It took me a year and a half and a stay at home order from a pandemic to do it, but my Red Dead Redemption II campaign is finally complete.
It is a long game to say the least. It felt even longer because story wise the game is overburdened and unfocused. Setting wise it is inconsistent. Given it is a prequel to the previous game, while the developers get mileage out of how various pieces fall into place they misjudge which parts are the most compelling. I did not care to spend an hour building John Marston’s house that he spends virtually no time in and only returns to at the end of Red Dead Redemption. Other fascinating relationships are either over-calculated or under-utilized. A potential love triangle between the game’s protagonist Arthur Morgan and the previous game’s John Marston is played for no tension despite being pointed. The game gets very bogged down in repetitive in mission and story structure but fails to illustrate much of a point out of it. It also has the open world story problem of why wasn’t I here all along? The story and its epilogue end in similar fashion, which seems to negate the point of the latter, and the second drawn out climax which mirror’s the first game ends abruptly with vital character and plot resolution sprinkled in between end credits. Developer Rockstar Games more than any other, and likely due to their phenomenal success is portentous and lacks nuance when it matters. A long gallop from Saint Denis back to your hideout is punctuated by a smooth relaxing D’Angelo song, a low key effective moment similar to the Jose Gonzalez Far and Away border crossing cue in the original. But a painful later climactic rush back to camp is punctuated by a twangy awful weepy country song. Another decent song even later in the game evens things out a little but it illustrates the campaign’s biggest problem, insecurity despite efforts that its time has passed. Rockstar goes a long way quantity-wise blowing out 15 year old stale gameplay ideas that stretch as far back as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in to try to provide depth. There’s a poetry to that with Rockstars mission design and aiming being over a decade old, but were the game two thirds shorter it would be twice as more effective.
There are some brilliant gameplay moments too. Although the quaint trot through wilderness gets laborious by hour ten there are moments where a thunderstorm comes crashing in and the sunrise fills the scene. A stop passing through the canyons reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones’ speech in No Country For Old Men. There aren’t any meaningful new features in Red Dead Redemption II‘s campaign but Rockstar gets mileage out of the simple video game comforts of calm vistas. The aiming system which was revolutionary 10 years ago and evolutionary in Max Payne 3 feels outdated and undercooked for a game of this level of production. Much has been put into the look and feel of the game with top notch lighting and scoring. Hundreds of non-playable characters populate a thoughtfully produced world with an abundance of contextual minigames. However, as protagonist Arthur Morgan says to his defiant hero Dutch, it sounds like I’ve heard it all before.
One of the biggest narrative problems with Red Dead is that its central character Arthur Morgan is uninteresting. He’s an excellent supporting actor to the world around him and a great sidekick which gives the narrative leeway, but the 35 hour campaign does not lend him any depth. I would have preferred Rockstar to change things up and have a female protagonist like Sadie Adler, a young widow who is taken in by the gang at the beginning of the game and sticks around till the bitter end mustering something of an arc, a bill that Rockstar has trouble fitting. I sense the developers though would rather not risk pissing off their male fanbase having a woman fulltime inhabit their cowboy world. Ten years ago Rockstar said they weren’t interested in telling a female story at all, but as Jason Schreirer reported and Bob Dylan remarked The Times They Are A-Changin’.
I was ready to nail down Rockstar in this review for its history of misogyny based on what I expected to find in the game. A viral Joe Rogan clip caught my eye when his guest pointed out how much time would have to go into animating various creative deaths of a suffragette when Rockstar’s history of lack of fairness towards women dawned on me. Rockstar is one of the last remaining culturally relevant bastions of pure male desire. This is reflected in their developer culture being referred to as a ‘sausage fest’, multi-million viewed videos based on whether or not your boyfriend will like Red Dead Redemption 2, and a spousal letter written around the time of the first Red Dead Redemption. Women have never been more than a fun side mission in Rockstar Games so even the slightest tap can trigger a tsunami of misogynist attitudes which has a lot of overlap in the game industry. That continues here in an amusing side mission in the campaign where the protagonist in typical Rockstar “I don’t know what’s going on but okay” fashion drives a carriage of suffragettes through town on likely the first ever woman’s march. It’s underplayed with the comedy for once focusing on Arthur’s unwitting participation rather than the women themselves which aligning with the game’s themes of time unwittingly passed by. As Arthur would say “at least that’s something.” That dreaded gameplay moment still exists off the beaten path. An equal opportunity discovery like the Suffrage mission I did not discover. The natural gameplay choice sure suits Rockstar. Feminism is a new note they should play more often.