Release Date: October 26, 2018Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox OneDeveloper: Rockstar GamesPublisher: Rockstar GamesGenre: Action/Adventure
Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the most important games of the last 15 years, and I say that as someone who has never really liked the game all that much. It was the one open-world title that had the guts to take a step back and say, “Open-world games shouldn’t be about how much stuff you can cram into them or how they allow people to run around in an arcadey digital playground.” Instead, it dared to suggest that the future of open-world games should be about how they make you feel, the stories they tell, and, most importantly, whether that world feels like a fully-realized, living, breathing entity.
In that respect, Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like the Rockstar game that finally realizes Grand Theft Auto IV’s biggest promises. Unfortunately, it also sometimes feels like a game that’s being torn apart by the expectations of the past, the ways of the present, and the burdens of the future.
Much of RDR 2’s brilliance can be found in the world that Rockstar has created. In fact, if you’re looking for a comparable open-world experience, you can’t really look at Rockstar’s other games. You have to look at The Witcher 3. Much like that masterpiece, RDR 2’s world is made great by the little things upon which it is built. Landscapes are varied, living geographical surprises. There’s a flow from one area to the next that just makes sense. Th various towns all have their own identities and quirks. It certainly also helps that RDR 2 is one of the best (if not the best) looking game ever made. The rich detail spread across every landscape and the unbelievable lighting that illuminates it all rarely fail to impress.
But in both cases, we’re really talking about the unexpected when we talk about what makes these worlds special. While some people enjoy a world in which they are able to guess everything that will happen, both of these games separate themselves by featuring dynamic worlds where you’re never quite sure what is going to be around the bend.
Where RDR 2 separates itself in that respect is in its use of NPCs. Very few characters in RDR 2 are there to make the world look fuller than it is. For instance, you might come across a drunk man on the road asking for your help in getting home. Ignore him and you can follow him as he takes a long, stumbling walk back to his angry wife. Help him and you’ll trigger a different kind of adventure. Choose to heckle a gun swallowing act at a stage show and he’ll invite you to come up and take a shot at him. Shoot at his face and he’ll catch the bullet with his teeth. Shoot his leg and he’ll scream at you for ruining his act.
What’s remarkable about such moments aren’t always the moments themselves but rather the fact that they are almost completely unprovoked. The only thing more impressive than the number of side stories you’ll witness as you play is the number of moments that you’ll miss. Few other developers would bother to create so many amazing interactions and possibilities that won’t even be seen by most of the people who play this game. However, it’s the knowledge that they exist whether you see them or not that makes RDR 2‘s world feel like a truly living one.
While that was certainly one of the GTA IV promises that RDR 2 makes good on, this game manages to avoid the biggest disappointments of that title by ensuring that you’re never left wanting for things to actually do in this game. Now, I can already imagine what you’re thinking. You’re picturing a map riddled with icons full of activities that you’ll never bother with. After all, how many plants can one person be expected to pick?
However, RDR 2’s activities aren’t like that. There are fetch quests to be found here and there, but from gambling to hunting and even the game’s shocking deep fashion system, many of the things you do in RDR 2 are easy to lose hours of your life to. While some activities feel more fully-realized than others (hunting legendary animals leads to some of the game’s best moments, while collecting cigarette trading cards ends about the way you’d expect), RDR 2 never makes you feel like there’s something else you should be doing.
Some of the credit in that respect must go to Rockstar’s minimalized map system. Compared to recent games like God of War, Spider-Man, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which just vomit information at you, RDR 2 allows you to discover things at a more leisurely pace, typically by just encountering them in the world. This may be a little frustrating for completionists, but it’s fantastic for those who often feel overwhelmed by the largest of open-world experiences.
Minimalism is also the driving force behind the game’s soundtrack. Much like the original Red Dead Redemption, many of the game’s phenomenal tracks are instrumental. Unlike the first game, few of them sound like something you’ve heard in another Western. Everything feels appropriate for the genre, but instruments are used in surprising ways. When the game does use lyrical music, it does so at the perfect moments with the perfects songs (even if they don’t quite top “Far Away” from the first game).
When you do decide to finally advance the story or just participate in some more traditional missions, you’ll find that they’re a little more of a mixed bag. For the most part, missions are fun and exciting. Sadly, too many of them rely on the simple formula of riding to a place (which can often take a very long time), shooting up some bad guys, and returning to collect a reward. That formula is enough to wear you down even before you factor in RDR 2’s iffy shooting mechanics.
Simply put, shooting in RDR 2 feels sluggish and awkward. It’s not that different from GTA V (minus the addition of the Dead Eye system), but something about it feels off. It’s far too stiff, which means that free aim is often slow and difficult. The result is a lot of repetitive gunfights in which you have to hide behind cover, lock-on to an enemy, and pull the trigger enough times until your enemies die. You just never feel a sense of accomplishment from it (with the possible exception of taking down some of the aforementioned legendary animals).
Speaking of sluggish, let’s get to the game’s story. If it shocks you that I’ve taken this long to get to RDR 2’s story, that’s only because I wanted to replicate the experience of waiting for the game’s story to really get going. Some have called RDR 2 an open-world game for the patient, which I do agree with in terms of how you have to be able to take what the game offers you at a leisurely pace. However, I feel that “patient” doesn’t apply to the game’s story due to its lack of payoff.
The biggest problem with RDR 2’s story is that it’s structurally stuck in the past. It employs that classic Rockstar method of having you progress through a series of missions as the story slowly unfolds. The problem is that in a game that’s this large and otherwise organic, that feels like the most static way to tell a grand adventure in this world. Unfortunately, much like GTA V, it also tries to use some outdated morality and choice mechanics that never feel like they’re pulling their full weight.
What you end up with is a basic plot that takes far too long to arrive at a destination that probably would have been predictable even if it wasn’t for the fact that this is a prequel to Red Dead Redemption. That isn’t to say the game is devoid of great moments (it’s filled with them) but things like a mid-game trip to a completely unexpected destination would be much more impressive if it felt like they contributed more to the outcome. Instead, characters spend way too much time between major moments simply treading water.
Fortunately, most of those characters are excellent. While much of RDR 2’s cast is less comical than the first game’s crew of characters, there is something about them that makes each stand out over time. That’s especially true if you’re the kind of player who takes the time to get to know each gang member. Doing so reveals a rich series of backstories that leads to each member of the gang truly feeling like family. It makes you wonder why it’s taken Rockstar so long to truly utilize this gang mechanic.
While player character Arthur Morgan is supposed to be the star of the show (and does a nice job as the vehicle for most of the action without feeling like a complete plot device/tool), it’s gang leader Dutch Van Der Linde who steals the show. From the moment that we hear Van Der Linde convincing his freezing and starving outlaw family that they will get through this, we recognize him as a man that is undeniably charismatic and a leader but also someone who is unmistakably human and tainted by the vulnerabilities that come with that distinction. It doesn’t hurt that his voice acting (and 99% of the rest of the voice acting in this game) is stellar, nuanced, and thoroughly professional.
It’s Rockstar’s amazing ability to build such characters that makes you wonder why the studio half-ass certain other aspects of the game. This is especially true of the survival systems, which feel as if they were put into the game to satisfy a genre feature checklist. The problem isn’t that they’re necessarily bad, it’s that they often feel tacked-on. Even if you never feed your character, you only suffer minor penalties that don’t affect the gameplay all that much. It’s kind of nice that things like survival and weapon upkeep aren’t forced, but you do begin to feel like Rockstar could have committed to them a bit more for the sake of those who wanted to bother with them.
Besides, such survival mechanics are an increasingly stale trait of the past, and Red Dead Redemption 2 is at its most exciting when it feels like a harbinger of the future. Not the past which Rockstar occasionally draws from for comfort food mechanics and not the present where the studio occasionally feels the need to keep pace by walking the way that genre competitors do.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is at its best when it’s living in the future that Rockstar envisioned for this genre years ago. While it’s frustrating that so many of the game’s problems are the result of Rockstar not fully committing to a vision of how open-world games can be more than what they are now and what they have been in the past, RDR 2 allows a patient gamer to live in that future for long enough that it’s almost impossible to not consider it an undisputed accomplishment.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.