Red Dead Redemption - first look
I've a broken relationship with Rockstar Games, and more specifically with the Red Dead Redemption franchise. The reason for that is because the first game promised so much, but for me it was more of a very elaborate tech demonstration of what Rockstar could do. It felt bare and lonely, but it kind of worked with John Marston, the lone wolf.
RDR 2 then was to expand on that foundations that Rockstar had set and everyone expected the GTA treatment. Full, open and interactive world with the ability to do and go anywhere you wanted. It's also on the latest generation console, so it's bound to look spectacular. And it does. But there are still lots of other annoyances that haven't been ironed out. It's frustrating because the game does so much, but too much at it's own expense. If Rockstar had just pulled back a little bit, then I think the game would have been more streamlined with more scope for development for the next game. We'll discuss that later, but let us first focus on some of the more incredible achievements of the game.
For a start, I don't think I've seen a world as beautiful as the RDR 2 world. It's genuinely immersive and you could literally stare at the vistas from your horseback all day. The lighting, the weather changes, the audio imagery, the colour palette all are incredibly well done. As too are the characters' renders, the way they move and the way you interact with them. And a special mention too to the horses, that are probably the most accurately digitally regenerated horses I've ever seen in a game; and I know a thing or two about horses.
Praise too for the story; the intricacies of the game and how the stories within the main missions and the side missions - whether they're triggered side missions or not - are all entwined. Listen carefully and observe and you'll notice that the RDR 2 world isn't just a setting, but rather a living, breathing and constantly evolving world. Each NPC has their own agenda, story. The way you interact with each NPC has an impact on those around them. It's very subtle and very well done, but it's not glaringly obvious, and I love that.
Where Rockstar has failed, in my humble opinion, is in the gameplay and the sheer size of the game. It's a difficult one to try to explain, but here goes...
GTA is amazing, but it's not without its flaws. Some of the reason you can forgive GTA for its failings are because we know the game, we know the platform and it's engrained as a must-play game for all gamers. It's vast and as it's grown, so have the players. It's been through different iterations, good and bad, through the generations. GTA V, which I have to say I still play today, is a testament to gaming and post-release game support. The online is engaging and there are enough games for different crews to play a variety of games. BUT, GTA is still clunky as heck. The camera angles are terrible, there is no cruise control in vehicles (I understand that driving around it part of the learning curve of the map, but come on). GTA is meant to be a mental and alternative to reality, whether that's GTA V, Vice City, San Andreas, et al.
Red Dead Redemption is not GTA and I feel there's an internal conflict and an identity crisis Red Dead is battling. One one hand it's meant to be this realistic and ambitiously representative game of the time, but on the other hand it doesn't allow for the same kind of progression as other games, specifically GTA games do. For example, you can't progress through the game by just exploration. As a minor example of this let's look at the RPG elements. For example, if you wanted to upgrade your pouches, satchels, holsters, etc, you have to go hunting for skins that can be crafted into those upgrades. You can't, however, just go hunting for the skins. You have to complete a story mission that allows you to unlock a ledger which then allows you to purchase the necessary tools (and skills) to be able to upgrade those bags. And this is very early on in the game. I spent 20 hours hunting premium skins of animals only to find I could only sell them as I'd not been playing the main story.
Equally, and despite the world being totally packed, you're not a lone wolf. You're part of a gang, so when you have a bounty on your head, you'd have thought it'd be a lot easier to find you. The law and the local populations know your crew and gang, know where you hang out and know who you're close to. It seems a little bit strange that you're not tracked down a whole lot easier, and stranger still that paying off your own bounty is as easy as it is. This isn't so much of a deal in GTA because you're in an anonymous metropolis. At the turn of the last century, people knew people and there wasn't the same sense of anonymity as there is today, or rather in games that are meant to be set in modern times.
Part of this problem is the sheer ambition of the game and its constant attempt to be more than a game, to try to be as realistic as it can be. It's an experience Rockstar are trying to sell and some will love it, others won't appreciate it. It's a fine line to draw too, because it seems that it's just a port of GTA V with a much more beautiful skin and more things to do. It still has the same clunky controls as GTA and the button mapping is something that takes a lot of time to get your head around.
Nonetheless, it's an incredible game. And we haven't even started playing the co-op yet, which only hit beta a few days ago. This is, I think, where RDR 2 turns into a whole different game. This is where the real gaming comes into play.
The campaign is impressive, it's vast and there are lots to do, but treat it really like a tutorial for the online because I have a feeling that's where it's all going to be at.
If we've learnt anything from Rockstar is that they know how to make games. But more importantly, they know how to make games that people play for literally years after release. Although the single player campaign may not be what I'd hoped, it's still an incredible achievement. I'm not going to lie to you, it's the online that I've been waiting for.
As a result I'm reticent to give it a final score. I want to spend some time online and then come back to it. But, if you're looking for a game that you can play for hours on end, then you won't go far wrong with this.