The Game Isn’t Exactly Subtle About Its Premise
“New century’s coming,” Arthur says at one point. “This life, this way? Well, we’re the last, I reckon.” When you first see Saint Denis, the game’s big city location, its skyline is dominated by smokestacks and factories, with dense, smoggy air creating a claustrophobic effect. Arthur can’t stop complaining about it.
Arthur’s attitude aside, the group dynamic turns out to be an ingenious way to structure an open-world game. The problem with these kinds of sprawling experiences is that there’s often a disconnect from what you should be doing and what you want to be doing. There’s an evil that needs to be defeated or a magical item that has to be retrieved to save the world. But really, all you want to do is mess around driving cars or chatting with people in town.
In most games, the side activities feel completely separate from the actual plot, but this disconnect doesn’t exist in RDR2. For most of the game, your only real goal is to survive. The gang is in constantly in need of money and resources, which fits pretty well with a game that’s ostensibly about committing a lot of crimes. There are missions to take on, which typically revolve around a big score, like robbing a bank or hijacking a train. But virtually every other thing you do in the game contributes to this as well.
One member of the gang is a loan shark, for instance, and there’s a series of missions where you have to collect unpaid debts. It can feel terrible — I didn’t especially enjoy beating up poor farmers for a bit of cash — but it always made sense in the context of the story. Desperate people are forced to do desperate things. At the outset of the game, the gang is freezing, starving, and broke, and while things get better later on, they always seem to be living on the edge.
Even seemingly superfluous side activities serve a purpose. You can hunt buffalo and deer or go fishing, and doing so not only provides useful items, but it helps keep the group fed. Going off and playing poker is fun, but it’s also yet another way to get money. These moments flow in a very natural way. You don’t go pick side missions from a menu; they come up organically. You might be heading back to camp to drop off a rabbit carcass, and someone will pull you aside to tell you about a lead on a new heist or ask you to take their bored kid fishing. Arthur might find a letter from his long-lost love sitting on his bed, yanking him in yet another direction.
The line between the story and side missions is very blurry in RDR2, and the same goes for some of the smaller interactions you’ll have throughout the game, which can open up new storylines or unlock content. As you travel, you come across all kinds of people, many of whom need help. Needy strangers will ask you for money, or you might ride past someone being kidnapped out on the open road. Often, intervening can lead you in interesting directions.