I have very little experience in the Red Dead world. I can recall wandering around Best Buy nearly two decades ago and encountering an overzealous sales boy in the video game section of the store. “Have you seen this new game Red Dead Revolver? It’s a western game, supposed to be pretty good!” I ignored him and likely walked out with a sports game instead. Several years later, I did pick up a used copy of Red Dead Redemption for my PS3. I got as far as riding into the first town before the frustration of attempting to lasso a horse and inability to master the dead-eye system with a console controller ended that experience for me.
Recently, though, I’ve been itching to spend some time exploring the old West. I’ve had my eye on Red Dead Redemption 2 ever since Rockstar announced its development, but I had to wait an additional year from console release for the PC version. The extra time for developing the PC port must have missed a few things, though. It took me three tries to get the game installed without freezing and presenting me with a cryptic error message. Even once I had the game installed, I encountered an issue that caused my PC screen to flash between the game and my Windows desktop every 5 to 10 seconds. A bit of online research revealed that this was a widespread issue that people have been having since July (this occurred in September), and that support calls to Rockstar had been rebuffed as “something wrong with your system.”
Additional research indicated that some people had success working around the issue by disabling the network card on the PC. Having nothing else to lose and being anxious to experience my $50 game, I tried this method. Fortunately, after a few additional screen flashes, the game seemed to settle down, and I was able to begin my Red Dead experience without further interruption. It might be worth noting that a patch issued a few weeks after I started playing did fix the screen flashing issue. I guess the problem didn’t lie with “our systems” after all.
Having finally settled into the rough-and-tumble world of Red Dead, I was happy to see how open-world the game was. While the yellow quest markers did beckon for completion, nothing prevented me from wandering around the snow-capped mountains while the rest of my outlaw gang huddled together in the cabin awaiting my return. This is the single-player experience I’m always hoping for when I fire up an RPG.
The player walks the world in the boots of Arthur Morgan, a deadly gunslinger who is not only trying to survive the harshness of the old west but also struggles with the changes in the world around him. Arthur is dismayed by the shrinking of the wilderness and his free-roaming lifestyle and the growth of dirty, industrial cities. He’s also not sure that he can still trust the instincts of his charismatic gang leader, but he’s not confident enough with his own intelligence to act as anything besides an enforcer for the gang.
I think it’s fair to say that I really like Arthur. He’s not a great guy. After all, he’s an outlaw. But in an age when the word “masculinity” is typically preceded by “toxic,” it’s refreshing to be able to play a character who can be described as overtly masculine without him falling into the trope of condescending, boisterous, or bigoted. In fact, several elements within the game reveal that Arthur is actually somewhat of a renaissance man for his time. He participates in a march for women’s voting rights. He’s heavily critical of a fellow gang member for once abandoning his family. He assures a Black woman that he will protect her from any harm when she expresses her fear of encountering racism while venturing into town. All in all, he seems like a decent fellow – for a cold-blooded killer and thief. He’s like a John Wayne character but with actual depth and sensitivity weaved in.
Several systems and features within the game have impressed me quite a bit. When I first got to camp, I noticed a shaving station. Thinking that this was a simple cosmetic station, I placed Arthur dutifully in front of the mirror to adjust his beard length. To my surprise, it was not possible to make the beard longer, only shorter. Of course, it’s a shaving station! You can’t “shave” a beard longer, only shorter! As it turns out, Arthur’s facial hair (and head hair, I would later learn) grows as time passes in the game. If you want the longer, more rustic look, all you have to do is wait – just as in real life.
But the realism doesn’t end there. I would also discover through playing that Arthur’s body weight is affected by his in-game eating habits. An Arthur who eats only to replenish his core stats will eventually grow scrawny. An Arthur who eats regular meals will stay about average, while an Arthur who partakes at every chance will eventually get husky. Besides the cosmetic change, a scrawny Arthur will have more stamina than a husky one but may not punch as hard or be able to take as many hits.
One of the reasons that the open world is so critical to a game like Red Dead is that it offers the player a chance to slow down between the hectic scenes contained within the main storyline. The story often contains elements of heists, robberies, shootouts, and all-around bad situations. Once a section of the story is completed, it’s often nice to find some respite in a less chaotic activity like hunting, fishing, or treasure hunting. With the ability to set up camp, cook his own food and sleep wherever he lays his head, Arthur could theoretically live off the land forever.
I’ve found that I spend about 75% of my playtime indulging in these leisurely activities. Exploration is rewarded, too, as I’m constantly running into some escaped prisoner who needs his leg irons shot off, or a poor guy who was bitten my a snake, or a hunter who somehow got caught in his own bear trap. Helping these unfortunates not only provides you with “nice guy” karma but often comes with rewards like cash, loot, or tips on hidden treasure.
While I’m on my long countryside jaunts, it’s impossible to ignore the fantastic ambiance Rockstar has created within the Red Dead world. The sound of wind whistling along the prairie. Hoofbeats on the dirt, wooden, mud, and cobblestone surfaces of the ground. An eagle wail. Distant howling wolves. Chirping crickets. All of these sounds accompany a picturesque backdrop of various biomes and the occasional twang of a few banjo notes. It’s a world that feels vast and empty yet full of life and activity. It’s exactly how I picture the old west, minus the smell of horse poop in the streets.
Red Dead Redemption 2 began with a lot of technical pain and suffering, but I’m glad I stuck with it through the issues. It comes with the MMO Red Dead Online, which I look forward to trying once my journey with Arthur Morgan has reached its conclusion. Until then, I’m just going to continue to mosey along, pardner.