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LTTP: Red Dead Redemption 2 (X1)

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I noticed a resemblance between Red Dead Redemption 2 and the Star Wars film prequels. Both were self-indulgent, meticulous, and comprehensive to a fault. Fortunately, unlike with George Lucas’ treatment of Star Wars, I felt Rockstar told their story remarkably well and stitched the two Red Dead games together in a compelling manner.

Exploring the events leading up to Dutch Van der Linde’s gang’s demise was worthwhile but I don’t know if they needed to tie up every loose end. They went out of their way to ensure every connective tissue between the two games were formed. They developed a few threads to the point where one could conceivably roll right into Red Dead Redemption without missing any pertinent information. They left very little to the imagination in those key areas.

Meticulous attention paid off for Rockstar’s world building. Fictitious 1898 America never looked better — on both macro and micro levels. These developers simulated the scent of living things for the sole purpose of a more realistic hunting experience for crying out loud. On top of a gorgeous weather and time of day systems, temperatures differed between areas of the map which required the game’s protagonists, Arthur Morgan and John Marston, to don the appropriate attire or face gameplay ramifications. They’re no longer content with including visible detail.

Differing aesthetics were one thing but different areas of the map yielded different populations, cultures, and languages. The sprawling city of St. Denis featured authentic and convincing Cantonese immigrants crossing paths with snooty French patrons looking to build more wealth in America.

Beyond cultural diversity, there were glimpses into the social and economical issues of the time. Racism, sexism, treatment of indigenous peoples, corporate manipulation, and climate change were just some of the topics and themes that permeated throughout. I didn’t feel they said anything radical for today’s standards but I imagine Dutch and Arthur’s progressive views were not so commonplace back then. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Dutch’s motives were not entirely selfless.

Arthur couldn’t afford to be entirely selfless either; he had to meet his own needs in order to survive. He had to hunt, cook, and eat so he wouldn’t waste away. He had to watch what he ate or he would find himself poisoned or overweight. Cigarettes, cigars, and bourbon helped restore the slow motion Dead Eye meter, but they were detrimental to his health. He had to manage his hygiene for the same reason. I could have left his hair and beard to grow into a shaggy mess but for amusing vanity reasons, I visited the barber and shaved often.

The cowboy simulation was just getting started.

On top of all of that, Arthur had to manage his horse’s grooming, dietary, mental, and emotional needs as well. I had to calm it down when it was spooked and show it love in order to develop a bond in order to pull off sick horse drifts. And if that wasn’t enough, I had to maintain my guns with gun oil or else risk wielding a weaker weapon.

Those were the more immediate needs that walked the line of tedium. There was also the semi-optional management of the gang’s camp. Thankfully, these were strictly optional and my neglect of those chores didn’t adversely affect the moment to moment gameplay. Since I was trying to steer Arthur Morgan towards the honorable side of life, I partook in some menial chores.

There was a lot to do in Red Dead Redemption 2 and that’s not counting the more entertaining aspects like the mini-games or theatrical shows. Dominoes? Poker? Silent films? French ladies doing the cancan? They were all there alongside the stranger missions.

I adored the stranger missions in Red Dead Redemption and I adored them just as much here. They brought interesting flavors to the world of Red Dead and I found myself beelining towards them before any other mission. Revisiting areas or choosing to avoid fast traveling often yielded something interesting. It took me a long, long time before I felt that I wrung out the fun from the world. Even now, I still have reasons to go back.

Rewarding exploration is tough to accomplish in itself but rewarding people watching and observation? Rockstar often ensured you got something from that too. There was a fair amount of optional fluff happening around Arthur’s life that wasn’t explicitly highlighted. Hanging out at the camp and checking in between missions provided morsels of entertainment. Stories and concerns of other gang members was shared with Arthur if he inquired. He would also witness altercations and conservations amongst the NPCs. All of these tidbits were optional and I respected that. I could safely ignore it all if I just cared about the shooty shooty bang bang part of this game.

I don’t know why any one would forgo all that world building in favor for the action though. Quite frankly, Red Dead Redemption 2’s moment to moment action wasn’t very good. It’s been years since I played Red Dead Redemption but I felt this prequel’s action was lifted from 2010 and polished up for 2018. It was serviceable then and it’s serviceable now. When the challenge came down to managing Dead Eye meter versus waves upon waves of cowpoke, I felt like I was just going through the motions. It was a noticeable step up from the chores around camp but still a bit of a chore.

Staying on main story mission scripts was the real challenge for me. I couldn’t looting everything — even during the “tense” shootout sequences. I often witnessed fellow NPC gang members die because I was looting. Considering how easily Arthur shrugged off bullets, it was really the only way to maintain urgency.

There were times when I kept to the heavily scripted missions. Towards the end, my dislike for Dutch and Micah grew to the point where I desperately wanted to shoot the two of them. I knew the game wasn’t going to allow me to create a time paradox but I gave it a desperate try. Like Arthur, I felt bound to script that didn’t make sense.

Sadie Adler was the highlight character of the game. She snuck onto the scene and became a driving force of action that I got behind. She followed her sense of justice and didn’t take gruff from anyone. She demonstrated a lot of emotional, mental, and physical strength that I admired.

I witnessed Dutch and Arthur evolve along with other minor characters throughout the game, but not of them were fleshed out as I hoped. Bill and Javier were loyal to Dutch until the very end but I couldn’t glean their motivations.

Fortunately, the common thread tying all the characters together were their superb performances. Rockstar Games were in their element here.

Technical performance concerns kept me waiting for the PC release ; I wanted to play this game at 60 FPS and I still do. With hindsight though, I’m glad I decided on the $20 Xbox One X version because I may have ended up capping the framerate at 30 FPS on the PC version regardless. My NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 with its measly Core i5 6600K would have felt short of my goals for the game. To my surprise, the Xbox One X performed admirably with a few unpleasant but tolerable spots. It was typically a smooth 30 FPS throughout the game with noticeable dips in taxing areas like St. Denis.

Even in the most ideal conditions, controlling Arthur was akin to moving a boat in water. It wasn’t unwieldy but it was certainly not meeting high benchmarks set by other third person shooters like Uncharted or Gears. In a game where you can offend people by bumping, let alone, with accidental punches to the face, these sluggish controls forced me to adapt to the game’s animation priority. Blitzing around a crowded St. Denis at full tilt required a high degree of finesse.

The music continued the Rockstar way of going full bore. Unlike with other areas, the music stood out unblemished in its execution. It was always there to set the mood without getting in the way. I didn’t notice how affecting it was until the back third of the game where things have begun to go awry.

Max Payne 3 showed what Rockstar Games can do in a confined space; an opulent game filled with spectacle, detail and ideas that few studios can even attempt. It took them a while, but Red Dead Redemption 2 finally reached that standard on an open world scale. That’s not easy. It’s not easy to reign in ambition and not overburden on details. While they and stumbled in some areas and obsessive in others, by and large, Red Dead Redemption 2 was a great experience.

Ratings Guide

I loved it

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