BY C S ARMSTRONG: Red Dead Redemption II was eagerly awaited by rootin’ tootin’ fans for eight long years. The hype train was long, packed and spluttered a plume of wild west anticipation. Rockstar Games weren’t just dragging their spurs, they took the time to make a monumental achievement in game design.
The effort was instantly rewarded. RDR2 enjoyed the most successful opening weekend in entertainment history to date, taking over 725 million dollars in just three days. Sales continued to ride high and it went on to outsell its predecessor’s entire lifespan sales in just two weeks. As of February 2020, it has shipped 29 million copies.
Red Dead Redemption II also held up and shook down critics for near perfect scores and a swag bag full of nominations and awards. The game’s success, both critical and commercial, hit harder than a six shooter. The merits and qualities of the game can’t be denied but the game, like a good western hero, also has its flaws.
Red Dead Redemption II’s story has split opinion among fans and reviewers, having been both praised and criticised. All the ingredients for a great story are here; well crafted characters, varied action, building tension, conflict and high stakes. But in the end the story falls short of the first game’s climatic and blood soaked ending.
RDR2 suffers from “The Prequel Problem”, there are countless examples of this narrative issue at work in the world of cinema. A very pertinent example is the 1979 film Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, which also suffered under the burden of a problematic prequel in much the same way.
A prequel can be a very effective and creative narrative technique. It can be used to expand on an original work, delve deeper into characters motivations and origins, and tell new perspectives on existing events.
However, a prequel also has certain limitations and difficulties it must overcome in order to stand on its own feet. Writing a good prequel can be a challenge as there is only a limited amount of wiggle room for creativity and development, due to many of the characters and events already being set in canonical stone.
Think of it like a child’s colouring book, a prequel needs to live up to the blueprint that already exists on the page, it needs to stay inside the clear lines of the character and setting, but also needs to bring new creativity and life to those blank spaces. Bad prequels tend to “go outside the lines” and suffer greatly as a result.
Red Dead Redemption II certainly stays inside the lines, in fact it bolds the lines in ink as it goes. This actually works against the game though as it’s central story arch is all too predictable, but how can it not be given the events of the first game.
Here lies RDR2’s main problem from a narrative perspective: it is painted into a corner by the bloody redemption of its predecessor. How can we invest in the struggle and plight of Arthur and the Van Der Linde Gang when we already know the glum bullet ridden fate which awaits them? Fundamentally, knowing the ultimate conclusion of events robs RDR2 of the narrative drive Red Dead Redemption has under its bandolier.
Too often a prequel is used with ham fisted greed to squeeze out any remaining cash from a failing or dead franchise. This is certainly not the case with Red Dead Redemption II but I would bet my pot at the five finger fillet table that it is a prequel through necessity rather than creative inspiration.
Some of Red Dead Redemption II’s greatest achievements are also the buckshot in it’s story’s side. The game has a very deliberate pace, almost glacially slow, which gives a player all the time they need to soak in the wonderfully detailed world around them.
The issue is that pacing is incredibly important to the flow and effectiveness of a good storyline, it is not something you can stop and start as you please. While playing RDR2 you feel a very distinct separation of your time in the world between scripted story time and free roam exploration.
This divide hugely impacts the main story’s ability to maintain any real sense of dramatic pace throughout the game. If you played RDR2 through by only doing the main story missions and barely straying off the marked path, the story may hold up superbly with near cinematic pacing, but to do so would be to miss out on the real beauty of the game.
The world of Red Dead Redemption II is quite frankly breathtaking. We have maybe never seen a game world so lovingly crafted, exquisitely detailed or wondrous as this title. It is incredibly easy to get lost in the sheer beauty and wild abundance of this world.
From vastly varied and gorgeous terrains, a cornucopia of wildlife and fauna, a wide array of interesting and bizarre NPCs, more mini games than you can shake a pistol at, frequent random encounters, and a whole host of hidden secrets and easter eggs. RDR2’s environments are literally crawling with things to hunt, discover and explore.
Once you start delving in you realise the possum hole goes deeper than you could have ever imagined. The details in this game are utterly mind blowing and new ones are still being discovered and remarked upon close to two years after its release.
You have everything from the subtle world changes of settlements and railroads being built over the course of the game. Dynamic dialogue that changes to suit distance and setting of conversation. Dynamic weather which goes so far as to make being struck by lightning possible!
Blood splatter stays on your clothes or horse and must be washed off in order to avoid the scorn of the townsfolk. Animals hunt each other, possums actually play dead when being hunted, abandoned animal carcasses rot and the scent attracts other animals.
Light even shines through ear cartilage in a realistic way, no wait we can top that, horse testicles dynamically react to changing weather temperature! If nothing else, it is a fine testament to the attention to detail that has been shown in the development and design of RDR2. No stone left unturned, no, erm, testicle left behind.
There is also a wealth of customisation options throughout the game. Everything from gun engravings to bespoke wardrobe, hair / facial hair styling, horse / saddle customisation, camp modification, trinkets and talismans, weapons and satchels. It can all be tweaked and tailored to a players particular taste.
With this level of detail and customisation available in the world, who can help but get lost in it. I’m not the only one that will have invested hours and hours of gameplay into just existing in the world of Red Dead Redemption II.
I spent days out hunting and exploring through the varied terrain, camping amidst the beauty of the wilderness. I spent hours tracking down horses, tense minutes taming them, then an embarrassingly long time styling and naming them to resemble fictional and mythical horses. I’m not sure what Shadowfax would make of being ridden by a dirty cowboy or having bloody animal skins stowed on his back but no matter.
Freeroam Arthur Morgan was MY Arthur and I cared about him in ways I seldom do with video game characters. I cared about his weight, his appearance and outfits. I’m not normally much of a fan of dress up but RDR2 got it’s clothespins in me somehow.
I found myself dressing Arthur up for specific events and locations. Obviously Arthur needs to be dressed in his finest when traveling the railroad into St Dennis, whereas a more rustic cowboy aesthetic is in order if Arthur is heading to Valentine to see a man about a horse.
In no other game have I found myself searching the floor after a bloody firefight in search of my favorite hat, then being proud that it still holds the hole from the bullet that took it off my head.
Of course with this kind of free reign over your environment the urge to conduct dastardly experiments soon wanders into your iron sights. I can’t deny the time I spent dragging helpless lassoed NPCs around behind Epona. Or trying to feed them to alligators. Or throwing them into rivers. Or the classic, leaving them hogtied on a train track. There’s plenty of ways to be a bad cowboy in Red Dead Redemption II if the mood should strike.
I have often mocked fishing mechanics in games as being tedious and unnecessary but while living in the world of RDR2 I genuinely found myself fishing for purely the purpose of relaxation. The world is so rich and engaging that it ultimately overshadows the game’s characters and story.
Telling a compelling and well structured story in an open world game is not an easy task to accomplish. Red Dead Redemption II, for all its triumphs and wonders, just falls short of this objective. But who really cares about the stories of a bunch of doomed men? The real story the game has to offer is the one you make yourself out in its gloriously wild wilderness, so forget about Dutch and the gang, just saddle up and ride for the hills. Yeehaa!