james debate
james debate

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Developed by Rockstar Studios
Published by Rockstar Games
Genre Action-adventure
Platform Xbox One, PS4

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Last month saw the release of Rockstar Studios' highly anticipated prequel to 2010's Red Dead Redemption ("RDR"), Red Dead Redemption 2 ("RDR2"). Longtime readers will recall that I awarded that game a perfect score and praised it as one of the greatest games yet produced at the time, a view that was shared by many reviewers and has arguably only grown in consensus these past eight years.

So naturally the latest entry in the series begins from a position of great anticipation and high expectation, particularly on the back of the more recent Grand Theft Auto V, which was itself widely acclaimed. Indeed on release RDR2 has been met with glowing reviews and, again, near perfect scores. But after spending many hours with the game I have my doubts. Is this reaction really deserved, or just hype? Let's find out.

World-building & Story
The first Red Dead Redemption is a western set in the early 1900s, a turning point between the decline of the old wild west, and the onset of modern civilisation. John Marston is a former criminal and member of the Dutch van der Linde gang, now trying to go straight and get his family back by working with federal law enforcement to hunt down and bring his former gang members to justice. RDR2 is a prequel to these events, taking us back to the heyday of the van der Linde gang. Marston is still present, albeit in a peripheral role. Instead players are put in the role of Dutch's right hand man Arthur Morgan, a character conspicuously absent from the later-set events of the first game.

The basic formula doesn't stray too far from what we have seen from previous Rockstar titles. Open world environment with various mission-giving NPCs. Players do missions, gradually unlocking new areas/items and progressing the story. Outside the main story there are games to play (cards, dominoes, etc) and side quests. The Red Dead Redemption series adds to the formula with additional open-world activities such as hunting, foraging, treasure hunting, and a series of skill-leveling challenges (ie hunt this many bears, craft this many tonics, or collect this many herbs).

This is where the main strength of RDR2 lies: they have built an incredible and immersive world chock-full of life and things to do. Suffice it to say, it's gorgeous to look at, and wonderfully varied with landscapes ranging from snowy mountains to swamps, deserts and forest. As big as it is, it never feels bland or repetitive, rather every location manages to feel hand-crafted in a very natural and detailed way. The world is further enlivened by radiant events, random little snippets of life which occur as you journey through the world (ie a criminal on the run, an injured man requiring assistance, a lady being kidnapped, to name a few), and remarkable little details like the complex ways in which animals interact with one another and the environment. This love and attention to detail really turns what could just have become another pretty sandbox into something that truly feels believable and compelling.

It's not just the environmental design, the human element feels believable and immersive as well. In keeping with the gang-theme, players live on the van der Linde gang campsite, and interact with all the other gang-members. This camp can be upgraded with better equipment, and new furnishings and items can be crafted from materials found while hunting and foraging. The player will need to balance their own needs against the needs of the camp, donating money and supplies as needed, and camp mood will vary as a result. It's actually quite wonderful just to hang out around the camp, experience the ambient dialogue, and see everyone interact with one another. Indeed there is a surprising amount of scripted content focusing around these minor gang interactions that many players may never see in an ordinary play-through.

There have also been significant additions to player customisation this time around. Instead of just choosing from preset outfits, players can now dress themselves by piecing together elements of clothing (shirts, trousers, hats, vests, coats of various styles). In RDR2, the player character will gain and lose weight based on what they eat, hair and beard will grow and needs to be trimmed/styled, and the player will even accumulate dirt, requiring frequent bathing. Guns and other weapons can be customised, with players able to change metal type, wood varnish, add leather coverings, and even engrave patterns and decorations on their weapon of choice. Horse customisation is now also a thing, with the ability to colour and style manes/tails and choose different equipment (saddles, bags, blankets, stirrups, etc). The result is that no two players are likely to have the exact same Arthur Morgan. Between choosing how he looks, how his horse looks, or the look and choice of equipment used, there is a staggering scope for player customisation that didn't exist in the first game.

This world forms the backdrop for RDR2's characters and story, which in typical Rockstar fashion is told with high competence. The story itself is among the better stories in a Rockstar game, with the idealism and subsequent unraveling of the van der Linde gang providing a better illustration of the themes of the series than the more narrow plot of the first game. The charismatic yet unbalanced Dutch van der Linde is a highly compelling antagonist, while the other gang members are themselves fully fleshed out and believable as characters.

If I have one complaint in this regard, it's that the setting almost seems to be undermined by the fact that it's a prequel. The problem here is obvious. Anyone who has played the first game already knows that the van der Linde gang will not end well, which makes it difficult to become emotionally invested in the welfare of a group that you already know will become your enemy. It seems oddly ill-fitting considering the core gameplay focus of the game is built around providing for the gang and forming those emotional bonds. More significantly, this means that by narrative necessity most of those core gameplay features disappear about halfway through the game, creating this bizarre tension where players will almost certainly miss a significant chunk of the game's content if they press on with the story without even realising it.

I can't help but feel that, while a game with this gang focus is a neat idea for a western, it would just have worked better with an entirely new set of characters. As it is, the game's concept almost feels at odds with a story that doesn't really fit the new gameplay features. If I was going to give one piece of advice to new players it's to take your time with the first three chapters and do as much of the side content and crafting as possible, then burn through the story later.

So the world-building and story is generally excellent, despite these minor issues. But ultimately this is not an interactive novel or an art installation to be observed, it's a game. So how does it play? This, unfortunately, is where I feel Rockstar are getting a bit of a generous free-pass from the critics.

As you may have gathered from the above, increased realism is a key focus of RDR2. Players need to shave and bathe. Hunting is now restrictive in that you can only take the animals that you can actually physically carry with you (or on your horse). This adherence to realism is also reflected in the way Arthur Morgan moves and interacts with the environment. Player movement is sluggish and infuriatingly imprecise. Rockstar were so dead set on making sure that Morgan walks like a real person rather than a superhero, interacts with his inventory with the same tedious detail that a real person would, and has a realistic amount of difficulty carrying heavy objects that they seem to have disregarded the fact that this makes navigating a videogame world a huge pain in the butt. Add to this a still very buggy cover system and even the basic nuts-and-bolts gameplay can be disappointingly frustrating.

In some ways it's even worse than the original game, made some eight years ago. I noticed in particular the horses have much greater difficulty navigating terrain, particularly rocks and forests. You will bump your horse into things a lot, and when you do they will send you and your horse flying with a sickening, bone-crunching crash, even if you are going at low speed, or only just slightly make contact with the obstacle. I don't recall this ever being an issue with the first game, and it's weird that horse pathfinding seems to have somehow gone backwards.

These issues all come back to one fundamental problem: Rockstar have been using this same game engine for decades, and it really shows. These gameplay systems were impressive back when GTA Vice City came out, but games have moved on since then, and we are used to better. For a game that is supposed to be a flagship AAA event, RDR2 in many ways feels stodgy and old fashioned as a game.

These problems are further exacerbated by an inconsistent context-sensitive control scheme which can flip on you in an instant without warning. Most of the time, the left trigger aims your weapon and the right trigger fires, except in certain circumstances the two inexplicably switch. This can even occur in the middle of a battle. As an example, I'm on my horse and a cougar attacks. I hold the left trigger to aim my weapon, but before I can fire, I get knocked off my horse. I then quickly scramble to get a shot off, as cougars can kill in an instant, only to find that the controls have switched (possibly due to the context-sensitive control scheme that initiates when you stand near your horse). Needless to say those few seconds of unnecessary confusion can be fatal. That's just one example, and I've had many annoying moments where, for example, I intend to mount my horse, and instead stab a guy. It's clunky and poorly thought out.

And it's not just the controls. RDR2 often feels surprisingly janky and lacking in polish when it comes to general game design. The game and inventory menus are a pain to use, and unintuitive. The way information is accessed via the pause menu is often baffling, and nowhere near as tidy and logical as in the first game. The gameplay itself is riddled with mixed design quality. The gang features feel strangely half-baked considering they're such a focus of the game. Camp upgrades don't seem to do much, and if they do then it's poorly explained. Even the basic function of donating to camp is very unclear at the start of the game, and the game does a poor job of telling players why they should donate their hard earned spoils rather than sell them in town.

That is a particularly pertinent issue in the early stages of the game because, to be frank, the in-game economy is kind of broken. In the first game, hunting animals and selling their pelts was a viable way to make some money. Sadly (and bafflingly) in RDR2 it really isn't. Selling a whole deer with meat, pelt and all gets you about 65 cents. By comparison a can of beans in-game costs $1.50 in the store. That's right, you need to sell almost three whole deer's worth of meat to buy a can of beans. By way of further comparison, you can sell a gold ring in-game for $1.15. This is a game where gold is worth less than a can of beans. But the biggest issue here is the price of guns, which inexplicably seems to be set at 2018 prices where everything else in game is at least sort of period-appropriate. A mid-level gun costs in excess of $100. So you're looking at butchering dozens if not more than a hundred deer in order to buy that weapon, and as a reminder you can only carry one deer at a time thanks to the new focus on realism.

Oddly it appears that most of the activities in-game which can be performed to make money are essentially useless for that purpose. Unlike it's predecessor, in RDR2 you'll hunt for fun or for crafting, not for money. Instead, the only real ways to make money in-game are from completing the story missions or hunting treasure, and indeed these two activities are so lucrative once you get far enough into the game there really isn't any point in doing anything else to make money, and you end up with the exact opposite problem. There comes a point in chapter 3 of the game where within a few short missions you'll pull in thousands of dollars and transition from an economy where nothing is even vaguely affordable to one where you literally have nothing to do with all that money. In a well balanced in-game economy you should see gradual progress, feel like you receive tangible rewards for playing, but never reach a point where there's no point in going further. A well balanced economy this is not.

Then there are the bugs, and while they're not hugely frequent they are regular enough that it's worth mentioning. I've seen broken quests, hilarious physics glitches, NPCs and legendary animals not spawning correctly, graphical/rendering bugs, inventory items changing or being deleted, and many more. In one mission, my horse spawned inside a wall. Most of the time these bugs are amusing or mildly inconvenient. Sometimes they can be gamebreaking, requiring a reload and possibly hours of repeated gameplay. Again, it's just surprisingly lacking in polish for such a big release, and you suspect that much of that is due to the creaking engine on which the game runs.

Probably the most annoying gameplay issue is with aggro NPCs and law enforcement. Bump your horse into someone at walking pace and the entire town will shut down and try to kill you. Make even a slight offence, and every cop in the city will miraculously appear and attempt to gun you down. This leads to the bizarre spectacle of dozens of armed police suddenly crawling out of the woodwork in sleepy 10-person villages. RDR2 supposedly requires "witnesses" to see you and report you before the police come chasing, but in practice this seems to be smoke and mirrors, with police called within seconds even when you're in the middle of nowhere. RDR2 also features bandannas and masks which are supposed to hide your identity and avoid criminal culpability, but again they don't really seem to do much in practice.

GTA V was similarly mocked for its overzealous police, but it's far worse in this case for two reasons. Unlike in GTA, you can't simply hide for a while to clear a bounty, and even dying won't give you a blank slate. In RDR2 you can only get rid of the police by being arrested or paying off the bounty. This can be quite annoying in early-game due to the unbalanced economy, meaning that one silly mistake can result in hours of tedious grinding in order to pay off a bounty. The second, bigger issue is that the game often forces you to run up a bounty during the main story missions and challenges, meaning there's little you can do to avoid getting caught in this cycle. Normally in Rockstar games, any trouble you get into during a mission gets wiped out at the end of the job, but not so in RDR2.

So there's quite a few issues, but to be clear it's not all bad from a gameplay perspective. I'd describe it more as "serviceable, but frustrating". The core gunplay is as satisfying as ever (despite the controls and dodgy cover system) thanks to the deadeye system. The mini-games and hunting are even more fleshed out than before and provide great entertainment. Treasure hunting has never been better with this incredible world to explore.

There is also a pleasing variety in the quest design. While it is true that far too many fall into the stale GTA format of "kill so and so" or "escort this guy", some missions are very memorable. Of particular note is a mission which involves blending into a political fundraiser, while another involves a heist from a casino-boat.

RDR2 is clearly far from a perfect game, and it's maddening reading all these critics sweeping the obvious problems under the rug. It's the mark of a great game, then, that RDR2 remains so much fun in spite of these flaws. This is a game that will infuriate you with its janky engine and poor design choices, and then win you back through its incredible vistas, tantalising mysteries, and irresistible cowboy fantasy. It's certainly not the landmark title that the first Red Dead Redemption was, but rather takes those ideas and expands on them to achieve big and beautiful things. If only Rockstar's coders were as gifted as their artists, this could have been a true classic, but instead it's just a very good game.

Ultimately I think that whether you will enjoy this game depends on what type of gamer you are. If, like me, you are a gamer who lives for a good story and an immersive world into which you can lose yourself, then RDR2 is one of the finest examples of that in gaming and you could spend many, many hours in this world. If you are more of the Call of Duty play-it-for-the-gameplay type, then you might find yourself frustrated and disappointed by a game that feels sluggish and frequently lacking in the fluidity and slickness of design that we often take for granted in modern titles.

With Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar have created a virtual world that is undoubtedly among the most beautiful and remarkable ever created, and filled it with a game that feels strangely old fashioned. Riddled with questionable design choices and held back by Rockstar's creaky engine, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game which does justice to its predecessor, without ever surpassing it as a landmark in gaming.

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