The original Red Dead Redemption is a fascinating, instructive point in the evolution of video game publisher Rockstar Games. As Grand Theft Auto‘s lampoon of American culture began to share space with more serious narrative aspirations and a desire for realism as great as—perhaps greater than—a desire for video game mayhem, here was a relatively straight-faced western. The story of John Marston was still visibly a Rockstar Games joint in both its concern with American decay and its detours into juvenile caricature, but it reiterated the company’s desire, demonstrated prominently in Grand Theft Auto IV, to be known as storytellers as much as provocateurs.
Red Dead Redemption 2, then, is the ambitious game Rockstar has been building toward for some time now, another relatively serious tale that gets tangled in its lofty aspirations. Marston is still around, but in this prequel he’s just another member of the ill-fated gang of the charismatic Dutch van der Linde. The protagonist this time around is Arthur Morgan, another stubbly white guy in a period-appropriate hat, albeit one of the few who seems aware that his way of life is approaching its end. The wide-open countryside gets less wide and open by the day, leaving fewer places to hide from the law and fewer places to be—as some of the characters bluntly put it—“free.”
The heart of Red Dead Redemption 2 is in the camp made by Dutch’s band of misfits, which shifts locations at different story points. This isn’t a small crew, encompassing as it does folks of different genders and ethnicities and ages who drag a few wagons’ worth of belongings behind them. Though traditional story missions come from the camp and other places like towns, these areas are most notable for the feeling of life they impart. Characters have chores and conversations and conflicts that go on independent of Arthur—and that might change to include him if he’s standing nearby.
Most significantly, Arthur can call out to and converse with any and all characters, whether they’re the named members of Dutch’s gang or townsfolk or strangers on the road. The dialogue is limited to only a few lines of being nice or being an asshole—or either escalating or defusing a situation if tempers run high—and there’s a palpable awkwardness to some of the exchanges, but they go quite a long way toward selling the all-important sense of place that the game is built on. Chatting with characters might reveal something about their anxieties or their interests, and the topic of conversation changes depending on what’s recently happened to these individuals. If, for example, two characters get into a fight and one storms off, you can hang back and say a few kind words—or further antagonize them.
Rockstar has taken the right lessons from the glut of open-world games they helped popularize, seeking to create a world that actually feels like a world rather than a collection of map icons you can choose to be guided to. There’s a focus on character and environment, a soft and refreshing restraint rather than a constant howl for your attention, that allows Red Dead Redemption 2 to stand shoulder to shoulder with the recent best of the format like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Assassin’s Creed Origins. Arthur has plenty of ways to spend his time, but none of those diversions are constantly flashing on the map screen to beckon him over. He’s not accosted by rival gangs at every corner, and the animals he can hunt don’t trot out in front of him all the time, ready to be killed and cooked. Events like duels, bar fights, and robberies play out whether he’s engaged with them or not.
Though there are upgrades for gear and characters stats, they don’t surface in the usual way that provides you with the constant feedback of other games, where you watch bars fill and numbers climb and loot accumulate. More often than not, rewards are the experience of learning about the people and places of the game’s world. If Arthur gives a ride to characters stranded on the side of the road, they’ll tell him about themselves, maybe say something useful about the ranch over the hill. Red Dead Redemption 2‘s activities and environments blend together with a seamlessness that chips away at the hard boundaries between story missions and traditional open-world diversions; various bounty targets or gunslingers come with their own stories, while a simple hunting trip with a companion might end up just as involved as a normal mission. At its best, the game is nothing short of transportive.
For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable.
Rockstar’s decision to cling to their antiquated movement design is especially baffling since the game isn’t shy about compromising its sense of authenticity for player convenience. As much as the game knows when to be quiet, to not drop you into one gunfight after another, Arthur noticeably arrives in the middle of each event for maximum irony and/or usefulness. The man on the road was just bitten by a snake, the train robbers have just finished unloading the passengers, and a rival gang has just opened the prison transport for their captured buddy. You rarely stumble into the aftermath of such events or arrive well before anything happens; it’s always around the height of the drama, which works against the idea of a world that appears not explicitly designed around the player. Elsewhere, you ostensibly have to monitor things like your hunger (and that of your horse), clothing relative to temperature, and the dirtiness for your guns, but these elements aren’t much more than periodic irritations rather than real commitments with an impact on play.
In other words, Red Dead Redemption 2‘s evocative, often beautiful sense of place exists insofar as it is still convenient to the player, which harms some of the desperation and hardship the game means to convey. This is best demonstrated in the bounty system, which never manages to verbalize the game’s themes about hopelessness and the recognition that you have nowhere left to run. Though your camp moves around and you’ll be wanted dead or alive in one area for a large chunk of the campaign, it’s distressingly easy to shake any bounties you accumulate by simply paying them off, as in the previous game. While this made some amount of sense for lone-wolf John Marston, it’s downright nonsensical for Arthur, who’s part of a gang on the run and supposedly looking over his shoulder every step of the way.
Though there are some intriguing systems in place to avoid becoming wanted in the first place, like covering Arthur’s face or changing his appearance, once he has a bounty, it’s a simple matter of traveling to the nearest post office to pay the $80 fine for murdering 20 lawmen and then being on your merry way. Red Dead Redemption 2 never quite squares its themes with the need to give players an open-world cowboy fantasy. And outside cutscenes and conversation, most of those themes don’t seem to exist.
Which isn’t to say that the game is particularly adept at conveying those themes in cutscenes and conversations in the first place. For as much of a pleasure as it can be to get to know some of the characters who inhabit its world, Red Dead Redemption 2 is at its worst when it tries to self-consciously make important statements. The game feels reserved and content to let the world speak for itself as you roam the beautiful vistas on horseback, but when Arthur or other characters speak about the impending death of the Old West, about the end of their era, they often sound as if the game might at any moment cut to a documentary-style talking head. This might have been tolerable if Red Dead Redemption 2 had any particular insight into the challenges faced by the people in this region of the world. It does not.
The myth of society, the inherent cruelty of people, the hypocrisy of treating predatory capitalists as a more civilized class—every warmed-over western theme is presented here without an ounce of subtlety and conveyed in the broadest possible strokes. Questioning the myth of the western is, at this point, almost as old as the base mythologizing that the genre did for so long, which leaves nothing unique to the game’s genre introspection. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most ambitious game Rockstar has put out, in how it wants to be about something as much as the scope of its open world, but its aspirations don’t go much further than transplanting the themes of better westerns into an incredibly long video game, where you don’t ruminate on those themes so much as bump into them every once in a while on a mission.
This whole Western 101 approach unsurprisingly comes with a ham-fisted grasp of politics. A woman eventually puts on a pair of pants, one character explains white privilege and why the people in the “southern” end of the map look at him funny, another says that Native Americans were—in what is at least acknowledged as being grossly reductive—“treated poorly,” and everyone contemplates different kinds of prejudice. And for hours upon hours, none of this injustice is explored in any real detail.
These detours into attempted social consciousness suffer from a similarly ridiculous into-the-camera bluntness before they’re pushed to the fringes of the larger story. It often feels as if Red Dead Redemption 2 is merely parroting what’s expected to be said when portraying such things, to show that the game at least recognizes what it’s portraying, so that it may sufficiently get away with rendering a town where the black folks live on the outskirts or having one character accuse another of fucking slaves.
Prejudice is chiefly a period-appropriate flavor, a patronizing tourism meant most of all to inform the myth of the white outlaw in a hypocritical society. People of color, particularly indigenous characters, are props to underscore the villainy or the comparative righteousness of white male characters. At one point, Arthur makes a laughable statement to some Native American characters that goes something like, “The government don’t like me any more than they like you, and like you, my time here is nearly finished.” After all, if the white outlaw can no longer be free, then who truly is?
What the game’s acknowledgement of these struggles does most of all, though, is make Arthur and his problems feel small by comparison. He’s not a terrible character. In fact, there’s a certain charm to his exasperation with everything, and it’s interesting how he’s resigned about who he is as someone who’s not made for any other line of work. But he’s weaker for being in the vicinity of a player-character blank slate, whose outfits, facial hair, and haircut may be changed. He seems written mainly as a snarky mouthpiece for the game’s well-worn themes, as if they aren’t explicitly conveyed elsewhere. Like Red Dead Redemption 2 itself, he looks the part and can even be enjoyable, but there’s distressingly little going on beneath the surface. For as adept as Rockstar is at placing you within a wonderful, lavish world and letting you move within it, they’re still figuring out how to say all that much about it.