Red Dead Redemption 2: Ballad of a Well-Known Gun

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’


Coming back to your PC one afternoon to find it dead, and still dead after hours of fiddling, and deader still after days of troubleshooting, and confirmed dead after weeks of swapping parts, and finally condemned after even a multimeter on the motherboard couldn’t help, is not recommended. It certainly puts a stop to any MMO play, and also puts a stop to blogging.

Due to a combination of option paralysis and over analysis, it’s taken 6 months to get a new one built and installed. Which put me so far behind in Warcraft that all I could do before Battle for Azeroth was finish of Legion flying, and unlock the Highmountain Tauren and Nightborne allied races (I pity the Alliance who could only unlock their extra races after finishing late-game Argus factions). I’ll mainly regret never getting the Field Medic title, but after grinding hundreds of poor murlocs (some revenge for the many times they swarmed a levelling lowbie) time just ran out.

However the enforced break did have some positive consequences, mainly in the form of playing some long queued-up PS4 and Xbox One games1.

First up was Uncharted 1 & 2, featuring the charming, handsome, and literally bulletproof Nathan Drake.

Handsome, and Nate

These are old games now, but they still play as smooth as butter and look good too in their remastered states. It’s on-rails (literally in the case one of the best sequences on a moving train), Indiana Jones meets Lara Croft high adventure, all told with great vim and vigour, and the British humour is welcome.

There’s a tad too much gunplay sometimes, but the sheer inventiveness of the set pieces and beautiful locales make it all worthwhile. I’m pleased to think there’s 3 more games to go – just have to wait for the PC to break again I guess.

Next I plunged in to Horizon Zero Dawn, which is a beautiful game to play and watch. The scenery is often breathtakingly lush, and it’s set in a unique and totally compelling world of mechanical animals and primitive human civilisation.

The lead character, Aloy, is a great protagonist, vastly different from the smirking Drake and a perfect example of how to create new and interesting heroes without having to fall back on standard tropes.

The control and animation is a treat too, all feeling natural enough to pick up and play relatively easily even after a break. I spent a lot of time just wandering around foraging and exploring, slightly resenting having to deal with the mechanical wildlife when I strayed too close.

Worth the climb – this is the view from the back of a moving ‘Tallneck’ dinosaur

I didn’t finish HZD though, mainly due to the sheer size of the game. I thought I was traveling quite well and progressing the story, only to unlock a new section of the map that totally took the wind out of my sails. It was overwhelming to see how much more there was to do, to the extent that I downed controller and moved on.

As a palate cleanser I dipped back in to the online stalwart that is GTA V.

Seems legit

The single player game is too brutal for me, but the online version is so full of ridiculous things to do (play golf or tennis, try and steal an army jet, race through Hot Wheels tracks in the sky) that it’s hard to resist. It’s an MMO without any question, albeit one without any structure other than the city you live in.

Due to various Rockstar bonus events, I managed to save enough to buy a posh apartment this time around, which was fun – just like real life without the responsibility. I find GTA has only short term novelty value (though many would disagree – there’s plenty of role playing and career gaming happening there), so before long it was time for the highlight of this console escapade.

Welcome to Armadillo

Red Dead Redemption.

Easily one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. I’m a sucker for Westerns and RDR revels in the stories and traditions of the genre, then lets you live in it2. It’s quite incredible.

I’d started and stopped it many times before (‘I should be paying Warcraft not this’), but this time it got the hooks in deep. RDR is a sprawling Western told through the eyes of John Marsden, a perfectly realised and written Western hero, fitting every stereotype yet rising above them all. The land he inhabits is full of wonderful characters, ranging from mad grave diggers to Mexican Cartel Generals, and everything in between.

The range of personalities is great, and they’re all fully voiced, but it’s the landscape that is the real star. It’s beautiful and barren, dangerous and serene, begging you to stay on horseback and just ride as far as you can to see where you end up.

For an 8 year old game it still looks stunning, and the fact there is a remastered 4K version for the Xbox One X almost made me buy a whole new console just to see it in full glory.

No cow left behind
Of course being a Rockstar game there are few women, and unfortunately RDR2 looks to continue that tradition, but there is one very well written NPC that makes up for some of that. Some of the storylines are throw away, but many pack gut punches and emotional heft well beyond what you would expect from such a well trodden genre.

And, no spoilers, but it has the most powerful endings to a game I’ve ever experienced.

  1. Plus watching Game of Thrones S1-S7, finally. 
  2. Which made watching Westworld after playing RDR a real pleasure.