Red Dead Redemption 2: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

This article contains minor game play spoilers, but will not discuss major plot points or story lines in Red Dead Redemption 2.  

One of the most anticipated vidja-games of the decade finally dropped last week, and frankly, you’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t heard about it. There would be no sense in giving a full review of a game like Red Dead Redemption 2. If you were waiting for the boys at TehBen to give you the go-ahead before purchasing Rockstar’s latest installment, then you’ve got bigger problems and really should consider speaking with a priest or a lobotomist. But while you’re here, how about you sit at down with us at camp and stay a spell? Let’s try to explore some of the finer points of the game, and discuss where video games are going after 2018.

Basic Gameplay

RDR2 plays at it’s core in a similar manner to the previous installment, but with tons of additions to the main idea. This is, after all, a new console generation with more powerful hardware. Your character, Arthur Morgan now needs to eat, sleep, keep his horse healthy, and perform various other RPG elements as he’s completing his tasks for the Van Der Linde gang. In our previous TehBen article on video games, we discussed the joys of speedrunning a familiar title and how it adds a beautiful new layer on to the experience. For RDR2 though, I don’t see that ever being possible without some major unintended exploits. With so much to do and so many MORE things to take care of, you might as well slow down and play the game as it was designed. Turn out the lights, light a candle, and make slow sweet love to this game, she’ll be kind to you and respect you in the morning.

All of this expansion however, comes at a cost that needs to be paid by the player. The player can no longer solely think about what story mission is next, as certain tasks outside their scope will need to be completed. Your gang will need food, people will need saving, and you’ll always be on the run from John Law in some capacity. In that last aspect, I actually respect Rockstar for it. Arthur and his friends are genuine outlaws for fuck’s sake, and most of what you need to do to survive will be considered a crime. Red Dead 1 could be played strictly with Marston acting as an honorable hero of The West, with no need to ever worry about a Wanted level or a bounty. This time, you’ll be required at several key moments to either pay bounties, or continuously evade the law and its bounty hunters. While many gamers will struggle with this concept, just like with our character, we don’t get to choose our lot in life, it’s chosen for us.

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Arthur’s long journey, and yours, come at a price.

The Story

If you’ve played any of the 21st century Rockstar games, the context of the story won’t surprise you. RDR2 is well written, exciting, and keeps the player engaged despite the lengthy cut-scenes and on-horse dialogue exchanges. The narrative and character development will reward players who’ve studied and cultivated their way though the backstory, while being playable enough that it’s still a great tale even if you don’t yet have the Red Dead wiki page memorized by heart. Either way, certain aspects will tug at your heart strings in between delightfully bloody gun fights, and talks of women’s suffrage or the plight of the fading Native American population. Even a simple side mission, like playing dominoes with Abigail adds something to the overall experience rather than just playing a mini game to kill time. Everything you do is “value added,” and not one thing feels like it’s going to waste. How about another example…

Arthur Morgan is slowly walking back into town after a mission-based drunken blackout, and sees a stranger on the side of the road fiddling with his horse. By the time I can get Arthur to offer assistance, the horse kicks the stranger in the head, killing him instantly. Due to Arthur’s aforementioned drunken evening, he had misplaced his cowboy hat and was also without his trusty horse. Given the circumstances, Arthur gladly helped himself to the hat kicked off the poor bastard and even rode the victim’s horse back into town. Stopping off at the saloon, we overhear patrons talking about, “that guy that got kicked to death by his horse.” Overhearing this, Arthur cowers just a little, maybe trying to hide the fact that he’s wearing the victim’s hat….and has that very same horse hitched up outside…

RDR once again has a veritable Vegas-style buffet of random encounters that proceed in every town, ranch, and back-road around the game’s world. So long as you can make peace with the wild “coincidences” that regard Arthur: riding up to unique events that are seemingly always juuuust before their climax, the encounters are improved and add an extra layer to the game. The encounters are no longer a solitary “moment in time,” but rather an event in which other people in the world can accurately reflect.

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Abigail wins this round of Dominoes…and a small piece of Arthur’s heart.

Your Real Life Woes

Red Dead Redemption 2’s main story line clocks in at about 50 hours of game play if you’re not investing a lot of time in side missions. While it’s difficult to say how long each player will take to enjoy their game, consider that the original RDR’s story only took about 18 hours to get through, with speedruns that range in the 5-6 hour mark. This means that a game this detailed, with this much immersion to the willing participant, it becomes wildly easy to neglect your personal life outside of the game. And no, I don’t mean the oft-used anecdote “boy, your girlfriend is sure gonna hate all that time you played in Skyrim, LOL!” NO, Red Dead 2’s immersive atmosphere is as precarious and dangerous as that time you brought home a copy of World of Warcraft. When playing this game at home, I needed to make sure I had planned stoppages using an alarm on my cellphone to walk out of my man-cave, and interact with other people in my life. Given the length of time to completion, and the limitless possibility of the soon to be online multiplayer mode, RDR2 may break the record for video game referenced divorce proceedings, and will probably lead to some sort of uptick in outdoor camping equipment sales.

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Uncle tells the gang about his dreams to see Kangaroos, and how to get the gang to Australia someday…seriously

Annnnd…The Ugly:

After a brief discussion that resulted in an rather embarrassing fist fight, Matt asked and Ben agreed to share a few thoughts from his own game experience.

While over time I may have fallen into the more “casual gamer” category, I still bought my copy on Red Dead Day and waited impatiently for the discs to burn to hard drive of the PS4, dreaming of frolicking in the photo-realistic mountains alongside bloodthirsty polar bears. Don’t get me wrong, this game will take your breath away whenever you take a break from killing transients and just soak in the majesty of your digital surroundings. It’s the little annoying things I’ve come across that manage to take something that has an level of immersivenes and take you right out of it.

Some of these things are….

You have been given complete control of Arthur, and you should still have the option to complete missions however you see fit. On one of the first actual missions, I wanted to start my game being as bad as I could possibly be, and did some pretty awful things (that still in the grand scheme of things had zero bearing on the world/story/mission) like putting holes in farmers’ heads or running over people I was supposed to help on the side of the road. Do I look like the AAA auto club to you? But every time I would indulge my evil side, I had to restart the mission and listen to my wagon full of prostitutes singing prostitute songs all the way into town, which lost most of its charm sometime around the 6th time through.

The “cinematic mode” is neat option since there is very limited quick travel, and it is supposed to “auto-drive” you and your horse along your pre-set way point path, switching the camera to different angles to spice things up a little. There have been at least three times where the horse got bored and veered off into the forest, directly into a large tree, killing Arthur, knocking down the horse, and losing whatever dead animal I had stowed across the back. Whenever this happens, it’s….uh, less than cinematic.

The hit detection while in town (or anywhere else, really) is extremely touchy. If you barely brush alongside anybody or anything while on your horse, be prepared to be pulled off your horse and either get embroiled in a fistfight or a gunfight. Because that level of sensitivity was all based on true stories. Brushing up against anybody in a town with shit-covered streets was always a death sentence back in the Old West.

When in camp, Arthur can only travel at the pace of a three-toed sloth covered in country gravy. This makes doing even the most basic of tasks like crossing the camp to look at himself in a mirror especially aggravating. I play with the closed captioning on, and the game thinks that captioning all 27 conversations going on at camp over each other is an awesome idea. While Arthur shuffles ever so sloooowly across the camp, have fun trying to decipher all the random insults, drunks singing, Dutch yelling at you, ladies howling at you and some guy reading Shakespeare all at the same time. Your camp is a shit-show.

Lastly, the controls are aggravating as hell since there are SO MANY THINGS TO DO WITH SO FEW AVAILABLE BUTTONS. There are 3 or 4 different weapon/item/ingredient wheels, and you are guaranteed to accidentally select “guacamole” whenever you are ambushed by robbers and have to defend yourself. Most of the controls are inverse of those of first-person shooters, so what normally is “dash” is “crouch down and go into a state of suspended animation” in RDR2.

The controls for drawing your weapon (which has to be set every time by weapon wheel after getting off your horse) are one button, and are reversed randomly….WITH THE BUTTON FOR INTERACTING WITH PEOPLE. You might want to strike up a conversation with someone, but that time the draw weapon button was backwards lol! Now you are holding them gunpoint instead of trying to figure out which store you can sell all your exploded squirrels at. I’ve put in around 12 hours or so, and the controls are still very unnatural which is makes playing through as a villain even harder since you are under almost constant attack.

But shit, this game is still so very pretty.

Thanks Ben, and sorry about your eye, that patch is really bitchin’ though.

Final Thoughts

All of this being said, Red Dead Redemption 2 makes us feel like we are at a bit of a crossroads when it comes to video game story telling. Typically, games are now falling into two camps: cinematic masterpieces or player focused role playing experiences. Red Dead 2 is attempting to be both, and on most counts it feels like a success. The need to pay attention to all of your characters needs while being delivered an exciting and engaging story is an uncompromising “win” for gamers of all styles. This method however, cannot work long term, and especially not for most other game companies. A game of this depth and caliber is probably one of those “once-a-year at best” situations. Given the time to produce, and the labor issues that seem to come from such endeavors, it’s rare that gamers are going to get to expect RPG elements in their story driven campaigns, and frankly it’s a damn shame. Games like RDR2 end up being landmarks on the video gaming journey, and rather than attempt to duplicate, it’s probably better for us to find what the next great gaming phenomenon will eventually be.

Follow Matt on Twitter, and maybe catch him playing Read Dead on Twitch before Fallout 76 gives his family a new reason to be disappointed.

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