As millions under Coronavirus lockdown turn to their consoles to pass the time and Rockstar Games releases a major update to its bestselling Red Dead Redemption 2, Aaron Morton assesses the game’s strengths and weaknesses.
Night has fallen over the barren plains of West Elizabeth. Arthur Morgan travels in search of a place to lay his head for the night. The horse he rides is a white Arabian; her speed is unmatched. Behind the saddle lies the pelt of a White Bison – the fruit of today’s labour.
Without warning, six men armed with carbine repeaters block his path. It’s the O’Driscolls. Arthur reins in his horse before them. There is only one way out…
A few taps on my controller and time slows; Arthur unholsters his revolver marking the enemies with red crosses on their heads. This is the ‘deadeye’. Another tap and time resumes. Gunfire sounds and six O’Driscoll boys slump to the ground. Dead.
After a few moments, I set Arthur back on his course towards the town of Strawberry as a spaghetti western tune plays through my headset.
Welcome to Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2).
First released on the 26th October 2018 for Playstation 4 and Xbox 1, RDR2 was welcomed with critical acclaim and overwhelming positivity, with many publications (including IGN and Game Informer) awarding the title a flawless 10/10 rating.
Like many an avid gamer, I was eager to get my hands on the most anticipated game of the year. I set about pre-ordering my own copy of the ‘Special Edition’, which included a collectable steelbook, printed map and lots of bonus in-game content.
Now, having played the game online and off for a year and a half, I feel ready to summarise my experience and answer some burning questions: Is RDR2 truly a masterpiece, the magnum opus of all games? Has it changed the way we fundamentally view video games?
Taking place in the year 1899 (12 years after the initial events of the 2010 prequel), RDR2 concerns a band of outlaws who, after a botched heist, go on the run from the law. They escape to the Grizzly Mountains where their leader, the infamous Dutch van der Linde, devises a plan for one more big heist, all the while evading not only sheriff’s deputies and bounty hunters but rival gangs. You play as Arthur Morgan, Dutch’s second-in-command, and the story’s protagonist.
The scriptwriting on RDR2 is amongst the best I have ever experienced in a video game. With the possible exception of CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher series, I cannot think of a game with such a vast amount of dialogue, every line of which is beautifully written and delivered with passion and realism by the voice actors. The attention to detail is equally impressive – I was amazed to discover that characters will raise their voices if you stray too far away from the conversation.
Throughout your playthrough, I recommend that you take the opportunity to speak to anyone and everyone. The world is hugely interactive and every character written with great depth. You never know what kind of interesting person you’ll encounter or unique you’ll have unless you take the time to fully investigate RDR2’s milieu.
That said, the story’s pacing may put some players off. This is a very slow game. The main story consists of six chapters and two long epilogue sections, and it’s not until players have completed the first chapter that they’re free to explore the world autonomously. Engaging as the story is, I often found myself impatient to complete the opening chapter, which is principally a tutorial to familiarise the player with the controls and introduce them to new features.
Graphically speaking, as soon as the game begins, a long, Tarantinoesque cutscene will play, which introduces Dutch’s gang as they attempt to find shelter from a raging blizzard. Even on a console with seven-year-old hardware (I played on a PS4), the game looks stunning. On Xbox 1X, RDR2 operates on a 4K resolution, making this one of the most visually ambitious games on the market today. The lighting, the weather effects and the facial animations are all stellar and operate at a whole new level of realism. People, animals and vehicles will make tracks in the snow and mud, which will slowly disappear when rained away or covered over. Human and animal corpses decay over time. Weapons get dirty and you must clean them to prevent degradation. The game is outstandingly immersive… to a fault.
For me, the most important aspect of any game is its gameplay – in other words, the thing that makes a game fun. It is here, though, where I must voice my first criticism of RDR2 because the depth of immersion achieved severely hinders the fun and instead makes the game boring and repetitive.
My first issue is with the ‘Fast Travel’ mechanic. Because the world of RDR 2 is so large, and the fact that missions and activities are scattered all over the map, the player will spend a lot of their time monotonously riding their horse to a specific destination. This process can be accelerated by the use of stagecoaches, which spawn at certain towns and allow the player to be immediately transported to a chosen waypoint. But these stagecoaches do not travel everywhere and are restricted to specific locations. Players also have the chance to unlock a ‘Fast Travel’ map later on in the game, but (as with the stagecoaches) only a limited number of destinations are available, and the map can only be used while the player is in the camp.
In addition, RDR2 has an atrocious looting mechanic. Items throughout the game must be looted individually, and each time a player takes an item they are subjected to a roughly six-second animation. Given the sheer volume of looting the average player will do throughout the game, and the large number of enemies they will likely kill, these animations are frustratingly unnecessary.
The core gameplay of RDR 2 has not changed since the release of the first game. The ‘deadeye’ system (Rockstar’s patented gunplay mechanic) is a welcome return. But overall, combat feels as sluggish and as clunky as it always has.
On top of this, missions are largely formulaic and offer the player little independence or scope for creativity. The line between what’s ordained for the player via the script and what the player can freely choose to do is not always clear, and in this respect RDR2 seems almost in a conflict with itself. The result is the game often feels more like an interactive story than a game of limitless possibilities. For me, this is the single greatest flaw that plagues almost every one of Rockstar’s games.
So how much content does RDR2 offer? How much bang for your buckshot, as it were? In this regard, there’s little to criticise. Even if we leave aside its ever-growing online world, RDR2 is a massive game, both in size and scope. One of the main reasons I took so long to complete the game was due to the sheer amount of activities it offered.
In addition to the 80 main story missions, there are over 20 ‘Stranger Missions’ (many with multiple parts), 90 different challenges, numerous bounty missions, as well as various ‘Random Encounters’ from NPCs around the world. As if that wasn’t enough, every single mission is replayable, giving players the opportunity to improve their original performance rating for a mission by following certain criteria.
As in the prequel, players can take part in a variety of mini games including poker, blackjack, dominoes and five finger fillet, a potentially painful challenge that fans of the character Bishop in the film Aliens (1986) will be familiar with.
RDR2 also features an advanced hunting system whereby a player must locate, track and kill various animals. The pelts of these beasts can then be used to craft unique outfits, satchels and saddles. A catalogue of Legendary Animals will yield the best crafting materials. As well as making your own outfits, players can use their ill-gained dollars to purchase clothing from vendors around the world along with lures and baits for hunting and fishing, food and provisions, and an extensive catalogue of fully customisable weapons.
Guns can be modified to have longer barrels and improved sights, and you can even choose the colour of the metals, type of wood varnish, engravings and inlays. This is yet another example of the level of care and attention lavished on this game.
Alongside the colossal single-player campaign, players can create an outlaw character and join people from all over the world in multiplayer. There’s a rich range of online cooperative and competitive modes, as well as multiplayer free roam. Players can posse up to complete gang heists and other challenges or compete against one another in Free-For-All PVP (player versus player) modes and gang matches.
I’ve never been a fan of Rockstar’s multiplayer functions, barely spending more than a few hours with the online component for the first RDR game or with Grand Theft Auto V. I spent even less time online with RDR2. Lobbies remain slow and buggy. Matchmaking is time consuming and missions are dull and repetitive. As with any multiplayer game, it is always better to play with friends. Saddling up with a few of your buddies to rob a bank or plan a train heist is exciting in the beginning, but after a while the novelty evaporates. For me, the combat system is simply not robust enough to choose RDR2 over multiplayer heavyweights like Call of Duty and Battlefield.
So what’s the verdict? The story alone is worth the price of purchase and, despite a few pitfalls, Rockstar has created a truly immersive experience. The 60 hours I poured into the game were worth every second, and I still feel the need to return to the beautifully designed open world in search of any side quests or Easter eggs I may have missed.
RDR2 may not be a game-changer but it has raised the bar for games belonging to the current generation of graphics and scriptwriting.
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