Rockstar can do no wrong — at least according to their die-hard, and quite substantial, fanbase. After waiting for nearly a decade for the much-anticipated follow-up to 2010’s seminal hardcore western Red Dead Redemption, the sequel landed in North America to much acclaim on October 26 of this year.
Let me preface my comments by saying that Red Dead Redemption 2 is not a bad game. Far from it. It’s a lovingly crafted homage to the dying days of the old west — precisely as its predecessor was. Swapping out John Marston for Arthur Morgan and making a few quality of life improvements — and some steps back — constitutes a great deal of the gameplay on offer here. Shooting rival gang members, roaming wildlife, and birds out of the sky is as fun as ever. Engaging in twitchy gunfights where cover is sparse and bullets are in short supply is as thrilling as it was in the past.
There are a few things missing, however. And the multitude of misses — the problems that show themselves as the game unfolds — do not add up to the wildly inflated 97 percent aggregate critical score afforded Red Dead Redemption 2 by popular platform Metacritic. Readers should also take note that the user score is essentially a full two points lower than the 9.7 offered up by the critics.
The problems facing the sequel starring the grizzled outlaw Arthur Morgan are many. The game is “slow as molasses,” to borrow an old axiom. Plodding plot points fail to add up to anything of import during the game’s initial chapters, and fully half of the game is spent on character development and exposition that seems to be moving in circles. Many players report putting the game down after reaching chapter two or chapter three and having a hard time returning to the story — a sentiment that I share.
The issue isn’t with Arthur Morgan or his colorful cast of supporting characters — particularly the ebullient and unflappable Dutch, the leader of the band of brigands — but with the overall narrative thrust itself. Chases lack consequences, lawmen lack depth, and the fight for survival is never truly made real, nor palpable. A mobile campsite affords some degree of socializing, but the multiple mini-games peppering the landscape feel tired, pointless, and uninspired. Who wants to play poker for a pot of $2 or $3 when you can make hundreds by quickly harvesting bounties, or pillaging homestead chimneys?
Perhaps the greatest flaw that the game has comes to us via its clunky and unintuitive user interface. A single brush of the wrong button can set off a series of events that ends up with our poor protagonist holding a huge bounty on his head, or a staple quest failed — forcing the player to load an old save. Horses frequently ram into random objects, throwing the unlucky player free of the saddle to land on a rocky precipice below. Pathfinding is amateurishly executed, and it’s a real pain to dig through a handwritten journal with middling penmanship for a vital clue as to where to proceed. Side quests lack gravitas, often being reduced to fetch quests, and also often require guidance. Collection of pelts can be a confusing affair, and if you happen to lose a legendary — well, too bad.
The inventory system is messy, cluttered, and confusing, requiring several radial menus. An arcane and arbitrary grouping of somewhat similar objects makes finding what one is looking for a chore.
Play control is loose, whether on foot or on horseback, and too often Arthur — and his faithful steed at the time — seem as if they are stuck in mud, or attempting move through water. Sluggish is the word used to describe the handling of the player models, and it is painfully accurate. While all of these challenges can be successfully overcome by putting time into the game to figure out its idiosyncrasies, this should not be necessary in a game that took this long to develop, and which had endless financial resources and technical expertise behind it.
I suspect that the quality assurance group, or game testers, were not rotated out frequently enough. Fresh faces would likely have identified immediate and glaring flaws with regards to the above problems, issues that seasoned veterans to the game might overlook after they had wrestled themselves into working within the existing gameplay framework.
While all of these things contribute to the negative aspects of the game, there is a lot of good to be had here, as well. The world feels alive and vibrant, and the graphics are excellent. Small things like having to shave a constantly growing beard add to the immersion. No matter how much one has to wrestle with the controls, getting off a full salvo of shots into an opponent during a showdown remains compelling. And Arthur Morgan is a shades-of-gray bad-ass anti-hero that may rival, and perhaps even surpass, John Marston in the lead role.
Is Red Dead Redemption 2 worthy of the score that the gaming press awards it? I hardly think so. It is a fine — but deeply flawed — game, one that succeeds despite all of the issues that plague it, and fails despite the massive development window and endless resources thrown its way.
Now that the multi-player aspect of the game has recently gone live, perhaps some of the small posse of nonplussed players will return to find new value in a game that has been oversold and over-hyped.
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