Thoughts on Red Dead Redemption II

Ten years ago or so, I was living with some of the dudes in my punk rock band in a house where the rainwater collected in pots and pans, the basement was full of beer and energy drinks, and a few birds nested in my bedroom windows. It was a wonderful time to make music, goof around, and taste the adventure of the grindy frustration of that particular way of life.

I had just gotten a 42″ plasma HDTV (pro tip – never buy a plasma), my Xbox 360 had its Red Ring of Death repaired and shipped back to me, and I was absolutely jazzed for the upcoming May release of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. In preparation, I looked into movies and TV shows that would get me in the right vibe of the game to come, two of which I’d never seen which became some of my all-time favorites: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and the HBO series Deadwood, which is my favorite television series, bar none.

Between those and re-watching “the man with no name” films (aka The Dollars Trilogy), I was completely beside myself when I got my copy of Red Dead Redemption that May. Few games with any amount of marketing hype are able to meet lofty expectations, but RDR surpassed all of mine with ease.

Be aware: The remainder of this blog entry will discuss the plots of both Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption II, so if you’re looking to avoid spoilers, read no further.

From the very beginning, RDR was exactly what I wanted and more. As somewhat-reformed-outlaw John Marston, you explore the desert scrub of New Austin, the banded, rocky romantic expanse of Mexico, and eventually the forested highlands of West Elizabeth. The saga of John hunting down some of his former gang to earn his family’s freedom is extraordinarily satisfying, and in true western fashion he gets embroiled in numerous political subplots and moral conundrums, ultimately finishing off the treacherous Dutch van der Linde in a dramatic cliffside event.

It’s bittersweet, however, as the Pinkertons who pressganged John into turning bounty hunter betray him in turn, slaughtering him while he attempted to return to a quiet life as a rancher. The player gets to do their best to give John a blaze of glory exit before he’s cut down by an army of g-men, leaving vengeance in the hands of his son Jack. After slaying those responsible for his father’s death, you can play out any further challenges or simply explore as Jack to your heart’s content.

As a protagonist, John is a great combination of complex, charasmatic, sympathetic, and believably capable of good and bad actions. Rob Wiethoff’s vocal performance is wonderful, and by the time you finish John’s tragic ending, I didn’t want to play as Jack. I missed being John Marston. Jack is a rather unlikeable, whiny figure who isn’t nearly as fleshed out, and whose character design in-game is unfortunately kind of stupid-looking.

Regardless of that, the first time I took a horse onto the open plains near Armadillo to see the beautiful clear country laid out before me, storm clouds in the distance, I was sold. I’ve played through the original Red Dead maybe 6 or 7 times, and it never ceases to bring a smile to my face. At least until I reluctantly finish the game’s story and lose interest (thanks, Jack).

In the end, that’s the big thing that hurt the first Red Dead Redemption, at least for me. I didn’t want to stop playing as John, and that always left the final missions unfinished.

Regardless, RDR is and remains one of my all-time favorite games.

When the sequel dropped 8 years later, I was excited, but hesitant. The original game meant so much to me that I was worried the follow-up would be a disappointment.

It was not.

It took me awhile to finally pick it up for PC (I don’t have new consoles), and my wife can attest that the 80-odd hours I’ve played of it in the last two weeks have completely consumed me. It’s an incredible game. To begin, I’d like to talk about Arthur Morgan.

My Arthur rocked a mustache.

Arthur is very, very different from John, and even though John is a heavily-featured character in II, Arthur serves as our avatar in the final few months of the van der Linde gang’s doomed run. He’s equal parts introspective and brutal, cynical and compassionate. Even physically, compared to the lithe John Marston, Arthur is, as the kids say, “a thicc boi.”

As he follows his father-figure in Dutch, whose dreamy vision of their gang being some kind of elevated family begins to collapse under the weight of mistrust and infiltration, Arthur too begins to more directly suffer from Tuberculosis, to the point where he routinely collapses, spitting up bloody sputum, all the while fighting to give John’s family a chance to live a normal, decent life.

It was genuinely difficult to watch Arthur’s final moments play out, struggling to even speak as he gives John his satchel. I’ll come back to Arthur later on.

The overall story is exceptional. I enjoyed the numerous movements of the camp, the differences in each of the new cities/towns, the members of the van der Linde gang are each well cast and interesting individuals who I liked interacting with and among. The few that perish in the story’s telling made me legitimately angry. In particular I enjoyed Hosea, Charles, Pearson, and especially Sadie Adler.

The flaws of the Red Dead Redemption II story aren’t in execution. A lot of reviews and gripes online say the game’s pace is too slow, the forced walking is too frustrating, there’s too much ‘boring’ and not enough action. This game was clearly not made for a large portion of the gaming world, and I respect that Rockstar let the game mandate a slower, more reflective journey.

It’s predecessor had a lot more of the cinematic old-west fun: Helping a quirky Snake Oil salesman sell his wares to angry rubes, dig up bodies with a Gollum-esque grave robber, etc. The brighter tone of the game (desert setting) and humorous reactions of John Marston gave things a much more eye-catching visual palette.

The sequel, however, is much more lush, wooded, and vertical. The mountains, snow, fog, and haze are ever-present for most of the experience. New Hanover is the grassier, more traversable hilly area, Lemoyne the swampy, acidic bog, and Ambarino the densely forested, craggy peaked wilderness.

Traversing these areas is absolutely breathtaking, and with shifting weather patterns, vast forms of wildlife, and beautifully rendered lighting, the game can almost be played with no story at all. In fact, that’s part of why I couldn’t wait for Arthur Morgan to die.

Arthur begins to cough subtly in the story’s first couple chapters, and I guessed fairly early on that he was going to perish of Tuberculosis (not bragging, I’ve just seen Tombstone). That made me pretty hesitant to embrace Arthur, since I not only pegged him to die, but that John was no doubt going to be the “leftover” character at the end of the story, and frankly…I missed John.

Red Dead‘s ending with Jack was so unsatisfying to me personally that I couldn’t wait to get the van der Linde saga out of the way so I could resume adventures with John Marston. To Rockstar’s credit, they absolutely nailed the shit out of RDR2‘s ending.

The two-part epilogue is so damn well done that honestly it should be the basis of whatever next western title they produce. Working as John to build a house and barn with Uncle and Charles was so much fun, even shoveling the horse shit and milking cows made me feel like I was living a straight life and earning my keep as a simple rancher. Yes, you eventually take care of those responsible for the gang’s fallout and avenge Arthur, but after that, I got what I wanted: John Marston’s ranch at Beecher’s hope (with chores to be done and family meals to be had), a world fully explorable (New Austin is off limits while you play as Arthur), and no gloomy treachery by Micah hanging over my head or more missions with a visibly dying Arthur.

The next time I play, I honestly don’t intend on finishing the story. I’m going to stop at Horseshoe Overlook. This is well before Arthur starts blatantly suffering from TB, before Micah (he’s insufferable once he enters the story and the camp), and while all of the gang is present, cheerful, and life is simple. During that particular playthrough I’ll flesh out the world much more fully, explore his character more, and appreciate him as the protagonist instead of simply growing more and more frustrated that he was dying while simultaneously looking forward to resuming playing as John.

Currently I’m exploring the entire world of RDR2 as John Marston and loving every minute of trying to get to 100% completion. I do wish Nuevo Paraíso was available, and Armadillo being a barren and diseased place is dissappointing, but those are small potatoes that perhaps could be rectified in an expansion or some similar vein.

Anyway, this game is tremendous and a worthy sequel that I’m sure will someday end up in a Top List of mine. I highly recommend visiting the YouTube channel of “Strange Man,” who does terrific exploration videos into the vast and bizarre lore and secrets of the Red Dead franchise.


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