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RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2
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 have felt like a chore, and apart from occasional fleeting moments, I’ve yet to enjoy myself with either incarnation.
RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2 is a game of “yes, but” moments. 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. These are 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 horse’s 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 from suddenly bucking you off the saddle because of it), so you need to reassure said horse by patting it constantly while riding. Meanwhile, you better have remembered weather-appropriate gear because you will lose health if it gets too cold. 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 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 for the sake of fun. CONAN EXILES, an online action role-playing game with heavy building elements, introduces early concepts of hunger, weather, and stamina. These are all 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, as even the animation of getting up from your numerous stumbles is a long and elaborate process. Another indication of the indulgence of throwing everything at the engine just because you can.
In a vacuum, the animations are beautiful. Intricate care and detail are in each seam, hair, and brim. Little touches constantly amaze. The characters will glance at their feet when the ground changes. Thick mud lingers on soles. Your breath is visible in colder climates. But they’re things that are more fun to watch and marvel at 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, which tests your skills through the nature around you.
In practice, it’s another thing entirely.
You need to hunt the animals by tracking their footprints. Then you have to disguise yourself with the correct kind of scent. You have to use the right kind of weapons with the right kind of ammunition 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 story takes way too long to get going, and when it does, it comes with mandatory side-quests, waiting, and grinding before allowing you to proceed. Arbitrary blocks stand in your way at all times. Some portions of the map remain locked for hours, and when they do open up eventually, you must do a bunch of errands before you can have a look around. On top of that, many times you’ll complete a mission only to find yourself forced to traverse long distances back to the original starting place or camp to receive another mission. This back and forth is immensely tedious, especially when the story calls for urgency or dramatic tension.
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 praise. I love the melancholy mood and influences from the neo-western masterpiece ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. 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 actually fun to play, not to me at least. It feels like a chore; like something I’m playing because I admire it for what it tries to be, instead of enjoying it for what it is.
Your mileage may vary, naturally. Just remember to take care of your horse.