Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, released in 2010, was what Grand Theft Auto always should have been. It had all the freedom of Rockstar’s more famous franchise, added in horses and heart, and took out much of the edgelord satire. Set in 1910, you played as John Marston, a former member of the Dutch van der Linde gang pressed into service by the government to hunt down his former compatriots. The game featured sprawling Western vistas, a wry and charming main character, and mournful, elegiac mood as Marston’s horse trotted alongside Model Ts. Even the game’s ending was stunning, one of the few in video-game history that genuinely surprised me and left me thinking for days afterward.
Eight years later, Rockstar returns with Red Dead Redemption 2. Set about ten years before the original, you play as Arthur Morgan, a senior gun in the Dutch van der Linde gang. The story begins in media res as your group trudges through a mountain pass in a bitter snowstorm after a ferry robbery has gone badly wrong. You eventually find refuge and set up camp, but spend the majority of the game being driven eastward by the press of the law and bad decisions.
Red Dead Redemption 2, first and foremost, is a technical marvel. Clear mountain sunshine glints off arcing rivers far below; heavy rain clouds drape shadows and shoot out splintered light over the plains; sunrise adds a salmon-pink hue to a world still covered in slight dew. Your movement through the world as you travel east creates distinct environments you can tell in a heartbeat from each other, whether it’s the red-dirt world of the postbellum South or the humid city air of St. Denis, the game’s proxy for New Orleans. The soundtrack adds to that, changing with each new landscape — accordions and horns pulse in the bayou, while mountain fiddle reels swirl when you make your way into coal country.
The people and animals that inhabit the world are wonderful. You will spend a great deal of time with horses, and each one ripples with finely detailed musculature, their coats going first glossy with sweat, and then duller with dust kicked up from the road. (One of the more genius innovations in the game, a “cinematic mode” camera that lets you set a waypoint and watch your horse gallop to it from a series of interesting angles, gives you plenty of time to admire all of this.) A constantly shifting ecosystem is all around: You can be carefully stalking an elk to the edge of a lake, only to have a bear come charging out of the woods to take it down in front of you, or watch a hawk through binoculars as it dives down toward the grass and comes up with a snake writhing in its talons.
People are similarly well-rendered. In combat, bodies jerk and then go limp with satisfying brutality; shooting a man off a horse only to watch his foot caught in a stirrup is fascinating and slightly sickening. Small muscle and eye movements allow characters to express complex emotions without words. Subtle details in movement — a hand on the edge of a door frame, a slight lean to avoid a hanging tree branch — all create the sense of a living, breathing world made by hand.
You could easily spend your entire time exploring the wilderness, but the game has a story to tell: the slow dissolution of the Dutch van der Linde gang. It’s a story that attempts to be about a lot of things — the meaning of America, what we owe to each other, the validity of modern civilization itself — but at heart it’s about the breakup of the de facto family that Arthur Morgan has been a part of for 20 years. You’ll go off adventuring, but you return to camp to drop off supplies and money, helping keep the stewpot bubbling and the whisky flowing.
If none of the Dutch van der Linde gang were people you wanted to spend time with, the whole thing would fall apart. Why go back to camp when the rest of the world is lovely and has plenty to do? But Rockstar has done stellar character work here, creating a cast of 23 characters that I reacted to as an extended family — I liked some, found others irksome, and in the end cared about all of them. When the elderly con man Hosea wanted to play dominoes with me, I was happy to spend 20 minutes chatting with him. Going drinking in town with Lenny, a young would-be lawyer turned gunslinger, is a laugh-out-loud moment of pure lunacy. One of my favorite moments was just listening to bawdy bank robber Karen softly sing “Lorena” while staring into a crackling fire.
The only character that rings false is gang patriarch Dutch van der Linde. He comes off almost immediately as an uncoy and manipulative narcissist who descends into monstrosity. To explain why Arthur Morgan and the others remain so loyal for so long, Dutch needs to be a towering, seductive figure with revolutionary ideas. But for most of the game’s running time, he either broods or beseeches others to stick with him. You run into several other gangs throughout the course of the game, and by the end I found myself wishing there was an option to apply for any open positions in their organizations.
I had similar doubts about Arthur Morgan himself, a simple and brutal man at the game’s outset, but he slowly begins to change, to wonder if perhaps a life well-lived means loansharking and sticking pistols in people’s faces. “Bad man feels bad for being bad” isn’t exactly the most original character arc in the world, but with Arthur it feels earned, and his regret and melancholy ring true. The journal he keeps, combined with Terrence Malick-ian moments of nature and dream logic when he rests, reveal something much more interesting than the man we meet at the start.
The game leans heavily on cinematic references, especially during the missions — I caught shot-by-shot references to movies like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Days of Heaven, and many more that likely passed me by unnoticed. These missions give Red Dead Redemption 2 its structure, but they also are where the game shows its age. There are many incredibly fun and inspired ideas: a high-wire bank heist, one very amusing foray into moonshine advertising, and a late-game ride in a hot-air balloon that is perhaps my favorite moment in a video game in years. But far too many missions can be broken down into three segments: a trot-and-talk sequence as you and your companion make your way for what should ostensibly be a simple task; a moment where things break bad; and then a sequence where you snipe, shotgun, and shoot down wave after wave of bad guys. Like the original Red Dead Redemption, you get a “Dead Eye” meter, which allows you slow down time to line up headshots with even greater accuracy, making combat more fun, but also more trivial. By the time you’ve fully upgraded your arsenal of rifles, revolvers, and repeaters, you could easily slaughter a battalion of men by taking cover behind a rock and smoking the occasional cigarette to refill your Dead Eye meter.
The bigger problem is that these missions are essentially small movies, and if you miss your mark, whether it’s getting separated from your gang members or just taking a slug to the head, you simply hit retry and start over from a checkpoint. While the game gives you some small choices to make — whether to send a fellow gang member to scout out a house, taking a group of enemies head-on or sneaking in from the back, cracking a bank’s vault quietly or blowing it up with dynamite — once you start a mission, you enter an amusement-park ride, a chute of gameplay where you can do very little except perform the actions as prescribed to you by Rockstar developers. Compared to the complete 360-degree freedom you experience when wandering the world at large, it feels constrained.
More than that, it feels antiquated. Last year’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild gave new life to the genre of open-world action games by making exploration truly exciting. My favorite moments from that game happened when someone would simply point to a distant mountain top, or give me a vague direction, and say “head there.” After that, it was up to me to figure out how. In Red Dead Redemption 2, those moments don’t really exist: You’re usually following someone who knows where to go, and the few times you pick out your own way, there’s a clear path set for you. There’s also question of story length — there’s a fantastic 40- or 50-hour game inside everything Rockstar has set out here, but it took me about 70 hours to make it through the main story. It’s an inversion of the old joke: the food, it’s so good and the portions are so large.
Maybe that’s why nearly all my favorite moments happened outside of missions: hiding in a swamp from a pair of bounty hunters, only to suddenly bolt as a gator snuck up on me; tracking and killing a brown bear with a bow and arrow for nearly 30 minutes; inadvertently killing a man while taking a shot at a rabbit on horseback, then being forced to kill the man who witnessed the crime, then being forced to kill the man who witnessed that crime, until I was stacking bodies in the underbrush like the grimmest episode of Hoarders ever.
I’m confident Red Dead Redemption 2 will be my favorite game of 2018, and that’s in a year that’s been packed with extremely good games. The world, the characters, the music, the gameplay — they’re all things I’m eager to get back to. There are legendary animals to hunt down, hints of a mysterious stranger I never figured out, and whole sections of the map I still haven’t fully explored. But if the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is a theme park and the missions are the rides, it seems odd that I wanted to spend more time in the park than actually getting on the rides. The talent at Rockstar is obvious and their passion has created something unmatched, but my hope is the next Red Dead Redemption lets me simply explore that theme park, no rides required.