Rockstar Studios’ action-adventure epic from 2018 is a big one. The major AAA release of that year, with a huge open-world and all sorts of other guff. Yee-haw!
Red Dead Redemption II
Right, so this was an enormously ambitious effort from the studio responsible for the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series. And it was Rockstar’s first game since GTA V.
It’s certainly one of the most expensive video games ever, costing between $80-$100 million to develop.
But with a game as vast as this (100+ GB as a download), as packed out with complexities, and as sprawling as it is… just as well it turned out good, hombre.
So, yes, it’s a Western and all that. Set in 1899 across five invented US states, it follows the misadventures of the Van der Linde gang.
The big boss is the charismatic and violently optimistic Dutch (voiced by Benjamin Byron Davis).
There are many others in the gang, such as John Marston (the central character from the first game).
And Sadie Adler (Alex McKenna), a housewife-turned-outlaw-turned-bounty-hunter. She’s our favourite character of the lot.
But you star as Arthur Morgan (a terrific voice acting performance by Roger Clark). A lovable rogue with a tendency towards bad decisions.
Now, this is a prequel—it precedes the events of Red Dead Redemption by around a decade.
After a botched ferry heist in a city called Blackwater, the gang has gone into hiding.
It’s your job to, from rock bottom up, help get the gang back on track.
However, they quickly realise the outlaw way of things clashes badly with the emerging capitalist world. So, Dutch plans one last big heist to secure a fortune—and their futures.
What follows is an absolute slow burner. A game that revels in its sense of realism and develops the plot bit by bit. It is, to put it mildly, methodical.
Along the way, Red Dead Redemption II evokes the likes of There Will Be Blood—the remarkable 2008 film from Paul Thomas Anderson.
Plus, there are nods towards numerous Spaghetti Western Clint Eastwood films.
With everything combined, the result is an astonishing technical achievement. Plus, a narrative developed over 100+ hours. Heaping up the drama and backstabbing at every opportunity.
However, there’s a game here to play as well. That’s kind of the important bit. Is it an all-time classic?
For us, given Rockstar’s status and resources, we felt the title needed extra critique. Which is why there’s this long and rambling review.
For Rockstar and the AAA scene, Red Dead Redemption II is the culmination of over a decade’s worth of effort.
That is, major developers trying to make video games like interactive movies.
If you follow this blog you’ll know we typically champion indie games. Highly creative, you pick up and play. That’s it.
But after buying an Xbox One S recently (they’re super cheap, if you’re thinking of it—around £160/$180) for Ori and the Will of the Wisps, we’re trying out mainstream (AAA) blockbuster titles of recent years.
Red Dead Redemption II (or 2, if you will) is the biggest of the lot. It was the most hotly anticipated title since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2017.
And they’re similar in how they push the boundaries of gaming. Although notably different as gameplay experiences.
Red Dead Redemption II is like playing an interactive movie. There’s a vast amount of spoken dialogue, cutscenes, and main quests.
The movie-esque experience is what’s driven us away from AAA gaming over the last decade. We usually find it invasive and tedious.
However, when done right it can work well. And Red Dead Redemption II manages it with panache. Although it can still drag quite a bit.
Gamers and the press did make a lot of fuss about the game on its release, with lots of rave reviews claiming it’s an exemplary title. Game of the year, in fact.
Let’s just say it is to a very high standard. But there are issues we have with it.
As a plot-driven experience, it’s an absolute slow burner. We were getting a bit bored of it at points, but the writers were able to ramp things up with various advances consistently, with the final sections of the game becoming more engaging.
Although rather along the lines of Dances With Wolves. But it does provide Arthur Morgan with character development—an outlaw with a heart.
In gameplay terms, there’s a lot to revel in here. At its very best, it’s really quite magical and enthralling.
The game can be utterly thrilling—and regularly so. Not to mention beautiful. The staggering scale of the sprawling Wild West countryside is incredibly well done. Aesthetically, it’s a masterpiece.
Just riding around on horseback in a visual representation of 1899, taking in sunsets, was strangely poignant. It’s a fitting recreation of the end of the outlaw era.
Especially the trek to the emerging metropolis Saint Denis. That’s stunning—a vivid recreation of a bustling new world city.
Also, the soundtrack can hit incredible heights. It shifts between playful, mournful, and dramatic as it requires.
But for all of Red Dead Redemption II’s many brilliant points, it can also become frustrating as all hell.
The control system is often bizarre and unresponsive. And many of the intricate self-management options (such as eating, changing clothes, paying bounty fees) are pretty tedious.
When you make food in Breath of the Wild, for example, it’s a joyous experience. Here it’s boring, flat, and lifeless.
For the record, there are two main parts to the game:
- Free-roaming, where you can lark about between missions.
- Completing missions, which have pre-determined tasks to follow.
Now, there are a lot of the #2s. And many of them are linear.
There’s something rather hollow and redundant about following Rockstar’s on-screen button instructions to complete tasks.
Rockstar had the chance to make this game thanks to its enormous success with the GTA series. With the financial resources available, it’s crafted this intricate world.
Like the similarly ambitious Shenmue (1999) on the Dreamcast, human realism was clearly of utmost priority to the developer.
For Red Dead Redemption II, this comes at the cost of some trappings. Namely, the plodding nature of the game.
It’s fiddly and irritating, especially when you enter someone’s home. Morgan slows to a crawl and you must be very precise with your controls.
As a one-off that wouldn’t be an issue. But it happens constantly. And is really odd and cumbersome.
And then 10 minutes later you’ll be stuck into a quest where you’re robbing a bank in the backwater town of Valentine. A thrilling moment in the game, with incredible music.
Then it’ll be back to bumbling about like an idiot, colliding with trees.
That, incidentally, is a serious issue in Red Dead Redemption II. It’s done for realism purposes, but all of a sudden you can have a bone crunching accident.
And it can shock you. Especially if you’re riding through a forest and there’s a hidden rock or some such. The next thing you know it’s a hideous crash.
Most of them are amusing, though, and we had a laugh with it. So it’s not overly frustrating—unless you’re fleeing enemies.
Then it’s on with watching yet more elongated cutscenes, or getting killed again because the weapon system misbehaves.
It’s an odd stop-start experience at times. You can, for example, just ride around on horseback taking in the beautiful countryside. Such moments are mesmerising.
Yet its focus on exemplifying what we find pretty boring and tedious AAA tropes is more of a hindrance than a benefit.
Rockstar seemingly decided, “That’s what mainstream gamers like, that’s what’s popular, so ramp it up to 11.”
And as we mention, that comes across most in the missions—they’re weirdly linear. You get instructions, you do the tasks, there’ll be more instructions etc.
And if you fail, you get dumped back at the last checkpoint. Often to just repeat the same linear task to meet Rockstar’s in-game instruction checklist.
If you deviate slightly from what Rockstar wants you to do, then you must restart the mission. And keep doing so until the mission is done.
At times we just had to stop and question if we were enjoying ourselves or not.
In contrast, Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild dumps you into the world. And you’re left to go off and fend for yourself—so you just get on with it.
And it’s liberating, you can complete most situations you come across in a dozen or so ways. You’re encouraged to think and use your creativity.
Now, Rockstar was developing the Red Dead Redemption II at the same time as Nintendo was finalising its masterpiece. It wouldn’t have taken any inspiration from Breath of the Wild, it was too far into production.
And it shows. It’s quite difficult to return to many open-world games after Breath of the Wild, simply down to its wonderful ability to hand you total freedom.
Which means Red Dead Redemption II, despite coming a year after Nintendo’s epic, feels oddly old-fashioned with its gaming mechanics.
It really is just GTA in the Wild West. And, yes, you can go off on insanely psychotic rampages in the towns you come across. You can rob banks, trains, shops etc.
That’s all good fun at first, but there’s little variation with it. So the best bet is to get on with the main plot.
The rest of the time, we had more fun falling off our horse than rampaging through local communities. Silly Arthur.
So, the main focus of the game is that evocative story. The ways of the Wild West dying out.
The narrative is, on the whole, engaging. But some of the developments are contrived and ludicrous—like from a shlocky B-movie.
Although at its peak, some of the quests are hilarious. Our favourite is where Arthur heads into Valentine (a town you utterly terrorise to an amusing degree) with his friend Lenny.
They get increasingly drunk and bumble about, having fights with locals.
It’s fun. Something Rockstar seemed to forget about with some parts of the game. Presuming tedious intricacies make for a more engrossing experience.
The rest of the time, you’re advancing the often slow burner plot along. So patience is required here as at times the game doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
But it all develops with some impressive set pieces. Backstabbing. Deaths. Violence.
Rockstar should be commended for its efforts with this narrative. That is, at least, a step away from what it normally does.
The violence, however, isn’t. And it’s quite shocking violence. The developer’s push for realism means when you’re gunning down animals or humans—it’s disturbingly realistic at times.
When a game is intending to be as realistic as possible, it can cross the boundaries of escapism into outright unpleasantness.
And we can’t say we enjoyed some of those moments (kidnapping people, for example). But they’re there to exploit if you want.
Dead Conclusion II
We have odd feelings about the game. As fantastic as it often is, it’s also repetitious.
Rockstar was going for it—attempting to create the best game ever. And as remarkably ambitious as it is, it’s not close to that.
Although, in contrast to our opinion, many gaming publications handed out 10/10 masterpiece ratings. For us, it’s more an 8/10 type deal.
For the sake of balance, we can see why some gamers might think this is the best game ever. That it’s the peak of modern gaming and what it can achieve. An interactive movie.
One reviewer on Metacritic states the following—verbatim:
"You know if a game goes as far as detail to make you brew coffee via campfire before drinking it, or getting your weapons from a horse's satchel, or literally watching it's testicles shrink in cold weather, that this is game of the decade material."
For us, that highlights our issues with the game—little of what he (presumably a geezer) lists we found much fun.
Realistic? Yes. But having to manually select options to clean a gun every now and then and watch Arthur Morgan do it all. Over and over. Then brewing a coffee over a campfire by pressing some buttons to follow Rockstar’s checklist? Obviously, that didn’t do it for us.
Red Dead Redemption II is, of course, a great video game. It just fumbles with ideas—shifting from magical to moronic in a matter of minutes.
Its slow burner pace is a fine approach. But some elements of it are ridiculous and overly plodding.
For example, Morgan is forced into a walking pace when in his gang’s camp. We wasted an hour of game time with that, plodding slowly from one side of it to the other because there’s no run option. Why?
Full marks for ambition to Rockstar. But whilst playing, we were often trying to convince ourselves it’s special so we wouldn’t come across as contrarian for the sake of it.
And for us, it’s simultaneously exhilarating, enthralling, frustrating, boring, and lacklustre.
It represents why we don’t play many blockbuster AAA games, but why we should give a few more a go.
We’ll conclude with a final comparison to Breath of the Wild. The sense of freedom from that game—the unprecedented nature of what Nintendo aimed for.
It’s not a lifelike world, but the details are all there and intricate and joyous. Three years on and it’s going to remain our favourite game of all time for a long while.
Red Dead Redemption II often feels hollow in comparison, as Rockstar handholds you through much of the experience.
Still, there’s a lot to love in Red Dead Redemption II. But with the main quest now complete, what remains of the game is to go around terrorising local communities.
You rush in, break the law, get chased by some lawmen, then wait for your wanted rating to drop. Then head back into town and repeat.
Our point here is there’s quite limited variation to your experiences in the world, which is ultimately why we find it falls a little short of total brilliance.
Anyway, Rockstar should be working on Grand Theft Auto VI now. And Red Dead Redemption III is almost certain.
A third outing with Sadie Adler as the main character is more than welcome.
And then, with all its budget abilities, perhaps it’s time for the developer to innovate with its approach to gameplay.