Editor’s note: This review was originally conducted in a podcast format, available as a video above or right here as an audio file. A summary of the review follows.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is, in many ways, a pretty staggering video game. First and foremost, it is staggering in its scope. An open-world game in the grand tradition of Rockstar‘s lengthy catalogue in the genre, RDR2 offers up an Old West world that is massive in scale, teeming with life and activity, and astoundingly, exhaustingly detailed. It tells an uneven, but highly enjoyable tale set 12 years before the events of the first game, and largely affords its large cast of characters far more opportunities to endear themselves to the player than any other Rockstar production I’ve ever played. In the 60-plus hours I spent poking through every corner of RDR2’s world, I constantly found myself getting lost in both the myriad activities it provides, and the simple pleasures of walking through its diverse and gorgeously rendered environments.
And as I worked my way through this staggering game, I couldn’t help but repeatedly think about the staggering amount of work that went into creating the game. I probably would have had that thought irrespective of recent events, just by virtue of how unusually polished the whole experience feels. But the recent reporting on conditions at Rockstar’s various studios in the lead-up RDR2 undoubtedly intensified those thoughts. No matter how transfixed I became by the “magic” of what this game does, I found it difficult to shake the sensation that everything I was experiencing came at unreasonable expense.
The story follows the adventures of Arthur Morgan, right-hand man to charismatic gang leader Dutch van der Linde. Players of the original Red Dead will recall that this gang is the one previous protagonist John Marston originated from. At this stage of history, Arthur, Dutch and crew are on the run following a failed job in the town of Blackwater. Throughout the story, the gang exists in a transient state. Moving from state to state, the crew finds itself mixed up in a wide variety of misadventures as they try to regather themselves and pull together the funds they need to finally disappear. As Arthur, you are essentially the gang’s fixer. In addition to participating in the various robberies and related crimes that take place throughout the game, you’ll also find yourself in charge of the gang’s camp, a bustling communal space where you collect quests, manage resources, and just exist alongside the various personalities that encapsulate the gang.
This is the best aspect of the game, not necessarily from any gameplay perspective, but rather in terms of overall immersion in the world. One of RDR2’s greatest strengths is the lengths it goes to in order to make its world feel like it is breathing on its own. Other Rockstar open world games have largely focused on centering the player in every way. Everything is typically built like a playground, chock full of activities that exist at the forefront, while the various NPCs just sort of mill around. Here, the various cities, camps, and wild areas all feel like they are moving along at a lifelike pace. When you’re in your gang camp, you’ll see people doing chores, reading, playing games, and engaging in conversations that have nothing in particular to do with whatever quest you’re about to embark upon. These personalities, these people, are the core of what makes RDR 2 go. There is a humanity to these characters that Rockstar games don’t typically seem all that invested in portraying.
The story itself does not always do right by its cast of characters, but its primary tale of Arthur’s journey through the gang’s final days is an extremely compelling one. The performance of Rob Clark as Arthur is a big part of that, but the writing is strong too. His motives are understandable, and his internal conflicts are thoughtfully portrayed throughout the campaign. Many of the other personalities around him are loud and cartoonish in ways you’d expect, but few of them feel like pure caricature. Where the writing does falter, it’s largely around the margins of that core story. Its attempts at delving deeper into conflict between indigenous people and the US military feel too steeped in cliche to say anything of note, some of the various stranger missions peppered throughout the world are blandly obnoxious in the way the worst GTA missions can be, and there is more than a little seemingly unexamined irony in the story repeatedly making villains out of tyrannical capitalists and demagogues who work their people half to death entirely to their own benefit.
The most gobsmacking thing about RDR2 is how all its various systems and characters are weaved into its world. Right from the jump, the game drops numerous tutorials about hunting, crafting, shooting, horse bonding, and a million other things both big and small. Some of these systems are more important than others, but there are opportunities to engage with them on a near constant basis. All these pieces, all these systems, are remarkably blended into the game world. The sheer number of mechanisms all working behind the scenes are exhausting enough to think about, but the way Rockstar has obscured all those gears grinding in the background is its most impressive trick. In most open world games it’s not long before you can start seeing the seams. If not outright bugs and glitches–which RDR2 has, albeit in much smaller volume than you might expect–you’ll eventually come upon quests and activities that feel like they’ve been copied from somewhere else in the game. Think about Far Cry‘s various towers, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey‘s bandit camps and timed missions. Very little of RDR2 has that sensation. From the biggest missions right down to the smallest interactions, all of this stuff feels like it was constructed individually. I was inspired to do missions that I might have ignored in a more repetitive game because each one had its own distinct thing going on. I almost never thought of ticking off checkboxes as I went.
You sense this everywhere you go in RDR2. I spent long stretches in the towns and cities following NPCs around to see where they went, what they interacted with. When out in the countryside, I constantly found myself standing still as I watched wildlife scurry around, and the wind blow through the grass and trees. This is a slow game, one where huge stretches involve little more than riding or walking from place to place, drinking in the atmosphere that surrounds you. This is a sensation I expect some players will bristle at. Arthur moves at a methodical pace, and while there are some sections where the controls feel flat out unintuitive or unresponsive, more often it’s just a matter of letting Arthur’s animations play out. And there are so many of them. So many. If you want to pick up a gun, skin an animal, even open a damn drawer, you’ll have to watch him go through a realistically, if slowly paced animation for it. Hell, every major character in this game has their own distinctive way of moving through the world. It is a ludicrous amount of animation. Ludicrous.
Details like this are easy to fixate on, especially when considering the amount of work poured into it. No one detail is by itself remarkable, but all these little details, these exhaustively rendered things, overwhelm the senses from the beginning and never really let up. The thing of it is, though, Red Dead Redemption 2 would still have been a pretty remarkable game without all these little details. They impress, no doubt, but knowing what we know about how Rockstar put people to work to make all those little things go, it’s understandable to question whether it was necessarily worth all of that effort. In Kotaku’s most recent reporting on the company’s work culture, there’s an anecdote at the beginning describing the way the game reframes the camera into a letterboxed shot every time it shifts from gameplay to a cutscene. This was apparently decided upon very late in the development cycle, and required members of the cinematics team to put in numerous overtime hours to rework. Does this particular feature look cool? Totally. Would I ever have noticed it wasn’t there had they opted not to put their employees through a great deal of extra work to make this happen? Absolutely not.
This is what it ultimately comes down to with Red Dead Redemption 2. It is an incredible achievement in open world gaming, an intricate machine that disguises its machinery better than just about anything else that’s come before. In addition to its lengthy and engrossing campaign, it delivers moments of emergent storytelling more compelling than anything I can ever remember playing. Graphically and aurally, it is top-to-bottom stunning. And all that came at an expense of labor that, while in no way unusual for an industry steeped in a culture of endless crunch and burnout, nonetheless cannot be dismissed. How do you reconcile those two things? Do you boycott the game? Do you buy it to support the people who worked the hardest on it? I do not have that answer for you. I’m not sure anyone does at this stage. What I can say is that Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the best games I’ve ever played, and alongside the accolades the quality of its production richly deserves, it should always be noted what the circumstances were for those tasked with producing it. That is the asterisk this brilliant game should bear for as long as people feel like talking about it. The people who developed Red Dead Redemption 2–both credited and uncredited–should rightfully feel proud of all they have accomplished. Likewise, they should be afforded the opportunity to continue making games under circumstances more cognizant of, and beneficial to, their livelihoods going forward.