Ride ‘Em Cowboy
Overall, I’m left pretty disappointed by the game - and that’s largely because it feels staggeringly dated in its core design.
A lot has happened in open world games in the last eight years, since the release of Red Dead Redemption 1.
Shadow of Mordor focused on relationships and procedurally generated stories. Ubisoft’s recent games went hard on systemic interactions to create crazy anecdotes of rampaging elephants (Far Cry) and gang warfare (Watch Dogs 2). Metal Gear Solid V took immersive sim agency into the open world. And Zelda Breath of the Wild blurred the line between the main and side quests, and built an entire chemistry system to play with.
RDR 2 has tiny pinches of this - a stranger might remember you from a sidequest. There’s some light fire propagation. There are some opportunities to make choices - but for the most part, it’s using the exact same structure and gameplay as the first Red Dead.
You can feel this most vividly during the game’s main missions.
Like most Rockstar games, these missions are extremely restrictive in what you’re allowed to do. The game constantly tells you what to do, with a pop up command at the bottom of the screen, and if you don’t follow this script to the letter you’ll be hit with a “Failed” screen.
I’ve failed missions for trying to flank around the bad guys - that’s counted as leaving my crew behind. I’ve failed for trying to take enemies out using stealth, instead of loud gunfire. I’ve failed for trying to solve problems in creative ways. I’ve failed because I broke the law - never mind that I’m playing as an outlaw, and the game has a whole police response system built in.
The missions can also remove mechanics arbitrarily. In one, I wasn’t allowed to take my gun off my horse. In another, I wasn’t allowed to whistle for my horse so I had to chase on foot. And the bandit mask system works randomly during missions - most of the time you’ll still get a huge price on your head and have to use most of your earnings from that mission to pay off your bounty.
Unfortunately, most of the missions are also simply quite dull. There’s so much riding towards waypoints. Waiting for characters to do stuff. Listening to people go on and on. Bad insta-fail stealth missions. Endless cover-based shootouts that feel like they’re from the previous generation. Following characters as they walk slowly through the woods.
There are some standouts here and there, which I won’t spoil. And the musical choices frequently elevate things. But most are completely forgettable. And in a world of games like The Witcher 3, where almost every quest is memorable, that’s a disappointment.
Outside of missions, the game shines a lot, lot harder.
One of my favourite sessions with the game was when I purposefully ignored the main story. I simply explored the world for a while. I robbed a man for his treasure map, and followed it to find hidden gold. I stumbled upon a strange skeleton in the mountains. Tracked and fought legendary animals. Got ambushed by rival gangs.
This stuff is a lot more interesting. It feels more dynamic, and less like you’re following a predetermined script. The game is also more open in how you approach things. An escaped prisoner might appear with chains around his ankles. You can shoot them to free him, or simply hogtie him and take him to the Sheriff’s office to get a big bounty.
This is also just a vividly beautiful game, and the world is begging for you to explore it. Though, it has that age-old open world problem of the outer reaches of the world (like some of the bigger towns) feeling kind of dead until you reach them in the story.
The problem is that the game still has a stark divide between main missions (heavily scripted stuff that pushes you towards the next chapter) and side content (optional stuff that has very little impact on the game).
So, like a lot of (older) open world games, it feels like you’re either working or wasting time.
And the annoying thing is: the game almost had an interesting solution for this! You see, the game’s got this camp thing going on, where your band of outlaws is hanging out in the wilderness. And the idea is that everyone is contributing to the camp.
You can put money into a tin to boost funds, or bring back meat so people can eat, or do side missions for friends like finding them items in the wild.
The problem is: none of this matters. At all.
It’s worth putting some money in the money tin so you can buy a map (which unlocks fast travel), but beyond that it makes no difference. The game’s way too easy for you to care about any benefits it might provide Arthur. And the other only thing it affects is how characters talk to you in the camp: they might grumble about not having enough food or you not pulling your weight. But that’s it.
It can be fun to do this stuff from a role playing perspective, I suppose. But it could have been so much better.
Imagine a system where the only way to finish the chapter is to put a significant amount of money into the camp funds. Now, everything you do in the game is working towards that central goal: go treasure hunting, hunt animals and sell their fur, do bounty missions, rob trains, ambush stagecoaches. Everything you do gets you a little closer to the next chapter, and there’s no longer a weird divide between main and side content.
Okay, yeah, I stole this from Breath of the Wild where you’re simply training Link to be strong enough to face Ganon, so everything you do in the game is made meaningful. (Also this system could have all sorts of interesting consequences, like having rival gangs try to steal from the camp. Or putting real consequences on dying before you can get back to the camp to bank your latest earnings).
As it stands, though, the game feels like it has a split personality - between the more freeform sandbox stuff, and the super restrictive missions. I could say that about any Rockstar game, but at this point, and with so many games innovating on the genre, I’m bored of giving Rockstar a free pass.
Shoot or shoot
Another thing that frustrates me is that you are so limited in how you can interact with the world.
Okay, so the game does have a system where you can “talk” to anyone in the game, and do things like greet people, antagonise them, and try to defuse situations. And that’s really cool - it’s great to have a game where you can interact with NPCs in more ways than just shooting or slugging them.
But it’s very limited in scope. It’s not exactly Fallout. It’s not even Fallout 4, to be honest. And most interactions with NPCs ended with me either walking away or shooting. Or their AI going a bit weird. In one instance, I agreed to help someone, then accidentally nudged them with my horse. They ran away, screaming at me like I was a murderer and there was no way to apologise.
But even when you do go violent, the game doesn’t give you many verbs to play with. You can’t create a distraction, like in MGS V, so you can sneak into a camp unnoticed. You can’t steal weapons while enemies sleep, like in BOTW, so they wake up unarmed. You can’t create traps (Metal Gear), lead the law into gang territory (Watch Dogs 2), boobytrap alarms (Assassin’s Creed Origins), and so on. It’s often shoot, or shoot.
The big buzz word surrounding Red Dead is realism. You can bathe! Your beard grows in real time! Your horse’s testicles expand and shrink depending on the temperature! Arthur can physically open up cupboard doors and chests to look for loot! The animations, volume of voice acting, and tiny details are certainly impressive.
But it’s a mixed bag for me.
What I do like is that the game isn’t littered with HUD elements and menus and other tacky stuff. Compare this to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where every character has a garish outline and a health bar. And there’s a trillion pop-up notifications on screen. And so on. Red Dead feels grounded and tactile and real - it’s lot less gamey.
But sometimes "gamey" is fine. You don’t want to watch a detailed animation every time you skin an animal, or loot a body, or pick a flower. You start to realise why most games just make that stuff teleport into your pocket. It’s not because the devs are lazy - it’s because that stuff gets boring. Fast.
Like, the game’s got this really detailed menu for shopping where you flip through an old fashioned catalogue of hats, or whatever. But that’s really cumbersome, so it also has the exact same information in a different, more video gamey menu that’s easier to use.
And also there’s an uncanny valley effect going on here. The more the game tries to seem realistic, the more surprising it is when the game won’t let you do stuff.
Oh, and it’s also impossible to look at this stuff without thinking about the reported worker conditions at Rockstar. I would happily trade away things like realistic footprints and animals doing true-to-life poos if it meant the developers could work more sensible hours.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was a big let down for me. By ignoring all of the strides made in open world games since the release of Red Dead 1, which have made those titles feel more lively and dynamic and responsive, Red Dead 2 feels kind of lifeless and fake.
And that’s despite Rockstar’s extreme push towards realism. Because the game just ends up feeling like those phoney western movie sets that look like saloons and banks on one side, and unpainted planks of wood on the other. It’s not fooling anyone.
The main missions are restrictive and ultimately quite boring. But the side content, which is much better, doesn’t push the game forward. It has done nothing to fix the fundamental problem of Rockstar's games.
Here's the thing. The game’s narrative is all about trying to hold onto the old way of doing things - and sticking to practices of the past while society marches on around you. That’s an interesting theme for a story - I just wish the gameplay didn’t stick to it as well.