I, and many other gamers, hold the original Red Dead Redemption in high regard. It was a breath of fresh air for the open world genre, bringing with it not only a new setting but also a different take on what the genre could be. It’s also one of the few games that I’ll hold up as an example of a sad ending done well, one that carried some serious emotional weight that resonated strongly with those who managed to finish it. So the follow up instalment in the series was always going to have high expectations put on it, both from this reviewer and the community at large. For many the game has lived up to their expectations, delivering that open world western that many had been waiting some 8 years to see. For this old reviewer though, whilst I certainly appreciate the astonishing depth and craftsmanship behind Red Dead Redemption 2, it falls a little short but I think that says a lot more about me as a gamer than it does about the quality of this game.
RDR2 takes place some years before the original, taking you back to the time when the Van der Linde gang was still riding high as outlaws in the west. You’re Arthur Morgan, a long time and loyal member of the crew, who’s fled into the mountains after a botched robbery job in the town of Blackwater. Your motivation is simple: survive long enough until the heat dies down and you can return to the scene of the crime and collect your loot. The trials put before you will be numerous, from simple tasks of keeping your gang alive and healthy to trying to make enough money so you can realise Dutch’s vision for the new world.
As you’d expect from a several hundred million dollar production budget RDR2’s visuals are absolutely stunning, even when they’re pumped out of an aging, original PS4. The sprawling vistas of the world that Rockstar created are simply incredible and the attention to detail is second to none. The same place can seem completely different depending on the time of day or the weather which is nuanced enough to include things like dust storms or light rain vs a thunderstorm. Whilst it’ll take a little time to load initially everything after that is smooth, the game rarely needing to take a break to load you into a new area or generate an event. I’m honestly sorely disappointed that the PC didn’t get a release at the same time the consoles did as I would’ve loved to seen this game dialled up to the 9s, even on my aging beast. Perhaps we’ll see it one day but I don’t know if I’ll make the journey back to play it then. Maybe if they add a similar online mode like they did for GTA V.
As you likely already know RDR2 is an open world western game done in the tried and true style that Rockstar has perfected over their numerous hit titles over the years. The amount of things to do is huge, dwarfing any other game I’ve played. The core structure remains the same: campaign missions, side missions and progression in the form of weapons and cosmetics, with a very generous helping of additional mechanics in there to keep even the most dedicated player occupied for 100 hours or more. I’ve been playing RDR2 for about as long as I played the original, sticking to my usual campaign-first approach, and it appears I’m about 25% of the way through the main story (closer to half if you don’t count the epilogues). Honestly it’d probably be easier to list features that it doesn’t have as it really is the most complete cowboy simulator ever created.
Combat doesn’t deviate much from the original’s formula, retaining the same third person, infinite regenerating health mechanic. There are a number more weapons to choose from although most of them feel pretty similar given that the auto-aim is set quite high by default. So you’ll usually end up using whatever the most powerful gun you have at your disposal which is either your carbine or perhaps the sawn off shotguns if enemies wander in a bit too close. It might have been a bit better if the encounters weren’t all so similar, either being a one-off firefight with a few guys or a multiple wave fight where you’re basically locked in position the whole time. It’s quite clear that out and out combat like that wasn’t a particular focus for Rockstar with RDR2, mostly just serving as another mini-game among the dozens the game will offer up to you. For the kind of player who’s going to get a lot out of this game though I don’t think they’ll mind that one bit.
Unlike the original progression in RDR2 is a bit more of a nebulous affair, coming in the form of a few upgrades to your cores (health/stamina/dead eye), items in your camp and a slathering of cosmetic items that have little effect on the overall game. It’s a pretty stark contrast between the two as I remember the original having a fairly well defined upgrade path for a lot of things, like having to hunt a certain type of animal a number of times or doing a particular quest. Those kinds of missions are still around however their rewards are often just cosmetic items, meaning there’s no real reason to go after them unless you want to. That honestly took the wind out of my sails a little bit as without clear goals and their associated rewards it can feel kind of pointless to do something that might take you some time to complete. I mean, I spent a good 30 mins or so tracking down the best horse you can find in the wild and taming it because I knew where it was, but I don’t believe there’s a set of clothing that helps anything past giving me a bigger satchel.
On the flip side the lack of definitive progression mechanics means it’s largely up to you how you want to push things forward in RDR2. No longer is a toss up between doing what you’d like to do, say fishing for the world’s largest bass for hours on end, and what you need to do to improve your character or move the story forward. In the 20-something hours I’ve spent with the game not once have I hit something I wasn’t able to get past. Given that the game’s overall objective seems to be more about the world itself rather than any one particular thing within it this design choice is key to ensuring that everything remains accessible to the player. Gating things off would instantly remove that feeling of freedom which so many of Rockstar’s playerbase crave.
Going into RDR2, which I started shortly after finishing the latest Call of Duty, I had friends caution me that I might be in for a bit of…let’s call it gaming whiplash going from something so focused on constantly triggering your dopamine centers to a game that likes to take its time with you. To be honest they were 100% on the mark as originally I was really frustrated with the game’s slow pace and lack of definitive progression. Talking to them about how they play it though it became clear that RDR2 strives to be a very different kind of game, one that doesn’t much care about how long it takes for something to get done. They’d come home from a day at work, put RDR2 on and maybe fish or go hunting for a while, only doing missions if they really felt like they wanted to. For this kind of gaming, one that can be enjoyed by itself over an extended period of time, RDR2 is absolutely perfect. For someone like me? It’s antithetical.
You see my (near) weekly gaming reviews predisposes me to a certain kinds of games, usually ones that can be done in a weekend or possibly over the course of a few weeks if I can find titles to fill the gaps in. This has also meant that I’ve tended towards games that provide one or more of a few key game features: clear progression, strong narrative or shorter playtimes. RDR2 doesn’t really fit any of those particularly well (more on the narrative in a second) and so over the last 2 months I haven’t really found more than a couple hours a week here or there to go back to it. I’m not exactly bored when I’m playing it but I’m also not exactly wanting for more every time I put down the controller. Your mileage will vary of course but suffice to say I think RDR2 appeals to a wide variety of gamers but I may have excluded myself from them, given my habits.
This might have all been different if RDR’s story was going somewhere which, in my playtime, it decidedly wasn’t. For starter’s there’s a noticeable lack of an overarching narrative, something which I think the original did quite well. Sure there’s the whole “we need to get back to Blackwater” thing but that’s nothing more than a catchphrase for a couple of the characters. Instead the majority of the story is caught up in either self-contained vignettes or in short story arcs that don’t last longer than a single chapter. I had hopes for it early on when Arthur gets reacquainted with an old flame, but after that mission it wasn’t mentioned again. I’ve read stories of people having some interesting encounters, like freeing a convict on the side of the road only to meet them in town later, but that’s just an interesting tale to recount over beers, not a solid story. Perhaps I’d be a little more engrossed in it if I hadn’t completed the original over 8 years ago now as I had to look up just how many of them were in it (more than I remembered, honestly).
I think a lot of this has to do with the schism between the open world and crafted elements of the game, something which YouTuber NakeyJakey summed up in is (admittedly long but well worth it) video on the topic of Rockstar’s game design. RDR2 has a desire to be a lot of things to many different kinds of people and, as a consequence, kind of ends up somewhere in the middle. For those who find what they want in there it’s great but those who are looking for a more coherent game experience (which doesn’t preclude open world games by the way, Horizon Zero Dawn did it well) it leaves us wondering just what Rockstar was thinking. For me the end result is an exceptionally well crafted game that has a lot to offer but just didn’t manage to hook me in the same way its predecessor did.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is likely to go down for many as 2018’s game of the year but for this old gamer it sadly won’t. I can certainly appreciate the countless man hours that went into developing it as the world that they created is breathtaking in its beauty and depth. But all of this just feels like a large bag of tricks cobbled together to please those who like to make a single game their hobby. The things that elevate games like this above others in the genre, like a strong narrative or progression systems, just aren’t there, leaving players like myself wanting. Given I have a lot of time left before I go back to work in the new year I might get around to playing it more but I don’t feel I have a lot of reason to. Is it worth playing? Certainly, if only for the fact that everyone else is and you want to have something to talk to them about for the next 6 months. Honestly though you likely already know whether or not you want to play it and a rating from a single reviewer on the Internet’s backwater isn’t going to change that.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $78. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 20 hours total play time and 7% of the achievements unlocked.
At first glance Red Dead Redemption was a game that wasn’t up my alley at all. For starters whilst I love open worlds and the opportunities they allow for emergent gameplay I’m always cautious when it comes to sandbox style games. Rockstar has arguably mastered the format with their Grand Theft Auto series but even their most compelling release to date (GTA IV) failed to capture me long enough to play the game all the way to the end. Additionally I’ve never been much of a western fan instead finding myself engulfed in science fiction and pure fantasy, finding the genre to be a little too bland for my tastes. Still the hype and critical acclaim that Red Dead Redemption managed to garner itself was not lost on me and not having delved into a good console game in a while I set myself the goal of playing through this title to the bitter end. What followed was a highly engrossing tale that ultimately left me with feelings that I’m still working through as I write this post.
The story begins with you playing a grizzled cowboy named John Marston who appears to be forced onto a train against his will by some upper class looking folks. As the story progresses you find out that he used to run in a gang and the government is using him to track his friends down to either capture or kill them. His initial attempts don’t go so well but thanks to the kindness of some local strangers he makes it through. The tale then leads on from there in usual Rockstar style with story missions appearing on a radar marked with a letter and random missions popping up in the form of strangers asking for help, events happening as you ride by and a variety of mini-games to play to pass the time. The free form nature of the game enables you to craft your own unique story for John Marston as he wanders the wild west looking for his pals of a life he’s trying to leave behind.
Now credit here were it’s due. Rockstar have created a world that feels alive, open and deceptively real. There are vast, breathtaking vistas around almost every corner and even though you could ride across the entire place in less than half an hour you still have this undeniable feeling that you’re in a world that’s a million times bigger than yourself. The NPCs whilst extremely shallow in their depths of interactivity make the areas come alive with their sound bites of commentary and, once you hit a certain point, make you feel like a living legend. The addition of NPCs in the form of wildlife that form the basis of many mini games add that extra bit of flavour that make you feel like you’re actually out in the west, able to make your living off the land.
The actual gameplay of Red Dead Redemption is actually quite a complicated beast but in true Rockstar form it’s progressively revealed to you over the course of the introductory missions so that it doesn’t overwhelm you completely. The meat of the game lies within the storyline missions which can be activated by approaching any of the giant letters on your map. In addition to the story line missions there are also “stranger” missions where you can help out various people who you’ve only just met. When you’ve tapped out all of these options there’s also the mini games which take the form of various leisure activities you’d expect in the wild west (poker, blackjack, horseshoes, etc) as well as jobs which can include things like breaking horses, herding cattle and chasing down bounties.
Now I won’t lie to you but whilst there is an incredible breadth to the number of activities which you can do after a while they do start to sort of meld into each other. Many of the story line missions are quite similar in that you’ll go to the mission giver, see a cut scene, proceed to ride for about 5 minutes whilst Marston and whoever you picked up share some dialog and then you get to your destination to either shoot up some bad guys or do one of the mini games. It is enjoyable for the first couple times and the trip to the destination is quite reminiscent of what happened in the various GTA incarnations but after a while you get bored having to spend so long riding everywhere just so they can flesh out the characters a bit more. This is where the sandbox genre falls down in my opinion as while you can almost do anything in this world in the end it detracts from the uniqueness of the story line missions making everything feel like just another obstacle that needs to be passed.
Combat in Red Dead Redemption is nothing revolutionary in terms of what it accomplishes but does give enough variety to make sure you’re not left feeling like a one trick pony. Rockstar took the tried and true Gears of War style combat in that you’ll be running and gunning from behind cover whilst having no visible health bar (save for the sound going muted and the screen being covered in blood splatters). Shooters on consoles are notoriously fiddly and to combat this Rockstar added in an aimbot that locks onto a target if you aim in their general direction. Whilst I appreciated the addition (the game would’ve been tiresome without it) when it was taken away for certain things like say, using a gatling gun, I found myself hating these sequences rather than reveling in them. This was wholeheartedly made up for with the ability to be able to lasso and hogtie people in the game, which I used with reckless abandon whenever I had the chance. Strangely though you can’t hogtie any animal, even a hog! Although you are able to lasso them and, in what I assume is a bug, glide blissfully over any terrain as your prey runs scared from you. You can also do this with other people’s horses and is probably my favourite way to travel somewhere random when feeling bored in Red Dead Redemption.
PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW BELOW HERE:
Now as for the story and its conclusion those of you who followed me on Twitter can already guess as to how I felt about the whole ordeal. After spending 20 hours getting to know the man that was John Marston I’ll admit I became sentimentally attached to the former criminal who’s been trying to mend his ways. After chasing down the last of his former gang and riding home to the tear inducing song Compass by Jamie Lidell I fully expected to see the credits role as John embraced Abegail for the first time in what felt like forever. However the proceeding missions felt hollow as they put you right back at the start of the game and strip you of a few key things (like being able to change your outfit). I knew that in the end something bad was coming for him but really what eventuated was worse than I thought of.
You see in the final moments of John’s life where he’s gunned down by no less than 20 American soldiers there was nothing really noble about it. I can appreciate the noble sacrifice for his wife and son (who are now free from his past) and the harsh reality is that it probably rings true to what would of happened back in those days. Still I wanted at least the opportunity to be able to make a last stand that would end in a shoot out that I couldn’t win instead of Marston walking out and being cowardly gunned down. I also admit that my anger at John’s end stems from a real feeling of grief at his loss, as just writing that down has me fighting back a tear.
In the end I do what I always do when that happens, I look for answers. After looking around for a bit I found that there was a stranger mission available after the end where Jack gets revenge for his father. I went and did it and whilst I felt somewhat redeemed in the fact that Edgar Ross finally got what he deserved (with me emptying at least 15 bullets into him) there was still this hollow feeling I couldn’t shake, almost to the point of me loading up my last saved game with Marston still alive in it so I could pretend like it never happened.
In the end Rockstar made yet another great game that has captured the hearts of nearly everyone who’s played it. Whilst I might be uncomfortable with the last few hours I spent with it I still can’t deny the fact I spent a good 20 hours of my life on the game and I don’t regret a single minute of it. The game is not without its issues but if you’re a fan of Rockstar and the sandbox worlds that they create then you won’t feel out of place in the wild west world of Red Dead Redemption.
Red Dead Redemption is available right now on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 right now for AU$88 and AU$88 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation 3 with around 21 hours of reported play time and 73% overall completion.