling me to sleep could be considered a flattering for those who enjoy vast stretches of gorgeous scenery that is far more dense in fauna and flora than humanity. Still, I need more music than a single sequence of “Unshaken” while riding for miles on horseback. Quick travel unlocks at camp and cities with carriages, but they neither go to enough destinations nor is using those systems amusing.
Concerning the story missions, hats off to those who manage to never roll their eyes when Dutch says he has a plan, and the gang follows him unquestioningly until things do not just go sideways like during the Blackwater heist, but completely upside-down. Progression comes through the completion of these missions where, as I have mentioned before, the perimeters for success are strictly enforced. Gamers wanting to dive into the sandbox world that the game has to offer will find that activities such as hunting a moving goal post; perfect pelts must be found based upon the quality of animal, requiring players to track down an eligible specimen for upgrades for Arthur as individual and/or camp. I do not even want to get started on the dozens of other feats such as “kill three enemies with throwing knives in ten seconds,” or “bust someone during a poker game.” Completionists have their work cut out for them.
I die here because of laggy controls. Meh. Also, if this were an open world game instead of a scripted one, I might not have died, but would have had to swim to shore and climb the mountain back to my objective.
Particularly when I am trying to mind my own business, I encounter roadblocks set up by rival gangs. While I appreciate these random, scripted events because they enhance the feeling of discovery in the game, resisting being robbed or apprehended will result in death due to enemy accuracy. Dead Eye, the slow-motion targeting system that franchise fans wish they had more of at the end of RDR, returns, and is often necessary to live and fight another day. Bounty hunters, where Arthur is the target, also impede exploration if players have yet to pay any the fees for their crimes. Though bounty hunters can be evaded by paying attention to the mini-map, the authorities will send a platoon if players have been playing ruthlessly, which include dogs that are more aggressive than their human owners. While combat during missions is manageable where there is nothing my trusty Springfield rifle, pump-action shotgun, and dual revolver combo cannot address, random encounters rock me such that I became frustrated with the game’s difficulty. I rarely survived any random encounter ending in a gunfight. I am supposed to be a gunslinger, not a frequent funeral case!
With a list of grievances and back-handed compliments this long, why would our readers want to purchase and play a game like RDR2? In addition to the issues I have itemized, I remind our readers that this is also a prequel. Thus gamers know what will happen to more than a few of the Van der Linde gang based upon the events in RDR. Predictability, after all, is precisely what one does not want in a 50-hour game.
I have hinted at this, but will reiterate: the characters make RDR2 worth it. While Rockstar likely did not intend for anyone to cheer for the Pinkertons since they represent “The Man,” Lenny is merely “the black guy,” Bill may as well be an ancestor to Biff from Back to the Future, and the person who emerges as the foil to Arthur is unabashedly mustache-twirlingly evil, there are some good folks that gamers will want to acquaint themselves with here. Sadie Adler is a widow who sheds her mourning dress for trousers, and probably hides her “W” for Wonder Woman under her blouse. Charles Smith is also a bonafide hero who likely runs with the gang because he suffers the “misfortune” of being black and Native American in the late 19th century. Hosea is old school, a man before his time, for Prohibition-Era organized crime suits him well. Javier exudes quiet strength. Susan is no-nonsense. Author transitions from a yes-man to one who learns how to think for himself. Even Tilly Jackson appears to be an unassumingly frail thing until her dedicated mission where she demonstrates why she is not a burden to the Van der Linde gang, but an asset.
While I have dedicated more space describing what I find wrong with RDR2, I do not think it to be a bad game. On the contrary, it is a game sporting top-tier production value where certain qualities impede the game from being the best that it can be. I endured these flaws because RDR2 is fun…it just is not as fun as I expected considering the hype.
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Animated .gfs by SunhiLegend
The Bottom Line
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a high-budget AAA game whose production values sometimes supersede fun.