Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 1 (No Spoilers)

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for the release of a game as I was for Red Dead Redemption 2. I played the first one in the summer of 2012, several years after its release. I remember being absolutely blown away by its graphics. It was probably the most immersive open world I’d experienced in gaming. The vast empty spaces of the New Austin desert were so important to that sense of immersion, making the game world feel bigger than it was. More than any game I’d played up until that point, it felt truly lived-in. To me, the appeal of the game was as a Wild West simulator. Riding through a landscape so bleak and desolate added to this impression of a fading way of life, which is what the series is all about- the death of the Old West.

I distinctly remember my dad coming in the room as I was driving a stagecoach from MacFarlane’s Ranch to the plateau that overlooks the desert basin.

“Wow,” he remarked. “You’re actually like…in the Wild West. Like it’s real.”

I knew before playing Red Dead Redemption 2 that all these vivid details would be even more effectual than the previous installment. I was hyped to experience what promised to be the most immersive world in gaming history. All the information teased prior to release indicated that Rockstar had become obsessed with tiny details- the most famous of course being the shrinking horse testicles in cold weather environments. I liked that the developer had this artistic vision they were sticking to, that they wanted to go further than any other developer had, and that they prioritized this vision above player convenience.

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And it’s this bold commitment to immersion that will inevitably divide some gamers. For someone like me, the game’s lofty artistic ambitions make it an almost perfect fit. But not all gamers are the same. I’m primarily interested in things like story, artistic design, world-building, and other aesthetic crap. As far as my profile as a gamer goes, the gameplay need only be serviceable. And that’s why it’s difficult to give this game and its components a definitive rating. For example, the fact that fast travel isn’t really a thing doesn’t bother me very much, but it will irk some. It all depends on your tolerance for the aesthetic experiences Rockstar wants you to indulge in.

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The many features that make this game so realistic- such as the long animations involved in skinning dead animals, the fact you can’t run when inside the gang’s camp, and the need to maintain the health of your horse- will certainly put off players. It all depends on what you’re looking for in a game, and that’s why I can’t review those aspects so much- I can only give my personal opinion on them. At first it took a little getting used to realizing that once I got off my horse, I had to remember to remove the specific guns I wanted from my saddle. But in the end, it didn’t ruin my experience. Most story missions will automatically equip the two guns necessary for that particular mission. These little details can’t really be reviewed because it’s mostly a matter of your individual tolerance as a player.

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The missions themselves, however, are a much more interesting subject for review. If you’ve played any Rockstar game, you’ve played this. The gameplay is in stark contrast to the world in which it is set. The world is a stunning example of cutting-edge graphics technology. Everything from the lighting, the ambient sounds, the dynamic weather system, the complex AI of NPCs, the meticulously detailed animations, and so forth, contributes to an atmosphere that is downright spellbinding. The rendering of the world and everything in it is a staggering accomplishment, and it will set the standard for years to come. But as cutting-edge and groundbreaking as the world is, the gameplay itself feels very old. Don’t get me wrong, it’s serviceable, it works, and I had a lot of fun with it. But there’s no sense of advancement in this area of the game. The combat plays exactly the same as a game you might find on the PS2 or the original Xbox. It incorporates everything from GTA, LA: Noire, and the previous Red Dead for better or worse.

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The combat is heavily cover-based. It’s designed around the basic idea that you go from one area of cover to the next, picking off enemies with the auto-aim mechanic as they pop up from their own cover positions, all the while trying to prevent yourself from getting flanked. That’s all you need to know really. Every ground-based firefight will follow this same pattern. And you know exactly what to do in every scenario- the enemy AI has only one goal in mind and that’s to flank you so that you’re flushed out into the open. Cover is everything. And that’s fine for a story-driven game- but it doesn’t have the organic sense of excitement and reward that comes with bringing down the robot dinosaurs in Horizon: Zero Dawn, or jumping off a high-speed sky-rail and eye-gouging white supremacists in Bioshock: Infinite. I’m not saying that the combat of Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t fun- I’m just saying that it doesn’t innovate.

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There are of course, shootouts on horseback and I didn’t like that very much at all. As I said, the combat is very simple and based around this idea of staying in cover. But you can’t do that while riding your horse. So if you’re riding around the bayou and find yourself gang-raped by a posse of bounty hunters, you’ve really got no choice but to haul ass until you’re far enough away that you’ve either lost them, or are able to line them up and pick them off one at a time. Combat on horseback tends to be a lot more fun in missions, because the context of the situation gives it that exhilarating feeling you want from a horse-chase in the Wild West. The missions are also extremely linear and scripted, which means that the enemies appear in convenient positions for you to shoot them, as opposed to ambushing you from multiple angles.

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This leads into another point though, which is the inherent problem of all Rockstar games- and that is the “open world paradox”. While it makes the horseback combat easier, I doubt you were enthralled by my remarks about the missions as being “linear” and “scripted”. The paradox of Rockstar games is that although they take place in open worlds, the missions within are very formulaic. The reason for this is that Rockstar wants to infuse each mission with a cinematic quality. It wants to dazzle you. And it does. It succeeds at what it wants to do, but does it deliver what gamers want? Are the token shootouts the only thing that separates Red Dead Redemption 2 from being a movie? There’s no room within missions to solve a given problem with any creativity. But if that kind of freedom is what you as a gamer want, you’re probably better suited for something like Bloodborne or Doom. And I don’t mean that in a sassy way- what I’m saying is that if you’re looking for organic, open-ended gameplay challenges, you won’t find it here.

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So we have this disconnect between the narrative and the sandbox, which makes Red Dead Redemption 2 feel like two different experiences walled off from one another. Neither half informs the other. The main story consists of a sequence of set pieces which are scripted but nonetheless absorbing and fun. The sandbox, on the other hand, is both beautiful and decadent. What I mean by a word like decadent is that it’s impressive to behold, but exists largely to be admired. It’s not the Elder Scrolls sandbox where you can travel in any direction and stumble across a hidden kingdom of mole-people or a town of lumberjacks with a naughty little secret. And neither is it the Witcher 3 sandbox, where the world is filled with rich, standalone side quests that are as detailed and engaging as the main story itself. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 has a little side content in the form of its Stranger encounters, but they’re each very short and really only exist to enhance the sense of immersion. The actual gameplay involved in the Stranger encounters is tantamount to a tutorial- herding wild horses or shooting a bottle off of a guy’s head for a laugh. So what can you do in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 other than admire it? The organic, repeatable sandbox elements involve being able to play poker in a saloon, go fishing on a lake, hunt wild game through the mountains, rustle cattle across a prairie, and so forth. You can rob banks, stagecoaches, and trains. All of these prove more challenging endeavors than the missions of the main story. But there is no real reward in accomplishing them- each activity exists for its own sake. To me, the open world sandbox half of the game is best described as a Wild West simulator. It all comes back to immersion. It allows you to simulate life as a cowboy, and you can do everything from starting brawls in a saloon to milking cows in a barn.

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My last criticism of the game is one of believability. Although the game is visually realistic- for instance if you fall over in the mud, only the part of you that hits the ground will be muddy- the events and behaviors therein don’t necessarily evoke the same verisimilitude. For example, the outlaw gang you’re a part of is comprised of a couple dozen people, each of them superbly characterized and well-rounded. However, every other gang in the game is composed of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of generic redshirts, most notably the O’Driscolls- who are meant to be a mirror image of the Van der Linde Gang despite being at least ten times the size of their rivals. I guess it’s kind of like it was in GTA, where you’d end up in a shootout with about 50 gangbangers in an abandoned warehouse, and you’d think “If this actually happened, it would be the biggest massacre in US history” and yet the world doesn’t react to this shocking episode of casual violence. But this didn’t bother me so much in GTA because the Grand Theft Auto series isn’t really meant to be taken seriously. The Red Dead franchise is. GTA might be Rockstar’s mainstream moneymaker, but it’s the Red Dead series that stands tall as the pinnacle of the developer’s artistic genius, and its greatest achievement. And it is a tough criticism for me to make, because without these shootouts, Red Dead Redemption 2 would pretty much just be an interactive movie. It breaks my immersion when I see a small cattle town so faithfully reconstructed with historical authenticity suddenly muster up a defense of 50 deputies that all appear at a moment’s notice behind every covered position and strategic balcony to shoot me from every angle. But even though it’s unbelievable, it’s still damn good fun.

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As I said earlier, the combat is simple and feels like it’s from a game made 15 years ago. But it is still thoroughly enjoyable. The weapons feel great and the Dead-Eye system is a hoot. And given how excellent the story is, the simplicity of the combat in conjunction with the context of the narrative (and the fantastic musical score) makes shootouts feel heroic and badass. The story and the characters are so well-written that I’m going to give them their own separate post in a few days’ time. I’ll also be covering many spoilers, so make sure you complete the epilogue before you read it.

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To conclude, I have to think about where Red Dead Redemption 2 stands in my top 10 games of all time. That alone should tell you that I adore this title. The main story I can confidently say is the finest I’ve ever experienced in a game. The characters are so nuanced and their inner journeys are so engrossing. Perhaps best of all is the dialogue. Not only does it sound authentic, but what they say is interesting and original. For me, the story, characters, and themes are superior to that of The Witcher 3. However, The Witcher 3 remains above Red Dead Redemption 2 in my power rankings because it excels in all aspects of its content, which the latter does not. The Witcher 3 has fantastic combat, gameplay variety, side content, and replay value. At the moment, Red Dead Redemption 2 looks the odds-on favorite to scoop most of 2018’s Game of the Year awards. It’s seen almost universal praise from critics. And I do think this praise is deserved. Even though it falls short of perfection, I am enjoying the success it is receiving. I do think it deserves the title of 2018’s Game of the Year because nothing else comes close to its emotional impact or the scope of its vision. It’s a game that concentrates and excels very heavily in one area, and as such isn’t for everyone. But I want to see more developers take this approach. Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like a game that was created according to an artist’s vision, rather than pandering to some focus-group-tested, mass-market-appeal anodyne spunk-bucket. It puts to shame cynical AAA yearly-releases whose content is designed around consumer exploitation and income projections, and shows us that quality games are by no means a thing of the past. Ultimately, the nature of the market ensures that real quality will always be in demand- whereas shoddy business practices can only remain economically viable for so long.

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