A funny scene played out as I was exploring the Old West in “Red Dead Redemption 2,” the latest from Rockstar Games, the video game publisher perhaps best known for unleashing “Grand Theft Auto” on the world.
I got fumble-fingered and transformed this expansive cinematic turn-of-the-century adventure with vistas rivaling those in “The Searchers” into a slapstick comedy à la “Blazing Saddles.”
Somehow, I hit the wrong trigger and made the character I was playing in the game, the hardened outlaw Arthur Morgan, accidentally punch his horse. Trigger – the game lets you name the horse, and I chose that of Roy Rogers’ stallion – whinnied and instinctively kicked its hind legs, sending Arthur flying backwards.
The horse galloped away. Luckily, Arthur had a carrot handy, which I had him use as a peace offering.
Rockstar’s interactive West-world
Lovers of vastly explorable action video games won’t need much persuading to saddle up for “Red Dead Redemption 2,” the blockbuster game out Friday for Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One ($60-up, rated Mature for ages 17-up).
While this open-world game gives you free rein to explore much of the western half of a fictional America, the main story follows the Van der Linde gang including Arthur Morgan, as it evades lawmen, bounty hunters and rival gangs across a wide-ranging frontier.
You don’t have to have played Rockstar’s earlier western game, 2010’s “Red Dead Redemption,” to enjoy this new epic. But this serves as a prequel and the protagonist of the earlier game, John Marston, is a member of the outlaw gang and plays a role in this new story.
This open-world game is Rockstar Game’s biggest ever, and that is saying a lot, considering the “Grand Theft Auto V” setting of Los Santos, a virtual Los Angeles, was “huge, almost overwhelming,” as USA TODAY’s Brett Molina described the crime-soaked action game upon its release five years ago.
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The good, the bad and the breathtaking
Here, Rockstar Games has rendered a huge chunk of what would eventually become the U.S., including virtual substitutes for the Rockies, the Great Plains, and even New Orleans. Snowy peaks, wooded mountainsides and boundless, rocky panoramas – and those are just some of the initial locales in the game – provide eye candy surpassing even that brought to the screen by famed director John Ford.
“When you see those large expanses of terrain, you feel humbled,” said Harold Goldberg, who chronicled the game’s development in a story published last week in New York magazine and on its website Vulture.com. “It’s almost as if you are seeing it in real life, as if you have experienced Niagara Falls for the first time.”
“Red Dead 2” is not only breathtaking, but also richly responsive. Early adventures in the game have been captivating. At the outset, you must help the gang navigate near white-out conditions in a snowstorm.
Soon, you are hijacking a train, orchestrating a jailbreak, and robbing a bank. And you can freelance and talk to – or rob – nearly any other person you see while riding the range or visiting the burgeoning towns. You can also hunt wild animals, go fishing, play poker and dominoes, and carouse in the saloons.
Your character helps the gang’s camp thrive by catching wild game, collecting debts and committing other cash-yielding crimes.
So you wanna be an outlaw?
Clearly troubled with the crew’s fading leadership, Arthur regularly faces choices that will impact how the world responds to him. If witnesses see you commit crimes, you will likely find a bounty on your head. And townspeople will remember your exploits, for better or worse.
“I would go so far as to say that the story is their best story yet,” Goldberg said.
The project began more than seven years ago and required the contributions of Rockstar’s eight studios around the world – from Rockstar North in Edinburgh, Scotland, which oversees the “Grand Theft Auto” series and worked on the original “Red Dead Redemption,” to Rockstar San Diego, which also worked on “Red Dead Redemption” and “L.A. Noire.”
More than 1,000 actors reportedly performed more than 500,000 lines of dialogue – the main story script was about 2,000 pages long – and spent the equivalent of 2,200 days wearing motion capture suits to provide the movements for characters in the game. Artists created 300,000 animations for the game.
The result is massive. A download of a pre-release version of the game amounted to more than 80 gigabytes; a typical game is half that. “Creatively, Rockstar is among two or three great game companies that continues to push the art form of video games forward with each release they do,” Goldberg said. “With this one, it’s just so big it’s kind of staggering.”
‘Redemption 2,’ a likely hit at retail and with critics
The game is considered a Game of the Year contender and will be among the top sellers, too. But “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4,” which raked in more than $500 million in its first three days available since its Oct. 12 launch, will likely be the biggest seller in the U.S. for 2018, says Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research for Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles.
Still, he said, “People are drooling (over “Red Dead 2″). They just think it’s amazing.”
The first wave of reviews of the game has earned “Red Dead 2” ratings of 97 and 98 (for PS4 and Xbox One, respectively) on Metacritic. If those high marks are maintained, the game could “be among the top two or three ever,” Pachter said.
Rockstar “can’t do any more than make a great game and market it flawlessly, and then sit back and hope consumers figure out that they want to play it.”
Rockstar tends “to push themselves really hard,” Goldberg said. But that mindset led to some blowback when Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser told Goldberg the studio worked some “100-hour weeks” several times in 2018. That set off an upsurge of commentary about the “crunch” in video game development.
Some employees mentioned a “culture of fear” at Rockstar requiring overtime, according to video game news site Kotaku, which interviewed several dozen current and former employees. But others described the company to Kotaku as “a great place to work, aside from the long hours.”
Since then, Houser has offered some context, saying he was referring to the senior writing team including himself, over “three weeks, not years,” he told Variety. “After so many years of getting things organized and ready on this project, we needed this to check and finalize everything.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.
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