Red Dead Redemption 2 is possibly the greatest video game of all time and certainly my absolute favourite. Red Dead Redemption was my absolute favourite for a long time, boasting gorgeous graphics, wide, open-world gameplay, and a super compelling narrative, yet Red Dead 2 exceeds the first in every way (I even liked Arthur Morgan more than John Marston, which is saying a lot) and seems to continue a growing trend in offering the rare prequel that surpasses the original (Better Call Saul is another prequel that comes close to being as good as if not better than the original, but I think Breaking Bad still reigns supreme). So what makes this game and experience so great?
The story is set in 1899 and follows Dutch’s gang in their final heyday before their (inevitable) breakup. You play as Arthur Morgan, Dutch’s trusted lieutenant, and the story sets you in media res in the middle of a snowstorm after a chaotic Blackwater ferry heist that ended with the deaths of several gang members and some serious Pinkerton bounties. Morgan is increasingly skeptical of life in the gang, realizing that it’s not the romantic and idealistic career choice that he envisioned so many years ago, and the core gang members are growing older. Hosea, arguably the most sensible member of the gang, is getting older and likely has cancer, and as the story progresses, we see Dutch beginning to unravel. What is his plan? We see time and again that Dutch has no plan or his plans are so fallible and there is no stable, long-term plan that will guarantee survival or success. For me, this was part of the tragedy, to see Morgan’s hopes and dreams and trust in Dutch and what the gang signified gradually deteriorate at the edges.
In the first game, Marston functioned as a lone wolf, pursuing the remaining members of Dutch’s gang (and even Dutch himself) across the Old and changing West many years after the gang had fallen out. I loved playing as John (and Jack) and exploring the dying frontier, but I think what makes Red Dead 2 so superior is how it builds and develops the relationship between the gang members. For me, it was the fellowship and interconnectedness of the gang that makes this game so special. It really does feel like a family and to some extent they seem to treat each other as such, which is why it is so heartbreaking when things take a turn for the worse after Hosea’s death and the Saint Denis bank robbery (he should have listened to Hosea!). Even the antagonists from the first game such as Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella are more humanized and portrayed quite sympathetically and it adds extra poignancy to their interactions in the first game. Looking back at the opening scene between John and Bill at Fort Mercer, you feel Bill’s anger and frustration at being always treated like an idiot and it provides a deeper dimensionality to the characters and the gameplay. I really liked most of the characters at camp, and even the more questionable ones like Reverend Swanson have their more redeeming moments in the game. Some of my favourite characters in the gang include Charles, Lenny, Hosea, Arthur, Sadie, and John. I also enjoyed the diversity of the characters: Lenny is black, Charles is half-black and half-Native, and Sadie is a woman. Sadie’s character is particularly exciting because she is a fierce, independent, and sexy woman who is not overly sexualized in the game or depicted as romantic interest but follows her own path and is still very appealing as a character (unlike annoying Bonnie from the first game). This is excitingly different from the caricatures or one-dimensional women presented in previous Rockstar games such as Grand Theft Auto V, and I hope they have better characterization for female characters like this in future games. The camp offers a few other female characters such as Miss Grimshaw who almost seem to be prototypes for future female characters in their games.
There is one camp member (apart from Leopold Strauss) who I detested in the game, and that is Micah Bell. Micah has taken a lot of flak from the online community for his bullying nature, psychopathy, disloyalty, and the fact that he is a piece of shit. This is all fair game because Rockstar wants us to hate this ratty, crusty man who shows no signs of loyalty and kills dogs and children. I couldn’t help but think of other Rockstar psychopaths such as Trevor Phillips from GTA V as I encountered Micah. Both are volatile, wild, and unpredictable, but whereas Trevor is loyal to Michael and Franklin, Micah is a rat, aligning himself with the Pinkertons (and possibly the O’Driscolls since they lure you into a trap after he calls the meeting). This is definitely one of the reasons why games hate him so much, but Rockstar deserves credit for crafting such a despicable, well-written character, and the voice actor does a great job with the role (“he’s lying”, “cowpoke”). I still wonder why Dutch liked Micah so much and chose him over Arthur – was it Micah’s sycophantism and seemingly absolute obedience? This may say more about who Dutch truly is (the snake!).
Red Dead 2 also gives us arguably the most gorgeous graphics and fully realized open world we’ve ever seen, and I was awestruck in the beginning of the game at the landscapes and panoramas as the gang descends the mountains. Seriously, if you can’t afford a Montana or Colorado vacation this summer, play Red Dead 2 because the sights are the next best thing. The story is long and epic, taking nearly 60-70 hours to properly complete, and what surprised me is the huge epilogue which took me a while to get through but I loved it. Just when you think it’s over, there’s another huge section of the map to explore, and it pays homage to the first game with New Austin. The most fun part for me in the new areas of the map was experiencing Tumbleweed before its fall, although it would have been fun to explore Mexico and see New Austin as Arthur Morgan.
Dutch also emerges as one of the most intriguing and complex characters Rockstar have ever written, and while I really disliked him at the end for the snake he was, the nature of his leadership still comes into question. He’s very much like a cult leader, lulling us in with his promises of the romance of the Old West, endless charisma, and the promise of being listened to, but as the story goes on, we see him fall apart. Yet it is a failure taht he cannot afford to show, and what I still wonder is if he was always like this or if the death of Hosea and his own failings just make it more apparent. Dutch’s failures and inability to recognize his delusions and accept defeat and pursue a quixotic dream seems to be a commentary on America then and today. You can’t bring the past back – what’s dead is dead and we have to think about a workable future for everyone even if it means changing how we do things forever. I would have shot Dutch alongside Micah on Mount Hagen if I could, and the tragedy for this game is that Arthur, Dutch’s most loyal follower alongside Hosea, is led to an early grave for simply wanting the best for everyone. The story is very much about Arthur’s redemption, taking a man who has done unspeakable things and forcing him to atone for what he’s done and rebuild. And I truly think Arthur atones for his previous actions and then some, and we see it happen more apparently as the story goes on. While perhaps not as bright as John, Arthur is certainly more philosophical and musing, and I enjoyed reading his journal and the updates as a means of understanding him better and looking further into his world.
I enjoyed seeing the wildlife and exploring the desert vistas in the game as well. The prequel is much more expansive and diverse than the original, and it truly feels like America on a microcosmic level, offering Montana’s desert and mountain vistas as well as Louisiana’s swamps and bayous and Virginia’s hillsides and forests. It was fun hunting some of the Legendary Animals, but to be honest I was more interested in studying the animals than killing them.
The main story missions are a blast, offering creative storylines such as robbing a steamship to driving a train to blowing up a bridge to bank robberies to posing as deputy officers of the law (what irony!!), shooting up whole towns to getting drunk with Lenny, but the story missions are also a real treat, and I arguably has as much as fun if not more pursuing all the side missions, particularly the ones with the Veteran and the Downes redemption arc. Oh, and it’s hilarious to think that you’re a wanted outlaw doing bounties for the lawmen! There are also Easter eggs galore, including ghosts, robots, mad scientists, and more. Experience as much as you can. I loved spending hours riding my horse around, but if I do have one minor complaint about the game (aside from a few odd bugs), I do think the Fast Travel system could be a bit better, but again, it’s very minor. Red Dead Redemption 2 deserves all the hype and accolades it gets and I think it’s the best game ever made. It’s well worth the $85 price tag and you’ll savour every minute. I hope y’all love it as much as I do!