Warning: major plot spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2 ahead.
When I originally played Red Dead Redemption 2 earlier this year, I noted how it was so rich in detail but also heavily restrictive in forcing me to play the story in a certain way. This was an experience where every single action I took was performed sluggishly, and every animation was made for a cinematic effect. The pressure to complete different tasks or continue a chain of missions meant that I was never being given a moment to breathe, constantly in a state of ‘do this, do that’ that persisted for the first 60 hours of the game. That is, until I finished the campaign.
The various systems, cinematic cues and narrative devices interrupts Red Dead Redemption 2’s flow, spoiling the coherency that the first game did really well. You finish one task and several more pop up. You’re constantly being barraged by different notifications and world events that it tampers with how you want to play. About three-quarters through, there’s a whole chunk of story where the gang get stranded on the tropical island of Guarma, with no way to return to the mainland without finishing this sequence of missions. After this, each stage fluidly rolls into the next to create a feeling of denouement, but it also interferes with your wishes to do pretty much anything else.
At Red Dead Redemption 2’s climax, protagonist Arthur Morgan is killed after a long round of fisticuffs with fellow outlaw Micah Bell. The story then jumps eight years into the future, following John Marston and his family as he becomes a rancher and leads an honest life settled on his new land. The most enjoyable aspect of this was being able to focus on the mundane parts of the cowboy routine. I watched John get married, settle down and leave his troubled past behind.
I will admit, the story’s conclusion really got to me in places. I grew to love Arthur Morgan, and it was great to see how everything panned out and connected to the first game. But the reality of playing a polished AAA cowboy simulator is all I wanted from this. It’s ridiculous that it took 50-60 gruelling hours to reach that point, and it isn’t something I would recommend to anyone longing for that experience. The big appeal for me is now playing the postgame, where I no longer need to worry about pleasing Dutch by going off on some tireless crusade for him. Instead, I can gallop around on my horse, fishing underneath the shadow of a tall mountain or boozing at the local dingy saloon.
If you wanted to fast track it, you could always create your own avatar on Red Dead Online and do the same thing. I’ve never played this mode myself as I don’t have PlayStation Plus (add an offline option, Rockstar!), but there are a lot of resources for anyone interested in checking it out. Eurogamer’s Jordan Oloman noted how it “implemented some sticky systems that tap the potential of this fascinating open world and let you finally soak in its unparalleled ambience”. It seems – for the most part – this scratches the same itch I had with the game’s singleplayer portion, albeit with having hostile other players to contend with.
As an overall package, I’m still hesitant to call Red Dead Redemption 2 a good game. The campaign is a huge slog, there are so many intrusive mechanics forced onto players, and design decisions that actively hinder your fun. But as soon as I finished the story and could interact with the world at my own pace, it became an authentic, immersive western experience that allows you to live out the mundane life of an average cowboy.