Red Dead Redemption 2
Reviewed on: PS4
I grew up with two brothers in the early nineties, which meant that I spent most of my childhood either playing NES or exploring the streams and woodlands behind our latest house or apartment complex. We moved a lot when I was younger, especially after my mother suffered a serious back injury that put her out of commission and left my stepfather with the burden of supporting three children. Needless to say, the moves weren’t always voluntary (rarely so, in fact), and our financial state was always a teeter-totter of beans and mayonnaise for lunch when things were bad (yes, that’s a thing), and S&S Cafeteria for the whole family when on the upswing. If you don’t know what S&S Cafeteria is, imagine your school cafeteria on crack—extremely overblown, looks and tastes pretty good, but has a darker side that you’d rather not think about.
Around my 10th birthday, I moved up north to Pennsylvania with my father and stepmother, which is where I have remained ever since—in Pennsylvania, I mean, not with my father and stepmother. I’m 31 now and that might be a bit uncomfortable for all parties involved. Anyhow, despite the fact that I no longer had my brothers to explore with, that desire to be high up in a tree or tramping through the mud hadn’t left me. Although I never owned a BB gun or similar weapon (nothing that could actually fire projectiles, anyway), I was allowed any noise-making, imitation firearm of my choice, and I had all the old clothes and random scraps of junk that any child naturally accumulates over time. Using these trappings to my advantage, I crafted vests from old jackets, bandoliers, and holsters from discarded, worn belts and duct tape, and a satchel from an old laptop case my father recovered from some long-forgotten corporate event. With my metal-and-plastic, orange-tipped rifle slung over one shoulder, pulling on my cracked and weathered fingerless cycling gloves, I felt like every action hero, gunslinger, and outlaw that ever existed.
It has been twenty-some-odd years since those days, and I can’t remember the last time I even felt nostalgic about that time of my life, let alone reminiscent to the point of clarity. Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar’s nth prodigal child, is that reminiscence boxed into a 90-gigabyte package and sealed with a playful slap and a wink. I say a “slap and a wink” because, at least for me, RDR2 is a bittersweet experience, one that is so engaging and welcoming and exciting, yet at the same time comes with the cost of time and an amorphous sensation of loss.
In other words, if you are a gamer, and I qualify “gamer” as one who dedicates at least some time to video games on a monthly basis, you will find something to love about Rockstar’s latest foray into the mud-slung proverbial “wild west”—but it will come with a cost. That cost is time, not only in the vein that the game will take many hours to complete but also in regards to the sensation you will feel that no matter how much time you dedicate to RDR2 in a given day, it is not enough. You will fade into the world, listening to the buzz of mosquitoes and squinting at the bright morning light that filters through the blissfully-swaying leaves of a nearby tree, perhaps with the faraway sound of some passerby cursing at their horse, and you will stop. You will stop and take it in, and then, once you’ve reminded yourself that this game is an experience, that you are merely controlling so many pixels amongst other pixels, you will open your map and start plugging along.
And then things change.
Maybe you’re five minutes in, maybe fifteen, maybe even an hour, but at some point, it will hit you. You will start to feel it, that pure, unadulterated joy. Perhaps you were heading to the glowing yellow area a mile or two out, and then, all of a sudden, a woman comes tearing out of a bush towards you, screaming for help. You stop your horse so you don’t trample her, hop down (with revolver pulled and ready, of course) and offer assistance. Suddenly, she has a knife to your throat, and three men in voodoo-esque masks drop from the trees and stream towards you. You swing around with that dead eye of yours, taking them all out (one guy takes two shots to go down, but he never really had a chance anyway and you don’t mind expending the ammo), and turn back to the woman—who has since taken off, now a few hundred yards away, disappearing over a hill.
You don’t bother to chase her, instead taking the opportunity to examine the men and their strange facades. Hoping to find more information, you investigate the nearby buildings, one of which is submerged a few feet into the goop of a swamp—you visit all the other ramshackle houses first, but eventually, you get around to that half-underwater shack. You have to duck to get to the back of it, but eventually, you make it and are rewarded with a mask nailed to a board on the wall—the same type of mask the men were wearing. You take it, try it on, and generally revel in the fact that, had that woman not tried to murder you in cold blood, you would have never discovered this quaint little hovel or the ghostly visage that now adorns your face.
You check your satchel to see what all you looted from the homestead and realize that you’ve hit the maximum allotment of tonics. Not to worry, because you know that if you can finally hunt down that elk that has been on your back burner for a while now, you can upgrade that sumbitch satchel of yours. When you realize what kind of trek you’re facing to get to the northlands where yon elken brothers reside, you hop on your horse and switch out your gear, replacing that plaid shotgun coat you love with its thicker, warmer version. With your mottled mare, you make your way across wide, rushing rivers, snap through leaf-sprinkled woodlands, and dash up the snowy slopes of a mountain. Finally, you are pulling out your primary rifle, the one that you have meticulously engraved, wrapped in thick leather, and gilded with the finest metals and inscriptions—you switch to the long scope you’ve added, bringing the elk into view. You call out, its antlered head pops up, and you squeeze the trigger—
You hear a door open. The cold wind from outside kicks into the house like the wind has a tendency to do, pushing open creaking doors and making the curtains dance. Your wife is home, and she has her hands full with grocery bags. “Hey, babe!” she calls out, and you are back. That sensation is gone, and you are back.
Now, don’t get me wrong here—I have taken some liberties, and I’m not saying that having a life and doing adult things is a negative thing in any way, shape or form. In fact, you could make the argument for any game that time seems to fly while you’re playing it and there never feels like enough of the day to go around. What I’m saying with RDR2 is that there is a fleeting feeling of loss that comes with realizing that you are not Arthur Morgan trudging through virgin America, that the only thing you sling is a pen when you sign the mortgage check for the month. Yes, it is bittersweet, but it is not a bad thing—rather, it is a testament to just how engrossing and rewarding Red Dead Redemption 2’s world truly is.
In case you’ve yet to realize, this is not your normal game review. It is not informative in the traditional sense that it lays out exactly what the graphics are like, or how riveting the musical score is. It does not outline the plot or pay homage to the hackneyed methods of describing a game (“As you tear across the open plains of the American Wild West, you will jump, weave and dodge other outlaws with your revolver in hand!”). RDR2 is something special, the antithesis of a title that achieves its praises based solely on previous expectations or by remixing the formula in a satisfying manner. No, Rockstar truly has created a vision of its own, a defining way forward, a species nova if you will—and that deserves an equally new way of reviewing it. It is not about what it does mechanically—it’s about how it makes you feel.
Let me sum it up like this: If you garnered even a small fragment of the expression of love that I have for this game in this article, then you already know that you will enjoy this game with every fiber of your being. If you were right there with me, imagining the sun filtering in through the trees, mentally smelling the sharply-sweet tinge of sweat and gunpowder on the cool morning air, then this game is for you. I have played many, many games throughout my life, and every once in a while one comes along that requires you to deftly balance the real world expectations with the joys of the virtual one—savoring every chance you get to spend time in the latter. Red Dead Redemption 2 is that game, pardner—I guarantee it.
All Together Now!
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