After traveling down from the mountains for an elk hunt, I feel a little hungry. Finding a flat spot, I slow down my horse and set up a quick fire to grill some venison. While I’m stopped, I also percolate a bit of coffee to warm up my bones. With the sun setting, I unpack my bedroll and catch a few hours of sleep, preparing for another long day out on the trail tomorrow.
Blurring the line between gameplay and simulation
Red Dead Redemption 2, an open world adventure game set in the waning days of the American Wild West, manages to blur the line between gameplay mechanics and a true simulation that I find myself feeling like the main character to an incredible degree. I'm not focused on my physical body sitting on a couch, twirling the left thumbstick to level up my trusty steed. I feel like I’m actually stuck in the saddle, brushing my horse to calm her down after a sneak attack from a mountain lion.
Rockstar Games has done a fantastic job of creating a living, breathing Old West for players to lose themselves in. This title is the sequel to the equally ambitious Red Dead Redemption, but acts as a prequel, explaining the backstories of characters introduced in the original game. Released on the PC in late 2019, I leapt at the chance to explore this world, playing it with mouse and keyboard as soon as the title launched. I’ve recently revisited this game as a way to test my new couch gaming setup, and I’ve fallen in love with Arthur Morgan and his band of outlaws all over again.
Image source: Gamesplanet
I find myself immersed in this game in a way that is hard to put into words. The character designs, landscapes, ambient sounds of hooves and wild animal calls, banter between characters, and flow of the main plot meld together with such synergy that I feel as if the afternoon passes in just a blink of an eye. Foraging for flora and hunting for fauna takes me deep into the wilderness, encouraging me to explore further and further from established towns to find the rarer materials.
Game streaming to make the most out of all my components
I prefer my trusty mouse and keyboard for competitive shooters, but Red Dead Redemption 2 was really meant to be enjoyed with a controller, sitting on a couch, in front of a large screen. I considered picking up an Xbox, but I couldn't imagine stepping down from the supreme graphics power of my ROG Strix GeForce RTX 3080—not to mention the fact that my Steam library is vast and all my friends are PC gamers.
Instead of running an HDMI cable through the halls of my apartment to my PC, though, I turned to the NVIDIA SHIELD, a simple device that let me tap the gaming power of my desktop PC from the comfort of my living room. Hardwired into my router, the SHIELD delivers low ping and latency, and dropped frames or disconnects rarely interrupt my play. After a seamless pairing process, I was able to leverage the raw horsepower of my desktop PC and the copy of the game that I already owned, while playing the game relaxed on a couch, as the developers intended. Streaming flawlessly at 2560x1440 to my OLED TV, the SHIELD upscaled the signal to 4K superbly, without visible aliasing or artifacting. If you have a powerful desktop system but enjoy gaming and watching your favorite shows from the couch, I highly recommend the NVIDIA SHIELDas a possible solution.
How to tell a story
While Red Dead Redemption 2 has an incredibly well-written and voice acted main story that spans tens of hours, the game really comes into its own when you’re given the reins and allowed to wander this rendition of turn-of-the-century America. Vast prairies with roaming bands of whitetail deer, jackrabbits, rattlesnakes and songbirds. Mountain ranges with bison, moose, and timberwolves. Swamps littered with herons, poisonous plants, and alligators. The game gives each biome and town enough room to feel like its own game world, with dynamic weather, events, and animal AI to make each visit to the wilderness feel as unique as the first time.
Image source: Gamesplanet
When I first played RDR2 two years ago, I told myself that I would only need to play it once, and then remember it fondly in the future. But the lovingly crafted story, engaging characters, and living breathing vision of America at the dawn of the 20th century drug me right back in, and I happily kept exploring the Old West long after I was done playing with my new PC-to-SHIELD setup.
Exploring at my own pace
I spent quite a bit of time in the early game hunting all the animals I could find, knowing full well that the Legend of the East satchel is a craftable upgrade well worth getting before too long. This took me deep into areas of the map that don’t have active quests until much further in the story, but I wasn’t blocked from entering any of the areas. Whether I needed a beaver from a river west of Annesburg or had to kiss the southern edge of the map to find a perfect panther pelt near Catfish Johnsons, my horse and I put plenty of miles behind us before the story even really got rolling.
Image source: Gamesplanet
This was my first taste of the subtle differences between playing the same game on a controller versus mouse and keyboard. Many of the navigation and interaction options felt much more natural, especially horseback riding and combat. I quickly got back into the groove of Rockstar’s traditional “light” auto aim and was clearing the countryside of outlaws with little difficulty after a little bit of practice.
DLSS was also added to the game since my first playthrough, and the feature absolutely added to the immersion. Rabbits, snakes and songbirds had always been difficult to spot in tall grass, but when I was able to crank every volumetric cloud, grass shadow, and reflection setting to Ultra, forests and grasslands became the perfect hiding spots for most animals that aren’t shoulder height. Relaxing in between missions at a riverbank, watching the stream’s reflecting clouds off the water and seeing critters running through the bullrush leaves helped make RDR2 truly come to life–without sacrificing framerate.
A great American tragedy
Once I dove headfirst into the main storyline, RDR2 had already fully captured me once more, and I was proud to reinhabit the persona of Arthur Morgan, an outlaw with the Dutch van der Linde gang. His complex character is the perfect vessel to experience a rapidly changing and industrializing American landscape, as a cowboy with the self-reflection to see that the golden days of his lifestyle have already passed him by. With a mix of humor, wisdom, and humility, I believe that Arthur is one of the best characters Rockstar has ever written.
Image source: Gamesplanet
While I spend most of my time living vicariously through Arthur, I met plenty of other unique and interesting people in my travels. Inventors, ranchers, actors, snake oil salesmen, and robber barons were all represented in Rockstar's living, breathing world. People who were introduced as throwaway characters reappeared later in the game to add depth and a sense of groundedness to my experience.
As I progressed through the story, the attention to detail and the visual beauty of this game had me spending periods of time just admiring the work of art RDR2 truly is. Instead of fast traveling from location to location, I increasingly found myself traveling at a canter, surveying the landscape for animals, unique missions, and just appreciating the splendor of this fictional version of America. My stable of horses were each a unique breed, with distinct handling characteristics that made me want to try them all out to find exactly what kind of mount I enjoyed. I eventually settled on the Turkoman, a horse with a strange golden coat but with excellent on-road and off-road handling who felt more like an extension of my own body than a simple form of transportation.
Much like the best kinds of literature or visual media, when video games are able to transport me to another world, they are truly magical. RDR2 was able to do that for me not once, but twice, and I will always remember my time as Arthur fondly. I began looking for a game to scratch the RDR2 itch two years ago, and as of today I still haven’t found anything close. If you’d like to truly experience a breathtaking dive into America as it was when things were still wild, give RDR2 a try. You will not be disappointed.