Every now and again, our perception of story-telling and art is transformed, never to be the same again. We all remember these experiences fondly, where we're reshaped somehow, whether it be powering through to Pink Floyd's The Wall, watching the city bend on itself in Inception, or arriving in the neon-drenched Vice City for the first time. They are dear to us, these experiences, and it takes true masters to create them. That's why Rockstar holds such a special place within the industry, because almost all of us have at least one of those moments from one of their projects, be it a bank heist in Grand Theft Auto V, shooting up Saint Mark's Bistro in San Andreas, or saving the band Love Fist in Vice City.
For many gamers though, escaping certain death on a trusty steed across the US/Mexican border with a million stars overhead, with José González' Far Away keeping protagonist John Marston company, is one of the most powerful moments the medium has to offer, and most certainly one of the few experiences that changes the entire way you think about storytelling, about character, about the power these digital stories we all hold dear can have.
It's on the backbone of moments like these that Rockstar wanted to return to the western universe with a follow-up, using that moment as a foundation that Red Dead Redemption 2 was born. A quest to do better, to do more in order to immerse you, to enthral you. Now we can finally tell you whether the ambitious task that Rockstar set for itself many years ago has succeeded, whether or not they've managed to once more create an experience, a moment which we'll remember and which will reshape our understanding of the capability of the medium.
While Red Dead Redemption 2 shares a straight similarity with Grand Theft Auto V and the original Red Dead Redemption from 2010, it's immediately and abundantly clear that many of the mechanical underpinnings of previous titles have been ditched in favour of something newer and heavier. This is the start of something brand new for the studio, yet it's forged in the flames of something utterly familiar.
The Old West, the Wild West, is dying ever so slowly. Through the fires of industry, the land is being repurposed; retooled to suit the needs of a more modern population, now entrepreneurs instead of victims, doers instead of thinkers. To suit the modernised way of thinking is the arrival of state, of legislature and law, of Uncle Sam, of the framework of society which creates safety and security, but at the cost of that very freedom which European settlers set out to find. This way of thinking does not suit Dutch Van der Linde. He wants to escape the pressing thumb of government, of rules, of the establishment - and he does so by physically avoiding it, which leads a trail of like-minded individuals through the still untamed terrain, protecting them from a more modern way of thinking. This is where we find ourselves, as Arthur Morgan, righthand man to Dutch, a trusted bodyguard and loyal member of the gang. Morgan was found by Dutch as a boy and was raised to follow the same ideals, so his loyalty knows no bounds, his resolve is unshaken, and despite the gang usually surviving on the backs of other, less fortunate souls, he sees little reason to question Dutch's motives. After all, he sacrificed marriage, children, and property to these ideals, ideals that he himself believes in.
But as you might've expected already, this is no fairytale of people discovering happiness and a lasting retirement. This is a tragedy, as it should be. This is a tale of being so close to what you want, but never quite being able to reach it, as is the case with most of the tragic lives lost, exhilarating heists, and broken connections in Rockstar games. First off, the game does a wonderful job of introducing us to characters old and new, who not only have interesting things to say but engage with Arthur, creating narrative strands all on their own. At the centre, we find Arthur, a stalwart, loyal, no-nonsense enforcer who appreciates when people cut the bullshit. He feels a fatherly responsibility for the group, as does Dutch, and be it the drunken Bill Williamson, the sassy Sadie Adler, the wise Hosea Matthews, or the quiet Charles Smith, he looks out for these people, as they look out for him. Throughout the story they swear at one another, share intimate moments around the bonfire, do unspeakably heinous acts of savagery to others and then share a beer afterwards. They are not heroes by any stretch, but the group slowly becomes one combined character that you look out for, and the various characters become the faces of that character.
Very rarely has a game done a job of having the player care for a community of distinct personalities, where it's so easy to point out the character weaknesses and strengths in each individual, yet get you feeling an immediate responsibility for them all. This is due to a constant barrage of clever writing, which routinely reminds you of events that have passed, as well as follow-up on important story beats. It's a narrative attention to detail seldom found anywhere, and certainly not to this degree in any other Rockstar game.
As the game progresses, the camp migrates across the game world. This shifts the story from act to act, creating a strong sense of progression and momentum from start to finish. Once the camp settles, you're free to utilise all the various systems it has to offer. Whereas many Rockstar titles have given you either a base, housing, or at least a home for your character to inhabit, nothing has gone as far as the base camp in Red Dead Redemption 2. From here, you may interact with every single character, and they'll have unique and interesting tales to tell every time you return, you'll be able to fully customise Arthur's appearance, from clothing and shoes, which can be bought around the world, as well as shave. Now, Arthur's hair and facial hair grow in real-time, meaning that you'll see stubble a day or two after you've had a clean shave. Furthermore, there are mini-games to participate in and master (such as playing cards or dominos). The camp will thrive and grow with the more effort you put into supporting it, so if you deliver a few animals, donate a few dollars here and there, Chef will be able to prepare better meals, resulting in better stamina gathered from eating, and the camp residents will offer up more ammunition types to purchase. Not only that, the camp ledger provides you with upgrades to each character's tent, as well as the available medicine, ammunition, and food. You can even spend pelts on customising the appearances of the camp.
The camp is a mechanic, sure. It serves a systemic purpose for the player, and further anchors Arthur to the game world through tactile design, such as shaving, eating, sleeping, chopping wood and grabbing new missions. But much more importantly, it ties directly into the aforementioned bond you form with this band of outlaws. It becomes dear to your heart, and more importantly - it becomes home in a way Rockstar has never achieved before.
But once in a while, even the most homesick pipsqueak must leave the nest to explore the surroundings, and once Arthur does, you'll be struck time and again by a world unlike any other, a space so enthralling it's hard to pick back up your jaw. The setting is perfectly realistic, and never strays too far from the world and historical period Rockstar is trying to portray, yet it's also designed in a way as to create constant aesthetic variety from roaring rivers to snow-covered mountain peaks, from dusty deserts to alligator-infested swampland. There are different biomes which contain different types of wildlife, which all have distinct behaviours and traits. Almost all of them are tied to hunting challenges too, and their pelts can be sold for money in the various towns, and meat can be donated to the camp. Wildlife is abundant, with herds of bison still grazing on the various plains, grizzly bears hunting in the mountains, and pronghorns darting in and out of the trees. Hunt animals with a bow, find and break in new steeds, and fish in rivers and lakes for sturgeon and salmon. The world in Red Dead Redemption 2 is brimming with character, but what surprises you instantly about this, is how it feels to be outdoors with Arthur without the company of other people. While humongous, much of the world is wild, and as yet untamed, meaning that you'll be hunting, gathering herbs and fishing in desolate locations. It's outside the realm of civilisation, at least for a little while, but you never feel like you're in an empty space. That takes careful design, that takes talent.