Red Dead Redemption 2 Review

I’ve been playing the highly anticipated game from world renowned studio Rockstar Games: Red Dead Redemption 2. Here’s what I think so far.

Note that I have not finished the story, this review focuses mostly on design choices and gameplay mechanics.

Red Dead 2 is a prequel to the previous game and you play as Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van Der Linde Gang, which is headed up by the notorious outlaw Dutch Van Der Linde. The game starts with a job-gone-bad in the town of Blackwater, and the gang is on the run and forced to live in camps they set up along their journey. As of the game’s fourth chapter, these camps have been the main gameplay drive. The gang will set up camp in a secluded area, and then that area becomes a sort of hub where different characters have quests available. After a certain mission is completed, and usually after a major plot event, the gang is forced to relocate and find a new place to set up camp.

The camp itself has multiple upgrades you can apply to it, such as better lodging, more food rations, and a chicken coop. You can use money contributed by yourself and other members of the gang to purchase upgrades. These upgrades give you or the camp some sort of buff; for example, the chicken coop adds chicken to the stew pot in the camp, and when you eat it, it will give you a small dead eye boost. Not only can you apply upgrades to the camp but you can also resupply its food, medicine, and ammunition rations by bringing these items to the appropriate gang member in camp. This entire system is tedious, time consuming, costly, and consequently not fun. In a game that is full of sub systems, this is one that I just could not force myself to deal with. Luckily, the status of camp supplies and upgrades seems to be completely irrelevant to gameplay or progress.  In fact for most of my play through I did not buy any camp upgrades, as there are already many things to micro manage.

Red Dead 2 is full of stuff to do, and that is both its strength and its weakness. On one hand, there is a beautiful world to explore; it’s a world that is full of seemingly endless random encounters and characters with their own stories to tell. All of these characters you meet are fantastically written – they feel like real people, and there are tons of them. This helps create the illusion that the world is alive and functioning around you rather than springing to life when you get within a certain distance, and that makes it all the more satisfying to just walk around and take it all in. I’ve often found myself losing hours to just soaking in the world, exploring, and meeting new people. In one case I spent an hour helping a professor collect supplies for his latest invention, the electric chair. In another case I helped a ridiculed artist escape the country because he had offended the town with his paintings of nudes. I did these quests for no reason other than I wanted to see how the story played out, because Red Dead 2’s writing and presentation is just that damn good. I spent 15-20 minutes in the city watching a vaudeville act complete with magic, fire breathing, and singing acts. How many games have entire live shows you can watch in game as you wish?  The attention to detail is astonishing.

On the other hand, the game has a mechanic or system for every little thing, and the simplest of tasks are overly complicated. For example, you can eat food to keep your stamina, health, and dead eye up. To get food you need to hunt an animal, and then skin it, and then cook every piece of meat you got from that animal one at a time. Then you can eat. There are also tonics you can craft to fill your health, stamina, and dead eye, but this involves collecting the ingredients needed, and the game seemingly has no way of tracking crafting recipes. I usually just buy tonics or food at a shop. You also have to wash and stay clean, you have to sleep, you have to clean your guns, you have to feed your horse, you have to clean your horse, and you have to watch your horse’s health and stamina. It’s tedious and laborious, and it gets in the way of what is otherwise a very enjoyable game. It becomes downright boring sometimes; progress just feels so slow because of everything you have to manage.

While I’m on the topic of slow, I should mention how absurdly tedious the gameplay feels. This is by far the clunkiest game Rockstar has ever shipped, more-so than even GTA V, which is clunky in its own right but feels quick and snappy compared to Red Dead 2. There’s such a heaviness to every move; it feels like it takes an eternity just to turn around. Shooting feels awful. Firstly, if you walk any faster than at the default snail pace, when you aim down sights Arthur’s aim sways so much that it’s nearly impossible to hit a target. I understand that he’s out of breath and it’s supposed to be realistic, but I don’t necessarily want to deal with life’s inconveniences when I’m trying to play a video game. Secondly, before you can fire your pistol or rifle, you have to actually cock the gun. So in between each shot, you have to press right trigger once to cock the gun, and then right trigger again to actually fire a bullet. Going into cover is also troublesome. It’s hard to distinguish what can be used as cover and what cannot be used as cover, and many times when I tried to go into cover it took multiple clicks of the right bumper for Arthur to actually go into cover. The movement just feels bad, due to both gameplay choices made by Rockstar and by what are seemingly bugs or bad design.

Overall, the game is good. It’s well written, it has hours of fun content, and it has a gorgeous and lively world that is a joy to explore. But I can’t help feel it would be better off without all of its sub systems. Generally speaking, more things to do in a video game is a good thing. Rockstar has taken this idea to an extreme though, to the point where it actually gets in the way of the enjoyable aspects of the game. It’s not fun to cock guns, it’s not fun to cook at a campfire, it’s not fun to eat and sleep, or to feed and clean your horse, or to slowly walk around, or to spend 10 minutes riding your horse just to get where you’re going next. What is fun is meeting new people along your journey, playing through the fantastically written and directed story missions, and exploring the world. Unfortunately the game has too much of the former to fully enjoy the latter.

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