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Video gaming

Red Dead Redemption 2: slower paced than GTA V, but immerses you in beautiful Wild West world

  • Breathtaking scenery, 100 hours of gameplay and incredible attention to detail make this outlaw game a winner
  • Seven years’ work and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on production
PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 October, 2018, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 October, 2018, 8:01pm

Anybody coming to Red Dead Redemption 2 expecting Grand Theft Auto with horses will be rather baffled by this slow-paced, sumptuous, character driven Old West historical drama, in which you spend probably 60 per cent of your time riding around the American wilderness.

There’s action too, in the form of shoot outs, train robberies and frequent thrilling escapes on horseback, but these flashes of excitement punctuate a game that is largely about just being somewhere; about hunting, fishing and having long conversations on cross-country rides or around a campfire.

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In a mad fit of indulgence, Rockstar Games – the creators of Grand Theft Auto and one of the most successful game developers in the world – appears to have spent seven years and hundreds of millions creating the video game equivalent of Deadwood.

This is a story – a collection of stories, really – about the decline of a way of life, as a small gang of outlaws tries ever harder to outrun the inexorable advance of American modernity, as well as the enemies and lawmen they have antagonised along the way. The player’s character, Arthur Morgan, is one of a small central cast assembled around gang leader Dutch Van der Linde, a classic Western outlaw who fancies himself as a freedom fighter rather than a base criminal.

The game (available for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles) takes in encounters with con men, warring Southern estates, rival gangs and a vivid array of incidental characters shaping turn-of-the-century America, touching upon race and women’s suffrage, but keeping the overarching narrative focused on the Van der Linde band and the relationships within it.

These characters are rendered believable by technology that makes them look and move like real people, actors giving excellent performances with unexpected range, and writing that probes at their weaknesses and preoccupations. As you ride with them on robberies, hustles and other misadventures, they share anecdotes and personal observations that build over hours into rich portraits.

Life centres around the camp, to which the player returns between robberies, hunting expeditions and encounters with the law, to eat, sleep, take stock and share moments with the other members of the gang.

Were it not so astonishing to look at, the amount of time that Red Dead Redemption 2 expects you to spend enjoying the scenery might be intolerably boring. But the Old West that Rockstar has conjured here is close to miraculous. Its world is a collage of capsule versions of real American landscapes: the crisp cold of the mountains; mesa-studded plains that offer views for miles; foggy, humid mornings in the bayou in the fictional Southern state of Lemoyne.

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In towns – or in the grimy, captivating city of Saint Denis, a fast-modernising take on turn-of-the-century New Orleans that is truly a marvel – you can call out a greeting to anyone walking the streets and be met with aggressive wariness or a polite nod. The horses are almost unnervingly lifelike, stately creatures that grunt and sweat as you gallop, whinnying nervously when you hear wolves in the night.

The obsessive detail on show here (and the determination to immerse the player in it) recalls Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy, those long, sparsely punctuated passages where he would spend pages describing a landscape and you’d realise, at the end, that you hadn’t exhaled for minutes. Rockstar plucks from all sorts of cinematic and literary sources for this version of the Old West, but its depiction is original, less romanticised and moralistic than the Westerns that provide blueprints for the robberies and horseback shoot outs of its action scenes.

A film cannot afford to spend tens of hours setting the scene in the way that Red Dead Redemption 2 does when it sends you on long horse journeys, often without company. It has you skinning animals, cleaning guns and taking baths. The aggregate effect of all this detail is nothing less than total immersion, the sensation of a lived experience.

This world is not only relentlessly beautiful, but has such a lot going on that you often find yourself on unexpected adventures. This isn’t the usual video game busywork of endless collecting and killing.

On the way to hunt a prize ram, I happened upon a train robbery in progress, decided to intervene, and ended up driving the train to the next station, where I entered a saloon and got into a fight over a poker game. When the lawmen came knocking I was pursued for miles, ending up in a part of the world I’d never seen before, where I set up camp by the railway tracks and cooked up some boar meat.

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The next morning I happened upon a small gang of criminal miscreants sat around a fire, which turned out to be at the mouth of a huge cave complex serving as a hideout for a whole criminal gang. I barely survived the ensuing shoot out, then had to make a run for it before I could loot the spoils, because bounty hunters from the previous town had suddenly shown up looking for me. This was maybe two hours of game time, and Red Dead offers 100 or more. It is impossibly vast.

There can be no doubt that this is a landmark game. It is a new high watermark for lifelike video game worlds, certainly, but that world is also home to a narrative portrait of the Wild West that is unexpectedly sombre and not afraid to take its time. With very few exceptions, the many stories that Rockstar’s writers have set out to tell about this group of outlaws land perfectly, the enjoyable twists and turns of individual missions and chapters feeding into an exciting, sophisticated and absorbing larger narrative – and the stories that you discover yourself within its world are no less compelling. Around 2,000 people worked very hard (probably too hard, in some cases) to make this game possible. Every last one of them should be proud of their contribution.