Review: Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4)

Posted on January 11, 2019

Red Dead Redemption 2 is less of a game and more of a cultural event. You may have seen ads on buses and billboards: this is still rare enough to suggest a really major release. Almost every one of my gaming friends was hanging off this release and talking about it for weeks – so there is a good chance you know someone who has played this game, a lot.

The publisher is largely responsible for this: Rockstar are well-known for the Grand Theft Auto series and attendant controversies about violence and cultural politics in gaming. They don’t release games often but when they do, they invest heavily and they usually do very well. RDR2 certainly has: with a Metacritic score of 97 there is no doubting that it has received ‘universal acclaim’, from critics at least.

So what even is Red Dead Redemption 2? Well, it’s best understood as an ‘open-world game': it places a main character in a relatively ‘open’ world and gives the player control of this character to perform a mixture of structured missions and free-roaming activities. This genre is often characterised by player autonomy and freedom – the idea is that you can largely go where you want and do what you want within the boundaries of the game. (Of course, this autonomy is largely an illusion  – but that’s a discussion for another post.)

The world the player is placed within is the early twentieth-century United States: the Wild West (or at least the Late West). This game is a quintessential Western in so many ways, and not just the setting which actually takes in a number of environments from this time and place. The music fits perfectly – it evokes the twangy guitar and atmospheric tunes of Ennio Morricone (think Sergio Leone or John Wayne). It draws heavily on the technical achievement of Western cinema, right down to a ‘cinematic mode’ which allows you to see the action from more of a distance and multiple camera angles (despite some beautiful disasters). The themes are also drawn straight from Western lore: ‘honour’ among thieves and outlaws; an encroaching modern world and legal system, and tragic downfall of people and groups who can’t adjust to this new reality. The story itself could be drawn right from the golden age of westerns.

So what is this story? In a prequel to the earlier game, you follow Arthur Morgan of the van der Linde gang as they desperately try to keep out of the reach of the law and pull off one last job to be able to escape the tightening net around them. Arthur himself has his own storyline which intersects with others in the gang in increasingly complex ways, and the player is forced to make decisions which define what kind of man Arthur is – an unrepentant and violent outlaw, or a man who learns to do good and seek whatever redemption he can given the choices he has already made. This story is therefore partly defined by the player, although the game sets pretty strict limits.

As a game itself it works from a third-person perspective, meaning you look over the shoulder of Arthur (although it can be set to first-person, looking from within his own eyes). Although third-person can mean less immersion for the player, it fleshes out the protagonist in more detail and allows more investment in his story and moral choices. There is lots of crafting (think different types of ammunition, health kits, and clothes) and many different activities such as hunting, foraging, playing games like poker, fishing, and even dull campsite chores. True to form, there is also a lot of shooting, robberies, fights with rival gangs and authorities, and action in all its forms. Put simply, there is an enormous amount to do in this game, and most of it is lots of fun.

So what about age appropriateness? Well rated at M15+ for strong themes and violence, it’s almost certainly not for the youngest players. (Note also that this rating covers ‘online interactivity’ – meaning its online mode puts players in contact with others around the world and of course that usually needs adult moderation or responsibility.) But it should be said that although it does have those strong themes and lot of gunfights, for example, it’s not a ‘violent’ game as such – it is not that the main purpose is to kill enemies; this just becomes necessary most of the time. It also also much more culturally and ethically responsible than many of the Grand Theft Auto games, for instance. So it’s probably not a complete write-off for teen and tween players, but parental engagement and observation is definitely recommended. Unfortunately with no local multiplayer it won’t be turning up in the Game Truck any time soon.

Overall I loved this game a lot. For an action game it is actually very slow, which is challenging but very rewarding. The environment, context, and narrative is superbly delivered, and it is perhaps the only video game I’ve played that prompted a wistful tear in my eye at its tragic ending. It achieves what it sets out to do extremely well, which makes it the number one game I would want to show non-gamers as an example of what can be achieved in the medium.

– Chad

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