Seven years in the making, Red Dead Redemption 2—the third installment in Rockstar Games’ Western-themed series—is one of the most anticipated games of this console generation, and in many ways, this cowboy epic blows away those expectations. Playing through its gunfights, train raids, and elegiac storyline, I couldn’t help but be dazzled by the sheer scope of the game, the immersive open-world experience, and the detail on everything from the world map to the lush foliage. It’s simply breathtaking in almost every particular, and it would be more than worth the wait if it weren’t for the ambient smooth jazz soundtrack that consistently pulls you out of the game.
You play as Arthur Morgan, a renegade on the run from lawmen and the encroaching influence of society itself as he flees toward a frontier that shrinks a little every day.
I immediately took to Arthur and almost felt like I grew to understand him as a living, breathing person as the story progressed. But this only made it all the more jarring when the bleat of a soprano sax or burble of vibraphone from the soundtrack intruded every time something—anything—happens.
And a lot happens in this game. Even while just riding your faithful horse along the dusty trail, you encounter wildlife, ambushes by bandits, and mad preachers. Yet, for whatever reason, each event seems to be punctuated by its own bland little keyboard lick or inoffensive guitar riff. Frankly, I don’t know why Rockstar decided to do this. In a game where I had to make a lot of decisions about what kind of cowboy I wanted to be, and where every decision you make impacts how other characters treat you and what kind of ending you’re going to have, that’s a lot, a LOT, of smooth jazz. Take this scene, which is pretty iconic archetypical Western stuff, right out of Louis L’Amour or John Ford.
Amazing stuff, right? But I swear that’s Kenny G. playing. I expected maybe some Western saloon piano, some Scott Joplin ragtime, maybe spirituals. But there I was, trying to rob a train to the buttery crooning of what I’m pretty sure was Al Jarreau.
It became pretty difficult to really lose myself in the game when the thunder of my six-gun was consistently drowned out by noodling keyboards. These musicians are really technically proficient. I know they’re good players. It just doesn’t fit in my idea of the American frontier, okay? Especially in a story that actually takes a hard look at the problems of the frontier, like our treatment of indigenous peoples or the wasting of natural resources, which are still with us today. I’m really happy to see a video game taking this stuff on, but I can’t really take it as seriously as I’d like with laid-back, downtempo sax melodies breezing around.
Look, I was deeply engaged in this game from start to finish. It’s clear the developers took that extra year to make sure they got every detail right. Every detail, that is, expect the unbearably cheesy and cloying horns and light funk rhythms. I spent over 50 hours on the main story, and the aggressively soothing soundtrack wore on me the whole time. Even as I was drawn further in by caring for my horse, oiling my guns, reading the in-game dry-goods catalog, learning campfire recipes, and the dozens of other absorbing little side tasks in this game, the laid-back easy-listening fusion did its best to dive me right back out. It’s possible this was part of the developer’s broader vision for the game, a comment on homogenizing modernity or something? I don’t know. It just ends up just feeling like a glaring misstep in something that is in every other sense a masterpiece.
A lot of open-world games are a mile wide and an inch deep. Not so with Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s a monumental story that would be captivating in any medium, with the scale and scope of an HBO series, the three-dimensional characters of a novel, and gameplay as engrossing as anything else out there. Only the ever-present smooth jazz grooves hold the game back from being an utter triumph—well, that and sometimes the controls are sluggish and confusing. I shot my horse while trying to put a saddle on it, but I got used to that. In the end, I have to give Red Dead 2 an 8.5 out of 10, and I hope the developers give us a patch that provides the sonic foundation of German synth pop and Kendrick Lamar remixes this game really deserves.