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Great art at great cost

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Before we dive in with this review, a word about development crunch. In recent weeks, Rockstar Games has been mired in controversy after studio co-head Dan Houser suggested in an interview that the final sprint to Red Dead Redemption 2‘s release sometimes involved 100-hour work weeks.

Houser later clarified his quote, noting that the “100-hour work week” comment applied only to the four guys on the senior writing team and adding that “we obviously don’t expect anyone else to work this way” at Rockstar.

On the Tuesday before RDR2’s release, Houser’s assertion fell into doubt after Kotaku published an investigation into the work-life balance and corporate culture at Rockstar. The in-depth feature paints a nuanced picture of a company filled with passionate artists who, yes, often do work above and beyond their weekly hours, at times because they want to and at times because of pressure from the company leadership — all the way up to Houser.

Crunch is an industry-wide issue, and when cases like this become public they actually can lead to meaningful change. If you’re at all interested in playing RDR2, which I’ll say right now is a wonderful and expertly crafted game, you should read Kotaku’s report so you can better understand the circumstances under which it was made.


Red Dead Redemption 2 is a journey.

Over the course of its 50-hour-minimum story, you’ll wheel your way across the entirety of a mirror universe America in 1899, on the eve of its industrial revolution. It’s a place where all the names are changed, but the society and the culture is instantly familiar. It’s a (virtual) living version of what we’ve read about in history books and seen at the movies.

The propulsive force moving you from location to location is the game’s star, Arthur Morgan, and his association with the Dutch van der Linde gang. In Red Dead Redemption 2‘s America, outlaw gangs represent a dying breed. There’s no space in civilized society anymore for their robbin’ and shootin’, and the walls are starting to close in.

Your shifts around the sprawling map — the gang’s camp is your constant home base — all follow a pattern: Dutch and company settle in with the intent of lying low, but the constant, pressing need to squirrel away money for an eventual escape to some nebulous idea of “freedom” leads to more criminal behavior, and more attention from local law enforcement and the dreaded Pinkerton detective agency.

The story plays out as a series of extended vignettes in which Arthur and his pals do their outlaw thing against the various backdrops of early industrial era life in America. When things get too hot and trusted friends inevitably start dying, Dutch orders everyone to pack up, move out, and start over.

Each location you visit features a plotline that flirts with the assorted popular ideas and myths of what early American life looked like in that region. It starts you off on familiar ground, with your cowboy outlaws staging a train robbery and hiding out in an Old West-style setting, but it’s not long before they’re on the run and looking for a new home in the American heartland.

Red Dead Redemption 2

You’ll ride your horse across the openness of a Great Plains stand-in while a setting sun sends rays of light bouncing across the scrubby desert landscape. Deal with feuding, plantation-owning families in an eye-poppingly gorgeous rendition of America’s Deep South, bayou and all. Mix it up with high society types in the dusty, sweat-soaked, and perpetually filthy Saint Denis, a spitting image of the IRL New Orleans melting pot.

The vignette approach makes sense given the larger story’s length, but the quality of each one swings in both directions. I found a section of the story dealing with the plight of Native Americans in pre-industrial America to be surprisingly deft and thoughtful (though I’m very interested in hearing a Native American perspective on that). But another stretch, dealing with an early form of the Italian mob, felt rushed.

Throughout the game, race relations and the immigrant experience in early America occupy pieces of the story both large and small. The writing isn’t nearly as over-the-top as it is in Grand Theft Auto — the edginess and satire are shifted to the background in favor of a more grounded, human tale — and RDR2 is better for it.

Race relations and the immigrant experience in early America form a big part of the story.

The gang you ride with through all of these locations is a living entity inside the game, populated by a growing cast of individuals who all have a story. Not everyone traveling with Dutch is an outlaw; he’s introduced as a character who has compassion for the downtrodden. People join the gang during your journey because Dutch extends to them the shelter and safety of the group, provided they can make peace with the outlaw’s life.

In a significant evolution beyond past Rockstar efforts, Arthur can talk to and maintain relationships all of his fellow travelers (as well as people in the wider world in a more limited sense). Sometimes a person will have a story to tell or a task they need help with, but Arthur can greet or antagonize anyone and then have to deal with the repercussions of his behavior, good or bad.

Being a dick to your gang, your family, helps to flavor the story. Keep antagonizing Dutch, for example, and he’ll just get mad enough to stop engaging. But talking shit to some random passerby can easily set off a gunfight. Arthur is more than capable in those situations, but sustained dickishness has consequences — I only saw one ending, but there are apparently four in total, influenced by the choices you make.

Your good and bad behavior is tracked on a visible morality meter, defined as “Honor.” Starting fights, committing crimes, and gunning down innocents swings Arthur toward the red, dishonorable end of the meter, while refusing payment for good deeds done and helping people in need edges it into honorable territory.

I played Arthur as a mostly good dude, and I tended to see big payouts from bounty hunting activities — you’re not the only one out there committing crimes, after all. Rockstar’s review documentation suggests that dishonorable behavior carries effects of its own, such as more money earned from petty larceny.

Red Dead Redemption 2

You can ostensibly avoid some of the heat from committing crimes by wearing Arthur’s trusty bandit mask. But it’s buried in a sub-menu and seems to work only some of the time — or at least, I didn’t notice a benefit whenever I put the mask on. The police still found me out and made my life hell.

Good and bad behavior also earns you a reputation wherever you go. As you commit crimes in a particular area, the bounty on your head grows, which in turn makes it harder to get around and manage your resources — shops close their doors to you, paid stagecoach rides (a form of fast-travel) won’t welcome you, and bounty hunters appear intermittently to collect the price on your head.

Complicating all of this is the basic challenge of just getting around in RDR2‘s world. This must be the largest and most detailed virtual space Rockstar has ever built. The entire world map from the first Red Dead Redemption is in there (sans Mexico), but it’s just one U.S. state out the five you pass through over the course of the game.

The map’s size alone doesn’t pose a problem for long-distance travel, it’s your means of transport. Arthur spends the bulk of the game getting around on horseback; trains and stagecoaches become increasingly viable as you uncover more of the map (as does a camp-based fast travel), but you’ll inevitably end up riding your horse from any drop-off points in order to reach your final destination.

The slower pace of long distance travel helps to keep this story focused.

You can build up a bond with your favorite horse over time, unlocking new skills and better stats in the process (the same goes for Arthur’s other stats, like health and stamina). But even the best, $1,000-plus horses (a pricey purchase in this game) can only go so fast, and taking them off road is often a recipe for disaster — especially since your horse is dead forever when it loses all its health, unless you happen to have a horse reviver tonic in your inventory.

Don’t take these constraints as a negative, however. Sure, exploring widely and at your leisure isn’t as easy here as it is in something like Grand Theft Auto V. But Arthur’s existence is very gang- and family-centric by design. You can range out farther, but the game gives you few reasons to do so because your story is inevitably unfolding in (relatively) close proximity to Dutch and company.

In other words: The slower pace of long distance travel helps to keep this story focused. It also encourages you to really engage with the mind-boggling level of detail layered into RDR2‘s early America. Unmarked points of interest and unexpected gatherings don’t crowd in enough to be a nuisance, but they pop up frequently.

This is all good stuff, but it comes with a heavy investment. You won’t finish in a week without putting in an unhealthy amount of time (trust me, I know from personal experience). This is a game that raises a middle finger to the content binge. You’re meant to soak in this world, this story, over multiple weeks if not months.

Like I said at the outset, it’s a journey.

Not for everyone, however. If the pace and style of action prevalent throughout Rockstar’s open world games isn’t usually your thing, RDR2 won’t change your mind. This is a bigger, better version of the first game in terms of the story structure and feel, so those who lean more toward RDR than GTA will find a lot to like.

Red Dead Redemption 2

There’s also a lot of features that the game doesn’t do a great job of teaching. There are multiple challenges you can chase, for example, and completing them often leads to the unlocking of stat-boosting items. But it’s easy to miss out on all of this unless you dive into the pause menu and start poking around.

Also, technical performance wasn’t an issue for me as I played the game on a PlayStation 4 Pro, and I’d guess it’ll be a similar experience for Xbox One X players. But I didn’t have a chance to check it out on the first generation of PS4 hardware and can’t speak to how it plays.

Before we put a cap on this, there’s one final thing I want to highlight: the music.

Fans of movies from Sergio Leone and the “Spaghetti Western” genre will perk up at every suspenseful chase or gunfight. While there’s nothing quite as iconic as Ennio Morricone’s instantly recognizable theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, all of RDR2‘s top musical moments capture that same spirit. It’s perfectly fitting for what Rockstar delivers in this Old West story.

So there you have it. I haven’t even touched on the heavy spoilers (and won’t!), but I can tell you that this sequel makes both the first game and John Marston’s overall story better and more meaningful. Red Dead Redemption 2 is at once a startling evolution of the Rockstar Games formula and everything a fan could hope for from a Red Dead Redemption sequel.

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