Over the next few days, we will reveal what we believe are the 10 best games of 2018, organized by release date. Then on December 19, we will reveal which of the nominees gets to take home the coveted title of GameSpot’s Game of the Year. So be sure to come back then for the big announcement, and in the meantime, follow along with all of our other end-of-the-year coverage collected in our Best of 2018 hub.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a lot of things–methodical in its pacing, ambitious in nearly every department, overwhelming in its scope–but most of all, it is contradictory. Its open world presents you with any number of outlaw activities to take on, but its story is a series of largely linear missions where there is no freedom of choice. The world is expansive and seemingly never-ending, but getting from place to place is a slow, laborious process. But those contradictions work in tandem to develop Red Dead 2’s narrative on a deeper level, and it’s thanks to those opposing ideas that we gained such an intense connection to its characters and world.
Arthur Morgan’s story is not unlike John Marston’s story; in Red Dead Redemption, John was working to escape his old life of crime and find a better life for himself and his family. In the prequel, Arthur is torn between two versions of himself: the better man he wants to be and the flawed man he is. This is represented by an honor scale that shifts depending on your actions, like greeting passerby politely or looting an innocent corpse. But in practice, no matter how you’re trying to play, you’ll always find yourself doing something you didn’t want to do. If you’re trying to be honorable, you’ll inevitably end up doing a homicide-required story mission that tanks your honor score. If you’re aiming to be a true outlaw, you’ll have to avoid donating to your camp–and miss out on important upgrades, including one that unlocks partial fast travel–if you don’t want to gain honor points.
The feeling of inevitability is exacerbated by the tension only a prequel can bring: knowing how the story ultimately ends. Over 50 or so hours, you’re forging relationships with people who you know won’t make it to the events of Red Dead Redemption. Something hopeful becomes bittersweet, and in turn, sad events take on an optimistic light. There’s something beautiful in knowing there’s nothing you can do to save someone or avoid the tragic outcome–but that you have choices all the same. Your decisions might not change the ending much, but the give and take of trying and failing makes each step on your journey feel like your own.
It can be frustrating, in an open world game, to be forced into actions you didn’t want to take. Red Dead 2 gives you a ton of choices but very few outcomes; there’s often nothing you can do to change how a story mission ends. It can feel like you’re fighting against the game, but that’s why it’s brilliant. Your weariness and your frustration are also Arthur’s, and that gives you a greater understanding into the inner turmoil he experiences throughout the story. Those feelings draw you into him, his relationships, and his world, and that’s a connection that’s hard to shake when it’s all over. Of everything about Red Dead Redemption 2, from its responsive, living world to its most meticulous details, that is its greatest achievement.