Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 earned more than $725 million in its first three days on the market, shipping some 17 million copies since its October 26 release.
That is a big game.
Ten-gallon-hat-and-a-large-silver-belt-buckle big. As big as the Old West itself. And, of course, the lure of that vast untamed digital West is the big draw here.
We Americans have always had a love affair of sorts with the lawless and crazy West of our past, a land of gunfights, horse chases, cattle drives, blossoming towns, burgeoning railways, gritty heroes, foul villains and awesome landscapes that snatch our breath away.
Rockstar Games has pulled out all the stops to capitalize on that yearning, epic nostalgia. And the designers have done it very effectively … in both good and not so good ways.
This title is actually a prequel to the events of the first Red Dead Redemption. But even though there's a narrative through line connecting the two games, RDR2 feels almost completely independent of its precursor, which was released back in 2010. What we get here is a cinematic and immersive story chronicling the last gurgling death throes of the Wild West.
The Gang's All Here
Gamers play as Arthur Morgan, the trusted right-hand man to Dutch Van der Linde, himself the leader of the infamous Van der Linde gang. As the story begins, the gang scurries away from a heist in a place called Blackwater after the job goes terribly wrong. Now they're in the mountains, on the run and on the verge of starvation. And they're barely surviving, thanks to the ravages of a swirling, deadly snowstorm around them. It's a struggle just to stay alive as they hunt, fight for food, battle surrounding gangs and look for ways to keep moving to the next town, the next bank robbery, the next quick-draw taste of life … or death.
In the game's initial mission tutorials, players learn about the general mechanics of gameplay, which range from gunfights to horseback riding, from hunting to fishing, and all of the other actions and duties that you might expect to fulfill if you were physically plopped down into that savagely Wild West world.
Sometimes those responsibilities are as mundane as bonding with your horse or making sure you keep your body weight up. Other times, players must take care of the gang's needs: getting supplies and ammunition, setting up camp, heading off on rescue missions.
Then there are moral choices to consider, too. As you might expect in this often amoral Western setting, there are scores of choices to make that impact you. Do you stop and help that stranded guy with the broken wagon wheel or aid the fellow keeling over from a snake bite? Do you threaten someone who witnessed a crime? Do you ride out and kill just because it suits your fancy?
Each choice results in a gain or loss of Honor that shifts the meter on your morality system—impacting how other people react to you, how much money you'll earn, etc. As in real life, the choices you make can come back to haunt you months or years later. You may find a bit of redemption, like the title suggests. But probably not a whole lot. And running into the widow whose life you devastated when you murdered her husband long ago can be an emotionally difficult experience.
The Price of That Quick Draw
Frankly, that's what Red Dead Redemption 2 is really all about: experiences. Difficult, gritty, hard-riding, dig-in-your-spurs experiences that crowd in on you and seep into your pores like a dollop of mink oil rubbed into a weathered leather saddle. Of course, it's all those real-feeling, real-sounding and slowly seeping-in adventures that can tan your figurative hide in lots of nasty ways, too.
For all of Arthur Morgan's potentially good-guy attributes, after all, he is a criminal, an antihero. Even if a gamer tries to choose the straight and narrow, Arthur will still find himself in scores of fist fights and gun battles. And gamers get to see it all up close. In-game slow-motion effects highlight well-placed headshots and critical wounds as blood spouts and sprays and spills.
Frankly, no matter what, Arthur and others will do some horrible things. Murder, torture and other forms of bloody carnage are regularly on tap. Murdered men get tossed away like so much pig chow. Revolvers, rifles, tomahawks and arrows top the lists of the deadly implements at hand. Gatling guns blow off limbs and heads explode.
On top of all that, this Western world is a place of hard-knuckled lust, racism and misogyny. Sexual assault is only a full shot glass or two away. In fact, Arthur can stand outside a tent and listen from start to finish as a couple has a coital encounter. And in the towns he might visit a saloon and walk in on couples in the midst of sex (where players see side nudity and women straddling men).
Language? Well, that's a consistently foul spittoon swim, too. F-words, s-words, blasphemies of God's and Jesus' name, and scores of lessor crudities fill the dialogue. And while wandering the saloon halls, players can also drink and drink and drink to blurry-eyed excess as Arthur staggers and vomits his way toward a blackout. Characters smoke and chew tobacco, too, both of which feature healing and damaging effects.
Without question, Rockstar's gamemakers have poured high-def heart, hate and heat into Red Dead Redemption 2. And it shows. But the West was called "wild" for a reason. And a hundred hours wandering through this M-rated digital wild can leave behind plenty o' scars, partner.