Games [1ST2H]: Red Dead Redemption 2

Got a couple of hours to kill? Got a list of unplayed games you’ve been meaning to get around to? 1ST2H reports on the first two hours spent playing a new game.

Developer / Publisher: Rockstar Games

Platform played / Year released: Playstaion 4 (slim) / 2018

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Red Dead Redemption 2: Title Screen

Well gosh, now. Tickle me with a DualShock and call me pretty. That’s a phrase, right?

Last night I finally fired up Red Dead Redemption 2, a game picked up a few months ago second-hand from CEX. I put in two-and-a-smidge hours of game-time to see what I think of it, and have to say I am impressed. But I also have to say that for much of that game-time I watched cut-scenes or followed someone on horseback as they delivered expository dialogue to me.

Those hours were very pretty, though, with cut-scenes that were impressive even on my PS4 Slim (I hear it’s stunning on a PS4 Pro at 4k). I’ll forgive the game for setting a detailed story.

Red Dead, as many know, is a Western-themed franchise published by Rockstar Games in 2018. Sometimes known as Grand Theft Auto with horses, it uses an open-world adventure format to follow a main story while also allowing the character to complete a wide variety of side-quests, side-activities or other pursuits; huntin’, fightin’ gamblin’ and – I’m surely certain to find out – drinkin’ for example. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the latest in the franchise, acting as a prequel to the previously released, highly-lauded and wildly successful Red Dead Redemption, a game that was itself a sequel to the first in the series; Red Dead Revolver.

I don’t know the chronological order of the Red Dead games and am not even going to try. But the era is late-to-end-of-Western, and Red Dead Redemption 2 opens in 1899.

I enjoy the inspiring vistas of the Western-era films, alongside the nostalgic you-could-dare-to-be-yourself lore that comes with the genre (caveat: I feel that ability to be yourself was probably correlated to your ability to survive gunshot, disease or animal mauling). I’ve not played too many games set in the period, except a brief dabble with Red Dead Redemption about six years ago. I remember being bitten by a snake and dying. Then being bitten by a cougar and dying. Then being bitten by a need to go and do something else (no dying though, which is good so far). I don’t really remember being stunned by the views in RDR1, the world around me, or the sense of the frontier. Red Dead Redemption 2 most definitely manages that.

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Red Dead Redemption 2: One of the opening cut scenes. Feels like a movie.

The game opens, wreathed in a snowstorm, up in the mountains of the frontier. You play the character Arthur, part of a group of people on the run from the law following an event that occurred off-screen. The snowstorm has closed in unexpectedly, both endangering the group yet also offering a reprieve from the pursuit. It’s a desperate time, and shelter is needed – somewhere to gather your wits, take care of your injured, and forage for food and supplies.

It is heavy with environmental atmosphere. As you gain control of the character you are sent off with a scouting party, into a world that is hidden in the snow, both on the ground and blowing through the air. Your characters huddle against the wind and shapes unfold from the gloom – sometimes rocks, sometimes trees, sometimes a person. Half-seen light from a hidden sun gives an eldritch illumination to everything, and there is a strong sense of struggling to make ground in a land that objects to the encroachment of humanity.

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Desperate to survive thought you are, the game is quick to show you how little anyone has to rely on. Little food, not much warmth, and hoping that your scout returns soon with some news. But with a horse, a rope, a knife, bow and gun… maybe you’ll make it. Especially if you also have a group of fellow gang members, several of whom can teach you handy skills.

This is an open world game, and at some point the player is going to be left to make their own choices on what to do and where to explore. But for the first two hours, the game pretty much leads you along the story with only minimal choices about what mission to accept first. That’s actually more than okay, as there are clearly a lot of game mechanics to pick up,  and this game is happy to take a slower, measured pace to it in some sense – adding the slow nature of real tasks, while still being the fanciful protection we are seeking from our day-to-day lives. Loading a gun takes some time. Firing a repeater rifle requires a separate action for cocking and for the trigger-pull. Looting a body takes a slow few seconds (not ideal in a gun fight). Searching a cupboard has more than one button press. It works, but this game, at this stage, is not a rush of fast-paced adrenaline; it’s an immersive story and you’re an active participant.

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Red Dead Redemption 2: Yes, there are train robberies.

I’ve read reviews by people that do like this, and by others that do not. I think I’m going to lean towards being in the former camp. I have Spiderman for action, and Cuphead for twitch-speed gaming if I need it. Zelda for the fantasy sandbox, and all manner of ‘Ima just gunna blow things up now’ games for tickling that particular need. Red Dead Redemption 2 looks like it chose to clear its own spot in the plateau of open-world gaming and settle there stoically with horse, homestead, and loaded revolver.

Firefights in this game, so far, have been fun – with slow motion cuts on particularly good shots. The different weapons handle distinctively and the enemies don’t feel either overwhelming or underwhelming at this early stage – though it is definitely an early stage. The empty slots for animal, plant, and weapon types in the player compendium and the hints at skills to be unlocked both show there is a lot of content to come. Hunting is patient fun, using a tracking feature to allow the player to stalk deer through the snow, but also reminding the player of further complexity that will be unveiled as the game opens up. The voice acting for characters is good, the gang have their own personalities and don’t feel overacted or bombastic. Dialogue felt natural rather than forced. Looking at you Games Workshop (but with love and hugs).

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Red Dead Redemption 2: A gun fight several hours of gaming later. Note: no snow.

The first few hours did not really drive any action to becoming instinct, as there is too little repetition in the game-play activities to really ram anything home (except ‘X’ to speed up my horsie). But even just that early riding around has shown there will be much more to come. I’ve fought wolves, an outlaw gang (twice), avoided a bear, hunted a deer and skinned it (yeah, the game isn’t planning on being delicate, I can tell), rescued a stranded gang member on a snow-covered outcrop, eaten, drank, rescued a damsel, gained information… er, forcibly… and set up a train robbery mission. This is a Western as I imagine it. But, well, snowier.

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It was the hottest day of the year when I played it, so I was more than happy to pretend I was wading through the chilly mountain climate. I  certainly liked the first few hours of game time, but was still pleased when, not long after, the game opened up with a cut-scene that bought the gang down out of the mountains. Here, an encampment was found in the hills above a livestock town, and the open-world nature of Red Dead Redemption really did begin to shine bright.

I’m going to go and play a bit more now.

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