- Played on: Xbox One X, PC
- Released: 26.10.2018 (consoles), 5.11.2019 (PC)
I’ve now played Red Dead Redemption 2 on both the Xbox One X and on PC. Both times the game has felt like a chore, and apart from occasional fleeting moments I haven’t enjoyed myself with either incarnation. It is a game of “yes, but” moments, as it can deliver some of the best singular experiences video games are capable of when taken on their own, but as a whole, the game is a mess of dozens of ideas all competing for their time in the spotlight.
RDR2 looks gorgeous, is generally well written and acted, and you can tell that the massive budget has been thoroughly put to good use. But it is also horribly self-indulgent, overlong, and bloated. It hasn’t met a single idea that it didn’t like, and shoehorns mechanics upon mechanics on its frail build until the whole game is a juggernaut teetering on a foundation nobody thought to strengthen at any point.
For example, everything in the game is designed around travel on horseback. This is the last days of the frontier, but still too early for true mass transit or cars. The remote townships and rickety cabins are only reachable by horse, and getting anywhere takes time.
First, you need to feed your horse so that it has more stamina. Then you need to groom it, so that its temperament is good. Then you need to plan your route to the location, because riding off the ready made roads makes the horses stamina drain faster. Your horse might also get spooked by other wildlife (including snakes, which are exceedingly hard to spot, but that won’t stop your horse suddenly bucking you off the saddle because of it), so you need to constantly reassure said horse by patting it while riding. Meanwhile, you better have remembered weather appropriate gear, because if it gets too cold, you will lose health. You also need to eat and keep up your stamina. And your gear. And your temperament. And both you and your horse need to bathe.
If that sounds like fun and not like a bunch of micromanagement, chances are you’ll enjoy the game as well. If, however, you already find yourself grinding your teeth and sweating at the thought of taking care of a needy horse with an attitude just to get from one place to the other, maybe RDR2 isn’t for you.
It’s not that these kinds of mechanisms are inherently bad either. Many of my favorite games feature some aspects of “realism” to enhance their immersion, but it’s never at the sake of fun. CONAN EXILES, an online action role playing game with heavy building elements, introduces early on concepts of hunger, weather, and stamina. These can all be buffed fairly easily, and finding materials to make new clothes becomes a meta-game of its own. Even when it punishes you for your own failures, it’s not long before you’re back on your feet. The same can’t be said for RDR2, literally, as even the animation of standing up from your numerous stumbles (the characters behave like they’re perpetually drunk) are long and elaborate – another indication of the indulgence of throwing everything at the engine just because you can.
In a vacuum, the animations are beautiful. Intricate care has been put into each seam in a jacket, hair on a horse, and brim in a hat. Little things like the main character looking at his boots when the ground changes, or the way the character wades through different sections of mud based on thickness, are all equally wondrous and well made. But they’re the kind of things that are more fun to watch and marvel how well they’re put together rather than play with. Hunting animals, for example, is something the game forces you to do often. Animals provide pelts for clothes and money, and meat for sustenance. In theory it’s an intense battle of wits with the wild, where your skill is tested by every aspect of nature around you.
But there’s a catch.
You need to hunt the animals by tracking their footprints. Then you have to disguise yourself with the correct kind of scent. Then you have to use the right kind of weapons with the right kind of ammunition so as not to ruin the hide and meat. Then you have to watch an arduously long animation of the character skinning the animal over and over again. Then you have to carry the looted material to your horse. Then you have to make sure that you make it back into town fast enough that they don’t spoil. If they do spoil on the long way to town (did you remember to tell your horse what a good boy it is?), you’ll have to start over as they’re now worthless.
It’s hard to have fun with a game that is so adamant about wasting your time, or at the very least not respecting it enough to provide a meaningful reward for playing it in the first place.
At the risk of repeating myself, this all extends to the plot as well. In theory, the story about the frontier dying out to make way for a burgeoning new society, and the destruction of a way of life that an entire generation had known with it, is a great one. The collection of anti-heroes as our leads are compelling, and there’s a genuine sense of tragedy watching protagonist Arthur Morgans friends fall by the wayside as they fail to integrate into the new expectations put forth by quickly assembled towns and governments.
This entire story is spread out in a way that takes way too long to get going, and when it actually does so, it’s then riddled with mandatory side-quests and grinding before the game allows for you to continue throughout the main campaign. Arbitrary blocks stand in your way at all times. Some portions of the map are limited for hours and hours from exploration, and when they do open up eventually, you’re first forced to do a bunch of errands before you’re allowed to actually have a look around. On top of that, a lot of the times that you complete a mission – unless with a companion character tagging along – you’re forced to traverse long distances on the map back to the original starting place or your camp to receive another mission. This back and forth soon becomes tedious, especially when the story calls for urgency or dramatic tension only to be paused so you can stare at the behind of your finicky horse.
I want to recommend RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2. I really do. It’s great to see game developers putting their weight behind mature, story-driven games like this, and that kind of emphasis deserves to be praised. I love the melancholy mood, heavily lifted from the neo-western masterpiece ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, and a part of me even admires the stubborn obsession with meticulous detail the game prides itself with. But at the same time all of that doesn’t amount to something that is actually fun to play, not to me at least. A lot of the time it felt like a chore, like something I was playing because I admired it for what it tried to be, instead of enjoying it for what it was.
Your mileage may vary, naturally. Just remember to take care of your horse.