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Red Dead Redemption 2 PC Review: Part 2 - Stand Unshaken

By Poorna Shankar on November 20, 2019 | Editorials | Comments

Red Dead Redemption 2 PC Review: Part 2 - Stand Unshaken

This is Part 2 of our Red Dead Redemption 2 review for PC. Part 1 covered off the PC Port Analysis which you can read here

“The vastness and deadly desolation of the field, the long-distance operation of steel machines, and the relay of every movement in the night drew an unyielding Titan’s mask over the proceedings. You moved toward death without seeing it; you were hit without knowing where the shot came from. Long since had the precision shooting of the trained marksman, the direct fire of guns, and with it the charm of the duel, given way to the concentrated fire of mechanized weapons. The outcome was a game of numbers: Whoever could cover a certain number of square meters with the greater mass of artillery fire, won.” – Ernst Jünger, Sturm.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the world was becoming increasingly mechanized. The ways in which man could kill man had grown increasingly violent, effective, and distant. New technologies like flight were burgeoning, expanding man’s sight beyond the visible horizon. The chemical sciences had made leaps and bounds into far deadlier substances. Even the musings of Jules Verne had come into existence in submarines.

This was the 19th Century slowly giving way to the 20th Century. The First World War saw a clashing of these two centuries with hitherto unseen violence, and ultimately, mechanization, automation, and industrialization won out over the gentile.

These themes – the natural vs the manmade, the deliberate vs the expedient, the introspective vs the connected – run deep in Red Dead Redemption 2. They strike at the heart of what it means to be an individual in rapidly growing civilization, and wrestle back the notion of self from the grasp of the society. It is an experience designed and calibrated to leave you isolated. It does not bow to the pusillanimity of telegraphed direction. It embraces the audacity of deliberation, of temerity, and the sanguine solidarity of the human condition.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am so proud to finally present to you my review of Red Dead Redemption 2.

Cruel, Cruel World

It is this world into which Red Dead Redemption 2 thrusts us. We play as Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van der Linde gang after they have just made a harrowing costly escape into the cold harsh Grizzlies mountains after a heist job goes horribly wrong.

Immediately, we are at the mercy of the elements, like some exposed nerve. Every minute is vital to survival as supplies and temperatures plummet. It is in these opening hours that the dichotomy of the world Rockstar has created shows face.

The year is 1899. The Old West is dying. Gangs are dwindling. Civilization and modern society cascade us into the 20th Century as the more lawless and free life of the 19th Century slowly relents.

In one hand, we are presented with the cruelty of what this resistance to change means in these opening hours of Red Dead Redemption 2. This is seen literally in the unrelenting blizzard wreaking havoc amongst you and your gang. It can be heard in the wolves chasing you mercilessly. It can be felt by the hopelessness of your friends and family.

But while this cruelty exists so brazenly, so too does the beauty. Eventually, the storm does subside, and we make our way south into a staggeringly beautiful world full of life, opportunity, and yes, freedom.

This is the dichotomy which persists throughout Red Dead Redemption 2. As the story unfolds, this freedom, deliberation, and sense of hope slowly gives way to the inevitability that is civilization, automation, and certainty.

Because of the people you meet along the way, the minute to minute moments you experience, the conclusion of this story is all the more impactful. We experience a man who once was an embodiment of freedom, hope, and opportunity become shattered, broken, and ground down under the wheel of progress.

For me personally, this is heartbreaking.

Must I Go On?

To understand just why, we must examine what exactly happens in the story. Obviously, I know several of you have not played the console version of the game, and so this is the first time you’re experiencing Red Dead Redemption 2. For that reason, I will avoid story spoilers.

You and your gang, led by Dutch Van der Linde, are ultimately trying to find a better life by amassing enough money to go West. This is done through a series of heists, robberies, and other events which transpire over the course of the story and affects your whole gang.

Your gang is a diverse group comprised of extremely distinct characters and personalities. Each bring their own talents and none are simply window dressing. For example, Mary Beth is a good thief but also has designs on becoming a writer, and so you’ll see her mostly reading or excitedly talking about a book she just read.

Because you can speak to literally everyone in the game, I always made it a point to do so whenever I returned to camp. It’s here where we get the first insight into just how much dialogue Rockstar created for Red Dead Redemptions 2. Whenever you return to camp, there are always small vignettes which play out amongst various characters.

For example, John Marston might be off by the cliffside overlooking the canyon below, while the mother to his child, Abigail, walks up to him and asks him why he’s not spending more time with his son, Jack. You can choose to witness this from a distance and you’ll hear their entire argument play out. However, should you walk up to them, John or Abigail will notice you and immediately turn to you and react. These reactions may span from a hopeful, “What do you think, Arthur?” to a more angry sarcastic, “Thanks for helping there, Arthur.”

And this is just one small example. These small character vignettes are littered throughout the game, and are not specific to just your gang members. But because they appear so organic and natural, I never once got the sense that I was witness to some scripted moment, even though they clearly are. They help flesh out these characters and the world and do a tremendous job convincing you of the legitimacy and drama playing out.

Such is the mastery of Rockstar’s dialogue and story telling that one can’t help but become invested into these characters. Despite the fact that there are 24 distinct characters in your gang, I came to know each and every one of them. I came to feel some emotion for them, whether it be love, admiration, hate, or empathy.

That I can feel strong emotions to 24 different characters is a testament to the sheer potency of quality writing and narrative. Each character has an arc, running parallel to your own. Each has a distinct personality. Each has their own story. And, most importantly, each character is fundamentally, unquestioningly real.

It is for these reasons that the story in Red Dead Redemption 2 is by far the single best story I’ve ever experienced across any medium.

That’s The Way It Is

This tangible quality is embedded deep within Red Dead Redemption 2 as it is brought to the fore in gameplay. Everything you do in the game – everything you do has a designed deliberation behind it.

Each animation is intricate and smoothly flows into the next. Each action is detailed and plays out in full. Each item can be interacted with, spun around, and placed back. This is an experience which knowingly does things differently, and doesn’t care whether or not you want to speed up.

Because of this, criticisms may arise of this slow pace, and that this attention to detail is detrimental to “fun” gameplay. Surely, I don’t need to see every animation whenever I skin an animal? Surely, I don’t need to see myself open a drawer every time I decide to search one? Surely, I don’t need to see myself flip a page every time I wish to browse a catalogue in a store?

Indeed, it is easy here to criticize Red Dead Redemption 2 of “wasting your time.” But I feel this notion is woefully reductive and actively ignores why Rockstar has designed the experience in such a way. We quickly get into territory where “speed” equals “fun.” And I reject that.

Rockstar aren’t here to ferry you from one shootout to the next. They didn’t design the game to hurry you through the story. They’re here to tell a story – their story – with a very clear journey. This story isn’t just about the romanticized glory of the cowboys and Wild West.

This is a story about transition, of the slow decay of freedom, and of an increased loss of individualism. To that end, making sure each and every moment in Red Dead Redemption 2 is deliberate and detailed amplifies the isolation and solitude at the heart of the game.

When I skin an animal and watch the animation play out for the 50th time, its length and silence reminds me that I’m alone in this wilderness. It is not hyperbolic to state that the “slowness” of Red Dead Redemption 2 never once got tiring. I relished every moment of it. I thrived in it. This is by far the most me game I’ve ever played.

Because of that, Red Dead Redemption 2’s pacing and gameplay will absolutely not be for everyone. And to be frank, I’m glad it’s not. Not every game must be this highly telegraphed, streamlined, quick experience. And that’s perfectly OK.

And so I reject this notion that Red Dead Redemption 2 somehow wastes my time. It reminds me just how important these small moments are, and how impactful storytelling could be if things simply slowed down. I absolutely love the deliberate pace, detailed animations, and intricate actions of Red Dead Redemption 2.

We need more of this in games, not less. We need more time to slow down and be lost in our own heads, not less. Indeed, Red Dead Redemption 2 would be grossly lacking had it capitulated to the breakneck pace of modern games.

It is fortunate, then, that it did not.

You Did Your Worst, You Tried Your Best

Part 1 of my Red Redemption 2 review entailed a PC Port Analysis. You can read the whole thing here as I went into great detail discussing the various graphics settings, key bindings, audio, and how the maxed out game compared to the Xbox One X version.

I also discussed the crashes, which are worth reiterating here. The game was plagued with crashes at release, with many unable to even launch the game. Since then, Rockstar have issued multiple patches which have alleviated many of the community’s reports, but the fact remains that Red Dead Redemption 2 was fundamentally broken at launch. This cannot, nor should not, be overlooked.

There is also an online component to Red Dead Redemption 2, creatively called Red Dead Online. I have to admit, I was never once remotely interested in trying the online mode. And so when I hopped in, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Initially, Red Dead Online crashed for me several times when trying to complete the tutorial missions. Finally, once this was over, I was able to group up with my friend and check out just what is on offer.

Needless to say, it isn’t as fleshed out as GTA Online. There are random jobs, robberies, and bounties you can pick up, all with various rewards. To say I had fun doing these things wouldn’t be quite accurate.

The activities in Red Dead Online seem like a disparate collection of activities you did in story mode, only they’re less epic, less personal, and far less meaningful. I’m sure some folks will no doubt have a lot of fun galloping around with their buddies in the online world, but it’s just not for me.

I think the reason it’s just not fun for me is down to just how damn good the single player story is. Every activity you do has a purpose – a real story purpose – helping you and your Arthur drive towards the inevitable.

In Red Dead Online, all of that gravity was completely lost. Why do I need to hunt this legendary bounty? Oh right, it’s for a reward. When compared to the story mode, Red Dead Online seems sorely lacking in purpose and impact. I’m hoping it’s drastically improved because I genuinely would love to run around with my friends. At this time, I’m simply disinterested.

Additionally, there are microtransactions. You exchange your real money for gold bars, which can then be used to purchase various items within Red Dead Online. I can’t make this more plain as I have in multiple previous arguments I’ve made over the years: microtransactions have no place in games. Period.

Now It’s Time To Rest

So how do you sum up Red Dead Redemption 2?

By almost every measure, Red Dead Redemption 2 simply should not work today. The controls and actions are exceedingly deliberate. Very little direction is provided to us. Certain systems like crafting aren’t fully explained. And the gameplay overall is just slow.

In an industry dominated by live services, instant gratification, constant action, and hyper telegraphing, Red Dead Redemption 2 stands as an active rejection of such modern game design.

Instead, Rockstar chose to focus on you. They are perfectly content with leaving you alone for long stretches of time. It is simply serene when I’m galloping through the wooded hills, only to turn the corner to see the vast world laid before my feet joined by the minimalistic melancholy strums of a guitar.

No other game does so much to drive home this sense of isolation. The solitude in Red Dead Redemption 2 is so powerful that it is easy to forget about the worries of your gang, the encroaching lawmen of the Pinkertons, and the dangers of the wilderness.

In that moment, I am lost within my own head. The world is mine and I’m completely free to choose wherever I want to go next. I have spent countless hours doing nothing save exploring on horseback and on foot, simply for the pure joy of being alone and surrounded by the beauty and tranquility of Rockstar’s world.

It is a shame, then, that Red Dead Redemption 2 launched in the state that it did, with the experience being outright broken for many. To have all this potential, freedom, serenity, and sheer brilliance marred by such a launch is just awful.

The game design, graphics, world, characters, and story are spectacularly sublime. But the whole is let down by its technical launch state and inclusion of microtransactions.

Make no mistake, Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC is a masterpiece. But it could have been the masterpiece.

Score: 8 out of 10

Pros

  • Achingly beautiful on PC
  • Single best story I’ve ever experienced
  • Extensive dialogue
  • Brilliant characters
  • Deliberately designed slow pace
  • Content with leaving you alone

Cons

  • Red Dead Online feels incomplete
  • Launched inexcusably broken
  • Microtransactions
Poorna Shankar / A highly opinionated avid PC gamer, Poorna blindly panics with his friends in various multiplayer games, much to the detriment of his team. Constantly questioning industry practices and a passion for technological progress drive his love for the video game industry. He pulls no punches and tells it like he sees it. He runs a podcast, Gaming The Industry, with fellow writer, Joseph Bradford, discussing industry practices and their effects on consumers.
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