7 November 2018
If you don't like exceedingly long reviews (the first draft hit the 20,000 character limit I didn’t even know Amazon had) feel free to skip to the TL;DR at the end for a quick summary. I figure, there's a lot of short reviews here already and I like detail and observation - two things that Red Dead Redemption 2 certainly thrives on - and long reviews are my style, so why not?
To say that anticipation for Red Dead Redemption 2 was built up to a climatic fever pitch in the last few months by online gaming sites. Even after release, dedicated gaming portals like them are giving it serious coverage.
The original Red Dead Redemption was something of a sleeper hit, creeping out as it did from Rockstar's San Diego studios with projections forecasting that sales would be a sliver of any Grand Theft Auto title. It was a development plagued with problems, which is a big part of the reason that it never received a PC port and most likely never will, or even a Nintendo Switch port which I’d love. To say that it defied expectations is an understatement - a great many players hold it up as not just one of the best games Rockstar ever made but one of the best games of all time, a sentiment that I share.
I first played the game in 2012-3, and managed to get around 97% percent completion before I made the Marston family hang up their Stetsons for good. I wasn't especially thrilled or impressed by GTA V which I played a little while afterward - I know people swear by it but not me, I’ve played too many GTA titles now and the formula is a little worn out. I wanted more of the wandering the frontier fun and go at your own pace approach that RDR excelled at, despite the odd game engine issue or glitch.
I wasn't disappointed, although the game wasn't quite what I was expecting either. We'll come to that, though.
For reference I’ve played about 50 hours worth of the game so far, mostly side missions and building Arthur and the camp up. I also spent several hours doing a new game play through on Red Dead Redemption for reference.
Firstly, the opening tutorial missions in the snow are slow, ponderous and really don't set the tone for what the game becomes in the next chapter. The visual style is dreary, the horses move slowly, the tone feels off compared to what follows. I'd watched Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" a few days before playing the game, so to me it seems like a weak sidestory to that movie with a few plot twists which are eerily similar, I assume due to the setting. They actually manage to expose many of the weaknesses in the gameplay and controls early on which feels like an odd choice for a blockbuster triple A game like this, to put your worst foot forward. It puzzled the hell out of me, for sure. The original RDR with it’s MacFarlane Ranch missions are a lot more enjoyable. Maybe Rockstar were lowering everyone’s expectations so they could be amazed later on.
The next few paragraphs deal with one main topic, the biggest weakness of Red Dead Redemption 2 - the controls.
One of the opening missions where Arthur is searching a log cabin for supplies is painful because of the weight on foot and the momentum; you're almost stumbling over yourself and clipping into the environment objects because of it. I suppose as gamers we're all so used to supple, light foot controls for human characters that it comes as a shock initially. You can adjust but compared to how light John Marston handles in the original game it is off-putting.
The rotary wheel system that worked fairly well for the original game has been reused here, but with the added complexity of needing to be controlled by other shoulder buttons and the left analogue stick at the same time, all while keeping the L1 button held down. This often means I personally don't end up selecting the item I want to use, i.e. to change clothes while riding (a little silly and unrealistic but file it under the trope marked Acceptable Breaks From Reality) and it can be deadly not drawing the right weapon in time when a big game animal like a bear or cougar is just about to lunge and kill Arthur in his tracks.
The auto-aim and cinematic kills are cranked way up by default. This would be fine if auto-aim was always pointing Arthur's gun barrels towards the most obvious enemy, but often rather than going for the guy who's trying to flank you from the side of your cover and will shoot you in the head within 5 seconds it might instead choose to direct you towards the guy 100 feet away who you probably won't fatally wound or even wing from that distance. Cinematic kills were happening with almost every body dropped and it quickly became annoying, destroying the flow and pacing of combat. I actually turned both off during Chapter One. After that, the missions with firefights which had been getting Arthur killed seemed a lot easier and I sailed through.
I do think that the game as a whole does fall foul of the "flying an airplane" control scheme issue that many modern titles suffer from. It's a detailed, huge world with a variety of things to do and actions a character needs to be able to perform. I understand that, but when you're trying to talk to the chief of police in Saint Denis to glean valuable information about a bounty you're just about to track and you end up accidentally shooting from the hip and hitting him in the elbow forcing a save reload - that is a problem. (I did this. It was hilarious.)
Okay, enough about the controls already! Let’s discuss the other drawbacks.
Rockstar have aimed for a more involving world by having you do things like shaving and cleaning your guns. The shaving is an idea I quite like, however the cleaning guns thing is really underdeveloped. At some point rubbing down a weapon with gun oil wouldn't get the job done - it would need a full dismantling, perhaps replacement of the firing pin after chambering and unloading hundreds of rounds, especially considering this is the Wild West and ballistic weapons weren't as advanced as they are today. I figured, either make that an option or keep the guns as working 100% all the time and requiring no maintenance. This a very minor gripe and as weapon issues go it's nowhere near as irritating as worn swords exploding in the middle of a battle, which happens in Breath Of The Wild. Why not go further with the horse care, too? Apparently feeding, grooming and occasionally patting the horse is all that's required here. The “deworm your horse or it will drop dead!” ad in the shopkeepers catalogues is a moot point as that isn’t something that can be done.
Talking about horses, some may recall reading that horse testicles are weather sensitive that was picked up on by the gaming press just prior to release. I wasn't concerned about this either way however what I do find strange that when the horses poop it doesn't actually seem to hit the ground, it just disappears from view. Storing the rifles on the horse's saddle becomes mildly irritating too, as you need to remember to make Arthur take them every time you dismount.
*** MINOR SPOILER - SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT A PLOT POINT RUINED *** As I've read, if you fail an early mission where you take Uncle, Mary-Beth, Tilly and Karen to Valentine town and cause a ruckus which makes you notorious around the townspeople then you may lose John Marston around camp for a few chapters, including his storyline missions. The mission in question is "Polite Society, Valentine Style" and from what Rockstar have said, you MUST NOT retry from checkpoint if anything goes wrong, the whole mission must be restarted. A little disappointing that this early mission has such a problem that wasn't spotted by any developers or testers considering they gave RDR2 another year in development. I will say you don't want to lose John Marston's missions that come a little after, they're great fun, so listen to Rockstar.
Other bugs I've read about and watched YouTube videos for tend more towards the hilarious and brilliant. One features a road near Rhodes where horses and their wagons spontaneously combust. Another is the spinning ragdoll glitch where NPCs and then Arthur start rotating around like a washing machine drum at full speed. And here's me thinking the original game's Cougarman glitch was golden.
The real problem here is, where to begin with the positives because there are so many of them, more than enough to keep the games score high and outweigh the bugs, clunky controls and the disappointing "on rails” approach and setting of the Chapter One missions.
Firstly, installing the game was easy. It was a long process getting GTA V installed on the Xbox 360 and PS3, I remember it well. Here it’s quick and seamless, you install the data from disc one, swap to disc two, it installs that and then the game boots. Took somewhere between 30-45 minutes when I had expected 2 or 3 hours.
Now, onto the gameplay.
Conversely, even though we're done with downsides of RDR2 I'm going to say something negative about the original Red Dead Redemption here to shine some light on things that the sequel does better. I love the original dearly, it's an easy pick for a place on my "Top 10 Video Games Of All Time" list, but I'll be honest - the story didn't grab me. I loved the concept of it, totally supported John's cause to clear his name and atone for past mistakes, but the way the missions were written in terms of dialogue didn’t connect with me. I found I defined John's character more from how he acted when I took him out hunting or engaged in some of the unrelated side missions. There was an understated kindness to him, a man with a good heart who was trying to set right what once went wrong, often things he caused or felt responsible for during his wild years in Dutch's gang. Every cougar I hunted and skinned and sold the pelt and claws of was money in the bank not just for John, but for Jack and Abigail and the homestead. That felt more real and more authentic than John doing the bidding of some crooked sheriff, although the closing missions did have a lot of emotional resonance that made up for some of the shortcomings of the more workmanlike story missions.
In Red Dead Redemption II I actually love what they've done with the story missions and characterisation. When Arthur says things about his gang during these outings, I often agree. For example, you can very easily infer he likes John even though he regards him as a little bit lazy (moreso the laziness with Uncle), respects Dutch as an intelligent man and competent leader even if he disagrees with some of the choices Dutch makes, sees Micah as a wayward and reckless ass who may endanger the gang although at the same time enjoying going on shootouts with him to satisfy his lust for violence, is really good friends with Lenny especially as a drinking buddy, genuinely cares about the wellbeing of the women on the camp even the ones he doesn't really connect with... so many things. The characterisation is so rich and detailed it makes the missions all the more satisfying because you're on that journey with Arthur, seeing it through his eyes and understanding not just the people in his life but the man himself, why he stays with the gang, what motivates him.
I think Arthur a more interesting and likeable guy than John ever was. While John is reserved to the point of taciturn and reluctant of his situation in the original game, in RDR2 Arthur is inclined to speak his mind during missions, often quipping at his situation with a wry sense of humour and wit. When encountering strangers out on the plains he can wave and say things like “Howdy mister” if you choose to be the friendly type.
The way I play Arthur isn't too different from the way I played John in the original - the loner with a heart of gold, reticent to shoot people down in cold blood, trying to balance being an outlaw with looking after the people closest to him. The game feels like it reacts to this, too - when I donated $700 to the Horseshoe Overreach fund I heard Dutch raise his voice approvingly so the whole camp could hear. It was like being vindicated, Dutch telling everyone "now here is a man who disappears for days at a time without saying a word, yet the first thing he does when he returns before he eats, sleeps or shaves is give us all a huge donation". Wild Bill's half-mocking, half-serious "The hero returns!" shouted from his lookout spot in the forest on the way in to camp next time didn't hurt either. Maybe every player gets these lines, I don't know. Probably. But to me it feels dynamic, a game responding realistically to my actions due to the timing of their delivery.
Horse riding is more difficult than it was before, but feels more satisfying and less arcade style. It requires some care and attention, because if you send your horse into a tree at full gallop it looks, sounds and feels horrible. Every time it happens I think I've killed the poor creature, that’s how good the attention to detail is. The horse bonding system while simplistic is brilliantly executed. In GTA V you can’t really bond with a car, and the limited recreational activities in that game can’t compare to the significance of Arthur lovingly giving his horse a rubdown to get all the dirt from the sandy plains off after a long day riding. A videogame - a work in a medium that has long been derided for "not being true art" - has taught a jaded videogame player like me a little about how people can bond with their horses in real life in a way that was emotionally meaningful. Very impressive.
And the thing is, the game gets even better.
I haven't even gotten to the part where I took on the incredible side mission of locating "famous" gunslingers and finding out if they were the stuff of legend or just pretenders. What about climbing to the top of a train hurtling down the tracks full speed for a duel that nearly got Arthur killed during that same mission, with the reward being a rare, expensive, custom engraved "Midnight" Mauser pistol? Or how about taking a long trek back up to the snowy capped Grizzlies mountains, thinking I was hunting a legendary animal only to realise it was a big hulking but fairly common elk, skinning it then spotting a beautiful white Arabian horse some way up a slope curious about Arthur but also ready to bolt at the slightest twitch? I had to leave to bust Micah out of jail after I failed to capture her, but when I returned a few days later with resolve I knew that I'd make the animal mine. All of this came a few weeks after I nearly got Arthur killed hunting the legendary bear with Elias which ended in running out of bullets for the Repeater Carbine and resorting to a knife just as the bear jumped on top of him and was about to make the killing stroke with his claws. Epic, memorable and gripping moments in gaming and I'm still only on Chapter Two of the game. The way I look at it, I've already got my £50 worth of entertainment and yet there's a wealth more of it packed in that 50-60GB of data.
And this is it. That is what makes the game special, right there, in that paragraph of breathless exposition where I'm almost reliving events that happened in a game world as if I were there myself. I could have stripped the rest of the review out and just left that part but I had to give it context.
Red Dead Redemption 2 had a weight of expectation resting on it.
People on the internet were doing their usual thing of passing judgement on a piece of pop culture that hadn't even been released yet, looking to pick holes, the usual impatient nonsense.
It was eight years in the making, off the back of a game that wasn't meant to be a hit, off the back of yet another game that Rockstar finished only after it was well into development - Red Dead Revolver. It has clunky complicated confusing controls. It's opening missions are disappointing. There are some odd bugs even after such a lengthy development. It's hopelessly ambitious, sprawling, sometimes maddening. It's slow paced, hard to fathom. It runs completely contrary to what a CoD or FIFA player expects from a video game.
Yet for it's many flaws it's breathtakingly brilliant.
I don't think people even realise how much of a risk Rockstar took with this game. It feels like they poured every resource they had into it. That it's even barely cohesive given this amount of scale, that it plays as well as does, that it makes you overlook the flaws and just sink into the world it creates, that's quite something. When the handholding comes off (and if you choose to switch more of it off from the options menu, especially) you need to work at it and summon skill as a gamer, lateral thinking, improvisational nuance given a wide set of features and physics to interact with. This version of the "Rockstar Advanced Gaming Engine" really emphasises the Advanced part; you can feel it tickling the limits of what the consoles are capable of and how much the developers can flex their skills in a way that is enjoyable for the players.
I think we may need to revisit the common perception that video games are just "murder simulators" or sports sims and see that this is where the future is headed.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is nowhere near perfect. But then neither was the original Red Dead Redemption, and I love that game. When you take massive risks in a game like this, when there are so many human hands at work, you're not going to achieve perfection. All you can hope for is that everyone put their best foot forward and there are points where it hits transcendence, where something provokes a strong, primal response from the players. I’ve had those over and over so far and I’ve barely scratched the surface of all there is to do.
The graphics are gorgeous. The controls take some grappling with. Both of those play second fiddle to the GAMEPLAY, which is spot on a majority of the time.
One of the few games this generation that feels like a big leap forward. Incredible.