Rockstar’s latest is still a great – but flawed – game… and another example of a mediocre PC port.
John Marston dies at the end of Red Dead Redemption. He walks out of his barn into a hail of gunfire, like Butch and Sundance, only without the banter. John’s death is sad, but it’s also a moment of triumph. In dying, he saves his family. He atones and offers his family a chance for a new life. But his sacrifice isn’t the death of a single man. As the last remaining member of Dutch Van der Linde’s gang, his death resolves the meta plot that the game has been spinning through newspapers and background chatter. His death is the death of the Wild West itself, not only in the reality of the game’s world, but as an idea. The myth of the old west dies with him. Civilization is coming, and it has no place for men like John Marston. He must be destroyed, and he knows it, so he goes on his own terms. But what his sacrifice buys is temporary, and a few years later, his son throws it away for a misguided attempt at vengeance against an old man. What Jack doesn’t see – can’t see – is that Edgar Ross isn’t his enemy. Ross was an errand boy sent to collect a bill. The problem was the system he works for, and that is something that Jack Marston will never be able to destroy. He can run from it, like his father did, but eventually, it will catch him. It cannot permit him to survive.
If there’s one thing that Red Dead Redemption 2 shares with its predecessor, it’s the belief that every victory, every sacrifice, is temporary. You can’t fight fate. At best, you can delay it. And the cost of that delay is enormous. But those small victories, as simple as they are, matter, and are worth fighting for. Ten years later, Red Dead Redemption, specifically its ending, is still Rockstar’s finest hour. It’s also one of the only Rockstar game that has never been released on PC, and it isn’t likely to, as Rockstar has said optimizing the game’s engine would be too much work. Rockstar’s PC ports have improved in recent years, but Red Dead Redemption 2 was a chance to accomplish two goals at once: to bring a venerated franchise to PC at last, and to prove they could get their PC releases right the first time, without the need for several patches or updates. It was their final test, the last frontier to conquer.
"I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: the launch of Red Dead Redemption 2’s PC port was an absolute disaster. It took several patches, and a hotfix from Nvidia before I could play it, and my computer easily clears the minimum requirements."
They blew it. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: the launch of Red Dead Redemption 2’s PC port was an absolute disaster. It took several patches, and a hotfix from Nvidia before I could play it, and my computer easily clears the minimum requirements. That process took more than two weeks. Rockstar’s last game, Grand Theft Auto V, has sold more than 115 million copies. No, this isn’t a typo. It is the most profitable entertainment product of all time. At 90 million copies, the game had exceeded $6 billion in revenue. Imagine how much bigger that number is now, with 25 million more sales under its belt (which is more than most games ever sell, by the way) and the continued money generated by GTA Online. And that’s just a single game. Rockstar and Take Two are not struggling for money. They’re not a small team with limited resources. The fact that they couldn’t make a PC port that worked more than a year after the game’s console release is absolutely unacceptable, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
How’s the game now? It largely works. I managed to get a relatively stable 30 FPS while maxing out the settings my setup allowed me to, and I have no doubt that someone with a more powerful rig will have manage something even more impressive. The game does look incredible at its high end, and Rockstar has done a good job of building a settings menu that allows users to tweak almost every aspect of their experience. Some people are still experiencing issues, and I hope Rockstar will take the time to iron those out instead of getting the game to a point they consider “good enough” and bowing out, but this is a very good looking game that, by and large, now runs pretty well.
What hasn’t changed is the game itself. This is still the story of Arthur Morgan, and the last days of the Van der Linde gang, about a decade before John Marston’s journey to hunt down the remains of his old gang. It is still funny, heartbreaking, engaging, and hopeful. The characters are still exceptional, and its easy to get caught up in their stories. Arthur Morgan is still the best protagonist that Rockstar has ever created (yes, even better than John), and Red Dead Redemption 2’s story does the hard work of making both the original game, and John Marston himself, better.
"Red Dead Redemption 2 also gives Arthur the ability to make moral choices, something the original game largely eschewed. The problem is that these choices often don’t make any sense, and completely conflict with the version of Arthur that the game builds outside of them."
While it retains its strengths, its flaws are more apparent a year after release. Like most Rockstar titles, the game loses the plot in the middle, and certain points in the plot probably take longer to happen than they should. I understand why Rockstar made the choices they did, and why the characters act the way that they do, but after a while, you wonder how everyone is still all right with how things are, and how it is that nothing has changed. This complaint is difficult to talk about without spoilers, but those who haven’t played the game will know what I mean when they get there.
Red Dead Redemption 2 also gives Arthur the ability to make moral choices, something the original game largely eschewed. The problem is that these choices often don’t make any sense, and completely conflict with the version of Arthur that the game builds outside of them. The game portrays the character one way, and then gives you the option to do something that completely contradicts that portrayal. Worst of all, this doesn’t usually even mean you do a separate mission; picking against who Arthur is usually leaves you with fewer options. This system is the most obvious during the last choice you make: the other option doesn’t even make sense, given the context of the scenario, and actively goes against everything you have spent the last several hours attempting to achieve. The power of John’s death in the original game comes from the fact that there’s nothing you can do about it, that it feels inevitable and right, and I wish Rockstar had believed in Red Dead Redemption 2’s story enough to do the same here.
The gameplay suffers the same contradictions. It’s impossible to play Red Dead Redemption 2 and not marvel at the world Rockstar has created. It is massive and beautiful, and it has so much for you to do. Stories about the crunch that occurred during development, and rumors about the game’s cost, were a constant before the game’s release, and you can see the how large the cost – both human and monetary – was every time you load the game up. But that attention to detail has drawbacks. Did we need to see Arthur put absolutely everything he picks up in his satchel? Does that animation add anything? Do the incredibly long skinning animations? Does the weapon degradation that you fix by simply running a cloth over (and not inside, where the mechanisms that matter are) your weapon? Does the fact that the male horses’ testicles grow and shrink in the cold add anything? Does Arthur’s slow and lumbering movement, or the need to eat?
"Rockstar had a chance to do the right thing, to release a game that worked, that people who paid money for could play the day they paid for it. Red Dead Redemption 2 may (mostly) work now, but this should never have happened to begin with, and it’s imperative we don’t forget that."
I admire that Rockstar is going to make the game they want to make, no matter what anyone else thinks, and it’s a mindset I wish other studios would emulate. But, over time, these things become irritants, not features. Systems to work around, not engage with. And in a game that does this much right, that’s a shame.
Red Dead Redemption 2’s PC port was a chance for Rockstar to put past failures behind them, to face their last major challenge on the platform – problematic launches – and finally destroy it. But they didn’t. It would have been a temporary victory, as all victories are. There is always another game to port, another error to patch, but a game that worked at release would have gone a long way. At their best, Rockstar’s protagonists, specifically Arthur Morgan and John Marston, embody what it is to make the hard choices, and do the right thing. They step out of the barn; into the fights they can’t win. They stay behind, so others can live on.
Rockstar had a chance to do the right thing, to release a game that worked, that people who paid money for could play the day they paid for it. They could have delayed the game to make that happen. They could have spent more money on testing. They decided not to. Red Dead Redemption 2 may (mostly) work now, but this should never have happened to begin with, and it’s imperative we don’t forget that. In an age where patches come easy, companies are more than ready to reap the easy reward, meet the optimal release date, and cut the right corners to get the money now, and provide quality later. This shouldn’t have happened. But if there’s one thing Red Dead Redemption 2 knows, it’s that it’s never too late to try to do better. We can only hope it’s a lesson Rockstar will take to heart.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
It's gorgeous. A compelling story and a great cast. Arthur is the best Rockstar protagonist ever. An enormous world with a lot to do.
The port still has issues. The moral choice system is pointless. The game loses the plot in the middle. There might be such a thing as too much attention to detail.
Red Dead Redemption's PC port isn't perfect, but it's playable now. Its flaws are more apparent a year later, and it never should have launched in the state that it did, but this is still a great game... provided you can run it.