Developer: Rockstar Studios
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: Oct. 26, 2018
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
Links: Amazon | PlayStation Store | Xbox Store | Official website"We're bad men. But we're not them."
Red Dead Redemption II is not a tale about people who often do good things, as protagonist Arthur Morgan sums it up early in the game. This games central band of outlaws is sympathetic at times but never blameless.
Ostensibly, this dirty lens weaves an earnest story about these outlaws struggling to survive on the edge of modernity. Indeed, many of the vignettes found in this fictionalized version of the American West are beautiful, and many of the real-world experiences of vagabonds and frontier folk are distilled into some exceptional arcs. But these plains are vast, and not everything on offer presents a clear vision.
As Arthur Morgan, you take on the role of the gang's enforcer, and you get to manage Arthurs life like an elaborate Wild West Tamagotchi. You'll have to keep track of his food and water intake, keep him comfortable in all kinds of locales and temperatures, and even manage his mane and beard. On top of that, you can hunt for food, track down outlaws, run heists, and bond with your horse (which means training, feeding, and caring for it in turn). I could go on.
Perhaps the biggest draw to RDR II for most will be the patently absurd amount of Content. The list of possible activities in RDR II quickly grows staggering, and world-enriching details abound. In every shop, there's a catalog you can rifle through for everything from pistols to salted pork, each page filled with descriptions and prices in a palpable context. Then there are the graphical touches: the tightening skin of a horse as its muscles swell to prep for full gallop; the crisp blades of prairie grasses between which flit all manner of varmints. Its nothing short of stunning.
All of this attention to detail and mundanity works as a way to pull you into the world of 1899 in a very real sense. The traditional open-world exploration interface has been cut down to a handful of symbols that track your core health and well-being, as well as an optional minimap that can collapse into a simple on-screen compass (or even to nothing at all). All of this helps sell this place as one where you can earnestly live, for a time, as a part of this tight-knit criminal enterprise.
Exhaustive though it may be, this interlocking network of minute systems also works together to pace out play quite nicely. Thats especially true if you're the type who is just as content wandering through towns taking in the sights as min-maxing your stats. The added commitment to a minimalist interface, which communicates so much through the world itself, really enhances the feeling of fully inhabiting a gamified simulation.
That intense world-building alone would be enough to make RDR II an extremely satisfying experience. But, for better and worse, this game also attempts to craft a complicated narrative that has just as many moving parts as the simulated world in which it sits. Rockstar has had mixed success with this kind of storytelling before, but this is certainly the studios best effort to date. Still, the game's attempts at realism can at times obfuscate some narrative choices and arbitrarily deny others.
Work, eat, sleep, repeat
RDR II begins with a desperate trek through a late-spring blizzard. Soaked in two feet of barely frozen snow, this alpine storm is the sort that devours the spirit and wastes the body. But our pitiful troupe presses on, convinced that the only way forward is following a lethally bungled heist that has set brutish lawmen and sadistic rivals on their tail.
The desperation of the game's first act quickly lets up as the band pulls through the mountains and sets camp. There, group leader Dutch van der Linde—the brains and heart of the operation—gives a rousing speech, telling everyone to earn their keep by gathering supplies, food, munitions, and, of course, money.
This is where the game really opens up, allowing you to step away from Dutchs close guidance to make your own living. Hunting, trading, and even bounty hunting are all viable careers, for a time, and all provide exceptional opportunities to marvel at the glittering rural American sky or the sweeping Rocky Mountain stand-ins. Gambling, robbing, and seedier means of acquisition are also available for less scrupulous and/or more outdoorsy types, and you can shuffle through the options depending on your shifting preferences.
After a while, its easy to settle into a new rhythm of your digital outlaw life, a cycle of in-game work that provides the means to get supplies for you and your camp. Hunt a whitetail, for instance, and you can sell its pelt and flesh for munitions and a coffeemaker back at the base. That coffeemaker in turn keeps you moving a bit better through the rugged terrain, aiding you in the next trip through the cycle.
RDR II's work cycle creates a forgiving system where, no matter what vocation you pick, you can figure out a way to bring in some cash. But its also an extremely simplified version of the hardships people actually faced in the American wilderness. Even with the simulated elements to contend with, Arthur seems to have inhuman stamina, and a constitution that strains believability, even as it provides a firm foundation for the playspace.