The split between what a game can offer you in its mechanics versus what it brings to the table in terms of story, artistry, and scope has never been more pronounced than it is in Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar’s epic prequel to its first spin of the lasso in 2010.
This is a stunningly realised world – not just visually and aurally, but in the people who live there, the vague townships they inhabit, and the untamed wilds that surround them. It’s gorgeous, it envelops you, and it’s the sort of thing you’re absolutely fine with overwhelming you.
Mechanically, Red Dead Redemption 2 is stuck in 2010.
For those not paying attention, we’ve had eight years of refinements and improvements to the open world genre and its nitty gritty fundamentals. In the most part this is ignored by RDR2, and you’re left with a game where most main missions boil down to a shootout, side missions are pointless to the extent you just won’t bother with them, and controls just don’t work as well as they should for a game coming from gaming royalty like Rockstar. It’s a split that's impossible to ignore, and is utterly jarring from start to (50-plus hours later) finish.
When Red Dead Redemption 2 is – intentionally – slow-paced and contemplative, it borders on the magnificent. It draws you in to a world where life is hard, and just getting by is a challenge to overcome. It perfectly communicates an imagined history of Wild West glory fading as the inevitability of industry – and civilisation – catches up, and the convincing troubles those stuck in the old ways have to face up to.
For all the melodrama and grandiose story beats, it’s a very human tale about a man not knowing his place in the world any more, and trying in any way he can to just figure this new world out.
But you’re constantly dragged out of that tale by the nuts and bolts clanking away under the surface – with the odd spanner thrown in the works, if only to complete the metaphor. To find out what happens next in this journey of self-discovery (and gang warfare, of course), you’ll need to do missions. In doing missions, you’re made to take extended, unskippable horse rides riddled with incessant exposition, you do The Key Thing for the mission, and at some point invariably there’s combat in which dozens of enemies will appear from nowhere and you will, once again, murder your way to victory.
You’ll wrestle with idiotic steeds determined to seriously injure themselves, battle against a cover system seemingly from a pre-Gears of War era, and slowly-slowly make your way through the aftermath, holding a single button to loot corpses, drawers and wardrobes in what can politely be described as a ‘leisurely’ pace.
To talk about the story and the in-game action separately and in such stark, straightforward terms would be to miss the point of the overall package, you might think.
But I just can’t get past the split; I want to return to the game so much, to play it for hours on end – but as soon as I load it up, I’m required to slowly ride halfway across the map to my home camp (limited fast travel does exist), then am presented with an intriguingly set up story mission that, for no discernible reason, quickly becomes another example of whack-a-mole with lever-action rifles. To be so lost in and utterly in love with the world one second, to being so frustrated and uninterested with the dated, genuinely boring action the next – it’s impossible to see past it.
It’s bizarre – there’s so much busywork in Red Dead Redemption 2; a pace that doesn’t lend itself to spots of play every now and then; a massive overreliance on the intensely dull solution of ‘end the mission with a shootout’; controls clunky to the point of irritation (just try and snap in and out of cover with ease); and generally speaking there’s very little in this follow-up that hasn’t been done far better elsewhere since 2010’s original Redemption.
I want to exist in this world: to take it all in and just go for an aimless ride on my trusty steed – the ninth I’ve owned, with three previous oatcake-nibblers hit by trains. I want to ignore the story missions, which tell a slow-burn, compelling tale but focus far too much on interminably dull fetch quests and tedious (though mechanically sound) gunfights.
I want to snub the cries for help from random passersby on the wagon trails, knowing full well their mini-mission distraction will prove unfulfilling. I just want to buy a nice hat and watch the sun set, and soak in all of the incredible detail Rockstar has lavished on this world.
But I don’t want to play Red Dead Redemption 2, because it’s simply not a lot of fun compared to contemporaries like The Witcher 3, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, or even Rockstar’s own Grand Theft Auto V.
At the same time, I absolutely do want to live the life of protagonist Arthur Morgan; I want to hear more from the characters he meets and let the ambience crawl deeper under my skin. You’ll find it’s not possible to have one without the other, though, so for all its great elements, RDR2 ultimately leaves me feeling a tad disappointed.
Camp is a place you can always return to and be greeted by your friends – or, at least, gang members. It feels like home, offers respite, and – at times – hosts some of the most believable, down-to-earth (drunken) gatherings you could imagine in a game. It’s a microcosm of all that’s good about RDR2.
Breathtakingly vast and beautiful, RDR2 nonetheless relies on decade-old mechanics in a world that has, quite frankly, moved on.
Genre: Open-world / Action / Sim
Format: PS4 / XBO
Developer: Rockstar Studios
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release: Out now