Red Dead Redemption 2 main character Arthur Morgan dreams about animals, like a deer moving in slow motion in the wilderness. With the melancholy music, the scene with the deer helps implant the theme of sadness about the vanishing of the outlaw life in the epic Western video game from Rockstar Games.
That Rockstar’s storytellers linger with such moments (as you see in the video here) in the course of a very long game sets this apart from any other I’ve played. It is full of stories and subplots that by themselves would be the basis for an entire game if it another studio had made it.
Arthur is a character who is depicted in depth in this game, and he is one of the rare outlaws who lives by a code. However his story turns out, the larger tragedy is about the disappearance of a way of life and a disillusionment with what America became in the industrial age.
That deer in the dream is a symbol or premonition of some kind of death. But what happens if someone else playing the game sees a wolf instead? That is one of the many things that will make you wonder here.
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But even as the story takes you on this long ode to the outlaw, it doesn’t glorify the outlaw life. Rather, from the beginning as the gang is in full retreat after a botched robbery, it shows in full color what can go wrong as you cling to romantic lies about the lawless frontier.
This is my full review of Red Dead Redemption 2. I wrote earlier about my impressions when I was about halfway through the game. But now I can see it in full relief. I think I can explain in this lengthy piece why it’s on its way to selling 20 million copies or more.
I think it fits alongside Rockstar’s masterpieces such as 2010’s Red Dead Redemption and 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V. And it takes the story and depth one step farther, as far as this generation’s game consoles can take it.
The world feels alive. It has 10 times the custom animations of GTA V. It has 300,000 individual animations, 1,000 things to do and discover, 500,000 lines of dialogue (or twice the number in GTA V), and more than 1,000 actor performances in the game. (Yes, it is no wonder Rockstar is facing allegations of involuntary crunch, or forced overtime).
I was amazed at the breadth of the experience. I’ve completed 105 missions (I remember GTA V had 69 missions total), and I am 100 percent done with the story. I’ve also reviewed the video I captured of the game to better understand how it all comes together. It takes more than 50 hours to get through that directed part of the game, but there are many more hours you can spend in the open world if you want to explore all of its edges, side missions, and emergent gameplay.
The game left me with a lot to think about. In some ways, the storytellers’ hands were tied. It takes place in 1899, as a prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, which took place in 1911. If you played the original game, you know who survived from Dutch Van der Linde’s notorious gang, including Red Dead Redemption’s main character, John Marston, who plays a secondary role as one of many gang members in Red Dead Redemption 2.
While the original focuses on Marston, this game focuses on Arthur Morgan and his interactions with all of the characters in the gang. At the center is the charismatic outlaw leader, Dutch Van der Linde,
who, in contrast to his rival Colm O’Driscoll, tries to justify his violence and greed with higher ideals about resistance, freedom, and the extended family of the cult-like gang.
Dutch is like a snake-oil salesman, always getting his gang to believe that one more heist will yield enough money so they can move to some far-off paradise where they won’t be pursued by the law anymore. Arthur is his loyal enforcer who starts to question just what loyalty means as his leader becomes more and more erratic.
From the start, Rockstar paints the gang without glamour. It tests loyalties after a bank robbery goes bad in the town of Blackwater. They have fled into the mountains under cover of a blizzard, and they are searching for their scattered gang members. They are desperate for food and money, and Arthur must provide.
Marston is among the missing. Finding him is one of your first tasks playing as Arthur. The beginning is kind of plodding, but you learn important things like how to ride a horse, track an animal or human in the wild, and hunt. The group sets up camp and you try to help improve the common good by hunting and providing and protecting. And the gang must be ever vigilant about evading federal agents, bounty hunters, and private armies like the Pinkertons.
It also has better artificial intelligence that appears to sense what you are thinking, particularly in the open world part of the game, rather than the directed story missions.
What this means is that if you follow a nonplayer character into an alley, they will look back at you and start to worry that you mean ill intent. The character will question you or stop walking to confront you. If you have a bounty on your head, the passersby may recognize you and report your presence. If you pass by someone with your gun drawn, they may react in a hostile way. You can defuse confrontations with strangers, or you can antagonize them into attacking you.
If you are known for shooting up a town and then paying off the bounty, the survivors will treat you with disdain. Every now and then, when you are shooting someone, or when you are riding in the wild, or when an important part of the story unfolds, the camera goes into a cinematic mode. When you walk by two women having a conversation, they will begin to include you in the chatter.
All of this helps you feel like you are immersed in a living world.
What you’ll like
An epic story
I’ve already mentioned the living-world cliché. And I don’t always like to throw around the word “epic,” as that’s what marketing departments do in just about every description of any video game. But Rockstar has set itself apart with the quality of its stories. You can find pathos in the loss of the freedom and frontier lifestyle that forms the backdrop to the tale. While they’re not nice people, you spend so much time with them that you want to see them fulfill their dreams of escape.
Just when I thought I was getting a little bored, a new kind of mission appeared. Every now and then, a big twist takes the story in a new direction, and it reminds me that the Rockstar team has some awesome storytellers. I loved getting to know the characters in the gang and viewing life from what otherwise would be viewed as a villain’s point of view. You can get to know the members of the gang during missions, where you can tell if they’re cowardly or brave, or you can spend time talking to them in a more relaxed setting in the outlaw camp.
Arthur was adopted into the gang at a young age, and he is one of the few who has been with the group forever, compared to some who have only been on board for a few months. Arthur buys into Dutch’s dream of living free from the law and societal interference. Dutch treats Arthur like a son, but the gang has a lot of baggage, and Arthur has to decide how much he is willing to follow Dutch. Arthur also has to make choices that tell you whether he’s an honorable outlaw or a dirty scoundrel.
A gang of characters
While Arthur and John are like Dutch’s adopted sons, they don’t get along. Arthur takes a sour view of many things, and he loves to insult his fellow gang members, but he gets along well with the kindhearted ones. He is loyal to Dutch, but he also begins to see through Dutch’s lies. While Arthur has lost his chance for romance, he sees hope in Marston’s family, with his wife Abigail and son Jack.
The gang’s wide cast includes women who can trick men out of their money, a bookish loan shark named Leopold Strauss, a carnival-like con man named Josiah Trelawny, and an aging, wise, and cautious gangster named Hosea Matthews.
Sadie Adler blooms late in the story, but she becomes one of Rockstar’s more memorable female characters. There are shifty characters like Micah Bell, Bill Williamson, and Javier Escuella, and trustworthy ones like Charles Smith, Lenny Summers, and Susan Grimshaw.
On the side of the law, there are relentless pursuers like the industrialist Leviticus Cornwall, who seeks vengeance because Dutch has robbed from him so much, and the Pinkerton agent Andrew Milton. While Dutch evades the law, he must also be wary of rival gang leader Colm O’Driscoll.
As you get to know these characters, they reveal more about the kind of man who Arthur has become, and how he’s different from the likes of Marston and Dutch. And by the end of the story, you’ll see how different characters come to the foreground and why they are there.