Like the classic westerns and gangster stories it draws from, it can be crude and violent. But it is also richly cinematic and even literary, serving up breathtaking digital vistas reminiscent of John Ford films along with a mix of deftly scripted stories about outlaws, immigrants, hustlers, con artists, lawmen and entrepreneurs, all trying to eke out an existence on the edges of civilization. It’s a game about power, violence, frontier justice and murky moral choices — a new American epic for the digital age.
As a technical achievement, it has no peers. Red Dead Redemption 2 teems with life. Towns have daily rhythms, tied to time and weather, that seem to go on without you. Wildlife roams the countryside, growing skittish if you move too close. Many video games allow players to interact with other characters only by attacking them; here, every character, even the least important digital extra, can be spoken to, and often conversed with at length.
Violence is anything but mindless. You play as the outlaw Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van der Linde gang, whose goal is to help restore the gang to glory after a significant defeat. There are plenty of shootouts, chases and heists. But you can usually choose to avoid them — and when you don’t, they almost always come with a cost: Sheriffs and bounty hunters chase you down, important game options disappear, whole towns become hostile territory, horses you’ve bonded with (making them faster or more responsive) die. Instead of indulging no-regrets fantasy violence, it is a literary experience that emphasizes — and simulates — tragedy and personal consequences.