Conflict is always a study in contrasts. A hero in a vacuum is just a person. They need an opposing force to define their journey. In gaming, the villain is normally some big, bad boss with little nuance to their motivations. Steal a princess. Destroy the world. Establish the Eggman Empire. But what happens when a game builds the villain alongside the hero? And puts you both in one of the biggest, most dynamic worlds ever created?
You get Red Dead Redemption 2, the sequel to Rockstar’s Old West opus (and available now as part of Sony’s PlayStation Plus subscription offering). Mostly known for the GTA franchise, Rockstar’s ambitions in RDR2 surpass anything in their urban sandbox chaos. That’s especially true when it comes to the relationship between Arthur Morgan and the morally gray gang leader Dutch Van Der Linde.
There’s a line from a Bob Dylan song that applies perfectly to the themes of RDR2 — “to live outside the law you must be honest.” Your role in this sprawling Southwestern world is to be a man at odds with his time and place. The time of the cowboy is coming to an end. As part of the Van Der Linde gang, Arthur at least has a community that understands who he is and what they’re all facing, together.
How you face it is a matter of player agency. Like any good open-world game, RDR2 offers plenty of choice and consequence. But unlike most games, RDR2 uses a sympathetic, likeable villain who is always one step further over the line. The story begins with Dutch as your friend and charismatic gang leader doing his level best to keep his community alive by any means necessary. Those means get more visceral and less idealistic as the story, and Dutch’s own mania, progress.
There’s more to this world than the drama between Dutch and Arthur, of course. Rockstar built one of the biggest maps imaginable and populated it with stories and challenges and scenery. The pace is deliberately slow (too slow the detractors will argue) to force players to take it all in as they amble from place to place.
It’s also very much a Rockstar game when it comes to chaos and mayhem. There are some massive, ludonarrative-dissonance-be-damned shootouts to behold that leave you feeling like a truly invincible cowboy hero. There’s crafting and hunting and gambling, too. You can spend hours just walking around towns talking to people, as you will inevitably get dragged into dramas both absurd and morbid.
Even if you already played it, RDR2 is a game worth putting more time into. Yes, there’s likely a lot left to discover unless you are a true completionist, but beyond that it’s worth a visit just to marvel at the level of polish on everything. The world isn’t just gorgeous, it’s near perfect. The story isn’t just good, it’s compelling all the way to the end. The performances aren’t just great “for a video game,” they rival anything on stage or screen. With so much to do and see there will be decisions you may not agree with, but it’s hard to find fault in the execution here. Come to see the arc of one of gaming's greatest villains, stay for one of gaming’s most ambitious worlds.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is available for purchase on Xbox, PlayStation and PC. It’s also available as part of the PlayStation Plus Extra and Premium subscription plans.