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A beautiful game that doesn’t come close to hitting the heights of its predecessor, but still manages to entertain

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    Red Dead Redemption 2

    Rating: 3.5 – Good

    A beautiful game that doesn’t come close to hitting the heights of its predecessor, but still manages to entertain

    It’s been over 5 years since Rockstar Games’ last major title, the hugely popular GTA5, and for fans of the ambitious studio’s massive, story-driven open world games, it felt like a very long wait for their next big adventure. This is especially true with that adventure happening to be a sequel to Red Dead Redemption, which proved easily to be among the 7th generation’s best games. Red Dead Redemption 2 was always slated to be a massive project, with Rockstar essentially merging all their many studios together and working almost exclusively (DLC and remasters aside) on the title for the past who-knows how many years.

    Red Dead Redemption 2 does deliver, at least, in a certain sense. I have to say, I don’t consider it to be one of the studio’s better games, and certainly find it to be a notch or two below its excellent predecessor. But the world crafted here has been brought to life with painstaking detail, and the size of the seemingly endless map available for you to explore is very much out of this world. As a prequel to Redemption 1, RDR2 stars new character Arthur Morgan and tells the story of the Van der Linde gang of outlaws, which includes RDR1 protagonist John Marston in a larger role than I expected, as they attempt ¡°one last heist¡± which will allow them to escape the dying Old West for good.

    Arthur Morgan grew on me fairly quickly. I was a little concerned after seeing the trailers, which depicted him almost as an evil Trevor-like character, but much like John Marston, Arthur’s actually incredibly likable and has at least somewhat of a conscience and a level head, especially as the gang around him becomes more and more desperate. A plot development that admittedly arrives a little later than I’d have liked further helps to cement Arthur as one of Rockstar’s great main characters.

    The story he’s saddled with though just isn’t that great by the studio’s standards. As with GTA5, a game that I, unlike seemingly everyone else, struggled to get into, the plot here mainly takes the form of a series of heists, each one presenting differing circumstances but still managing to feel very similar to each other, both narratively and from a gameplay perspective. Upon arriving in each new town-like area and establishing your hideout nearby, Arthur undertakes a series of missions which build to the various attempted robberies. Until much later in the game, including a very cool and innovative epilogue, the story seems a bit aimless and doesn’t feel that it’s building to much. Outside of Arthur, most of the characters don’t manage to leave a mark, and this is despite seemingly endless hours of dialogue as you traverse on your horses from one area to the other.

    Still, Arthur Morgan’s journey is enough to carry the day, even if it doesn’t live up to those that preceded it. It’s a lot of fun to arrive at each new location, watching as the gang’s hideouts develop, and getting to explore and become acquainted with the towns (and the one large city) that you find yourself in. Visually, Red Dead Redemption 2 really pulls out all the stops. Other than the lack of interaction with the foliage (something which has stuck out to me in each post-Breath of the Wild game I’ve played) and a few framerate drops in towns here and there, the visual presentation is nearly flawless. It’s so photo-realistic, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine where things can go from here in this graphics style. The snow areas in particular are stunning, and the draw distance, as you stand atop a hill and survey your surroundings, is incredible. Many of the towns you explore are a little on the small side, but the level of activity, detail, and visual effects squeezed into them is excellent. The time spent in the city of Saint Denis easily proved to be my favorite part of the game, and I wished far more time was spent in this huge, vibrant, life-like city.

    Exploring the world proves seamless, with no load times to speak of as you traverse from one end of the map to the other, including watching the barren environments gradually become urban centers as you approach the towns. Other than when you die, or fast travel, or when you first boot up the game, it just doesn’t need to load. And that’s an amazing thing. These aren’t empty, deserted fields either, as you’ll encounter numerous NPC activity along your way; from people who ask for your assistance, to those trying to rob others (and even you), the world feels alive at many points. Granted, while I eventually began ignoring much of these entirely, as the rewards they offer you don’t usually feel worth the effort, it’s always something I appreciate when trekking from one area to the other, the sense of activity and vibrancy.

    The gameplay is oddly enough a mixed bag, as it replicates RDR1’s strong foundation, which is a lot of fun, and remains fun here, while building on top of it new features that frankly just miss the mark. As with RDR1, you traverse with your beloved horse across various gorgeous environments, completing missions for people as you dig yourself deeper into your story, and engaging in many Wild West gun battles along the way. The crazy bullet time-like shooting system from RDR1 sees a return here, and it’s always satisfying to bring out in the heat of battle. Unfortunately, in a misplaced effort to appeal to the art of ¡°realism,¡± everything in Red Dead Redemption 2 incorporates simulation aspects that just feel unnecessary, and actually bog the game down when you try to make use of them. It’s possible to spend 15 minutes traveling across the world for a sidequest, only to get there and find that it’s time-specific and no longer available, giving you little choice but to either set the controller down for a long period of time, or to simply travel all the way back. You can hunt and skin animals to either donate to your hideout or to sell, with these animals degrading over time should you not return immediately with them. You’re encouraged to eat food or drink/smoke to regularly to recharge your various ¡°cores¡± which affect how much your health regenerates, your stamina, etc. Guns have to be cleaned regularly to improve their performance, your horse is supposed to be cared for, your hideout is supposed to be donated to regularly, with the the list going on and on. I just never found any of this to be especially rewarding, and as the game progressed I wound up entirely ignoring almost all of it, and frankly I think the experience is better for it. It doesn’t help that every action feels so belabored; even picking something up off the ground requires you to stand there for a few seconds holding X and watching as Arthur stoops down, grabs the object, and slowly stands up and pockets it. This sense of realism is impressive at first, but after a while I grew tired of it and just wanted the game to speed up. This is something that carries through all aspects of RDR2. Going to a gun shop to purchase guns requires you to watch Arthur lean over a catalogue and methodically flip through each page, reading the nearly illegible handwriting or opting to pull up a text description. I wished numerous times that I could just push X in front of something, read it, and be on my way, but Red Dead Redemption 2 tries so hard to be realistic that every time you have to interact with objects in the environment or in shops, it all feels tedious and not worth bothering with. The Wanted Level system also feels like more trouble than it’s worth, and I made it a point to completely avoid playing Arthur as the ¡°villainous¡± character, in part because it’s such a pain to remove your wanted level, which can take place from something as simple as brushing up against an NPC when riding your horse through town. Like many games today, Red Dead Redemption 2 makes an overt effort to be cinematic, with missions and large parts of the gameplay seemingly focused on simply pressing the buttons that the game prompts you to press, watching as cinematic things happen. It’s something that seemed cool back when Uncharted 2 came out, but now that we’re several years into the 8th gen, it’s something that I wish developers would just move on from, as I find it increasingly difficult not to feel detached from the proceedings when the majority of control over my character is constantly being ripped away from me to show me ¡°cool stuff.¡± And unlike regular cinematics, you can’t even put the controller down and enjoy them, as you’re often asked to push the prompted buttons.

    Traveling the world, as gorgeous as it is, occupies a huge portion of your play time. You travel far on horse to reach the missions, then travel far on horse during the missions, and have to travel back on horse afterwards. There’s a fast travel option hidden within the game that can be unlocked, but once I did, I found it to be so incredibly limited that I only used it around once or twice before forgetting about it entirely. Train stations do exist throughout the world for quick travel, and these are helpful, although similarly, they have to be painstakingly traveled to. Unlike the vehicle in, say, Final Fantasy XV, horse travel just isn’t all that fun, requiring you to constantly either tap the X-button or, if you switch to cinematic mode, holding it. The world’s huge, but you’re very much encouraged to stay on the various roads, as environmental objects such as trees and shrubbery can easily throw you from your horse should you venture far from the beaten path. Even when during the missions, and compelling dialogue takes place among the characters as you move, the traveling aspect feels almost entirely devoted to demonstrating the insanely gorgeous environments to you, and this is nice, but there’s only so many times I can be impressed by that across this very long game. Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like the first game from Rockstar where visuals were designed to be the star of the show. Being the developers of typically fully open-world adventures, their games were rarely the prettiest-looking on their respective systems, often going with cartoony and stylized visuals to make up for it. This is really the first time I felt a game from Rockstar fall into the modern day trap of attempting to be too cinematic, becoming too much about immaculate presentation while the gameplay just kind of sits there. The missions all follow a very predictable pattern; ride your horse with others to a location, where all sorts of dialogue takes place. Get to the location, something or other happens, which often leads to cover shooting gameplay that very quickly blends together; it’s hard not to notice a surprising lack of imagination as to how the characters get out of most situations. This is the format for easily the majority of the missions you’ll come across in Red Dead Redemption 2, and it’s unfortunate that the same amount of attention that went into creating the gorgeous world hadn’t gone into the mission design. Rockstar also sadly does the Horizon: Zero Dawn thing, where you’re stuck in a linear and cinematic ¡°opening mission¡± for the early hours of the game, something that’s always frustrating in what you know will eventually be an open world adventure, which makes the opening hours, so crucial for pulling me into a game’s world, a chore that I’m eager for to end so I can finally begin exploring.

    I know it sounds like there’s a lot to be disappointed with, but it’s important to note (and I can’t stress this enough) that despite the endless horseback riding, the less-than-inspiring mission design, the unnecessary emphasis on realism, and the unenjoyable new features, Red Dead Redemption 2 does deliver something special, and I was always eager to switch my PS4 on to dive back into its world, flaws and all. Even with the frustrating new additions, the strong foundation established in the previous Red Dead Redemption remains compelling even to this day. The level of quality and care that Rockstar almost always brings to the table in terms of the overall experience is impressive, even when the individual parts may not be all that great, as is the case here. It’s a world brimming with character, quests to take on, beasts to hunt, and gorgeous, bustling towns and cities. The voice acting’s excellent, and the music sets a cool, subdued mood as you venture through the wilderness; the atmosphere’s almost top notch, second only to something like Breath of the Wild this gen. Red Dead Redemption 2 is very much a game where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, in that for all its very ¡°workmanlike¡± elements and issues, when I beat the game and put the controller down, it was an adventure that I’m truly glad I went on, and saw through to the end. It leads into Red Dead Redemption 1 perfectly, with an epilogue that’s just narratively a work of genius, even though it too drags in places. It takes a long time to get there, and the early hours of the game often feel painstakingly slow paced. But once I managed to sink my teeth into the story and ignore many of RDR2’s unneeded new simulation elements, I got to enjoy what’s a memorable, if imperfect, adventure. I hope that future games from Rockstar don’t take so long to develop, and don’t feature such an emphasis on graphics and cinematics over pure fun factor and inventiveness. But hey, they know how to develop a game, and issues and all, this is definitely one heck of a game.

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