Back in December 2019 (in the Before times) I had a two week holiday ahead of me. I also had £60 odd left in CEX credit having sold my old Xbox 360 and assorted games prior to moving house. So on my lunch break on the last working day of the year, I popped into the Tottenham Court Road store and loaded up with a bunch of interesting looking PS4 games. Lego Marvel Heroes, Spiderman, Witcher 3, Doom, FarCry 5, & RDR2. The total came to fractionally over the value of my remaining credit, so I spent something like 11 pence of loose change to walk out with half a dozen shiny new (well, pre-owned) games. Little did I know that would end up being the best 11 pence I had ever spent.
Fast forward a year. As both Terry and I have written elsewhere, we count ourselves ridiculously fortunate to have the comforts and facilities we do throughout this whole period. We’ve both been able to work from home, we don’t have kids, and we have sufficient space at home for work, leisure and exercise without having to leave the house. Overnight we stopped commuting and got around 3 hours per day back to do with as we wished. While the pandemic raged on outside, I could finish work for the day and literally seconds later be curled up on the sofa, immersed in another universe. Universes where ill-health could be solved with potions, problems solved via weaponry, vistas explored on horseback or in fast cars. Gaming had long been my escape from reality, and I needed that more than ever.
I never played the original RDR. I knew incarnation #2 was a vast open-worlder set around the turn of the century in the dying embers of the Wild West, but that was it. From hereon out be spoilers – you have been warned!
The below is going to sound quite negative, so I want to preface this by saying I bloody loved this game. It’s just that the reasons it’s so good have been covered amply elsewhere. The graphics are beautiful, the music is glorious, the voice performances outstanding. So taking all that as read (no pun intended…):
The story should have been epic enough to fill the game play hours available. By which I mean the slow collapse of the misfit community our protagonist Arthur inhabits, set against the backdrop of the slow collapse of the outlaw way of life, should have felt sufficient. We meet a bunch of characters, which get slowly fleshed out through eavesdropping, casual banter and discovered documents. As and when the deaths of significant NPCs occur they are earned and affecting. But, and perhaps this is unavoidable given the vignette structure of the narrative, after a while it just seemed like those primary plot-driving conversations kept going round in circles. We meet our motley crew having barely escaped with their lives after a heist goes wrong. Charismatic leader Dutch Van der Lin must maintaining the morale of his gang while they regroup. Starving, frozen, grieving the loss of those that didn’t make it and wanting to blame someone for the tragic turn of events. Dutch’s character is shown to be an idealist, a dreamer, a man striving to live by a code of honour whilst maintaining the pragmatism needed for survival. The player is Arthur – less of a thinker, more a man of action, but is clearly a trusted lieutenant, and the moral centre of the group. It all makes for a compelling group dynamic.
A few core missions later, and the re-grouping isn’t going too well. Despite relocating to slightly warmer climes, the schisms in the group are starting to show. There is blame for their fallen comrades and the loot left abandoned in Blackwater. Dutch is becoming paranoid, ever more demanding his acolytes profess unwavering loyalty. He has a plan, but he is losing patience at any protestation or expression of doubt.
A few core missions after that and… well, it’s pretty much the same actually. Dutch says he has a plan. Arthur says he ain’t too sure. Dutch says he’s sick of the second-guessing. And so the conversation goes, round and round. The game takes you to the brink of the group splintering apart forever, but then teeters there for dozens of further hours. Even as more key characters meet their demise, that core dynamic doesn’t get to go anywhere new until the very end. I guess the criticism is that the story is just a bit mis-paced given the enormous duration of the game.
My second major gripe is that the economics of the situation don’t quite hold up for me. Arthur has various options for raising funds. He can simply steal, he can sell animal products from hunting or items looted from bodies. He can undertake various side missions (bounty hunting, riding along with a colleagues’ stage coach robbery etc) which net him various levels of cash. The larger side and main story missions give him a pretty decent take. After a few dozen hours of playtime, my Arthur had nearly $4k stocked up. I’d donated plenty to the camp, fully upgraded the facilities (including the sodding boat which I never used because I really couldn’t get on with the fishing mechanic) and treated myself to a night at the theatre. I had a winter coat, but otherwise saw little point in purchasing clothing. I was perfectly happy using the guns afforded to me via mission completion so never ended up buying additional weaponry. I also kept forgetting to eat, so whilst my poor Arthur did end up a bit anorexic it did save on grocery bills. I was briefly concerned my carefully amassed personal fortune was gone forever during my brief sojourn to Guarma. But no, once I was back in Lemoyne and on my horse it magically reappeared (perhaps Mary-Beth had stuffed it into her corset for me – who knows!)
There various mentions of the fortune abandoned in Blackwater, and the general gang funds Dutch supposedly keeps safe. Incidentally I was entirely confused for a few hours thinking that was the same fund as Arthur controls for the camp, so I guess he just looks after petty cash? Towards the denouement of the main story, Dutch has another heist planned, yet again one last job so they can all retire, and announces it’s a few thousand. Only at that point I already had a few thousand. And there wasn’t a button for “if that’s all we need then I’ll just cover the cost of our boat to Tahiti (magical place) and we can all leave right now without anyone else getting shot by the Pinkertons”. Which is all a very long way of saying that my investment up to that point felt a bit undervalued.
This is also compounded by my 3rd annoyance. As mentioned above I hadn’t played the original game and had no idea how that story was structured, or that this was a prequel. I just felt pissed off when I learned less than 2/3rds of the way through the story that Arthur had a terminal diagnosis of TB. Perhaps it’s just the way I approach gaming, but learning the avatar I am striving to keep alive is going to croak soon anyway is a bit de-motivating. Not to mention the real world context of there being a coronavirus pandemic on, and playing a character with a new persistent cough who refuses to self-isolate!
I maxed out my honour meter (achievement unlocked: the ‘extreme personality’ of not being a complete bastard) and made a final Arthurian decision to help John escape rather than going back for money. So I got the ‘good’ ending as Mr Morgan splutters his way into the great beyond bathed in a sunset glow. Knowing what happens after, and also now appreciating that John Marston is in fact the protagonist of the original game, I assume this means that John escapes anyway, so what happens if I go back for the money? Prior to that point Arthur hands over a bundle of cash to Tilly so is that his whole wallet’s worth?
Another ten or so hours later John wraps up his epilogue discovering the missing funds, but it’s unclear whether that includes the Blackwater stash or not. In fact when John finally gets to Blackwater and meets Uncle, I was genuinely expecting a core mission to find the missing loot in a nearby cave or something. I remain slightly unfulfilled not knowing whether there’s another cache somewhere I failed to find. I also hoped that John would be able to interact directly with the bank to pay off his debt, but there wasn’t a button for “I signed up to this mortgage and now have a bunch of spare cash from looting dead folks (shh don’t tell my wife) so can I make an early overpayment on the capital please?” either.
Interspersed with the slightly underwhelming epilogue main story missions, John gets to play Frontier Sims, which is kind of fun, but IMO a weird decision to shoehorn in a compulsory unrelated mini-game (although to be fair Geralt does have to play a few rounds of Gwent in Witcher 3). Perhaps what I really want is an expansion pack. RDR2: Farmer Tycoon with Fully Interactive Banking Facilities.