Visually Stunning But Let Down By Its Gameplay
In 20+ years of gaming, I’ve never been so conflicted over a video game as I have with Red Dead Redemption 2. I’ve gone for long runs thinking about the story. I’ve had moments where I couldn’t wait to finish work just to play the game. I’ve also had moments where I’ve struggled to even put the disk in the console. No other game has given me such mixed, conflicting feelings as this one. Red Dead Redemption 2 should be a masterpiece but its flaws are too big and too integral to the experience to look past them, making it a wonderful game in its own right but one that’s held back by some questionable design choices.
On the one hand, Red Dead 2 boasts the best looking world ever created in a video game. The stunning technical and visual detail put into crafting this expansive Wild West simulator is something very few games have managed to achieve in such a compelling and artistic way.
Seeing the mist rise as the sun peeks above the mountainous horizon or watching the trees and bushes lazily blow in the wind while sunlight filters through tree branches are moments that will stick with me for years to come. Rockstar have created a truly stunning world and every new area you visit adds another layer of beauty that somehow trumps the previous one. Combined with an expansive 40+ hour character-driven story, Red Dead 2 a very formidable and impressive game.
You begin in the snow-capped mountains with Arthur Morgan
Unfortunately when it comes to its gameplay, cracks begin to form in the beautiful exterior and it’s here where Red Dead’s 10/10 waivers, revealing some of the weaknesses with the Rockstar formula. For a title that achieves perfection in so many areas, it’s difficult not to feel disappointed with the controls and gameplay here.
For those who haven’t played the original Red Dead Redemption, you can still pick up and play this one but you’re likely to get a lot more out of this if you’re familiar with the original. This prequel to the first game takes places years before the exploits of John Marston in his quest for redemption. This time around you control a single man, Arthur Morgan, amidst a family-run gang. This loyal outlaw rides along with a group of colourful characters, led by the charismatic Dutch Van Der Linde.
Over the course of 40 hours you see the progression of characters and the gang as they cling desperately to their old way of life in the wake of government and societal change; the old world and their way of life is changing. Order is descending on the world replacing chaos and lawlessness. Cowboys and gangs are becoming a thing of the past and right at the heart of this wave of change is the gang you ride with. It’s a really well worked story and the emotionally charged narrative spills across to two epilogues which offers up a good nod to fans of the franchise, whist finishing the tale on a satisfying note.
Combat in Red Dead 2 is standard for a Rockstar title but does feel a little clunky
If you’ve ever played a Rockstar game before, the formula here is largely unchanged, as it has been for many years. Missions for different characters pop up on the mini-map, which you ride to in order to complete and advance the story. Although the majority of the narrative is linear, you can choose between 2 or 3 missions that show up with different characters and complete these in any order.
This continues through 6 different chapters which work to break the narrative up and give a welcome change of scenery as you switch from one camp to the next, trying to evade the authorities. This is all preceded by a 2 hour segment in the snow-capped mountains that get you accustomed to the pace and overall feel of the game, before opening this up for more variety and the start of this expansive tale.
The missions themselves offer a whole range of different activities though, from chasing stage coaches, robbing trains and getting drunk in the nearby tavern. While there’s a good variety on offer, the game is strictly linear in the way these play out. For those big shoot-outs and set pieces that crop up through the story, the inability to flank or deviate from the main path is a real step backward for a title that promises so much freedom and beauty in its world.
The inability to run in your camp only accentuates the issues with movement in the game
All of this would perhaps be forgiven if the controls were up to scratch but in a bid to try and make Red Dead 2 as rich in detail and realistic as possible, the controls and gunplay suffer in the process. Arthur is sluggish, clunky and awkward to control. His pacing is dictated by where you are in the world and what you’re doing, with the inability to run in your camp and the painfully slow looting of bodies among a few of the biggest gripes here.
Given that shooting is such an integral part to your experience with Red Dead 2, the cover system implemented is one of the worst I’ve experienced in a game for quite some time. The unpredictable nature of this leads to many cheap deaths and other times you’ll stick to the wrong part of an object, hiding in cover but exposed to gunfire from an angle you never expected to stick to.
While many people have said you can tweak these controls in the menu and make this a little more tolerable, it seems like a lot of effort for something that should have been optimized in the first place by Rockstar. The less savvy gamers are unlikely to go traipsing through the menu, tweaking every intricate slider and button to get the best experience from this game; the vanilla experience is what most people will be playing with. The slow pace itself is actually fine, suiting the story and tone perfectly, but the unresponsive controls and awkwardly clunky gunplay make using Dead Eye a necessity at times, with the real-time combat more troublesome than it should be.
Visually stunning, Red Dead 2 boasts the best virtual open worlds ever created
Red Dead Redemption 2 does offer a whole range of activities outside the story missions though that add some much needed variety to proceedings. Loyalty missions open up depending on how good or bad you are with your exploits around the world and the massively varied topography really helps bring this world to life. Each town holds all sorts of side quests including bounty missions where you can hunt criminals out in the world, a range of collectables to obtain and a staggering amount of challenges and skills to unlock along the way.
All of this helps gain cash which can be used to upgrade your camp, pay off bounties you’ve accumulated over the course of the story and buying weapons and other items from shops. While this economy is perfectly fine by itself, you’re given so much money through completing story missions you’ll likely accumulate a nice stash by the end of the fourth chapter. By that point I’d upgraded my entire camp fully, paid off all my bounties around the world and still had $1000 dollars to boot. While there are extra options to buy better horses, the bond you have with your existing horse over the course of the story makes it unlikely you’ll upgrade to another in a hurry.
The game relies heavily on Dead Eye to make its combat more tolerable
It’s worth noting too that although you can upgrade your camp to allow fast travel, this is strictly one-way making you a lot more mindful of exploring the world. Unlike in Skyrim or The Witcher where uncovering more of the world opens up fast-travel for later on encouraging those long horse journeys will need to be repeated at least once if you intend to get back to where you were before. While most of this will involve mashing the X button repeatedly to gallop your horse back as quick as you can, it all feels a little too sacrificial in the name of realism rather than a fun inclusion to the game. Still, thankfully the world is beautiful and these journeys are full of amazing things to look at, which does alleviate some of the concerns here.
Much like Grand Theft Auto 4 before it, Red Dead Redemption 2 is likely to be one of those games that’s looked back on with a more critical eye in years to come. The story and visual design of the game is near perfection and those things cannot be overlooked. How much you get out of Red Dead Redemption 2 depends on your tolerance with the controls and how much weight you put on gameplay as a defining feature of a title. For a game that achieves perfection in so many areas, the linear structure of missions and frustrating controls make Red Dead a title that feels as stubborn and set in its ways as the gang you ride with into the sunset. If that isn’t a bittersweet sense of irony, I don’t know what is.
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