Having seen through the 60 hours or so of Red Dead Redemption 2’s story, I’m now a dozen more into the meat of it all; the idling around a lush open world, picking up threads of stories here and there, tracking the trails of legendary animals in the wilds or following the rumours of supernatural goings on and seeing whatever dark forest they might lead to. It’s the part of any Rockstar game I love the most, made all the more enjoyable when everyone’s wading through those uncharted areas together, where whispers of strange NPCs or derelict households are shared online like tales around a campfire. It’s where the freedom, brilliance and detail of these open world marvels really comes into focus.
It’s where the real fun is, basically, even in a game whose main through line is, at times, pointedly no fun at all. But that’s the funny thing about Red Dead Redemption 2, a game that’s aggressively sedate in its pacing, its earnestness and its eagerness to impress on you what a serious, dreary business this outlaw stuff can be; thematically it’s consistent as it tells Arthur’s tale, yet systemically it pulls its punches.
Not always, mind. There are moments in Red Dead Redemption 2 where everything comes together beautifully, brief glimpses of the story being backed up by the systems and pushing you towards a certain type of play. Up in the mountains at the very start when you’re struggling for survival the cores which dictate your health, stamina and dead eye take a hit, the money from your camp has run dry and there’s very little by way of sustenance for your or your comrades. It’s grim, but pointedly so.
Even as the world thaws beyond that extended introduction, opening up around you, I felt scarred by those early hardships. I wanted to earn, to provide and just to survive and so my Arthur – typically a paragon of virtue, because I can never resist being nice when playing a video game – was pushed towards petty crime just to keep things ticking over, pulling a bandana over my face and robbing small local stores for a handful of cash and a satchel of supplies. It’s systems shaping story in a fascinating way.
And it all too quickly peters out; you go from hardship to prosperity in what feels like the blink of an eye, your pockets stuffed with cash and your food stores full to the brim. It’s something in common with GTA games, which take you from rags to riches to late capitalism excess and trying to barrel roll one of your expensive sports cars into the off-limits parts of the local military airbase, but Red Dead Redemption 2 promises something different, in its opening at least. Those health and stamina cores reveal themselves to have little impact – even a late-game twist that promises to bring them back into focus isn’t enough to make them ever feel relevant.
Will they ever play a bigger part? There’s a good chance they’ll be at the heart of Red Dead Online when it launches later this month, which has the fascinating challenge of taking on GTA Online’s template and making it sensitive to the period; where going weirder and wilder with aircraft and skydiving wouldn’t really sit right in the old west. It’s going to have to dig deeper, and there’s already the template in place for Rockstar to do so, where they can push the survival elements further into the fore.
But how about for the solo player? There’s so much to see and do in Red Dead Redemption 2, even after the credits have rolled, that it seems silly to ask for more, but I think I’m hoping for something else; a game that has you eking out an existence and feeling the brutality of nature, where your steps are measured carefully rather than taking big wide gallops across the country. It’s a hardcore mode I’d love, in essence, because while Red Dead Redemption 2 is a world of endless, almost impossible beauty, I’d love for an option to make it a world with a little more bite.