You can keep your bank hold-ups, your pistol duels and your card-shark poker scenes. To me, nothing says “Western” like seeing a cowboy being chucked out of a saloon onto the muddy, horse-mucked streets of a dead end town. And Red Dead Redemption 2 has one of the dirtiest, sloppiest, ‘ew I’m covered in dung’-iest fist fights in all of gaming.
Red Dead 2 is a dirty game. Your horse needs to be brushed from trail dust, a storm will turn the dirt-track streets to slop, carrying an animal carcass back to camp will leave protagonist Arthur Morgan’s jacket sodden with blood. It’s not quite photoreal, but its luscious locations and character designs are among the most detailed in all of gaming, right down to accurately physics-modeled horse balls – you get the feeling that, if they’d had the horsepower, the developers at Rockstar would have found a way to simulate grime under Arthur’s fingernails.
But back to that fight – it occurs early on in Red Dead Redemption 2, a game both epic in length and in the anticipation levels it inspired in its years-long development cycle. Arthur and his ragtag band of outlaws find themselves in the middle of a saloon ruckus, when ‘Big Tommy’ wades in and gives our reluctant hero a good kicking.
Smashing through a window and out into a mud bath street, Arthur is caked in crap and bloodied, while a dozen onlookers gawp and crowd around. Like an R-Rated take on The Quiet Man’s infamously-long John Wayne fight scene, it’s staged sublimely – Rockstar deftly blending its cinematic, hands-off animations with a brawl that carries a real slugger’s weight behind it.
It’s a tiny slice of what’s on offer in Red Dead Redemption 2, a clear front runner for game of the generation, but represents Rockstar’s approach in microcosm – take a classic cowboy trope, and grittily ground the player believably in its center, no holds barred. Though you can’t alter this world as much as you may first think, given its expansive freedom to explore it, you can inhabit it in a way few other games have realized.
This is a living, breathing world, from the interplay of wildlife out in the wilderness, to the beggars haranguing you on the streets to the bandits ambushing you with a false damsel in distress. Each corner hides a secret, if not a story, and each feels a believably organic part of a complex system.
If there’s a downside to this quest for realism, it’s in the busy work. Guns must be holstered on your horse with no more than two upon your person at a time; Arthur will get weak if he’s not well fed; your BFF horse can die permanently. I once was galloping across country with my mighty steed, one that I’d painstakingly tracked and tamed just hours earlier, delivering a little old lady safely home, only to shoot my horse over a blind-sighted cliff. Neither it, nor Arthur, survived the fall, and the quirk of taking part in one of the game’s many ambient quests, as opposed to a main mission, meant that my mare’s death was lost to the great big quick save in the sky.
But that’s the cowboy life, right? And aside from the blockbuster, over-the-top set pieces that are dotted through the campaign, that’s what Red Dead Redemption 2 aims to be – a cowboy simulator, hardship and failure included alongside rare, romanticized Lone Ranger moments. From eating beans under the stars by campfire, to trapping and skinning a squirrel for a hat, it’s gaming’s blood meridian – both in terms of it being a digital accompaniment to the classic Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, and as a red line in the digital desert sand that any games developer hoping to make a believable open world in the future must be prepared to cross.