Alright, let’s get this bit out of the way – I’ll preface this by saying that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a very, very good game, as you would expect, and as you’ve likely heard by now. Open up the metaphorical pages (or real, if you’re old school and still read magazines for some reason) of any gaming outlet and you’ll see, for the most part, liquid praise gushing out of each and every metaphorical orifice, which are hopefully not real for you in any capacity whatsoever. For good reason – it’s a good game. I know I’ve said that already, but you have to be careful going into criticising anything universally applauded. So, it’s a good game. Seriously, it is. I’d even go so far as to recommend that you buy it and play it, because, despite the numerous flaws in gameplay and storytelling (in my opinion) that I’m about to go into, it’s a solid Western-themed open world romp.
With that being said, here’s your second warning – since the following words are going to be going in depth into said problems, that means that I’m going to be heavily discussing the story from it’s middle act to it’s conclusion. If you haven’t finished the game yet, and you want to be surprised by what happens to Arthur, Dutch, and the rest of the crew, then, stop reading. Seriously.
Alright, we’re off.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, as made by the ever-famous Rockstar Games, you play as world-weary fellow Arthur Morgan, a member of a gang of outlaws headed by the charismatic and manipulative Dutch Van Der Linde. Through snippets of dialogue peppered through the game, you’ll learn that they were once a prosperous and chivalrous sort, robbing the rich to feed the poor, more Robin Hood than Billy the Kid.
This was in the past, though. The game opens to the gang in a sorry state – after a botched heist in Blackwater, Dutch, Arthur, and the rest of the crew are scurrying through snowy mountains, with the law in pursuit not far behind them.
I don’t want to dwell too much on this part of the story, because it’s decent enough. So, to quickly summarise, after spending a few tutorial filled hours up in the mountain, the gang head south to warmer pastures, where the games vast open world opens up to your whims. That’s four whole states out of five (the fifth doesn’t open until the bulk of the game is done) where you can have a whole bunch of rootin’ tootin’ adventures and get into a whole mess of trouble, whether you’re doing story missions, side quests, or just plain ol’ horsing around.
Things seem hopeful at first, even if Dutch is constantly being vague as to what their ultimate escape plan actually is. The game then bangs on through it’s next two chapters for about forty hours, give or take, where you progress from mission to mission with a plucky and well defined cast of characters that are, honestly, well written and enjoyable. It’s a good job, because the missions themselves would be a slog otherwise – it’s all ride here and ride there, shoot this load of people, kill this animal, punch these blokes. The character of the game comes entirely from it’s writing and the lush scenery that surrounds it, not from it’s somewhat rote gameplay.
A mission that particularly exemplifies this is one that takes place in the late game, where you have to ride a hot air balloon to look for ol’ John Marston from the last game, who’s been put in the slammer after yet another botched heist. If you’ve played this mission, pretend you haven’t – and if you haven’t, even better. The bulk of the twenty or so minutes of gameplay in said mission is spent occasionally pressing R2 to keep a meter topped up to juuuust the right level. Oh, and I think you end up having to shoot some baddies, too.
Sounds pretty typical, right? But despite the fact that the gameplay is kinda shit, the world carries it. You’re floating above it in an enormous hot air balloon, great stretches of land before you that are well travelled at this point in the game, and there’s some witty dialogue going off, and you’re sucked in – provided that you enjoy the setting and the writing. If you don’t enjoy one or both of these things, then, well – you probably won’t get far enough in the game to see said mission, I’d imagine.
Occasionally the game will make you do something more mundane. These missions were highlights for me, though I can also see how they’d bore someone to their back teeth, particularly since, again, the gameplay on offer in these segments is either outdated or non-existent. Take the fishing minigame/activity/whatever – quite often you’re tasked with going on a fishing trip with one or more members of the gang – and while the dialogue is well written, and the river you’re boating on is beautiful, but the gameplay itself gave me horror flashbacks to those old party game collections from days past. You cast your line, wait for a bite – and then to reel in the fish, you have to spin the right stick as fast as possible. Not for a few seconds – it ranges from a minute or two to more than ten, depending on the size of the fish. There was one side mission where I felt like I was doing it for twenty minutes or more, just mashing my palm into the right stick to make the stick spin as fast as possible. It legitimately made my hand sore, and if I were to take up the task of catching every legendary fish in the game, I’d probably get a pretty nasty blister on my palm, reminiscent of the original Mario Party.
People complained about this back in 1998 – that mini-games like this caused genuinely crippling palm pain – so Nintendo dumped this control method for the sequel a year later. Why Rockstar decided to bring this mechanic back more than twenty years later is anyone’s guess. But it’s not fun, it’s frustrating and literally painful, and also utterly inaccessible to a lot of people with major or even minor disabilities who might be able to enjoy the rest of the game otherwise. It’s a particular rub when Rockstar themselves have included accessibility options for other parts of the game – and yet they still insist that you have to spin the stick rapidly in this occasionally mandatory mini-game, because it’s ‘fun’ or ‘realistic’ or whatever. It’s neither of those things, so just don’t.
These curious design decisions are peppered throughout the entire experience. The worst offender of all, though, at least from a gameplay point of view, is how you make your horse go from canter to gallop. Riding your horse is something that you’ll be doing a lot – indeed, I’d wager that you spend more time on horseback in this game than you do on foot – and while it’s perfectly controllable and fluid, it’s let down by the fact that you have to hammer the X or A button as fast as you can in order to go at maximum trot. You have to do this consistently, too, and often for minutes at a time as you traverse the enormous map, going from waypoint to waypoint as the game dictates, thumb going down and down in a constant, monotonous slam.
But, somehow, the writing and world make up for it, or at least, they do at first. Rockstar have created a world that seems dense and alive at first glance, and this persists even under light scrutiny. There are fields where wild horses roam amongst deer and flee from wolves. There are bustling towns full of people with various problems and agendas that you can actually interact with and not just shoot at. And, while you’re riding along, you’ll occasionally be interrupted by so-called ’emergent encounters’, which means, more often than not, someone will come staggering up from the side of the road asking you for something, whether that be money, a ride back to town, or a health cure.
But, after enough time spent with the game, you’ll see the cracks in it’s delicately designed world begin to show. And, since that it’s full runtime is between sixty to eighty hours, if not more, then it’s inevitable that you’ll see them at some point. Aside from the wildlife in the game, which are always surprising and interesting, every other feature designed to immerse you ultimately fails. Those random encounters, for example – there’s one guy you might bump into in the wilderness who’s been bitten by a snake, and you have to suck the venom out of his leg. This encounter happened no less than six times during my time with the game – and with the exact same bloke – to the point where I was starting to think that it was some kind of fetish for him.
The most egregious example, though, is those people in town that you can interact with. For the most part, you have two options – ‘greet’ or ‘antagonise’. The function of both options is obvious, but they can often wind up having the same result, which is violence. A vast swath of the NPCs in the game will square up to you whether you’re being nice or nasty, meaning that you’ll either end up having a gun drawn on you, or a fist swung in your general direction. If you dare to retaliate, then the law will come, complete with a wanted level and a bounty. And there’s only really one wanted level in the entire game. This means that the law – and by extension, the game – treats you the same whether you’ve just shot six people dead, or if you’re just being a nuisance and insulting people.
Seriously – press that antagonise button on about three people, and you’ll be wanted for being a ‘public nuisance’. This means that if you try to run away from the law when they ultimately arrive and ask you surrender, you’ll end up being shot at by seemingly every gun in town. It’s the same result if you accidentally nudge someone with your horse when you’re passing through town, or if you accidentally fire a shot off in the tavern. It’s ridiculous, to the point where it creates a parody of the Western genre rather than the realistic Western world that it’s actually supposed to be actualising. I know that things were rough back then, but I don’t think they were so fucking rough that everyone in town would point their six-guns at you if you so much as spat on the ground. That’s the kind of shit that you’d see in a comedy sketch.
You quickly get the feeling that nobody in this game really knows how to do anything but shoot and kill, and this feeling extends to Arthur Morgan and the rest of the gang that surrounds him, which ultimately tarnishes the excellent writing as you wind through the game’s final acts. And this is where the script, unfortunately, begins to let itself down by becoming unbelievable, and then, even the stellar writing from before struggles to hold the game up.
For me personally, I can pinpoint exactly in the game’s story where this happens. Mid-way through Chapter 4, after, you guessed it, a bunch more botched heists and the like, you’ve ended up in the industrial city of St. Denis, a sprawling and well realised place that’s bustling with activity. Within this city there’s a fella called Angelo Bronte, a wealthy Italian businessman and crime lord. Van Der Linde, for some reason, quickly establishes ties with this bloke, despite the fact that he’s dodgy as fuck. He feeds Dutch some information about some cash, Dutch goes off to pursue it with Arthur in tow, it all goes tits up, and you end up murdering about fifty or so cops escaping.
Despite the fact that this sounds ridiculous, it’s not where the game’s narrative sags – you’ve been killing enough people up to this point for it to feel usual, even though you’re effectively slaughtering the entire population of a small town in nearly each and every mission. It’s what you’ve come to expect by this point, and it’s fine. The issue crops up after the fact, a couple of missions afterwards, where you go to get revenge on Bronte. You fight through his mansion and ultimately capture him. A confrontation between him and Dutch occurs, which ends with Dutch drowning Bronte in the swamp, before tossing his body to the alligators. Everyone who accompanied you on this mission, which is pretty much everyone who’s capable of firing a gun – looks on in shock and horror as Dutch performs this act. Which would be natural – if it weren’t for the fact that each of them had killed countless numbers of gang members, law officers, and even plain ol’ civilians in their pursuit of the last big take that’ll set them all home free. That’s without taking into account that you might’ve played Arthur as a complete and total bastard who’d slit his mother’s throat for a nickel. And even if you didn’t, even if you play him as most pure-hearted fellow that’s ever walked the Earth, he’ll still be standing on a pile of corpses that number in the hundreds at this point in the game due to the story missions.
This completely took me out of it. Why is everyone looking at Dutch like he’s just farted in the punch bowl? You’re all cold blooded murderers. It’s especially apparent because, five minutes ago, you and the rest of the gang were murdering Bronte’s goons outside of his mansion enmasse.
This is the beginning of a moral dilemma for the main character, and it’s an odd place in the tale for it. If Arthur was against murdering people before, then, sure – but he’s not. You get the impression throughout the game that Arthur is tired of being on the run, and of Dutch’s never ending plan to secure freedom. He doesn’t seem all that upset about the body count. There are occasional bits off to the side where you can talk to people in camp, but all Arthur ever talked about was how he regretted killing a bunch of animals. I don’t remember him uttering a word about all the actual people that he’d killed.
Was Dutch not a psychopath before the start of the game? I can’t see it, he seems like a pretty intense guy. I can’t see that being with Dutch before all this shit kicked off was a barrel of laughs. I can’t see Dutch handing out cigars around a campfire after a peaceful day, while the gang talk about all those kittens they stroked or whatever. So why is Dutch drowning a guy in a swamp such a shock? You’ve been murdering people all game on his behalf. And, more than likely, before the game even started, for quite some time before it even started, even – incidental dialogue reveals that Arthur has been in this gang since he was a boy, and he’s thirty-something at the start of the game. It’s reasonable to assume that he’s been killing people for Dutch for twenty years or more. And it’s reasonable to assume that Dutch’s plan has sounded like bullshit for just as long.
It feels hypocritical, and, worse, this moral dilemma takes root in the story and just develops further, and, ultimately, it’s what the last two chapters of the game are about. The additional layers that they add to it sure make it more interesting and enjoyable, and again, well written, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that, at it’s core, it’s jarring. Arthur is suddenly against two concepts that he previously had no problem with – murder, and revenge, though he only really has a problem with Dutch doing these things.
There’s one particular mission, a few hours before the end of the game, where you ride with a character called Sadie Adler to mop up the remnants of the O’Driscoll gang, who’ve been plaguing you in one way or another throughout the entire game. Sadie is rescued by the gang at the start of the game, and at first, seems like she might just end up being a broken character – her husband is murdered in front of her, and it’s implied that she’s been gangraped by the people who killed him. Instead of doing nothing, though, she has a fantastic journey through the game that I won’t spoil – let’s just say that she basically becomes a bigger badass than anyone else in the gang. Anyway, at the end of this mission, Sadie pins a fella to the ground and knifes him in the throat, gaining her revenge on one of the people who presumably raped and tortured her, and – good! I’m glad that she killed him. It’s a great character moment. But Arthur, who has proven himself to have a disposition to this kind of behaviour, doesn’t complain, doesn’t bemoan – he simply looks on with a nod, the silent ‘you go girl’, a look of empathy and understanding. And this isn’t just an issue with Sadie – he wilfully witnesses other members of the gang kill people without problem.
If Dutch was killing people who genuinely didn’t deserve it – then I’d understand – but Bronte does deserve it. Not only did he set up you up with a bodged job that nearly got Arthur and Dutch killed, but he’d previously kidnapped John Marston’s son, Jack, who’s about six years old or whatever. He’s not a nice bloke, and he’s done nothing but cause trouble for the gang. He’s hardly murdering him in cold blood. Sure, he might not be firing a gun at you like nearly everyone else that you kill, but he is absolutely a threat, a danger, something that needs to be taken care of. As I mentioned previously, in a normal community, killing a troublesome individual would absolutely be seen as wrong – but they’re not a normal community – they’re a community of outlaws. They murder people. It’s a given.
A few hours after Dutch tosses Bronte to the alligators, you find out that Arthur has contracted tuberculosis and is on his way out, and as a result, the moral dilemma within him doubles, and the whole thing starts to make some kind of sense. Not only is he tired of Dutch and his way of life, but he’s also tired of being a bad person, a murderer, a killer, and he seems focused on making peace with his tumultuous life, and he starts to make good decisions – or at least, he wants to make good decisions. He’s after redemption, and finally, this quandary that’s he been in becomes understandable. If he’s facing down death, then he’s absolutely going to view mortality and murder and the like in a different light.
I have issues with the whole tuberculosis thing, too – but many of my complaints can be answered with ‘it’s a video game, mate’. I’ll go over them briefly, though, and it’s mainly down to how the disease itself is handled. It’s a highly degenerative disease, a bacterial infection in the lungs that not only gives you a nasty cough, but pretty much permanently puts in you bed. There’s no way that any individual with tuberculosis could be on their feet, sprinting around for the entire day, gunning people down on horseback and robbing trains and the like. There’s no way that this could happen. But it’s a video game, and a bed simulator wouldn’t make for a thrilling last few hours of gameplay, and it wouldn’t make for a satisfying conclusion to Arthur’s tale. (EDIT: Apparently I’m totally wrong about this. Fair enough, sorry everyone. Bloke called Doc Holliday lived with it for years, apparently. Consider the preceding paragraph mostly nonsense, then.)
I guess my other issue is that Arthur doesn’t die fast enough, that there isn’t a ‘tuberculosis timer’, because, despite Arthur’s worsening condition, you’re given all the time in the world to wrap up whatever it is that you want to do. I spent a lot of time tying up the remaining stranger missions (side quests, basically) and tracking down the last few legendary beasts that I needed to hunt. But the whole while, Arthur is coughing and spluttering, unable to keep his food down, and you can’t help but feel bad for the guy. You’ve spent around seventy hours staring at this guys back, so you feel a physical and emotional connection to the guy. I didn’t want Arthur to die – but I didn’t want to keep him suffering, either. As a result, the game’s leisurely pace up to this point suddenly becomes breakneck, and I was no longer taking the time to stop in town and have a bath and a meal and a drink and the like, I was just whipping from quest marker to quest marker as fast as my horse would take me, purely because I wanted the poor guy to die already and get some well earned rest. It didn’t help that the final chapter where this all goes down is the longest in the game, either.
And, even though the tuberculosis does make some sense of his sudden urge to ‘do the right thing‘, he still wilfully witnesses other characters murder with a grin on his face. The previously mentioned scene with Sadie – he’s in the throes of it at this point – and he’s also come to terms with the fact that he at least wants to try to go out as a good man. But he doesn’t say anything about Sadie being insane, or Charles being insane, or indeed, any other character, save for Dutch. Everyone else is fine to murder, to shout, and to generally be a madhead, but no, not Dutch. He has to be sane.
In the end, the plot tries to deliver ‘redemption’ to Arthur – it’s in the name of the game, innit – but this fell flat, at least for me. The entire arc felt forced from the beginning, and I view Arthur and the rest of the gang as people who aren’t redeemable by default. They’ve killed too much, stolen too much, and cared too little about the world around them to be considered sympathetic characters. And the time after which Arthur decides to turn a new leaf is too short, too ineffective, and too sudden. And what’s his redeeming act? He lets a few people off with their debt after the damage has already been done, helps Sadie kill a bunch of people, and helps John Marston, another outlaw and mass murderer, escape from the law with a fresh start, where, as we already know from the first game, he just goes on to kill a bunch more folk a few years down the line. Which is fine, as the conclusion to a personal arc – he’s saved someone who would surely be up shit creek without his help – but he has not met the definition of redemption, he has not been absolved from his sins, errors, and evils.
So, as Arthur wheezes his last laboured breath, dying atop a hill, it’s difficult to look at him as a hero. It’s difficult to look at him as anything other than a killer, because that’s what nearly every mission revolves around, main, side, or otherwise. And that’s fine, you know? It’s fine that Arthur is a killer, I like him anyway. I liked the game and the plot well enough, even while it was forcing an arc that felt unrealistic down my throat. He doesn’t have to die atop a cliff while the game tries to sell you on the idea that he’s suddenly redeemed, heroic music playing and the lot. He’s not. He’s a killer, and by the end of the game, he has the blood of thousands on him. Hell, he killed government agents on the way to his death, people who might’ve had wives and children that’d miss ’em when they’re dead. But – that’s okay. It’s okay to play as a killer in a video game, and it’s okay to grant them humanity, too. It’d be a boring story otherwise, honestly. But to sell us on the idea of ‘redemption’ and of Arthur suddenly becoming against the idea of violence and revenge, is unrealistic. It’s made even more unrealistic when he still wilfully participates in acts of murder and even encourages his colleagues to do so. There’s no sense in it. Tell a different story, or give us less people to shoot so that you can tell this one effectively.
“But, Kote,” you may cry. “Every open world game has these problems.” To which I’d say, yeah, you’re right. Every open world game does have these problems, in varying degrees. The player is given too much agency with the main character for them to come across as realistic people, the writing oft falls flat, they rely on outdated gameplay mechanics, and the random events feel less random as the game goes on. I can’t think of any open world game released this year that doesn’t suffer with these problems, including Red Dead Redemption 2. And I enjoyed this game more than any other open world game this year, so it might seem odd that I’m writing a ‘bash’ piece on it.
So, why am I? A lot of reviews for this game call it ‘the best game ever’ or even ‘the best western ever’ to which I say, to both – no, it’s not. Study it as a game, it’s flawed, bogged down by outdated mechanics and rote gunplay. Study it as a story, and, in my opinion, it’s flawed too, tarnished, somewhat, by the fact that the writing needs Arthur to come across as some kind of hero in order for the final acts of the game to work.
Even when you take it apart and look at it purely as a western, it’s not subdued enough, and too gratuitous in it’s bodycount. Yeah, there’s outlaws riding around on horses with revolvers, talking about the ‘good old days’ and how modernisation is ruining their way of life, but it lacks a lot of subtlety that the genre normally has. It certainly sets up said subtlety in it’s mostly excellent writing, but it’s blown away after each and every mission where you kill thirty or more people.
Is it a good game? Yeah. Is it an excellent game? Definitely. Is it a perfect game, the best western ever, and the epitome of open world game design? No. But it was certainly sold to me as this by the majority of the press, and as much as the game deserves its high rating, it does damage to the industry on the whole when critics can’t see past their own bias. It creates an echo chamber of ‘excellent’ and ‘amazing’, and that’s exactly why Rockstar haven’t tightened up their gameplay, and it’s why we still need to bash X to sprint in a game from 2018.
I’m not saying that anyone’s been paid off to write a 10/10 review for this game – I think that the whole ‘corruption in games journalism is a load of bollocks – I’m just saying that eight years of build-up for the next big Rockstar thing has probably blinded some people. And when that’s fans, it’s fine – they’re entitled to think that this is the best game ever, they’ve waited long enough – but a critic should look at it with a closer eye. A critic should be able to see the wood from the trees, and rightfully point out the mistakes made in the game. It’s kind of their job, you know? Less on a narrative side of things, because that’d spoil it for everyone – but there’s no denying that some mechanics in this game just feel downright clunky and outdated. There’s stellar – if flawed – writing here, beautiful graphics, and clever world design, so – can we have a sprint button too, please?
If we don’t do something about this,then in twenty years time, when we’re all playing Grand Theft Auto VI or whatever on our deathbeds, then we’ll still be bashing X to run. And by then, I’ll definitely have arthritis, so, please, critics – think of my thumbs. Other games have sprint buttons, and the only reason that Rockstar isn’t adding one is because they’ll get a 10/10 for sticking to the same crap that they’ve pulled since Grand Theft Auto III. The guns and aiming have felt crap since the same game too, and successive titles haven’t really made them any better.
Why do people let them get away with it? Because it’s good enough to get a 10/10, it’s Rockstar mate, come on. No! Stop it. They have enough resources and enough manpower to fix these problems. Point them out so they fix them, so that we can get their enormous resources put behind something truly perfect. It’s your job as a critic. Stop sacking it off.
Anyway, I think I’m done here. Send the hate mail to the usual address. Cheers.
Atomic Kote is a blog that focuses on delivering the best content that I can manage, dealing with entertainment and gaming primarily. It’s all written independently by one person, me.
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