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Things get dark and dirty in solid open-worlder ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’

"Red Dead Redemption 2" focuses on Arthur Morgan, the top lieutenant in Dutch Van der Linde's gang.

ROCKSTAR GAME/TNS

By EBENEZER SAMUEL | New York Daily News | Published: November 9, 2018

This is what it’s like to play “Red Dead Redemption 2”: You’re living the life of an outlaw in the Wild West. You’re Arthur Morgan of the Van der Linde gang, and you and the crew are on the run.
That means a battle for survival throughout five fictional states in Rockstar Games’ masterpiece, but it means more than that, too. It means maintaining guns, eating, and feeding your horse, and it means hours and hours on horseback, traversing one of the most detailed depictions of the Wild West that you’ve ever seen. This is life in “Red Dead Redemption 2,” and if you’re not careful, you’ll burn hours upon hours of your real life in New Hanover.
Rockstar’s latest is its greatest and most realistic open-worlder yet, a game that packs more detailed systems into it than any similar title that’s come before. Here, open-world storytelling reaches new heights, crafting a smart narrative onto a game that lets you do whatever you want to do. And here, you’ll manage more systems than you ever have, yet never feel as if you’re playing something contrived. Slight missteps (a less-than-friendly checkpointing system and some backwards control decisions) exist, but you’ll still have loads of fun.
As long as you can make peace with “Red Dead’s” somewhat slow start, you’ll be treated to a delightful Wild West sandbox. Rockstar’s crafted a stunning game world, full of rolling hills and forestry and just enough pathways for horseback riding to be smooth. All of this sprawls across the game’s fictional world, with western towns and railroads and other happenings spread out here and there. It’s a splendid landscape to explore, and it’s meant to be explored by horseback, the sound of your horse’s gallop in the background.
You’re free to explore this world after a few slow-moving hours. “Red Dead Redemption 2” is a massive game but one with very deliberate pacing, which can be a little frustrating at first. Your early story missions involve scripted horseback rides with plenty of conversation, and those horseback rides can’t be sped up. The game teaches you basic mechanics (hunting and collecting pelts, gunplay strategies, and that horseback riding) this way, so it all has a purpose. But it can be a little sluggish at the start.
But once the Van der Linde gang finds a semi-settled area, things perk up quickly, and new ideas come fast and furious. You control every part of Arthur’s life, from the mundane to the interesting, from shaving and eating and showering to the more expected parts of the Wild West lifestyle, all that gunplay and outlaw stuff that you’d expect.
Rockstar demands much of the gamer, sometimes to your annoyance. You’ll do little things that could have easily been cutscenes, like pick up a broken wagon wheel and roll it back into place, or set a line for an explosive.
But this all serves to invest you more in other parts of the game: You’re living the little things of the outlaw lifestyle, not just shooting and killing. Rockstar builds in systems for everything: You bond with your horse, have to eat (but carefully, lest you gain too much weight), and have to purchase supplies. Walking into stores to buy food and wares is a special joy too, because it’s here that you see how much detail Rockstar’s packed into the experience. You open a catalog (instead of looking at some basic menu) to see what a store has, or walk right up to a shelf with food and point your icon at something to buy it.
Window-dressing like this is critical, because while you make a great many little decisions (take a shower today or keep stinking up the joint? Sell that deer or take it back to camp for food?), you never make any truly big ones. “Fallout” this is not; “Red Dead’s” main narrative leaves little room for player agency. The game has a story to tell, and you’re a player in it, not the driving force behind it. Know that going in, so you can truly appreciate the “Red Dead” experience.
You’re taking instructions from Dutch, the leader of the gang, too, in a narrative that’s really terrific. The slow-moving early portions of the game invest you in the story, and that really holds your attention. This is an open-world game, and you can do plenty on your own, but you’ll be so interested in the tale that you’ll chase the story missions.
There’s plenty of intrigue here, and slight bits of social commentary, enough to make you think without being heavy-handed. The story touches on the treatment of Native Americans and minorities and women, but it never gets preachy, and these ideas never overpower the core story, which bleeds right into the original “Red Dead Redemption.”
“Red Dead Redemption 2’s” missteps are few. The autosaving system is a little bit cruel, leading you to replay failed missions not from a pivotal point, but often from the very beginning of the mission or the section; the game should have taken cues from Ubisoft’s “Far Cry” and implemented far more friendly checkpoint saves. And while horseback riding in this game is largely fantastic, it’s odd to spend so much time tapping a button just to create your horse’s pace. This is intuitive — but it feels unnecessary at times, too.
The entire “Red Dead” experience, though, feels fantastic overall. There are few truly exciting doses of the Wild West in entertainment these days — and still fewer in video games.
Good thing this visit to the Wild West can go on for hours upon hours upon hours.
Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Online: rockstargames.com/reddeadredemption2

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