Last year I finally played Red Dead Redemption and said it was “easily one of the greatest games I’ve ever played”. Now I’ve played the
sequel prequel and it too is up there in the pantheon.
Rockstar took the unusual approach of releasing it as a prequel to the original game, which at first seems like an odd decision. But that decision immediately pays off, as you are introduced to the new protagonist – Arthur Morgan – via a mission to rescue the hero of the first game, John Marston. This provokes two instant emotional reactions: one being the joy of seeing John again, and the other the beginning of forging a new bond with Arthur – a bond which is the core of RDR2. It’s a brilliant beginning to a brilliant game.
I pulled out my stage coach times
And I read the latest news
I tapped my feet in dumb surprise
And of course I saw they knew
The journey of the game is a familiar one to Western fans, following Arthur and his adopted family of outlaws and rebels through their dreams and tribulations on their quest for a better and free life. Arthur himself is a rough man of few words but long on loyalty and honour. And over the course of the game you grow to love him deeply.
The Pinkertons pulled out my bags
And asked me for my name
I stuttered out my answer
And hung my head in shame
Being a Rockstar game you are mostly free to play Arthur as good or as bad as you choose. You can be an upstanding gangster grudgingly respected by even the law abiding citizenry, or you can be a nasty piece of low down villainy who terrorises from lake to landing. Naturally I chose the former, though there are enough moral conundrums and choices to ensure that you’re never quite the model citizen, always straying outside the law rather than in.
Now they’ve found me
Lord I say at last they’ve found me
It’s hard to run
From a starving family
The game world is stunning, the most alive and realistic (within the Western framework) world I’ve ever ventured in. The wildlife and nature is quite incredible, both graphically and audibly, each valley or mountain top or forest swarming with movement and sound. For much of the game you are simply riding free and exploring, drawn to the next vista and watching herds of bison grazing on the plains.
Reading that ornithologists have studied the game and gave it top marks comes as no surprise. Nor that a friend’s father examined the railway details all the way down to the joinery on the sleepers and rails and was amazed by their accuracy. It may sound crazy to put that level of detail in a game of this type, but it pays off in spades with the immersion and joy the world generates.
Now I’ve seen this chain gang
Lord I say let me see my priest
I couldn’t have faced your desert sand
Old burning brown backed beast
Special mention must be made of the horses in the game. The models are beautiful, from their movement to their coats to the idle animations to the incredible detail of their faces. Over the course of the game you can tame wild horses and develop their skills, and by the end you will have made a bond stronger then iron with your favourites.
The poor house they hit me for my kin
And claimed my crumbling walls
Now I know how Reno felt
When he ran from the law
Some reviewers have said you don’t need to play the first game to play the second, and while that is true it also means you would miss out on a huge component of the RDR2. Knowing the fate of many of the characters you play alongside brings an emotional heft that is extremely affecting. It’s quite different to a sequel where you are continuing a story, here you are starting a story where you know the ending, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Now they’ve found me
Well I won’t run
I’m tired of hearing
There goes a well-known gun
It is an extremely emotional voyage the game takes you on if you let it, one which can be played with great freedom of action and yet remain a shining example of the power of a single player game to craft and shape a story that lives on beyond the boundaries of the game.
And in Arthur, Rockstar have created one of the great videogame – or any medium really – characters. Spend some time in his skin and you’re unlikely to forget it.
Song lyrics from Elton John & Bernie Taupin’s ‘Ballad of a Well-Known Gun’