Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018), Part 1 "The Crazy World of Arthur Morgan"

NOTE: Certain images in this article appear too bright because they were taken while running the game in HDR mode, which for me offered basically two options: a very grey image with no bright highlights, or an overly bright image especially when tone-mapped back to SDR for the screenshots. Eventually, it turned out the HDR implementation isn't even true HDR but kind of an upscale from standard dynamic range, so I just turned it off and the game suddenly looked much better. C'mon Rockstar, you ought to be better than this.

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Those who are at all familiar with my extremely important video game opinions should have heard by now that I consider Rockstar San Diego's western epic Red Dead Redemption one of the greatest games ever made. It's certainly not the most polished game ever, nor the most original. If you were to describe RDR as a glitchy, Wild West themed Grand Theft Auto IV with equally severe problems with repetitive missions and story pacing, you technically wouldn't be that far off the mark. Yet, something about Red Dead Redemption has kept me going back on multiple occasions over the years, even attaining 100% completion which for me is still extremely rare when it comes to open world games.

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I'm a poor lonesome cowboy a long, long way from home. Also, the government has taken my family hostage and told me to kill my old friends. (Red Dead Redemption, Xbox 360, 2010)
For me, the beauty of Red Dead Redemption (which, by the way, has aged remarkably well for a 2010 console release) was not necessarily found in the old west gunslinger shootouts, the Zapata western stylings of the game's Mexico section or all those desperate fights against roughly half of America's grizzly bear population circa 1911 in the Tall Trees region. No, I've always been one of those nerds who really love being immersed in their video game worlds, and immersion is the one aspect Rockstar absolutely nailed back in 2010. RDR's world was one you could lose yourself in and just take in the scenery without really doing much of anything, marvel at the environmental detail and incredible weather effects, and then get eaten by a bear or a cougar.

With Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games (while the original was nominally a R* San Diego joint, the eight-years-in-the-making sequel has been an "all hands on deck" project from the start) has gone all-in with the immersion factor, often at the expense of smooth gameplay. At this point, Rockstar has all the money in the world and the knowledge that people will buy their games regardless of the content, so while they could have played it safe and created a nice and approachable cowboy GTA, they chose to take a completely different approach with RDR 2.

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The design philosophy behind RDR 2 has divided opinion since the game's release, with some critics and fans swearing by the deliberate pacing of the gameplay and others arguing that all this immersion and realism gets in the way of the fun. Having finished the main story and completed most of the Stranger sidequests, I'd place myself mainly in the former camp. Not really surprising in light of what I just said about RDR 1, but with that said I've still got a few gripes with the game that I'd like to bring up.

To clarify, I have absolutely no problem with the weighty movement of the protagonist, Arthur Morgan. I don't even mind the classic Rockstar control quirk of tapping A to sprint, and I feel it's more responsive than pressing the button to toggle sprinting on and off. Looting containers and interacting with objects in close vicinity to one another can be a pain occasionally, but I never found that to be a deal-breaker.

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Nor do I have any issues with all the new "micromanagement" introduced in RDR 2. The way the health, stamina and Dead Eye (think old west bullet time) systems work is that each of these attributes is represented by a gauge surrounding a "core". The gauge is your active health, stamina, or Dead Eye, and regenerate over time and can be restored with items. The cores, however, drain over time and you occasionally have to eat and sleep to keep Arthur fighting fit. Draining a core all the way down means its corresponding gauge stops regenerating or at least regenerates so slowly that it might as well stop. Your horse has its own set of cores and gauges for health and stamina, so it requires care as well. Oh, and if Arthur eats too much or too little, he gains or loses weight and that will introduce its own gameplay effects as well.

On paper, all of this sounds like the most tedious busywork imaginable. In practice, it really doesn't drag down the experience at all for me. I'll just look at my cores after every couple of missions and then eat a can of beans or something to restore the health and stamina cores, and smoke a cigarette or gulp down some rum to keep up the Dead Eye core. Or I'll just go to sleep to fully restore all of them. Really, you would have to actively try to end up in a situation without any method to replenish your cores, and the same goes for caring for your horse. Hell, I'd occasionally give Specter (the beautiful black horse I used for the latter half of my playthrough — you can name all your horses yourself, as long as it doesn't trigger the overly sensitive swear filter presumably mandated by Sony and/or Microsoft for their online services — which, as we all know, are famously free of any kind of offensive behavior or content) a brush or feed him an apple even if doing so had no benefit whatsoever!

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Arthur's weight is a non-issue, as you actually get different benefits and drawbacks based on whether you're malnourished or a bit on the chunky side. If you're underweight, your stamina regen goes up at the cost of a small health regen penalty, and vice versa for being overweight. Being at average weight offers no benefits as far as I can tell, and to be honest I spent most of this playthrough constantly underweight with no noticeable penalties.

The animations for looting fallen enemies and skinning animals are a few seconds long each, but I didn't mind this either. Your mileage may vary, of course. The deliberate movement and animations have been a constant point of contention in the week following Red Dead Redemption 2's release, but once again it isn't really something that bothered me a whole lot. Would I prefer a more streamlined experience where looting and harvesting skins happens instantaneously, a la Assassin's Creed Odyssey? Well... not really, to be honest. Don't get me wrong, I like how fast these things happen in other open world games like Odyssey and I'd probably be livid if those games did things equally slowly, but on the other hand I think it would take away from my cowboy simulator if these systems were as streamlined as in other, more fast-paced and action-oriented games. I feel there is room for both approaches. In any event, I never once found myself swearing at the screen due to overly lengthy animations.

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I don't actually have any combat screenshots, so here's some more nice scenery instead. Red Dead Redemption 2 looks fantastic regardless of platform, but the Xbox One X runs it at a native 4K resolution and has the smoothest performance to boot. A PC port hasn't been announced, but I'd be surprised if it didn't show up in the next year. A full 4K60 presentation is an enticing prospect for sure, but one must wonder about the system requirements for such a thing...
What I did find myself swearing at the screen for, however, was the combat. If you've played a Rockstar open world game in the last decade, you know how this works — you sit behind cover, pop out to shoot enemies, and yell at the protagonist when he sticks to the wrong piece of cover or just won't pop up from behind the STUPID GODDAMN ROCK he's squatting behind, eventually getting his dumb ass shot and killed. I'm not sure why, but the cover system in Red Dead Redemption 2 actually feels worse in this respect than any of Rockstar's other RAGE engine games, including GTA IV back in 2008. Yeah, the shooting in that game was boring as hell, but at least Niko usually stuck to the waist-high object I wanted him to stick to in the first place. Red Dead Redemption was a little less tight on that front because the objects weren't always boxes or walls (as in, not always straight surfaces), so sometimes there were some problems getting John Marston to stick to the intended object or getting him to shoot at enemies from cover.

GTA V was basically perfect in this regard, but somehow the combat in RDR 2 feels much less responsive than any of these prior games. There have been many, many times I've yelled something to the effect of "JESUS CHRIST GO TO COVER ALREADY YOU MORON" when Arthur simply doesn't do anything when I press RB near a waist-high object or just takes roughly eight years to crouch down behind it. The lockon is also surprisingly useless on the default setting and doesn't snap to enemies unless your reticle is pretty much already on top of them. You can extend the range in the options, at least, or just disable the lockon entirely if you prefer. I'll be the first to admit I'm not the best at cover-based shooters, so maybe you had a more enjoyable time with RDR 2's combat than I did. When the combat works as intended, it's actually quite entertaining and taking down enemies is satisfying, but at least for me it fell apart far too often, especially with the game's tendency to spawn enemies behind Arthur quite regularly. The combat isn't exactly difficult per se, just kind of clunky, and if all else fails you can always fall back on your bag full of healing items.

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Since I don't have any video captures from RDR 2 to grab decent combat screenshots from, here's one from the first game. Marston is standing out in the open like a moron, because the combat in RDR 1 was forgiving enough to often let you get away with that. In RDR 2, playing western action hero like this is generally not recommended.
Certain missions have you fighting alongside AI partners. For the most part, the AI can take care of itself, but occasionally they'll wander right into a hail of gunfire and get themselves killed without you having much of a chance to stop that from happening. Other times, the mission requires or at least strongly recommends a stealthy approach, and I'd just like to take this opportunity to point out that the stealth in Red Dead Redemption 2 is abysmal. Between Arthur's tendency to get stuck on geometry, automatically get out of stealth mode at inopportune times, and the enemies' unclear vision and hearing radius (the minimap does have small vision cones for them so you at least know where they're looking, but they can see far beyond the edge of those cones), these sections are not what I'd call enjoyable although stealth takedowns are at least quite satisfying. Thankfully, insta-fail stealth is rare, and the checkpoints are usually rather forgiving and you don't need to repeat lengthy sections of gameplay even if you do fail. If nothing else works, failing a section three times will let you skip it.

Combat-oriented missions are made needlessly more frustrating by the bizarre weapon loadout system. The basic idea is fine; you've got your revolver(s) always equipped, and on top of them you can carry two other guns such as a rifle or a shotgun, with throwing weapons and melee weapons each getting a slot of their own on the weapon wheel. While you're on horseback or close to your horse, you can use the saddle inventory to set the weapons for each slot. Now, even though I didn't really have a problem with the ability to carry around all your guns at all times in RDR 1, I'd be completely on board with the new system if the game didn't arbitrarily decide to unequip one or both of my weapons!

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I don't have any screenshots of the UI either, so here's the city of Saint-Denis at night. The lighting in this game looks absolutely phenomenal even without true HDR.
Yes, usually you can avoid this by setting up your loadout just before you get to the mission marker, but even that is not entirely consistent and I've ended up going into tough combat missions with nothing but my revolvers even though I set my loadout properly beforehand. That, or one of the guns is replaced with another weapon even if there's no reason for such a thing to happen (I obviously understand when the game gives you a sniper rifle for a mission that needs one, but sometimes the game gets weird with my loadout for no apparent reason). First off, what is the logic behind this design? Second, how does it improve the game's realism or immersion? At least in on-foot missions you can pick up replacement guns from dead enemies, but if you end up riding shotgun on a wagon with just your sidearms... well, it's doable, but why? (UPDATE: Well then, it appears you can in fact save your loadout at the gunsmith stores. I'm sure the game popped up a tooltip about this for about three seconds at some point, but I genuinely had no idea until I saw a YouTube video with some lesser-known hints for RDR 2)

To compound things further, the UI is far from intuitive. In order to use a consumable item, you've got two options. Method 1 is to use the Items tab on the weapon wheel, choose the slot you want (healing, stamina, etc.) with the right stick, scroll through the items in that slot with the triggers while holding the right stick towards the slot, and then let go of LB and the stick to use the item. Except sometimes you'll let go of the stick too early and end up not using the item, which as you might expect can be hazardous to your health at certain points.

Method 2 is holding right on the D-pad to access the satchel, which is also how you're able to use items such as cooked food. For some reason, none of the food you've cooked on a campfire appears on the item wheel. If you're doing one of the game's treasure hunting sidequests, the only way to access the treasure maps you've found is to open the satchel, scroll to the documents tab, choose the "Treasure Maps" option and then scroll down the list for the map you need. Once you get the map out, you can press the D-pad right again to reopen it, but Arthur automatically puts it back in the satchel once you start moving at any kind of speed! The main issue here, of course, is that the sketches on the treasure maps can be a bit unclear and you'd like to be able to quickly get it back out when you need to check it again. Who designed this? Again, I'm all for the immersive elements this game has, but I don't consider unintuitive UI design part of those elements.

The missions in Red Dead Redemption 2 often involve relatively mundane activities that could even be described as chores, but I don't take any issue with this. Are these missions fun? Well, not really. That being said, RDR 2 is not even trying to be "fun" all the time. Is that the right approach to video game design? Well, it really depends on your point of view. If you feel a video game should offer immediate and constant gratification, RDR 2 will most likely frustrate you to no end with its tendency to devote an exorbitant amount of attention to mundane things that can be, yes, boring at times. This is a perfectly valid point of view to take.

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It's been a while since Rockstar has shoehorned in an RC vehicle mission in one of their games, and I certainly didn't expect one here but there you have it! Don't worry, this one's actually kind of fun and I love how stoked Arthur gets when blowing up those toy submarines.
On the other hand, I feel there is room for games that aren't simply meant to serve as exciting toys for 60 hours. When it comes to RDR 2 and, to an extent, its predecessor, the "boring" aspects serve the experience as a whole and contrast nicely with the climactic action segments. I would not have it any other way. Of course, if you disagree, there's a good chance you'll simply call me an idiot fanboy in the debilitating throes of some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, desperately trying to convince myself I'm enjoying something I'm not. I've seen enough forum posts and YouTube comments to get the idea how the discourse around Red Dead Redemption 2 works.

This first installment of my Red Dead Redemption 2 review was supposed to be a general overview of the game, talking a bit about the gameplay and the story using broad strokes, with the second part containing my full thoughts about the game's story and spoiling every plot point in the process in order to ensure even fewer people will read it than usual. Yet, I realize now that I've already typed out well over 2,000 words, and a good chunk of that amount has been complaining about various aspects of the game. Based on what I've said about the mechanics here, I wouldn't blame you if you thought I disliked RDR 2. However, I don't dislike it at all.

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All of the complaints I have outlined here definitely were in my mind throughout my playthrough of the game, and continue to stick there as I explore the post-story content, and while many aspects of the game's design and gameplay frustrate me to no end I also can't deny that Red Dead Redemption 2 is an incredible gaming experience and a masterclass in world design and immersion. I am definitely going to replay it, and probably will even do a let's play once I'm done with Spider-Man and can afford 1) a 4K capture device to use with my Xbox One X, and 2) a PC that can actually handle said capture device, as my current rig falls woefully short of the system requirements.

Next time, we'll take a closer look at the story and characters in RDR 2 and find out if Rockstar is still capable of writing likable characters and an engaging story. (Slight spoiler: Yes)

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Marko's picture
Marko

I have plenty of common sense. I just choose to ignore it.