At this point, one week after the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, you’ve made up your mind about whether you’ll purchase the game. There isn’t a lot of fence-sitting surrounding perhaps the most-anticipated game of the year, which is one of a handful of games released in 2018 that have literal years of anticipation behind them — from God of War, to Spider-Man, to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, to Fallout 76, to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. That’s without even mentioning Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Ni No Kuni 2, and on and on and on.
But Red Dead Redemption 2 stands head and shoulders above the rest. From the moment its first trailer dropped, there’s been a collective ebb and flow between breath-holding and breathless wonder among all gamers. It’s been more than eight years since Red Dead Redemption was released, and fans of Rockstar’s instant smash have been playing and replaying the game in the years since. That love for RDR, and the fact that it’s been five years since Grand Theft Auto V dropped, has helped create the perfect storm where Red Dead Redemption 2 landed the largest opening weekend for any form of entertainment, ever.
All of that is to say that you’re either on team RDR2 or you aren’t, and much of that has to do with the precise juggernaut that Rockstar has created with their open-world, tortured-male-protagonist, shoot-people-if-you-wanna romps. They created the genre, they perfected it, and they keep getting better at it. Red Dead Redemption 2 is likely Rockstar’s finest game to date. It’s their most mature game in terms of graphic subject matter and nuance. It’s their most sumptuous, it’s their most sprawling, and it’s designed to be exactly what you want it to be. Luckily for them, people are going to want it to be exactly what it is.
This game is wonderful. It moves entirely at the pace of the player, with minimal urging to move along to the next chapter of the story and with exactly as much info as you need to find out where that next chapter lies. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to keep playing the story, or just hunt or ride around or dig for dinosaur bones or pet dogs or just try to grow the best beard you can. Much has been made of the scope of the map and the breadth of activities to take part in, and that’s absolutely correct.
But it’s still fairly striking how narrow the story at the center of the game is. Yes, this is a prequel. It’s a game about a group of outlaws trying to carve out a life for themselves in a hostile land, playing within their own swath of morality. You are in complete control of whether you punch a horse, shoot a stranger, rob a priest, or just go scavenging for herbs. Your morality meter will gain you honor and a reputation as a stand-up feller if you tip your cap and lend a hand … or you’ll rack up bounties, stern looks, and a whisper network of terror if you shoot first and loot bodies later.
It all amounts to one tortured man trying to carve out a life for himself, and we’ve seen that story before.
I believe that video games are very much art, and that there have already been a great number of artistic games released this year. RDR2 is a work of art. The game is breathtaking from the opening credits, which find your character’s gang holing up in a small town in the middle of a blizzard. This opening stretch moves seamlessly between gameplay, tutorial, and cutscenes interspersed with score and credits that combine with the snowy setting to evoke The Hateful Eight. I can’t imagine that’s accidental, as the specter of Tarantino looms large over the house Rockstar Games has built.