Red Dead Redemption 2 review: The best game of the year, and possibly the best movie
Enthralling and immersive to an unprecedented degree, Rockstar's latest game is somewhere to unwind not get wound up
Fantastic though the Grand Theft Auto series is at satirising the modern world, you’d be justified in wanting to just completely escape this hellscape we seem to be creating for ourselves. The timing couldn’t be better, then, for the return of its transporting Wild West offshoot: Red Dead Redemption.
I’ve spent 10 days with Red Dead Redemption II now, which is enthralling and immersive to a degree perhaps unprecedented in gaming. Its great success is that you don’t so much look forward to completing the game so much as merely spending time in it. The game is not just a masterful technical achievement but an exercise in mindfulness.
Arthur Morgan is the protagonist in this 1899-set prequel, which newcomers to the series should be reassured doesn’t require you be up to speed on the events of the original. Morgan is an integral member of the Van der Linde gang, a band of outlaws still trying to ply their trade at a time when a “band of outlaws” isn’t really a thing anymore. America is slowly becoming more urban-centric; this is the story of a group of men either unfit for, or just refusing to adapt to, a new way of life. That’s about as much scene-setting as we need, as the game’s plot unravels slowly and is a joy to experience for yourself, building slowly like a wave far from the shore.
Visually, Red Dead Redemption II is breathtaking, and manages the kind of leap forward in graphics you don’t expect at the tail-end of a console generation. (The game is available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4). The weather is so tangibly rendered that you’ll realise you never really had cause to look up in games before. The lighting is so localised – pools of it forming around light sources – that you’ll wonder how you didn’t notice how flatly lit games are that came before it. The textures, meanwhile, are sumptuous; jump on top of a train and it will really feel like there’s tons of iron beneath you rather than just a 2D plane. Oh, and the colour; this is a vibrant world, not one in the washed-out brown that’s dutifully applied to most Westerns.
The physics get a similarly impressive update. There’s no pawing at thin air to open doors here, or reaching inside one’s own stomach to retrieve a weapon, and the realism of movement means you hardly ever get those unwelcome reminders that you’re actually playing a game. Characters can finally multitask, and are visually impacted by their actions in a more permanent way than we’ve seen before.
You notice this most in accumulation. You might find yourself, for instance, riding a horse that’s dirty from the river you crossed yesterday morning. A deer carcass is slumped on its hindquarters, and your shirt is still covered in blood from when you skinned the spoils of your hunt. Your hat came off in a gunfight days ago, and your face is bruised from the fistfight that went down at a saloon you will not be welcome at for a good few days. You’re lighting a cigarette as your horse trots along beneath you, while still holding a conversation with a stranger by the side of the trail.
This is, however, to assume that the stranger hasn’t been put off conversing with you after word spread of your altercation, as that’s another key improvement with RDR2 – how the game remembers. Gone are the days of a non-playable character sauntering off down the road moments after being pistol-whipped, or an ally having selective amnesia about the heist you staged only the night before. Characters will engage you on past events here and reference what you’re wearing or carrying. If you look like sh*t, chances are someone will let you know. The fact that actions have consequences in this game makes you consider them more carefully; is it really worth stealing pocket change and a pot of hair pomade from a chest of drawers in a hotel lobby, if it might result in you being barred from the majority of that town’s establishments for a few days?
The changes in RDR2 are pretty unequivocally positive, but this aspect is about as close as one gets to controversial. There’s no running indoors, because that would be weird behaviour. There’s no immediately going from standing to full gallop on horseback, because that defies the laws of acceleration. There’s no whistling your horse from five miles away, because obviously you don’t have the lungs of God himself. Video games have traditionally ignored these things in pursuit of immediacy and flow, but RDR2 asks you to respect them. It intentionally slows the pace of the game down, which I think is necessary, but may irk more impatient gamers.
The intense realism of the game gives it a strong cinematic quality, and there are more explicit efforts in pursuit of this. When the action transitions from player-controlled to cutscene, it does so seamlessly, the camera simply narrowing in, with the aspect ratio shifting to widescreen. Similarly, the tedium of very long journeys has been mitigated with montages, the travelling conveyed in much the same way that a film would. These artistic flourishes, coupled with the thoughtful dialogue – which always puts character before mission information – amount to a pretty compelling piece of scripted content. RDR2 feels like what you’d get if the Coen brothers decided to make their next Western a video game. Back-to-back, the cutscenes may not quite be the rich filmic experience many of us are hoping gaming will one day achieve, but as a piece of world-building, it’s superior to most films and television series I’ve seen this year.
It’s not that RDR2 is revolutionary, per se. Missions, side-missions, tasks and challenges are still initiated in much the same way they have been in open-world games for a while now, but every element of gameplay has been revisited, rethought and deepened, creating a paradigm shift for gaming.
I could spend hours detailing all the tiny details that make RDR2 sing, from the well-thumbed catalogues in the gun stores that replace the wheels of weapon choices nonsensically hovering in mid-air, to the way Morgan loops a dead snake like a length of rope before stowing it on the saddle of his horse, from which it swings all the way home. But it’s the overall sense of escapism to the game that has most impacted me.
Maybe I’m atypical/peculiar/incredibly sad for getting immense satisfaction from simply chopping wood back at camp, picking up a cup of joe and reflecting on the past week’s misadventures with other gang members around the campfire. But if you value this kind of minutiae, some really absorbing moments await you. RDR2 can still be played as a shooter, and not wishing to obsessively braid your horse or source leather upholstery for your camp’s table won’t hold you back, but the game rewards patience and the appreciation of the little things.
Fraught and frenetic, video games can often stress you out and leave you wired and edgy. But Red Dead Redemption II has had a calming effect, and been a place to unwind rather than get wound up. It’s a window from our complex and often dysfunctional world into a more pastoral and simple one. Early death from gangrene or shotgun slug shrapnel aside, it really starts to look quite appealing.
Red Dead Redemption II is released on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on 26 October